Mapping the Evolution of Masculinity

The concept of the ideal man has shaped our discourse around masculinity. Like, the virtues of selflessness, beauty, sacrifice, virginity which later transforms into motherhood, have historically been used to define the ideal woman, there is a prescribed set of qualities that a man must possess in order to qualify as the archetype. The scope of masculinity exceeds beyond the mere understanding of maleness. It is a structure that regards gender as a binary and shapes how men project their sense of self. It also demands how women (and other genders, which it refuses to acknowledge) incorporate within this structure. Thus, masculinity is a pattern of practice. It is not limited to one’s biology or one’s relationship to their body, it is a social exercise, an attitude. 

Masculinity can be understood as a set of norms that are constantly imposed and policed by a social structure. At their core, these structures were enforced to maintain the imbalance of power in society. In order to continue to assert their authority over women and the marginalised sections of society, men had to position themselves as superior. Those who didn’t abide by these rules were shunned and had to carve out a space for themselves. This led to the development of different kinds of masculinities that were insubordination with each other, like the emergence of homosexual masculinity. 

The culturally prevailing epitome of the masculine is centred around physical strength and toughness, assertion of authority, heterosexuality, and the ability to earn money. This blanket description of the masculine is known as the ‘hegemonic masculinity’. Hegemonic masculinity is the celebrated and idealised form of masculinity in society. While, masculinity, as a whole, has always held the highest rank in the hierarchy of genders, hegemonic masculinity has enjoyed acting as the gold standard determining the worthiness of other forms of masculinity. However, even though a majority of men do not live up to the expectations of the hegemonic masculinity, they are in a position to gain advantage from their superiority, so even though not all men are breadwinners, all men are able to enjoy the position of authority by virtue of others being the breadwinners. Hegemonic masculinity has been forcibly branded as the social normal. Since it embodies the most honourable model of a man, it sets the standard of the superlative and ideologically legitimates the domination over women and other genders. 

Historically, physical labour and muscular strength defined masculinity. Since wars were a way of life in ancient society, courage and valour along with obedience to religion, were used as the parameters to gauge human excellence. An example of this can be found in the Spartans in ancient Greece. Courage took precedence over all other merits in the Spartan culture. If Spartans were found guilty of acting cowardly on the battlefield, they would lose their citizen status and would be shamed by everyone, to an extent where suicide or exile seemed like the preferred option. Young boys started training to be soldiers from the age of 7. From such a young age, the boys were trained rigorously and taught to place their phalanx above all else; the loyalty and obligation towards their phalanx was the highest form of duty expected from them. The Greek philosopher Plutarch, in his collection of essays titled Moralia, wrote, “mothers would tell their young children to come back with their shield or on it”; in the ancient Greek culture, the dead were brought back home on their shield. So, mothers telling their children to come back on the shield shows that they preferred their children dead rather than being branded as cowards. Tyrtaeus, a Greek elegiac poet from Sparta, in the third section of his poem Suda writes about fighting courageously in battle. He writes, “Tyrtaeus would not value a man, even if he had the reputation of every kind of *areté, except a fierce fighting spirit”. 

“While aggression was still applauded, there was a shift from using it to protect land to using it to protect Christian values.”

Apart from wars, the subjugation of women was also a sign of asserting masculinity. Men were the head of the household and the state had very little say in how men treated their wives, children, and slaves. Proving oneself to be above other men and children was also what men aspired to do. This narrative of being superior to all others eventually formed the foundation of the hegemonic masculinity. This rhetoric established the tone of the macho man for centuries to come and is arguably prevalent even today. 

The notion of the macho man can be traced even to the medieval era. However, with the predominance of knighthood and chivalry, it had changed. While knights were still courageous men who fought enemies and came back home victorious, they did not express aggression towards women. The role of the perfect courtly chivalrous warrior defined the ideal of the masculine. Knighthood was considered lower nobility, and based on their merit, men could climb up the ladder and aspire to achieve it. It was therefore a desirable blend of martial, Christian, and aristocratic values. While aggression was still applauded, there was a shift from using it to protect land to using it to protect Christian values. The chivalric code described warriors as honourable men who fought for the protection of marginalised groups like women, widows, orphans, and the weak, defended the lord, and protected the faith of Christ.  

The Battle of Maldon is an old English poem describing the battle between the English and Vikings near Maldon in Essex, England. The poem repeatedly emphasises “upon oaths needing to be kept and boats waiting to be made”. The central theme of heroic obedience is palpable in the poem. Despite the Anglo-Saxon defeat in the battle, the English continued to abide by the chivalric code of conduct and fight with honour. In the poem, the English commander, Byrhtwold, calls upon the troops’ virtue of obedience and reminds them of their duty towards their leader and the deceased. He tells them that despite the grim outcome of the battle, the soldiers had to continue to fight and face their destiny courageously; fleeing the battlefield would lead them to a life of regret and shame.

However, unlike in the times of the Spartans, the role of the ideal man was not limited to his valour on the battlefield. It had extended to include his behaviour with his family and the weak in society. In his work Le Morte d’Arthur, Sir Thomas Mallory, describes the rise and fall of King Arthur. He illustrates the death of Sir Lancelot, who was regarded as the greatest knight. Sir Lancelot possessed the greatest prowess of all, but he was also the most courteous, polite, and friendly knight. He was admired for his generosity and kindness. The chivalric ideal emphasised on appropriate and controlled violence, force was used only when it was necessary for the defence of the helpless or one’s religion. Sir Lancelot was also revered for his steadfast and loyal love to Queen Guinevere, his lady. Mallory writes, “Ah, Lancelot!’ he said, ‘you were head of all Christian knights! … you were never matched of earthly knight’s hand. And you were the most courteous knight that ever bore shield! And you were the truest friend to your lover that ever bestrode horse; you were the truest lover, of a sinful man, that ever loved woman, and you were the kindest man that ever struck with sword.”

“Victorian depictions of desirable men were those of beings who were well-mannered and cultured – the gentlemen.”

The Gazette of Fashion, 1872

This understanding of the masculine as a figure of restraint, principles, and capable of romantic love continued even in Victorian times. Victorian depictions of desirable men were those of beings who were well-mannered and cultured – the gentlemen. However, unlike its precursors, the Victorian times emphasised on the fact that not all boys grow up to be men. Since young boys were no longer being sent to train in a phalanx at a very young age, they had to acquire masculine qualities and competencies as part of a conscious process. Due to this, the emphasis on gender roles, as they still largely continue to be perceived in modern society, were strongly imposed from a young age. From the 1830s, women from a young age started wearing the crinoline, a huge bell-shaped skirt that severely restricted their movement, making it virtually impossible for them to engage in physical activity. Similarly, men were expected to educate themselves and be able to earn for a family; the average age for marriage for men, was the early 30s, whereas for women it was early to mid-20s, this also reinforced a hierarchy between the sexes. By the time they were 30, men were expected to secure their financial position and be able to support a family, in order to get permission from the bride’s father for the marriage. 

Unlike in the chivalric code where devotion to one woman was celebrated, the Victorian society justified men’s promiscuity. Women were considered to be the ‘Angel in the House’; they retained their purity and chastity despite being a wife and a mother. Dr William Acton in his book The Functions and Disorders of the reproductive Organs wrote, “the majority of women (happily for them) are not very much troubled by sexual feelings of any kind”. Due to this social perception of women, it was assumed that women’s interests in sexual activities were only for the purpose of reproduction. It was assumed that women did not enjoy having sexual relations and should, therefore, not be troubled by them. Women who displayed an appetite for sex were not deemed as virtuous and were condemned by society. Therefore, it was common practice for married men to frequently visit prostitutes. Prostitutes were not cast in the same role as the other respectable women in society and thus, it was acceptable for men to engage in sexual relations with them. This social belief was further solidified by the fact that men could be granted a divorce from their wives on the basis of adultery alone, however, women had to prove other offences in addition to adultery in order to be granted a divorce.  

Nevertheless, Victorian women were the first to stand up against their social oppression and demand equality. Educated women, who were known as ‘blue-stocking’ women, were looked down in society. Doctors believed that too much education had a damaging effect on a woman’s ovaries; it would turn attractive women into dried-up prunes. Due to this, at the end of the century when English universities started accepting women students, many families refused to send their daughters, because of the fear that education would make them unmarriageable! Nevertheless, women were encouraged to practice other forms of vocations, such as painting, music, art, languages, among other things. Women were not encouraged to pursue a mate; they were expected to have accomplishments that would attract a suitable mate for them. Women also worked as governess and teachers. Charlotte Brontë, in her novel Jane Eyre expressed her frustrations towards the treatment of women by demanding equality and respect from Rochester, the male protagonist of the novel. Brontë writes, ‘Do you think’, she demands of Rochester, ‘I am an automaton? – a machine without feelings?’. She speaks to him as one spirit to another, ‘equal – as we are’. 

Jane Eyre agreed to continue her relationship with Rochester only after she felt that she was in all ways equal to him. This increasing demand for equality by Victorian women set the ground for fighting gender expectations and men were forced to adapt to it. The Victorian gentleman, therefore, was expected to be respectful and tender towards his wife and children. 

Though, the expectations from both genders occasionally still resonate with some of their historical counterparts, they are evolving. This has happened due to the unapologetic and increased involvement of women, queer community, and other marginalised sections, who have contributed to the development of the archaic patriarchal ideology. However, as the number of people disagreeing with the conventional understanding of masculinity increased and due to the evolution of gender norms in society, the expectations of maleness were forced to change which led to dismantling the assumption of the male role as a unitary thus blurring the notion of a hegemonic masculinity. 

Paul Mescal playing Connell in the adapted series Normal People. 

In Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People, Connell, the male protagonist, tries to break free of his masculine expectations. Throughout the novel, Rooney repeatedly illustrates his internal struggle and human vulnerabilities while negotiating between society imposed masculine expectations and his morality. The code of masculinity is repeatedly levied upon him; however, he tries to fight it and does not let it define his person. An example of this can be seen when he retracts his position in the relationship after he sees the kind of power he has over Marianne, the female protagonist of the novel. Marianne is deeply in love with him and believes that by surrendering her power, she will be able to make him love her as well. However, Connell repeatedly demonstrates his desire for an equal, albeit dependent relationship. He is scared of knowing that he can assert authority over her; he is scared of how he might act if given control over her. He does not want to fetishise his dominance over her and is therefore very careful with his actions. Through a display of such behaviour of self-awareness, sensitivity, and respect towards one’s partner, Connell shuns the expectations of the hegemonic masculine and fights to establish an egalitarian relationship, a balance of power. 

Furthermore, Connell is not depicted as an invincible macho man in the novel. He openly suffers from depression and also seeks help in order to overcome it. His character is sensitive and emotionally open for a healthy co-dependent relationship, however, due to this, there is a psychological fraught between gender and ethics that he grapples with. He understands that his behaviour with his male friends is toxic in nature and tries to distance himself from it. However, due to this, Connell admits to feeling lonely and anxious in his surroundings. In a conversation he says, “Generally I find men are a lot more concerned with limiting the freedoms of women than exercising personal freedom for themselves.” This vulnerable depiction of Connell breaks the stereotype of the powerful aggressive male. Not only is Connell’s character shown antithetical to that of a hero’s persona, but he is also shown as a self-aware person capable of reflecting and improving upon his behaviour. 

While Rooney’s novel steps into the realm of the ideal, since most men are still not capable of questioning their behaviour and pondering over their actions like Connell, nevertheless, through her male protagonist, Rooney helps pave the way for achieving it. Novelists and playwrights build on the then prevalent social experiences, document cultural problems, and present the reader with a tangible understanding of the troubled reality; this helps map and instigate social change.

The understanding of the masculine identity is malleable; it is an outcome of the negotiations between class, race, sexual orientation, the emancipation of the marginalised, among other things. It is not a single idea but is a matrix of cultural and historical ideologies. In order to diminish the impositions of the burden of gender roles on women, it is imperative that the rigidity cast by the masculine role also reduces. In order to establish an emotionally healthy, egalitarian, and co-dependent society, the burden of the ideal must be eradicated from all genders. Neither masculine nor feminine are biological constructs, they are social constructs; therefore, if there is a systemic change in the perception of gender in society, it will extinguish the role of gender as a binary concept that continues to act as an agency reinforcing the imbalance of power in society. 

*Areté means excellence of any kind. “The aggregate of qualities, as valour and virtue, making up good character”.

Adhishree Adulkar is an editor at Catharsis Magazine. 

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