A male reader writes:
I would just like to ask you a very simple question, what do you consider the main masculine attributes and the main feminine attributes to be?
That’s not a simple question! But, even complicated questions have simple answers.
Two years ago, I took a tour of a prestigious liberal arts college and the co-ed leading the tour mentioned that a specific dormitory was assigned to students who declare themselves to be the opposite sex. That’s how plastic masculinity and femininity have become. The truth is a woman can no more become a man than a dog can become a cat, or an apple tree can swim in a pond. Many people today believe that each person is potentially either masculine or feminine, or both, and that ideally a harmonious balance can be achieved, a state of inner androgyny.
Let’s start with the premise that masculinity and femininity are engraved in the structure of the person. They are both physical and psychic, no more interchangeable than our personalities. We are not androgynous at our core, but are born one or the other according to our anatomy and can never transcend our masculine or feminine natures. We arrive at self-realization not by overcoming our inborn nature, but by honoring and understanding it. There’s always some compelling bit of truth to the view of universal androgyny. Every masculine trait can occur in some degree in a woman, and vice versa.
The second basic premise is this. Masculinity and femininity are morally neutral. They may be turned toward the good or toward the bad, but they are neither good or bad in and of themselves. To say a woman is feminine or a man is masculine is not necessarily a positive judgment. To say a woman is acting in a feminine way does not mean she is acting in a good way.
It seems that male and female traits proceed from two central and complementary drives. In men, this is the desire to excel or to do. In women, this is the desire to love and to be loved. Masculinity is by definition relatively impersonal. It seeks objective goals while femininity is more personal and subjective. Men too desire to love and be loved; women also seek impersonal accomplishment but these are not uppermost.
Again, these drives are not by definition either morally good or bad. A man may desire to excel in street-fighting or as a gambler. A woman may love criminals or seek approval through manipulation. Masculinity and femininity are human languages. Through them, the will and the mind act. They are inherently good only in the sense that they are the necessary modes for our interaction with the world.
Many masculine traits proceed from this drive toward an impersonal goal: aggression, competitiveness, abstract and systematic reasoning, paternalism, sexual conquest, genius, physical strength, athleticism. Likewise many feminine traits follow from the drive toward intimacy: emotional sensitivity, intuition, physical beauty, fine motor skills, verbal facility, sociability, gentleness, manipulation of others, and compassion.
Obviously these traits reflect biological differences. But, biology and evolution do not fully account for them. In a purely mechanistic scheme of things, there is always the utopian hope of making sense of masculinity and femininity, but in this view sexual identity is ultimately confining and meaningless. The attempt to remove the shackles of sexual identity is an effort to make biological determinism more palatable.
In light of the freedom of the will, the immortality of the soul and the existence of God, masculinity and femininity are entirely different from this. They retain some mystery, some beauty that is non-utilitarian and also, in their disharmony and division, some evil that cannot be explained except as a type of curse. A terrible existential burden is lifted when male and female join. New life is created. But also, as languages, masculinity and femininity can only express so much on their own. They are the foundations of human community and of individual happiness, but only in fruitful combination.
At the New Beginning blog, there is this post in reponse to my summary:
I was thinking about men and their “geeking” out over tools…
Men take pride in a job well done, in a product well made. (Women also, but it seems to me that this does not matter as much as the emotional satisfaction they derive from making something for someone they love.) Much of masculine identity/vocation/psychology rests upon what one does. Tools become an extension of one’s self, in so far as they enable us to use our power over inanimate nature. Hence, tools become a part of male identity, and it is no surprise that men spend so much time looking for the best tool for the job and examining their technical specs.
The differences between males and females is apparent when children play. Part of it can be attributed to imitation, but the desire to take on certain roles as a reflection of nature and identity is innate. The nurturing side of girls comes out when they are taking care of their dolls.
Boys, in exercising their imagination, tend to act out in masculine ways noted above–look at how they play with toy machines and cars. Even when they are playing with dinosaurs it is marked by aggression, dominance, and power. The aggressive part of masculinity is even more clear when they are making spaceships or other war machines or playing soldier.
I have seen some kindergarten boys playing in the kitchen or house as well, and who were not adopting the father’s role, but playing along with the girls and doing what the girls were doing. Some of it is imitation, perhaps some of it is also for socialization. One does wonder if there is anything happening at home that is leading to this behavior. It happens, but it is not common–the majority of boys are doing boyish things.