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Mercury, Morgan, and the masculinity veneer

It’s probably an understatement to describe the exhaustive degree to which masculinity is a subject of contention in today’s society as ‘strange’. People argue about masculinity all the time. It’s used as an avenue through which to bully, mock, demean and degrade – but why? It’s not as if masculinity can be accurately described or defined – even the Oxford English dictionary’s attempt falls far outside what can be understood as a concrete definition; describing masculinity as “qualities or attributes regarded as characteristic of men” – a definition which is hollow, vague, and begging of a further definition: what exactly are ‘men’? The Oxford dictionary goose-chase continues, informing me that a ‘man’ is defined as “An adult human male” – still of no use to someone who doesn’t have a full and definite idea of what a “male” is; and thus the chase continues. Frustratedly typing in the definition of “male”, I can’t help but feel as if the Oxford Dictionary is trying to avoid my question – fumbling to throw together a cleverly constructed answer, designed to reassure but containing nothing of substance, like a Fine Gael minister being grilled on RTE’s Prime Time. Oxford reassures me that a male is simply “the sex that produces gametes, especially spermatozoa, with which a female may be fertilized or inseminated to produce offspring”, but again, this leaves much to be desired. According to Wikipedia (which I reluctantly enquire, given the degree to which ‘legitimate’ online information resources have aided my quest thus far) approximately 7% of all men are affected by infertility – do these men then cease to be men, minister Oxford? The people want answers. What about Transgender men? Many of them cannot produce your precious spermatozoa, do they too fall outside your terribly ineffective definition of what makes a ‘man’?  There is simply too many caveats, too many ‘ifs’ ‘ands’ and ‘buts’. Given that the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of a ‘dictionary’ is a book which defines a word’s “meaning”, and Oxford Dictionary’s definition of what it is to “define” something is to “State or describe exactly the nature, scope, or meaning” of it, I think it’s safe to say that when it comes to the term “masculinity” the Oxford English Dictionary is, by its own definition, failing to do its job. So, in the most unparliamentary language: Fuck you, Deputy Oxford. Fuck you.

The concept of masculinity is one which I find myself thinking about quite a lot. My meditations and ponderings on masculinity have given me far too many a stress-headache, and provided me with far too little in the way of answers. It’s been a topic of public discourse quite heavily, with a surge in relevancy occurring only in the last few weeks. Piers Morgan was back in the headlines, proudly marching forward with yet another take so far from hot that he’s had to go at it with a hair-dryer for the past four million years to excavate it from its carbonite casing. I won’t bother quoting what he said, because I genuinely fear that if I have to bring myself to type that insufferable, bag-of-wet-sand-looking eejit’s name into the Twitter search bar, I’ll lose a magnitude of respect for myself that will take years of therapy and transcendental meditation to rebuild. Basically, Morgan decided to take to Twitter (struggling to navigate the app due to his Heinz baked bean sauce-covered fingers, in my imagination – you can just tell he’s a baked-beans guy) and launch an attack on James Bond himself, Daniel Craig, for no justifiable reason – as is to be expected; the only thing Craig was guilty of was being photographed in public carrying his newborn child in a papoose (one of those baby-carrier yokes that you strap to your body, allowing you to practically and efficiently carry around your child in cool kangaroo-esque fashion). The sight of Craig carrying his baby in such a way carried the stench of femininity and maternal care right to Morgan’s flaring nostrils, sending him spiralling into a baked-beans-fuelled rage. “#EmasculatedBond” cried Morgan, barely managing to spit the words out through a mouthful of baked-beans (okay, I’ll leave the whole baked-beans thing at that, the image just fits too perfectly). Many feel that this was yet another publicity stunt on behalf of Morgan, who feeds solely off of the fleeting staccato bursts of relevancy he receives from spouting this kind of insufferable tripe online (that, and the twelve cans of baked beans he ingests each day, either drank straight from the can or eaten with a plastic spoon from a ziplocked bag, if he’s out and about (Okay, I promise that was the last one)). However, I can’t help but feel that this is more than a desperate swing for clicks and headlines from Morgan. I think it runs deeper than that.

For Piers Morgan and those like him, James Bond resembles the very essence of what they perceive to be masculine. A “proper English gentlemen”. He treats women poorly but still gets them into bed. He kills the baddies. He shows no emotional vulnerability, lashing out in anger and violence in situations when the normal human response would be to express sadness and cry. He’s everything Piers Morgan wants to be. So, when James Bond, the highest object of Morgan’s hyper-masculine worship expresses any whispering semblance of what he deems to be feminine, it’s only natural that Morgan would erupt in a storm of insecurity and anger. The burly log-cabin walls of Morgan’s conceptual image of masculinity have been reduced to a veneer, and despite his best efforts, the cracks are beginning to show.

Judith Butler is an American philosopher and gender theorist, who I briefly encountered last year in my study of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”. My knowledge of her and her work is limited, so I don’t want to dwell on her/it too much without the sufficient research to back me up. However, one overarching thesis of hers which I found to be quite interesting was her definition of gender as being a performative act. In Twelfth Night (or the 2006 film “She’s The Man” starring Amanda Bynes, if you aren’t familiar with the Shakespearen play – it’s basically a modern retelling) a prominent theme is that of transvestism and mistaken identity. Male characters dress up in conventional female clothing, and vice-versa; leading to a wealth of confusion among the characters as to which of them are boys and which are girls. The point that Butler is making, I think, is that gender, along with ideas of masculinity and femininity, are not as concrete and definite as we believe them to be. For example, if I (who would typically be thought of as a male and masculine person) were to dress myself up in conventionally female clothing, apply a full face of makeup, and adopt a typically feminine set of mannerisms, a room full of strangers might interpret me as being a member of the female gender. The fact that we so definitely and ardently believe in a concept of binary genders, when it can be so easily circumvented and mistaken, is extremely interesting to me.

These thoughts dwelled further on my mind recently, with the release of Freddie Mercury biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Mercury, a global icon of style and rock music, often engaged in transvestism, dressing freely and flamboyantly with a strong disregard for gendered clothing and conventional masculine appearance. He was the subject of much abuse and discrimination, due to both his sexuality and the fluid, uncategorisable way in which he expressed his gender. Being both a rebel against gender conventions as well as a leading figure in the hyper-masculine world of Rock and Roll was bound to cause confusion and frustration for some – how could such a powerfully masculine voice, belting out triumphant anthems of victory be coming from the mouth of someone who wears makeup and dresses up in women’s clothing? Just like Daniel Craig did for Piers Morgan, Mercury showed a binary-thinking, gay-fearing population at the height of the AIDS epidemic that the idea of masculinity is only as concrete as we allow it to be – as we perceive it to be. Years of gendered thinking has set up thick ideological boundaries around the idea of what is ‘masculine’. Adhering to this kind of thinking, the idea of removing these boundaries can seem to be a scary concept, and many would rather reside comfortably in their widely-validated belief that man and woman are concrete and immovable objects. A narrow, limited view of masculinity is a damaging one; a view which keeps us trapped and cornered in a cage of fragile insecurity and fear; a cage from which – to quote Freddie Mercury himself – we should all want to break free.