This post is a response to thatspiritualguide’s recent article, “Does the Bulge Make the Man?” I wholeheartedly agree with him that one does not need a penis to be a man – just witness the vast number of people with vaginas who identify as men and who are accepted as such among their friends, family, peers and coworkers. Furthermore, I also agree with him about the uselessness of ‘penis size’ as a barometer for one’s masculinity, as an indicator of how much of a man one is. This obsession with dick size is a purely arbitrary method of reducing people’s self-esteem. Indeed, in Ancient Greece, it was considered comical and embarrassing to have a large penis, while small penises were glorified in sculptures as the pinnacle of masculine beauty. Obsessions with penis size are time-bound, culturally-specific creations that, in reality, have none of the ‘absolute’, gender-defining characteristics that many men attribute to them.

But if penis size is no barometer of manliness, and if, in fact, one does not even need a penis to be a man, how do we define ‘men’? What are they, if not creatures with a penis? Thatspiritualguide suggests a definition that has potentially dangerous consequences. He claims that a man should be defined primarily by his ‘strength’: ‘Men, whatever body parts they have, possess a core of strength. They operate from strength. This is what allows them to tough it out, to be strong, to man-up.’ Thankfully, he avoids stereotypes of traditional masculinity, by pointing out that manly strength is not about driving fast cars, climbing the ladder of economic power, emasculating other men and bedding as many women as possible. Instead, thatspiritualguide suggests that a man’s strength should be measured by his sensitivity and generosity: ‘he cares for others. He is not afraid to cry at sad movies. While some of these characteristics may sound femmy at first, let me assure that any man who is secure in his maleness can and does do these things. And it makes him all the manlier because he can do them.’ Essentially, he suggests that strong men have the courage to be gender-flexible, to appropriate so-called feminine emotions and behaviors.

While thatspiritualguide’s refined manliness may seem reassuringly progressive at first (especially when compared to the violence and misogyny that permeates ‘traditional’ masculinity), it could have very negative consequences. As I outlined in my previous post, one of the principal demands of the hegemonic discourse on gender is that there must always be a difference between men and women. Often, this difference is defined as oppositeness. Hence, in the worse case scenario, defining men as ‘strong’ will lead, almost inevitably, to the notion that women are, in some way, weak. In the best-case scenario, it will lead to the idea that women have a different kind of strength, that they cannot be strong in the way that men are strong. Hence, we have images of ‘women’s strength’ that involve things like enduring severe multi-tasking (a job, taking care of children, housework), or staying in a marriage, despite a husband’s philandering behavior. Men and women are discursively defined as different (often diametrically opposed) creatures, and defining one gender in a particular way often leads to an inability to define the other gender in that way as well. Hence, the notion of strong men easily leads to the idea of ‘not-strong’ women…

So if any attempt to define men could have negative implications for women – and vice versa – how do we define our two genders? What ‘are’ men and what ‘are’ women? An interesting option is presented in Tom Boellstorff’s article, “Playing Back the Nation”. Through an analysis of a particular transgender population in Indonesia, Boellstorff suggests that it is possible to open up the category ‘man’ to such an extent that it almost becomes meaningless and can incorporate an exceptionally broad range of behaviors and identities. He documents how the waria (a trans population in Indonesia who dress like women and take on ‘feminine’ roles in society) are still considered as ‘men’ in society and mostly identify as ‘men’ themselves. Thus, the article opens up the possibility that we may define ‘men’ in such a broad way, that the very term becomes almost utterly meaningless.

Who are men? They are strong, they are weak, they are smart, they are thick… some wear lipstick, other’s don’t, some are pricks, some are nice, some have dicks, others don’t… Men are a chaotic mess, akin to a Jackson Pollock piece – full of contrasts, contradictions and similarities. Any definition of what it means to be a man will never suffice.

***For More Information***
Definitely have a look at thatspiritualguide’s post, as well as the Boellstorff article. Otherwise, all I can do is recommend the usual: Judith Butler, Riki Wilchins, and Michel Foucault. Also, for more on penis size, have a look at the following Wikipedia article:

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