What follows is an excerpt from Hua Hsu's introduction to Some Styles of Masculinity (Triple Canopy, 2021), a book by the artist and writer Gregg Bordowitz. To read the entire essay, navigate to the Nation or purchase the book.
When I was growing up I rarely thought about masculinity, which is one of the main privileges it affords. Back then, in the 1980s and ’90s, so long as you weren’t bad in some crass, pawing, physically aggressive way, you could consider yourself good. But the gradient of masculine identities seemed so basic and finite—from jock to nerd—that, to me, the only real option was to reject all of them, to embrace the absence of viable models. As a young Asian American, I thought of this as a natural response, given how many provinces of masculinity seemed to be permanently off limits. I could never imagine myself as a leading man or star athlete, and I remember feeling liberated when I accepted that as the case: my alternative to being brutish and gross was none of the above. Yet even the rejection of masculinity is about following scripts. Negating whatever everyone else affirmed meant that I’d at least skimmed my lines. I knew what was expected of me. Perhaps discouraging myself from interrogating the process—and eventual product—of becoming a man was as much a script as all the buffoonish stuff, the locker room roughhousing and unashamed ogling. I didn’t realize as a teenager that identities are false horizons, projects that are undertaken but never truly finished. The nature of the performance changes with the times, with the person. Now I know that you write sentences over and over until your penmanship improves, and you learn to fit in by repeating the gestures deemed normal, or normal enough. But you’re always passing; you’re always covering for someone else’s discomfort, answering to a name that sounds close enough to your own. You hold a shirt up to your chest and imagine how you’ll be received. You clear your throat even when nobody is around.
More than ever, you go through these motions in public, whether the public is real or imagined, physical or online. Every facet of personal identity authorizes some new skirmish in the forever culture war, and few fault lines are as fraught as masculinity. Some say the problem with this country is that we need to be manly again: straight-shooter demagogues decry liberal softness, men’s rights activists dwell on their own victimhood, and tech utopians consult the noble caveman for diet advice. Others point out that masculinity, predatory and unfeeling, is the cause of our problems, not the solution to them. The adjective they’re most likely to modify “masculinity” with is “toxic.” A distant second might be “new,” which vaguely names the remedy. To me, the attempts to tout a new—more thoughtful, historically distinct—form of masculinity feel a bit superficial, as if outfitting movie stars and rappers in designer kilts could put a dent in centuries of egomaniacal conquest and domination. Or maybe the new masculinity just feels like ad copy, devised to open our minds to updated fabrics and silhouettes.
How else have the times changed? I think of “The American Male at Age Ten,” the essay Susan Orlean wrote three decades ago that probes the perspective of a fifth-grade New Jerseyite and imagines what he’ll be like as a man. At the time, she could publish a charming and innocent story about a typical boy brought up in “a town of amazing lawns” and make light of his amorphous, prepubescent destructiveness—after all, he was just a kid. She could conclude: “The collision in his mind of what he understands, what he hears, what he figures out, what popular culture pours into him, what he knows, what he pretends to know, and what he imagines, makes an interesting mess.” But we’re more enlightened these days; we know that a typical boy is trouble (and is in trouble).