What does it mean to perform healthy masculinity?

            After all, we never really answered this question.

Throughout the last three months, we have discussed, either explicitly or implicity, the concept of masculinity.  We have identified how systems of power are constructed to perpetuate a society that privileges white, cisgender, heterosexual men; we have also addressed how such classifications are problematic and incomplete, and that our notions of what does or does not fall within such identities is blurry at best.

To understand what it means to perform a healthy masculinity requires deconstructing what masculinity means through multiple framings to determine a healthy construction, and I seek to do so by examining the different ways that scholars we have read over the last three months have already done so.

First, I wish to draw a distinction between performing healthy masculinity and performing masculinity healthily. The former requires examining masculinity as it is portrayed and performed in social contexts; the latter requires examining masculinity as it applies to the individual in a way that is not self-destructive. It is possible to argue that the two are interrelated, but I will pass over that discussion here and instead examine masculinity in a social context: How an individual’s performance of masculinity leads to constructions of masculinity, and whether we can construct a healthy masculinity.

We begin with a basic denotation of the concept of masculinity: a set of qualities and attributes generally associated with men. While social traits such as independence and assertiveness are established to be normatively masculine traits, I argue that the concept of masculinity cannot be disassociated from sexual acts: masculinity, as it is constructed within our dominant media narrative, is associated with promusciously and repeated acts of sexual copulation. The 2001 episode of Friends, “The One with the Videotape,” provides one example: Ross Geller’s lack of sexual activity for several months is seen by both himself and by Joey as a problem, and none of the other characters question that throughout the rest of the episode. Ross is seen as failing to be a man because of his lack of sex with women.

It becomes clear, then, how the association of sexual conquest with masculinity can lead to problematic performances. We can replace the heteronormative assumption of having sex with women by attempting to pair masculinity with having sex with men, but even then this leads to many of the same problems, as identified by Richard Fung critically in Looking for My Penis and by Noel Alumit theatrically throughout The Rice Room. A queer masculinity, therefore, requires not only eschewing the male-female sexual binary but also the man-woman gender binary and the power structures that are built within it.

The links connecting sex and power to masculinity remain essential even when we view masculinity through a lens of race and racialized sexuality. Fung recognizes, in Looking for My Penis, the particular portrayal of Asian-ethnic men as bottoms in gay porn, drawing upon the hypomasculinization and desexualization of Asian men and the prevalance of white-centrism in pornography that is meant to be diverse and otherwise “international.”

While Fung identifies the many problems in commercial gay porn that upholds white centrism, he does not go so far to deconstruct how portrayals of a racialized sexual character — the gay Asian porn actor — contributes to the structures that underpin our understanding of masculinity. But we can draw upon his analysis to understand how masculinity is constructed as white-centric: Fung identifies how at least one porn film reframes Asian-Asian desire from a white perspective, and another film with Asian, Latinx and Black characters never depicts two people of color together, but always individually with a white man. We can, therefore, argue that even when examining men in a non-white, non-heterosexual context, we can see the men of color actors described by Fung are not considered masculine and are unable to access the identity of masculinity.

If masculinity is partially inaccessible to non-heterosexual men of color, then we can understand masculinity to be a primarily white, heterosexual and cisgender construction, with a significant emphasis on sexual intercourse with women. A healthy masculinity, then, requires including these understandings into masculinity’s definition of what it means to be a man. But, as Alok Vaid-Menon in Femme in Public and Adrian Tomine in Shorting have demonstrated, a man who demonstrates sensitivity, understanding, compassion and respect for women’s bodies is seen as sensitive, effeminate, or queer. In such a circumstance, then, can we construct a healthy masculinity, or is “healthy masculinity” inextracibly a contradiction in terms?