Masculinity is not the absence of femininity.
I was nine when I started playing FIFA. I was never truly interested in the game, neither was I good at playing, but I played it anyways. I picked it up partly because Tayo, a good childhood friend, was heavily invested and he didn’t mind going along with my theatrical shenanigans. Another reason, a major one, why I decided to pick it up was so I could blend in. The norm for boys my age at the time was to play FIFA and other androcentric video games and I didn't want to stick out like a sore thumb. So I went along with almost everything: football, playing an instrument, rugby, the works. I quickly became “one of the boys”, engaging in activities that I didn't have much interest in simply because I wanted to fit in. However, when no one was paying much attention, I spent my time bursting my lungs, diligently learning the choreography to Missy Elliot’s classic anthem ‘Lose Control’ along with Ibiwari, my best friend at the time or better yet, simultaneously singing Elton and Kiki’s parts on “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” on SingStar on my PlayStation 2.
When you Google “stereotypical masculine traits”, it’s no surprise that the first words you see are strength, courage, independence, leadership, and assertiveness. If that wasn’t bad enough, “machismo”, described as power with a “disregard for responsibility” is particularly striking. Do the same for feminine traits and the words “passivity”, modesty, humility, sensitivity, devoted and other synonyms of submission pop up.
While men are generally considered strong and brave, and women, weak and submissive, there’s a slow but growing acceptance of the men that exhibit attributes and behaviours that are traditionally linked to the female gender. The peculiar danger with assigning these traits to a particular gender is that they begin to see the other set of traits as damaging to their existence. This is where toxic masculinity is born. Truth is, I’d never really been one of the boys, but like the performer that I am, it wasn’t hard to seem like I was. After all, when auditions were held in primary school to play the hyper-masculine, no-nonsense Pharaoh in Tim Rice’s ‘Joseph and the Technicolor Dream Coat’, guess who won the role? When I need to, I can always become, maybe not someone else, but another version of myself.
In a country like Nigeria that frowns on effeminacy, there ends up a number of different contortions and distortions as a result. From the unapologetic ones who strut freely, unafraid to shine in the best way they know how, to the ones that put up a front when in public, to even the ones that berate themselves and live a life of self-hate for falling into the “others” category of men. These varying results grow to define each person, not just as individuals, but as a part of a larger community of men.
Masculinity is never the absence of feminity. The degrading belief that one is “less of a man” because he subscribes to traditional feminine roles, behaviours and desires is to limit men to being incomplete beings. It’s why men are afraid to show emotions today, and why violence and other reactionary mechanisms are associated with them.
Growing up in Nigeria as a boy in touch with his feminine side, teachers and other adults would try to “talk” (read unsolicited and harmful advice) me out of certain mannerisms and behaviours. From things as menial as jumping rope, to “dangerous” behaviours like learning how to cornrow. Thankfully, with the rise of feminism and equality in the modern age, I have been able to unlearn a number of things about myself that society considered “wrong”.
It is important for cishet men to understand a fundamental truth: traditional gender roles, traits and mannerisms only help to disqualify certain individuals from fulfilling their destinies and living their truth. With effeminate men scattered all across the globe, many youths and even adults hold on to an unexplainable hurt brought on by parents, friends, religious leaders and even strangers that there exists a flaw in their making, because of how they choose to embrace their feminine side.
I’ve always known I was different, but the same as many others. For as long as I have understood my perfections within the imperfections of life, I’ve held my torch high and proudly. You’ll find me singing along to all Mariah Carey’s 19 number ones before I put on a single rap record and I’d rather spend time cooking and catching up with the family tea with the aunties than in the living room with the uncles discussing Messi’s greatness over Ronaldo.
In a perfect world, a lot of men would enjoy what they’ve been told not to enjoy and live as freely as they want to. But this isn’t a perfect world, so they slap each other on the back, swallow their emotions and reject any tears. “Boys don’t cry”, they say. I’d rather keep my femininity alongside my masculinity, than consent to a “boys will be boys” mentality, ignoring a huge truth about myself.
Featured image credit: Carmen Triana.