- Embodying MasculinityTwo Writers on Gender, Binaries, and Moving Beyond
lincoln: university of nebraska press, american lives series, 2019. 280pages, paper, $20.
I’m really pleased that Laura Julier introduced us and arranged this conversation because it seems like we’re both thinking about masculinity—albeit from widely different perspectives and genders, you in your new book—and congratulations, by the way—and me in the work I’ve been publishing recently, working towards a new essay collection. To get us started, I thought we might both talk a bit about the writers who have informed our thinking on the subject of masculinity and then dive deeper as issues and questions arise.
I’ve been on a reading tear, trying to understand masculinity and in particular toxic masculinity. One writer you mention and I’ve recently read is Thomas Page McBee, who is transgender and whose writing gave me a different understanding of masculinity. McBee writes beautiful, lyric prose about moving towards gender transition in his book Man Alive, and then in his second book, Amateur, he tackles trying to understand what makes a man a man and how to embody the best traits of masculinity. In an interview with The Guardian, he says, “I needed a language and narrative to stay true to who I was before my transition, and that required asking stupid questions, but also realising that nobody asked questions about masculinity, because to question masculinity is to put your privilege at risk.”
I think what struck me in both his books was McBee’s surprise at how women responded to him as a transman when there remained a part of his [End Page 213] core who understood entirely what it meant to be a woman in the world (because he had a girlhood). I was also struck by his realization that he was being socialized as a male—at high speed—and fully aware of what was happening (unlike the slow process that occurs for both men and women as we grow up in a culture and are exposed to gender “norms”).
I won’t dissect both books and how he looks at nature and nurture, but I will ask you what you thought of these books, and how, as a cisgender male, you choose how to adopt masculinity: Is it conscious or is it unconscious? Because of nature? Nurture? Cultural influences? All of the above?
I haven’t had a chance to read Man Alive yet, so I can’t speak to it, but when I came across Amateur, it was like stumbling upon a book that I never knew existed but always wanted to read. Like McBee, I’m an amateur boxer who spends a lot of time thinking about masculinity. I’ve been in the gyms and the sparring sessions and the locker rooms, and so I felt a sort of kinship with him from the first pages.
Of course, McBee and I are also very different in many respects. I’m a cisgender male who grew up in a conservative family with a narrowly focused heteronormative worldview, which I didn’t even think about or know to question until seven or eight years ago. McBee was the first writer who made me think hard about the idea of choosing masculinity—that masculinity, when performed in a vastly different way than it’s traditionally performed, could not only be (personally) redeemed, but also be celebrated.
McBee transitioned into masculinity after being socialized as a woman, as you point out, and just that idea—that someone would choose to move toward this thing that I’d begun to think of as my most apparent flaw, meaning being a man—made me rethink my approach to masculinity. It presented a new and critical question to me: If I were fully aware of my own transition into masculinity, what type of man would I be?
The answer, perhaps predictably, was that I would want to be a man different than the man I am, and certainly different than the...