We Need To 'Undefine' Masculinity

A gender and spirituality scholar on the roles that limit us.

Joseph Gelfer.

Changing gender roles are key to accelerating the culture shift around changing the way we work and live. Redefining Masculinity is an editorial package that investigates what it means to be a man in 2017—and beyond. As part of it, we're asking a wide range of men across industries, ages and background to answer 6 questions about what masculinity means to them. Read more about the project here

Joseph Gelfer is an author whose books include Masculinities in a Global Era and Numen, Old Men: Contemporary Masculine Spiritualities and the Problem of Patriarchy. He is currently developing a new model called The Five Stages of Masculinity. Find his conversation with Thrive below. 

Thrive Global: How would you define masculinity?
Joseph Gelfer:I don’t want to define masculinity, as it is the act of defining that results in many of the problems. On the one hand you have conservatives who seek to define masculinity by stereotypical standards. On the other hand you have progressives who seek to redefine masculinity by alternative standards, such as being sensitive and vulnerable. There is a commonality here: men being told what masculinity should look like. So I don’t want to define or redefine masculinity: I want to undefine it.

TG: Who in your life shaped your view of masculinity?
JG: Growing up in the 1980s, pop music was weirdly progressive regarding masculinity. I was in the UK, and masculinity looked very fluid: Culture Club, Bronski Beat, Erasure, Frankie Goes to Hollywood. I didn’t perceive any of these guys to be gay at the time, just men doing their own thing, and I liked it. And of course, Prince, who was interesting in being at once stereotypically feminine, yet unashamedly red-blooded: I liked that.

TG: Was there a particular moment when you felt you’d become a man?
JG: Well, I would resist the idea of “becoming a man” because it suggests that being a man is a specific thing. That said, I feel at my most manly by regular standards in father mode, when providing for my family. Everything before being a parent feels less substantial.

TG: How has society’s view of men changed since you were a kid?
JG: As I mentioned, back in the 80s things were uncharacteristically fluid for the time. Then in the 90s, GenX saw masculinity look more “normal,” but was much more philosophical and introspective. In the past 15 years we have a curious thing happening, where there is both an increasing acceptance of different gender-fluid ways of doing masculinity, but also a reassertion of traditional masculinity, especially since Trump. So masculinity is being pushed to the extremes, and the middle ground has fallen away.

TG: Does masculinity influence your work? If so, how?
JG: Well, I write and research around the subject of masculinity, so it is always present. I’m interested in thinking about what the future has in store for masculinity: I don’t believe the options available to people are very compelling at the moment, but I also believe we are on the cusp of great change.

TG: What do you think children should be taught about masculinity?
JG: Masculinity does not really exist. Or if it does exist, it is as unique to the individual as a fingerprint, so there are essentially as many masculinities as there are people. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you what masculinity should look like. Be free. 

Advice, Redefining Masculinity

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