Paul | UvA
Hi Paul! Thanks for coming today. When did you first become aware of your gender? Can you think of the very first time you realized you were a boy/man?
Oh, that’s an interesting question. I think quite early, and probably because I kind of differed from the gender norm as a kid. I played around with gender roles a lot and I come from a background where, especially from my father’s side, there was a narrowly defined idea of masculinity that I did not always fit in. And I have a little sister, so I would try on her clothes, or play with her dolls.. .Whenever I crossed that line, I would get to hear from my dad or from my uncles: “Oh but that's a girl’s toy” or, “That’s not meant for you!”. When I would cry as a kid, my dad was like “You're not supposed to do that!”. The only acceptable emotion was anger. My dad also really wanted me to play soccer, but I didn't really want to play…So I think I was probably like 4 or 5-ish, when I realized: okay, there is something about me that dictates how I’m supposed to behave and what I am supposed to like. That’s when I became aware of my masculinity.
And how does all of that relate to you - can you think of moments when you were affected or limited by this expected display of masculinity?
I think there were times where I questioned a lot of things, whether I was normal, or “adequate”. I remember a “switch”, when I was around 10, where I stopped questioning whether I was adequate but just accepted that I am supposed to be a certain way, there is this ideal I need to adhere to. At this point, I looked for symbols of hypermasculinity which for me had to do with US rappers, so I wanted to wear the chains and the baggy clothes and everything, and the caps... I remember when I would wear those clothes, it felt very good to fit in, but every now and then there was a struggle... One day in school I got into a fight, I don’t even remember what it was about. I really felt like crying, but I tried to really channel that energy and not cry. I think that has affected me. I think there is still nowadays this part of me that is aware of those things, but I very much try to deconstruct them and see what part of this masculine identity is really “me” and what part is imposed by society, but it is not always easy to make that distinction. It is definitely a process, and one that will probably continue out through the rest of my life.
Can you also think of ways in which social pressure around masculinity have affected your relationships, be it with family, peers…?
Yeah, definitely. It's quite clear to me when I am with my extended family: my uncles especially have a very narrow idea of masculinity. I pay more attention to how I present myself when I am with them at family events, it's a very subconscious process. I kind of adapt my mannerisms, rather than really change what I say.
Also, in the past with my relationships, especially dating women, I felt more of a pressure to fit the masculine mould more. Especially that I've had moments in the past when I heard from girls that I was too feminine for them, or not the “type of men” they were looking for. So I guess It does affect my relationships every now and then. But with my close circles, my close friends, or with my direct family it doesn't.
So what does being a man mean today, now that you have become more aware of the social pressures around you?
I really tried to get away from any sort of things you are supposed to aspire to. I think everyone who wants to define themselves and identify themselves as a man should be able to do so and should then also be able to behave in whatever way they wanna behave, so it's very much subjective and personal what being a man means. For me personally, I think being a man is just me identifying with that gender and being myself. It’s a combination of that.
So, it’s kind of this idea that there is not ONE MAN, but rather MEN, in their plurality. Does that mean that being a man is not a big part of your identity anymore?
No, I would still say that it is a big part. I personally feel very comfortable in my identity as a man and that is thanks to this broad definition. I feel kind of responsible to portray that idea of masculinity because everything would be so much more peaceful and harmonious if everyone else saw it that way too. I want to openly say that as men, there are certain things we have a responsibility towards, some things we should be doing. For example in conversations about gender inequality, I often make statements like “I think as men we should make sure that women feel safe”. In that aspect I guess I connect being a man to the responsibility that comes with it, especially in terms of gender inequality. And that maybe might be a thing that is especially relevant for cis men. As cis men, we have a certain responsibility to right certain wrongs that have been committed in the past. The responsibility of male privilege, in other words. And using it to make things more equal.
Are there specific moments when you most are aware of both being a man and the responsibility that comes with it?
Yeah, I feel it most when I’m in circles of just men, like in the locker room or even just with my colleagues or roommates. I hear some stuff… I notice that their idea of masculinity is very narrow, and I feel the responsibility to broaden that and to make it more inclusive. I think about how I can approach that. Especially when there are derogatory comments about women, or very toxic hypermasculine behavior, where I think that that's not just something that you should be aware of, but really something that you should change. That's when I feel the responsibility the most. But I also often struggle in those situations, because I don't want to alienate myself from those men. A lot of times when I become too preachy or principle-oriented I can tell that my message doesn’t really come across.
So what would you want to tell these men, who might not have reflected about such topics, if you could?
I think the core of the message would be to ask them: How necessary is it to behave the way you do? If you stopped objectifying women, or making certain comments, what would that change in your life? Would it have a big change, or not? Will you be less successful with girls? A lot of times, it doesn't make a difference. If you stopped saying those things, you could still be popular, and function well in society. That is something I want people to realize, that all these hypermasculine behaviorisms are often for themselves, they are not actually necessary. A lot of men place a lot of importance in them, even unconsciously.
I have also met women who have reacted very negatively to me trying to promote equality, or trying to change this idea of masculinity. I overheard a conversation on the train once, and a girl was saying something like “Oh yeah my boyfriend cried last night… I’m not comfortable with that, I want my man to be strong”. I think that’s exactly why men are scared to change their behavior. They fear they will be perceived as “less than” in society, and I guess unfortunately there are some situations where that is the case. But once there are enough men who change the narrative, then it will have a snowball effect. We just need in the beginning men who are brave enough to change their behavior, so that that becomes the norm, and then the perception of masculinity can flip. I definitely understand why men behave the way they do and that they are scared to step up and stand out, but to those that might think they actually could change things up without sacrificing too much in their life, I really want to say, be brave and do it!
That’s also really what I would want to tell my younger self: as cheesy as it sounds, stop overthinking and just do what makes you happy! Let loose a bit. Don’t put so much energy into trying to fit into the ideal version of a man.
Thank you Paul. I think this is it for my questions, but is there anything else you want to add?
As a last thing, I want to stress that I am aware that the issue is really complexe. We all look for social recognition and validation, so I know it is not easy to break out of that mould. What we need to do, is just to slowly change the shape of that mould, rather than completely break it at once. It is a slow process, but we should make that slow process as fast as possible, and push to reshape that mould.
Push for change!