Should Masculinity and Femininity Be Cultivated?

Some have misgivings as to whether masculinity and femininity should be cultivated. Wouldn't that just lead to caricatured stereotypes?

Some misgivings

One of the key themes explored in Man+Woman is the intentional cultivation of masculinity and femininity. However, some might have misgivings about this. Why might that be? The essential concern is that masculinity and femininity are simply qualities that arise naturally from being male or female, and that accentuating them would lead to caricatures of what masculinity and femininity should be. So men would exaggerate all the things that make them different from women, and vice versa. Men and women would end up further apart rather than finding more common ground.

This is a reasonable concern, for which evidence can easily be found. There are some men who become obsessive about building up their muscles, or who become exceedingly reckless, self-assertive, individualistic or menacing in manner. There are women who become obsessed with being sexy, and dress and act in ways that caricature sexual attractiveness. In various ways we can see that the forms of masculinity and femininity can become distorted through attempts to intentionally cultivate them. It might seem prudent then to simply leave these things alone and follow a natural and spontaneous course so as to avoid extremes.

A Clarification

We can throw light on these misgivings, and hopefully dispel them, by clarifying what is meant here by the cultivation of masculinity and femininity. We need to set the scene by looking more closely at what is involved in the usual process of development.

A First Development

In reasonably helpful circumstances boys and girls will develop along the lines of natural inclination, and become recognisably masculine or feminine as a matter of course. They will seem to be clearly masculine or feminine both to others and to themselves. However, in some circumstances such development is hindered and more is needed. For example, if a boy grows up without a father present and active in his life he will miss out on much of what helps a sense of masculinity to be 'absorbed' naturally. He will lack an effective behavioural and emotional reference point to help him clarify his own development. In such cases additional guidance and help might be needed later to help him intentionally cultivate what did not happen naturally. This is obviously not oriented towards caricature but is simply to compensate for what was missing initially.

Assuming that reasonable circumstances have prevailed, boys and girls will develop what I call their primary form of masculinity and femininity. The normal process of growth is oriented to the development of a sense of masculinity and femininity with primary reference to one's own sex. That is, boys grow up in 'boy world' and girls grow up in 'girl world' and in this way they develop the basic sense of what it is to be a boy or a girl.

A Second Development

However, with adolescence comes a new dimension, which I am calling the secondary form of masculinity and femininity. The primary development was focused on boys' relationships with other boys, and girls' relationships with other girls. Now the developmental task is how to expand one's sense of masculinity or femininity to take into account the other sex.

This is a challenge for emotional growth. It is harder to achieve than the primary development, because by now the person is more self aware, and already has a well established sense of sexual identity, and its associated emotional habits. The development of this secondary form of emotional growth is much less likely to happen spontaneously. It has to be worked at, and guided by helpful social opportunities and cultural forms.

This challenge reaches well into, and usually throughout adulthood, because even while young people are usually still struggling to make much progress in this secondary form most will enter into an intimate relationship which puts an even greater demand on their capacity and willingness for such growth.

Intentional Cultivation

When I speak of the intentional cultivation of masculinity and femininity then I am speaking of the means of encouraging the development of this secondary form of emotional development.

The notions of masculinity and femininity are conceived here in relation to emotionality, in which there are two forms, one of which is primary and the other secondary. The primary form defines the nature of gender as inherent in the individual and the secondary form as the means of communicating that nature to the opposite sex.

The danger of caricature and stereotype mentioned above arises when, instead of working on developing this secondary form, people take the primary form with which they are already familiar and try to accentuate it even further. So boys will be tempted to exaggerate the kinds of behaviour that characterise what they did as children rather than learn the new behaviours that would enable them to relate better to girls. They will tend to become irresponsible and reckless, which becomes dangerous now that they are older and stronger and more capable of independent action. The preoccupation with play can be prolonged well into what should be adulthood. The relative lack of responsibility that was appropriate to a child now becomes problematic. The amount of play that was appropriate to a child now becomes disproportionate.

Girls will likewise be tempted to exaggerate behaviours that were appropriate in childhood but now become problematic. Their enjoyment of 'dress ups' and imitating what women are like become more consequential with their new sexual nature and its potentials. They don't yet really understand the power of their sexuality and tend to relate to it in an external way, defined mostly by their girl peers rather than by a growing understanding of what masculinity is.  Their close 'girlfriend' kind of relating can become an obsessive round of inclusion and exclusion of their girl peers.

Some degree of imbalance is bound to occur, but it doesn't need to lead to caricature. For most it doesn't seem to. The problem for most is the slowness and difficulty of growth in their secondary form of emotional masculinity or femininity. This is why an intentional approach is needed, beginning with adults, who need to create a 'pathway' for such development to assist and guide young people into a balanced sense of their identity.

The Challenge of Complementarity

The difficulty of developing one's secondary form of masculinity or femininity is the normal defining challenge of the complementarity of the sexes. The challenge is to become the kind of man who understands women 'from the inside', or the kind of woman who understands men 'from the inside'.  Men and women have within them the potential to develop a way of being that is sympathetic to the other sex, that has some feeling for how the other likes to be treated, and why.

Developing this is what the cultivation of masculinity and femininity is. The primary form tends to develop more or less naturally, in helpful circumstances, but the secondary form usually needs to be developed much more intentionally. It has the effect of accentuating without exaggerating. This is because the focus of development is on those things that foster better communication between the sexes. It is not about further developing the self-referential elements of masculinity and femininity but about developing the other-centred elements.

This is why it does not lead to caricature but to more effective complementarity. It is the means by which masculinity and femininity come to be defined mutually, by each other. The primary form develops them mainly by reference to others of the same sex. The secondary form develops them by reference to the other sex. That is the key.

Take the case of men. What is intended here is the cultivation of men's secondary form, that aspect of masculinity whose purpose is the communication of masculinity to women. Since it is about communication it needs to be expressed according to the mode of the receiver. So it involves men trying to get on women's emotional wavelength. It does not work by exaggerating one's already developed qualities but by working out what kind of perceptions women are attuned to. This does not mean becoming feminised, because the content being communicated is precisely masculinity.

In Conclusion

I hope this gives a better sense of what is meant here by the cultivation of masculinity and femininity. This has only been an outline of the kind of thing involved. In future articles we will explore examples of how this works.