By Siphokule Mathe (@SiphokuhleMathe)
Siphokuhle, a social constructionist, argues that we are all imprisoned by the gender essentialism inherent in patriarchy. He says these teachings of what it means to be ‘a man’ (and by extension, a woman) often mean that men cannot be emotional, must be virile and must be the head of the home. When these expectations cannot be met, they leave men feeling emasculated, which has dire consequences for both sexes.
I am learning to die each day. I fail to some extent every day I try to commit suicide to the ‘old’ man in me and realise that patriarchy has me on a tight leash. I am learning to die to the fact that my pure existence – without the utterance of any word or personal socio-political plight – is oppressive to women.
I became a feminist for many reasons other than it being the most sensible thing to be. I became a feminist because I could not realise the human in me without realising the humanity of others. I have come to understand that we are all trapped and, though I am hashtag ‘highly favoured‘ and ‘blessed’ by the patriarchal system, there is something that curiously imprisons my ambitions of becoming the ‘new’ man. The imprisoner is the gender essentialist. It is one who says that there is a particular social and emotional form I should take by virtue of my external organ in my lower regions. The essentialist says that the external organ is the microphone from which I speak. The gender essentialist is patriarchy. To be less vague, I am talking about the constructions of masculinities that, in the accord with patriarchy, can be of hindrance to the self and society.
I am a social constructionist who is constantly at odds with the gender essentialist. In conversation with the essentialist, he tells me that I have innate characteristics that speak to my manhood and argues that my physique and biological make up are, among other things, factors which lead to the presupposition of my powerful position in society. From my social constructionist school of thought, however, I believe that my male privilege does give me the agency to reject the notions of innate masculine characteristics that heighten the potential of destruction I can cause in society.
Patriarchy presents a trap for men too. Although we exist in a system that supports our dominance, even in co-opting women to support it, what lies within the system is that which contradicts its aims of male prosperity. The dominance of men bestowed by the patriarchal system renders men extremely fallible on many fronts and we can test this against the characteristics of hegemonic masculinities.
For me, I would first depart from what initiation school teaches to many black African men and my memory of what I was told constitutes being a ‘man’. It is not to damn the school nor suggest that there is any homogeneity in how they practice but rather to show how patriarchy is put in cultural practice and how its teachings mould hyper-masculinity to being what it is. There is the teaching or expectation that men ought to be unemotional beings and that they should always display virility in such a way that masks their fragility and vulnerability. There is also the expectation for men to find a partner with whom they shall start a family. With this, there is the teaching that a man comes to be the head of the home. In being the head, there is also the expectation that he uses the financial means to provide and that it is incumbent on the woman to nurture and harness the emotional connection with the children, where applicable. Gross as these generalisations might be, they attempt show that masculinity is associated with more power and advantage against their counterparts, be it women or members of the LGBTIQ community.
What happens is that when these expectations cannot be met, men experience a sense of emasculation. When men cannot meet the criteria upon which their sense of manhood rests, a sense of self-hate and inadequacy is experienced just as when we do not meet the criteria of white success either in academia or economic activity. Words such as “men are cowards” come from women who see men as not meeting the expectations of hegemonic masculinity because women and other gender groups have also been socialised to attach being a man with characteristics that should not be attached to anyone by virtue of their gender. The trap, therefore, is in the fact that the system which provides for our dominance also provides for an increase in our fallibility. The psychological effect of any of the related failure is one which many are never rehabilitated from as they proceed through life being viewed and viewing themselves as failures.
The microphone is therefore the same place from which we fail. We speak broken and breaking words to women and other marginalised groups, ceremoniously deflecting our own emasculating insecurities and making women hate themselves too. We should rid ourselves of this destructive allegiance to patriarchy as it continues to hurt us and places us as violent scums of the earth – which we have systemically become.
In undergoing my process of death while I live, I am challenged by a system that asserts itself and wants me to become the opposite of what I aspire to become – the ‘new’ man. Robert Morrell describes the new man as bearing features such as “caring, anxious, outspoken on women’s rights, domestically responsible. The new man also turned his back on competitive sports, sexist jokes, violent outdoor pursuits”. The new man is never born the new man, but commits to a process of death.
In the process of my death, I have conceded and accepted that I will be ostracised in society for some of the views I hold concerning patriarchy and masculinity but I would much rather die for these ideas than accept the defeat of the system which makes a monster of me and ensures that my coming sons will be inherently violent. I strongly reject the system’s function which is to make of marginalised groups those who will continue to negotiate their existence. I urge men to interrogate their existence in time and space, to challenge destructive masculinities so that we can all acknowledge that we are human before we are men and that our violent existence comes from places of fragility in our psycho-political, social and economic spaces of being. Our institutions of learning, our teachers, our parents, our religious leaders, and our communities should teach us how to be human, to be loving and not how to be men, boys, girls, women. It may sound overambitious but gender neutrality is all that could teach us to be humanely human without harming expectations preferred against us. This is to die for.