Masculinity and Femininity: Differences, Real or Imagined?

May 6, 2019Latest, Pro Victoria

What is masculinity? What is femininity?

Human sexuality is endlessly complex, so masculinity and femininity, with their differences—real or imagined—are endlessly complex. But what if the differences between masculinity and femininity are both what we are and what we do? What if our biology—our DNA—provides the male or female foundation, our sex, and then we have a wide range of choices that spring from our individual personalities and either strengthen or weaken our sex to influence our masculinity or femininity? Now that would be exciting, because we could all exercise choice to strengthen or weaken our own inclinations.

The musician Mary Chapin Carpenter once wrote, “We’ve got two lives—one we’re given and the other one we make.” That’s true of life and it’s true of masculinity and femininity and their differences. We are given our sex and it’s a gift to be born male or female. The question is, “What are we doing with this great gift?” Are we using it in a way that strengthens or weakens us? Are we growing it and developing it? Are we masters of our appetites or are we slaves to our appetites? Worse, are we confused and wandering, lost with others who say none of this matters? Let’s dig in and start thinking this over; it’s what men do.

How Childhood Can Shape Masculinity

My parents divorced, but even as a child I knew men and women are inherently different in inescapable, inherently good ways. Differences between the masculine and the feminine make life interesting. One’s sex exists, but masculinity and femininity breathe life into male and female. The masculine and the feminine is what men and women do. As a child, I looked at my parents’ troubled, turbulent, ultimately broken marriage. My mother was feminine in a traditional sense, loved men, was beautiful, musical and affectionate to me, though cruel to others. She ultimately divided our family because she didn’t like being married. My father was masculine in a traditional sense, loved women, was kind and gentle, in spite of having inflicted violence effectively in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. He was a forgiving, patriotic gentlemen until the day he died.

My mother was a practical feminist. She was not an academic and preferred the practical in all things to the theoretical. I asked her when I was a young teenager why she never joined feminist organizations. She said, “I’m too busy working at my job.” My mother lived her femininity and freedom. I remember wrestling with the concepts of masculinity and femininity even when I was a child. I figured, if you were a boy and did something it was masculine. If you were a girl and did something it was feminine. It seemed whatever you chose could either help or hurt you. Life and the wonderful tension between boys and girls was an adventure that drew me in. I knew I had to be brave, but knew adventures let us explore the unknown. Girls, then women, were unknown to me. I seemed equally unknown to them, even if I was more awkward. What could be more exciting than exploring someone so different from yourself?

Tom Boys and Mama’s Boys

To me it seemed that if you were a boy you were masculine even if you weren’t masculine like other boys. If you were a girl you were feminine, even if you weren’t feminine like other girls. For instance, I was a reader. In Tom Sawyer I liked Becky Thatcher, but in To Kill A Mockingbird I liked Scout Finch. Those two characters portray two very different kinds of feminine. I always saw a broad range of feminine behavior in girls and women. I considered it part of what made them attractive. Tomboys were attractive in ways different from girls who were not tomboys. Likewise, when I was a kid I saw that boys—people, but boys for me because I was a boy—came in all different kinds of shapes, sizes, and personalities.

Neither masculinity nor femininity were narrow. Some boys were tougher than others and some of us shared interests others did not, but boys tended to like being with other boys. I do remember boys we called Mama’s Boys, but not to their faces (that would be rude and hurtful) and not in a way that was mean. We sort of just thought, “Well, he spends too much time with his mother. Let’s help him out.”

Even as boys we knew that too much time with mothers isn’t good for boys; mothers and fathers love differently. Occasionally a boy might think he was attracted to other boys, but that was rare. In my experience nobody paid too close attention because we were all working it out; nothing seemed irrevocable. I liked and admired older boys and wanted to be like them. No doubt this is not everyone’s experience, but it was mine.

Masculinity and Femininity in High School: Boys and Girls Carry Books Differently

I went to a Catholic high school but I wasn’t Catholic. Traditional masculinity and femininity were the norm and flowed, merged naturally. In English class one spring day our teacher invited us to observe our fellow students. He said, “Look at how girls carry books. Look at how boys carry books.” He was right. Girls carried books against their breasts, like babies. Boys carried books along their sides, like spears. We were astonished. Then we started an experiment. Ask a girl to look at her nails, she extends her fingers and looks at the back of her hand; a boy folds his fingers down and looks at them against his palm. Ask a girl to look at the bottom of her shoe, she looks over her shoulder, down and lifts her foot behind her. Ask a boy, he looks straight down and tips his foot up. Boys and girls did things differently. Amazing. Almost by design. Could this extend to masculine and feminine differences? I just tried the experiment here in an office. Three of four men looked at their fingers folded against their palm.

Sex and Gender: What’s the difference?

Sex is biological. If your DNA is male, you have a penis and you’re a male. If your DNA is female, you have a vagina and you’re a female. Masculinity and femininity, or gender, flows from differences in sex, but those differences are very significant. In fact, Australian Jenny Graves, Distinguished Professor of Genetics at La Trobe University in Victoria, Australia, writes that men and women have practically the same set of about 20,000 genes. The only physical difference in their genetic make-up is in the sex chromosomes. Only males have a Y chromosome. Although the X chromosome is present in both sexes, there are two copies in females and only one in males. But a recent paper claims that beyond just genes on X and Y, a full third of our genome is behaving very differently in men and women. The paper is heavy lifting, but the online article that refers to the paper is a lighter read.

Gender—masculinity and femininity and their differences—is both cause and result of social factors, but it rests on the reality of sex. I googled the question, “What’s the difference between sex and gender?” Here’s what came up: “In general terms, sex refers to the biological differences between males and females, such as genitalia and genetic differences. Gender is more difficult to define, but it can refer to the role of a male or female in society, known as a gender role, or an individual’s concept of themselves, or gender identity.”

Jordan Peterson and My Own Question About Women Teachers

Clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson says men and women are equal in intelligence but inherently different. He says that before puberty boys and girls don’t differ much when it comes to trait neuroticism, which is negative emotion (anxiety, fear, anger, envy, jealousy, guilt, depression and loneliness). After puberty, though, women have much higher levels of trait neuroticism than men and it remains higher the rest of their lives. He says you see this reflected in the different kinds of psychopathology in men and women. Men tend to suffer more than women from alcoholism, drug abuse and anti-social personality learning disorders including attention deficit disorder. School boys in the U.S. are always getting diagnosed with ADD just for being boys, really. Interestingly, in a TED Talk, Sir Kenneth Robinson says ADD diagnosis is more common on the U.S. east coast and less common the further you go west. I wonder why. Could it be that as more and more men leave teaching, women find it more and more difficult to cope with rambunctious, energetic boys?

I just googled the question, “What percentage of U.S. public school teachers are women?” Here’s the answer I got back: “About 77 percent of teachers are women—up slightly from 76 percent in 2012. In primary schools, nearly 9 in 10 teachers are women.” Why do so many women teach children? Why not men? What might be the effects? Why don’t more men teach? Why are men not incentivized to teach?

Physically, of course, men tend to be bigger than women, and have more muscular upper bodies. Upper body strength is useful for physical combat and human beings have fists to strike and fight. Here’s something interesting: wives attack husbands more than husbands attack wives. Peterson suggests it’s because women know if they hit men nothing will happen. Most men won’t be hurt by a woman, but if men hit women hard it’s more likely they will hurt them. Men do more serious damage to women, but women are more often physically aggressive in relationships than men. There’s even a strange kind of complementarity in that. It’s why boys must be taught never to hit girls, and men must be taught never to hit women. Some people are challenging us on this and seek to destroy these ancient disciplines. Is that good for the relationship between the sexes? What role might women’s boxing and MMA play in redefining how men treat women?

Men watch strategy on YouTube; women watch YouTube for beauty. Women like Pinterest… do men?

Social media is a fluid environment, but it’s a sea we all swim in whether we like it or not. I’m not going for rigorous academic critical thinking here, just common sense and broad trends to inform this discussion. According to Omnicore, a digital marketing agency, left to their own devices, more men (62%) use YouTube than women. Males watch primarily soccer or strategy games, females like to watch beauty videos. It’s not surprising, really, that Blue Corona tells us that of the 150 million people who use Pinterest each month, 83% are female, and women are four times more likely to use Pinterest than men. The trend continues: 60% of new Pinterest signups are women and 40% of new signups are men. Check the stats yourself and you’ll see similar sorts of numbers.

Why so many women in Human Resources, so few in tower cranes?

But what I always found fascinating is that in companies where most employees are men, Human Resources Departments are overwhelmingly staffed by women, yet nobody finds this strange. In 2016, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that 72% of HR managers were women. In 2017, reported that 86% of HR generalists were women. So, do women gravitate to HR? Are men driven out of HR? If most employees in the company are men, why are most of the HR reps women? How does this affect the work force

That men like to operate cranes, however, seems logical; it goes back to men’s boyhood interests. But operating a crane is comparatively solitary work, compared to implementing corporate HR policies. The U.S. Department of Labor tells us that only 0.2% of the 74,000 tower crane operators working in America in 2014 were women. Upon reflection neither of these circumstances seems surprising. We know women prefer people to things, men prefer things to people. Women are drawn to human contact, men like to manipulate objects. We know, too, that men can abjure human contact and retreat into treating people like objects. Women can love too much, loving sacrificially, sometimes to their own detriment. It seems to me, anyway, men and women are different both in our sexes and in our masculinity and femininity. But we are creatures that reason. What role do our choices play?

Human beings are mysterious—proceed with care

We are complex creatures. Any child consists of his mother’s DNA and his father’s, but then there’s always the rest of him. Where that comes from—genetics, DNA and heritage all play a role—is a mystery, but every human being today and over the history of the world, is distinct and unrepeatable. Biological sex is part of that unrepeatable complexity and so is each person’s masculinity and femininity. Boys’ and girls’ masculinity and femininity, different from each other and varying widely within each sex, springs from sex. Masculinity and femininity differences—real or imagined—are then shaped in childhood and even throughout life, but are nurtured, encouraged or discouraged by individual choice and example. Let’s be slow to judge girls who like to do things boys do and boys who like to do things girls do, but neither let us be naïve nor think individual choice and example play no role. Our choices build on what we are. Our choices strengthen who we are and what we become, for what we do with our bodies shapes our minds.

Next: Part 2— What role does choice play in masculinity and femininity differences?

Shannon McGurk

Shannon McGurk


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