PERFORMING MASCULINITY: AN EMOTIONAL STUDY
Winter 2017 Mid Res Show at CalArts
Boys spend their childhood and teen years learning how to perform their assigned gender. They learn that being a man is constantly reminding others and proving to others their maleness. This is what makes masculinity a performance, a constant and internalized one. Boys are taught that to be “a man”; they can one up other men, and put down women. They learn to insult other boys by feminizing them. They often times learn to fear the feminine, they learn homophobia, they stay inside of their assigned gender performance. When they step out of it there are social consequences. Growing up if a boy paints his nails, plays with dolls, pierces his ear (all deemed feminine acts and therefore not fit for a male), they get socialized into stopping that behavior. They often times get made fun of, attacked, ostracized by their peers, teachers, parents, etc. This is how they learn the right way to behave.
Masculinity is a construct, it genders feelings, self expression, intimacy. From my observation, boys learn rules. They learn how to perform within their set boundaries. They usually don’t even know they’re performing since they’ve internalized it deeply growing up. They are allowed intimacy and love with their male counterparts, under the condition it’s still masculine. They can hug, if they dap first. They can I say I love you, when you tack on “bro”. They can have feelings, be hurt, be sad, feel lonely or neglected, and are taught to express these emotions under destructive terms. If a boy can’t land a skate trick after a lot of tries, it’s not uncommon to smash their skateboard out of frustration. Even this breaking of their board is a performance since boys who skate travel in groups, so the rest of the pack can see. I argue that this helps them regain their “manhood” by being destructive to compensate for their perceived failure. They learn to channel all feelings of inferiority into one reaction, anger. Sadness, disappointment, being hurt, all become anger. It becomes masculine destruction.
Boys learn to compete. They learn to fight one another. They learn they are bigger than women. They learn that they are deserving of space and time in a way women are disallowed. They may feel like they have to constantly try to be the “big dog”, the alpha male, the most powerful. They internalize the limited role they are taught growing up. These lessons come from society and power structures. It’s socialized through schools, family figures, peers. We pass down these toxic ideas of what it means to be a boy.
Not every individual will feel the same way about this issue. This construct applies most directly to cis heterosexual boys and effects anyone who doesn’t fit that binary differently. Not every boy feels confined by his gender identity. Not every boy is a reflection of what our society teaches exactly. Not all boys are disallowed access to learning healthy coping mechanisms and agency over a wide range of emotions. However, on a large scale these are the boys we’ve created.
Toxic masculinity plagues our youth. It has many different forms and rules across cultures and countries. The effects of this construct vary based on context and experience. This project in particular is based on my experiences with the construct around me. I have been observing my close male friends for half a decade in New York, and I began documenting them to understand what it means to be a man in our society.
Through my study I see patterns, I see destruction. Boys fight each other, put down women, hurting others and consequently hurting themselves. I see boys in pain. I see these defined limits on self expression, ways to deal with human emotion, and interaction with others. I have gained a personal and deeply emotionally involved understanding of their performance.
I feel privileged to have gained access to my peers minds when they open up to me about this issue. Some boys don’t feel comfortable discussing it, some have internalized their performance of manhood so deeply that they don’t see how it affects them, while others are more than willing to acknowledge how they’ve suffered under the conditions of their assigned identity. I see willingness to learn, desire to express their emotions, the craving of love and intimacy.
To my close male friends in these photographs, I thank you for allowing me in your lives and hearts. You do not represent the entirety of this issue, you are all individuals with varying experiences and relationships to your identities, and I love each one of you. The intention of my work is always to shine light on the results of toxic power structures that function to hurt and limit us. I am proud to see the aspects of this assigned gender role that I see some of my male friends actively unlearn. There is a lot of work to be done. We need to be dismantling the idea of what it means to be a man, a boy, to be strong. Be critical of yourself and your peers in the participation of this toxic identity, this is how we start to unlearn and understand. By unlearning this internalized performance, you are participating in the revolutionary act of changing the definition of man.
Performing Masculinity: An Emotional Study, is a show created to take a deep and critical look at the performance of modern masculinity in youth culture. The title has all the keywords to help the viewer view the images with the intended lens. The title starts with the word “performance”, which explicitly states that these boys must be “performing” in these images. My argument is that the construct of masculinity is a performance and something that is internalized, learned, and something to prove to others constantly. All the boys documented are my close friends, mostly in New York, over the last three years. This is what makes it an “emotional” study for me. The images aren’t all showing the toxic aspects of this gender performance. There is some emotional closeness, intimacy between boys, moments of pause. Since I am immersed in this world outside of these images and the image-making process, I see all the different sides of their learned gender performance, not just the toxic elements.
The show is made up of 42 20”x30” color prints, about poster size. The images are accompanied by a text describing the construct of masculinity and it’s relationship to the images. The photos were hung in groups based on many factors including orientation of the print, but mainly on the subject matter. The longest wall was all portraits of one subject. My intention was as you viewed left to right, the physical closeness and level of intimacy got farther and farther away. So the first portrait is of a boy looking into the camera, seemingly comfortable, with a hickey on his face. He is close to the camera, taking up almost the whole frame, and the subject matter seems close and devoid of performance. And for example, the last image is a boy with his back facing the camera. He is about to dive into a bowl on his board at the skatepark. He is physically far away, but also there is no intimacy or connection, and he is about to skate away.
This is often times how I feel about my close male friends. They can be so close to me, especially when we are alone, distracted from their performance. They can talk openly about their feelings, connect with me as another human being and equal, and it feels like they forgot about needing to assert their gender upon others momentarily. Then I see them switch entirely back as soon as a group dynamic is present. They can also feel so distant, closed off, or like they are running away as the last image shows.
The rest of the walls have different set ups. The wall connected to the single portraits wall shows pairs of boys and their dynamic. Resemblances of brotherhood and friendship, also competition and performed manhood. And another wall has group dynamics. Boys watching each other, fighting each other, and supporting each other within the confines of their gender performance.
The photos themselves are all color and shot of film. All of them are of my close friends in New York, except for two taken in Los Angeles. They are an accumulation of three years of constant documentation, and an archive of our experiences. They set out to critique the learned performance of masculinity, but also a way to understand it. For me it has always been natural to document what is close to me and those I care about, but this project for me is one of studying and understanding. I am immersed in this world but also not actively performing masculinity myself. This is my way of opening up the conversation on gender roles with love and empathy while maintaining a critical lens. I use personal experience and individuals to talk about a much bigger construct and issue.