In a guest lecture about masculinity to a college class, I ask the students to generate two lists that might help clarify the concept.
For the first, I tell them to imagine themselves as parents whose 12-year-old son asks, "Mommy/daddy, what does it mean to be a man?" The list I write on the board as they respond is not hard to predict: To be a man is to be strong, responsible, loving. Men provide for those around them and care for others. A man weathers tough times and doesn't give up.
When that list is complete, I ask the women to observe while the men answer a second question: When you are in all-male spaces, such as the locker room or a night out with the guys, what do you say to each other about what it means to be a man? How do you define masculinity when there are no women present?
The students, both men and women, laugh nervously, knowing the second list will be different from the first. The men fumble a bit at first, as it becomes clear that one common way men define masculinity in practice is not through affirmative statements but negative ones — it's about what a man isn't, and what a real man isn't is a woman or gay. In the vernacular: Don't be a girl, a sissy, a fag. To be a man is to not be too much like a woman or to be gay, which is in large part about being too much like a woman.
From there, the second list expands to other descriptions: To be a man is to be a player, a guy who can attract women and get sex; someone who doesn't take shit from people, who can stand down another guy if challenged, who doesn't let anyone else get in his face. Some of the men say they have other ideas about masculinity but acknowledge that in most all-male spaces it's difficult to discuss them.
When that process is over, I step back and ask the class to consider the meaning of the two lists. On the first list of the culturally endorsed definitions of masculinity, how many of those traits are unique to men? Are women ever strong? Should women be strong? Can women be just as responsible as men? Should women provide and care for others? I ask the students if anyone wants to make the argument that women are incapable of these things, or less capable than men. There are no takers.
I point out the obvious: The list of traits that we claim to associate with being a man — the things we would feel comfortable telling a child to strive for — are in fact not distinctive characteristics of men but traits of human beings that we value, what we want all people to be. The list of understandings of masculinity that men routinely impose on each other is quite different. Here, being a man means not being a woman or gay, seeing relationships as fundamentally a contest for control, and viewing sex as the acquisition of pleasure from a woman. Of course that's not all men are, but it sums up the dominant, and very toxic, conception of masculinity with which most men are raised in the contemporary United States. It's not an assertion about all men or all possible ideas about masculinity, but a description of a pattern.
I ask the class: If the positive definitions of masculinity are not really about being a man but simply about being a person, and if the definitions of masculinity within which men routinely operate are negative, why are we holding onto the concept so tightly?
Robert Jensen has a gift for breaking down this kind of thing so simply. A good article - read the whole thing