Gender-nonconforming Men are HAWT, Apparently

There is a post over at Feministe (hat tip to NSWATM) written by Rebecca Katherine Hirsch that is singing the hawtness praises of gender-nonconforming men.

Except… hmm. Well, here’s an excerpt:

So I’m sexually and intellectually into non-gender-conformity, however you personally slice it. The male display of vulnerability is so powerful because it’s a direct affront to our rigid, cultural ideas of what Real Men are. And I find it so sexy because it’s rebellious in context and bravely welcoming of vulnerability in content which, to my mind, makes one invulnerable. And because it turns me on in ways I have yet to plumb.

(Emphasis mine.)

So she finds vulnerability hot because (or at partially because) it indicates… invulnerability. Huh.

This harks back to the whole “it takes a really strong man to show tears” thing. It’s the idea that since these behaviors are socially prohibited for men, that men who do them are therefore bravely facing adversity, and therefore displaying strength. It’s like the one man who willingly jumps into a raging battle while butt-naked: he must be a super badass[1] if he’s putting himself in that vulnerable position. This isn’t new, and it isn’t terribly subversive.

Hirsch’s choice of exemplifying photograph further drives this home.

Before I go any further, though, I want to make one thing clear: I do not think there is anything wrong with the Hirsch’s attraction to these men. Any more than I think there’s something wrong with some men’s attraction to women who pose sexily with machine guns. (Although I welcome discussion on both topics, including analysis and critique.)

But what’s bugging me is that I get the very strong impression that Hirsch thinks her preferences are subversive. Again, her preferences don’t have to be subversive to be good and valid. And that’s very fortunate for her, because her preferences appear to only be superficially subversive—at least insofar as she describes them in her article.

Frankly, her preferences aren’t even that far outside of the mainstream. Knowing a lot of female anime fans, I’m pretty sure there are plenty of women who go for physically feminine men (eye makeup, gorgeous long hair, thin frame, effeminate body language, etc.) who can kick your ass.[2] And if anime is too subculturey for you, then I can also tell you about the (very mainstream) girls swooning over the hot guy in a mermaid (not merman) costume at a Halloween party I went to a couple of years ago.

And there is nothing wrong with women being attracted to these guys (or fictional hand-drawn characters, in the case of anime). But it’s silly to pretend that this is particularly subversive with respect to cultural norms of masculinity.

It is subversive for some of those norms, of course. But if one of the reasons it’s hot is because it’s the social equivalent of bravely jumping into a battlefield while nude… well, that’s just reinforcing the invulnerable masculinity norm, not subverting it. Intentionally placing yourself in vulnerable positions in order to weather them by your own force of will is not the same kind of vulnerability that men are prohibited from in our culture. In fact, it’s a kind of vulnerability that men are encouraged to take on in our culture all the freakin’ time.

A man bravely jumping into a raging battlefield nude is not the same as a man involuntarily thrown into a battlefield who subsequently cowers in fetal position while crying his eyes out and hoping not to die. Both men are vulnerable, but it’s two very, very, very different things.

However, there are women out there who do go for the latter kind of vulnerability. My second girlfriend was one. I was a helpless emotional wreck when I met her, and she actually latched on to that—that’s a lot of the reason she was attracted to me. A year later when I was pretty well healed (partly due to her, for which I am forever thankful), she lost interest and we amiably parted ways. She then found another emotional wreck and started helping him too. It’s the nurse mentality, I guess. There are women like this, and as long as they take care to protect themselves as well,[3] that can be totally fine. And to me that is a much more meaningful and subversive gender-nonconforming attraction pattern with respect to traditional notions of masculinity.

Hirsch’s preference certainly does have gender-nonconforming elements to it, to be sure—tutus and tiaras are not male gender normative dress code. And that’s totally fine and cool and wonderful. But I get the strong impression that she thinks her preference is far more subversive and meaningful than it really is, and feels somewhat self-congratulatory because of it.



[1] Or just foolhardy.

[2] But, of course, only do so for the forces of good.

[3] Unfortunately, many do not. And that makes them easy targets for abusive partners. A lot of men also have this nurse mentality, and are similarly vulnerable. It makes me sad. :-(

8 thoughts on “Gender-nonconforming Men are HAWT, Apparently

  1. Great post! This reminds me of a story I once read on a blog of a young feminist. She was in her high school senior year. After the final exams she and her class decided cross-dress one day as a prank. On that day every single girl showed up at school in men’s clothing, but some boys decided not to wear women’s clothing. She was surprised that all the macho guys did cross-dress. The ones who did not were the less stereotypically masculine guys.

    Actually, it’s not really surprising. The guys who felt secure in their masculinity and especially secure that nobody else will question their masculinity were confident enough to show up in skirts and tank-tops. And masculinity at that age has a lot to do with being romantically successful. So for the less popular, less successful guys the prank must have felt like yet another test for confidence.

  2. Of course Hirsch is welcome to her own sexual preferences without being taken to task, but in fairness then we’d have to say the same of the proverbial Regular Joe who’s into wasp-waisted buxom bimbos.

    But somehow Joe is held responsible for female body dismorphia, while Hirsch gets a free pass. Either both are responsible for the larger “political” impact their own personal sexual preferences have, or neither are.

    It’s also just not OK for Hirsch to imply that men who do not conform to the “non-conformance” she finds hot are therefore morally deficient embodiments of “INTENSE NOTHINGNESS”, as she says.

    I read all of this in the larger context of the past few decades’ program of “reinventing manhood”, what with all the New Age sensitive New Man and all that.

    It’s all just the same old, same old. Before we’ve had to be able to pick up our women and carry them inside over then nuptial doorstep, and leave her there while we run out with the shotgun to face the bandits. Now we’ve got to wear tutus and tiaras as our post-workout bodybuilding dress.

    Nothing’s changed, except that the same sources that gave us “Masculinity, the Requirements Specification Version N” have meanwhile issued “Masculinity, the Requirements Specification Version N+1″ as an addendum, whilst patting themselves on the back for being more open-minded than their forebears who authored Version N.

    The general impression I get, from the trend of the articles (including this one) over at NSWATM, is that, unless I struggle with something like an unfulfilled desire to wear miniskirts to work and peg my long hair up with the chopstick from last night’s sushi, well then, my struggles and concerns are not really included under the rubric of “what about the men”.

    It all just boils down to the fact that so-called feminism seems to be nothing but the good old Patriarchy/Chivalry dual-faced Janus – on steroids.

  3. P John Irons: “But somehow Joe is held responsible for female body dismorphia, while Hirsch gets a free pass. Either both are responsible for the larger “political” impact their own personal sexual preferences have, or neither are.”

    You obviously don’t get it. Men’s preferences are so powerful, they force things upon women– sometimes with deadly effects! Ahh, but women’s preferences? They are perfectly without effect when it comes to how masculinity is socially-constructed.

    So whenever men have a preference relating to women’s appearances which have an arguably biologically-based root to it (i.e.: an aversion to morbidly obese women), it’s a horrible restriction being imposed upon women’s bodies with possibly deadly effects (ever heard of ‘anorexia’???) and the proper response to this is a call for male reprogramming and resocialization to end their unhealthy “obsessions.”

    But when women have a preference for rich, famous, steroid-using athletes or a preference for rap stars with a penchant for tricked-out cars, gun-play and over-sized bling… it’s the Patriarchy’s fault for forcing women to prefer such men. In the absence of patriarchal interference, it’s obvious that women would be overcome with lust at the sight of a nurturing, apron-clad man pushing a vacuum cleaner and cooking silver-dollar pancakes.

    Get with the program, Neanderthal.

  4. @Aych:

    That’s a crass, oversimplified evaluation of sexual preferences. You should be ashamed of yourself.

    But it made me LOL. Very well-written.

  5. Anecdote warning:

    For a laugh, when we threw parties back in uni and a “non-conformist” arrived we would tell them to go sit in the corner with the other “individuals” (and we would do the finger speech-marks as well). I don’t think they ever found it funny, but I guess that’s to be expected when you wrap so much of your self-identity in being “non-conformist”.

    (I didn’t have a problem with them; they were mates, I just have a weird sense of humour)

  6. “It all just boils down to the fact that so-called feminism seems to be nothing but the good old Patriarchy/Chivalry dual-faced Janus – on steroids.”

    I once saw someone in a comment somewhere call feminism the “Ladies’ Auxiliary of the Patriarchy.” BTW that is going to become one of my categories for articles, because it comes up over and over again. I find that everything I dislike about feminism comes happens to be the stuff that is based on unexamined patriarchal assumptions.

  7. To justify that post: I guess what I’m saying is that usually, when someone thinks they are being non-conformist they often aren’t. Look past the act and take off the unusual hats and they are just as conformist as everyone else. It’s just that people aren’t conforming to the cariciture that is in the media. I find the idea that there is this one “way” that people are expected to be like to be strange. It’s a bit like the myth of the brutal Victorian father, when in actuality there was no real archetype of a Victorian father, but many difference types of father.

  8. I love it! Don’t pillory yourself too much; posers deserve to be hung out on display.

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