The rise of soft masculinity shouldn't be seen as a threat to manhood itself

A new kind of masculinity is being shaped by the #MenAreTrash and #MeToo movements, writes Sandiso Ngubane

08 April 2018 - 00:01 By Sandiso Ngubane
A photo from visual artist Lindiwe Mayisela's 'Boys Don't Cry' series.
A photo from visual artist Lindiwe Mayisela's 'Boys Don't Cry' series.
Image: Simz/@simzphoto

If popular culture and fashion are a good way to measure trends, the last few years have seen the rise of a new kind of masculinity. It's softer, more self-aware and in sharp contrast to the kind of masculinity we recognise as the spark that lit the #MenAreTrash and #MeToo flame.

It's a masculinity that allows men to express themselves in ways previously regarded as the terrain of queer men, or - as in the mid-noughties - of the metrosexual and his cosmetic inclinations. ''Soft", of course, is hardly ideal as a masculine archetype.

Joburg visual artist Lindiwe Mayisela recently published a series titled Boys Don't Cry, challenging the "social constructs of masculinity".

Shot by Simphiwe Mkhwanazi, the series shows two male models Julian Tamuka and Chris Mafuka displaying a vulnerability that would probably irk ''traditionalists" whose protests relegated the film Inxeba, with its explorations of masculinity in the context of the Xhosa custom of ulwaluko, to a "porn" reclassification.

In their minds, this is probably another example of the crisis facing traditional masculinity. Men are becoming ''too soft" and, essentially, undeserving of the privilege of claiming manhood.

In one image, the two models stand topless, facing each other, one man with his head on the other's shoulder. A similar image of Black Panther star Michael B Jordan and director Ryan Coogler that appeared in Vanity Fair in 2016 sparked outrage with many expressing disgust at "Hollywood's gay agenda" as one social media account put it.

Writing in unlabelledmagazine.com, Mayisela says her visual series is "an ode to men of colour who are subjected to societal pressures that hinder them from engaging with their softer and emotional expressions".

She elaborates: "Men are raised in such a way that they need to be strong, both physically and emotionally, to constantly keep up with appearances of masculinity and this in turn puts them in a strange place of trying to fight off their deeper, truer selves."

Mayisela's series is by no means the only depiction of soft masculinity. Examples litter the web and social media. Fashion brands and local designers like Rich Mnisi, Nao Serati and Nigeria's Orange Culture, among others, have for years been proponents of this soft masculinity, which owes much to recent fashion trends including gender-bending aesthetics and the popularity of the colour ''millennial pink", and now mauve and lavender, the two shades of purple seen by fashion trend observers as the "new millennial pink".

Explaining the popularity and staying power of pink in fashion and design trends Mark Woodman, a former president of The Colour Marketing Group which focuses on colour-forecasting, pegs it as representing society's changing gender roles.

Trends are a manifestation of society's changing values and needs, after all, and it is without doubt that both demands by women for tangible equality, and the increased visibility of trans and gender nonconformists in the mainstream has a lot to do with this disruption of roles, and concept of gender itself.

For the black African community, the fierce opposition to and support of Inxeba represents a crossroads where progress towards a world that embraces the ideals of soft masculinity is in a tug of war with a more toxic, traditionalist masculinity attempting to dismiss a nuanced masculine experience as a threat to manhood itself.

In the age of #MenAreTrash and #MeToo, movements which are exposing the aggression and violence wrought by masculinity on the world, specifically womxn*, we desperately need "sweet boys and people who (raise) them", as author Faith Salie recently wrote for TIME Magazine.

Today's angriest women galvanise; today's angriest men murder
Author Faith Salie

Salie wrote this after witnessing her husband refer to their son as "sweetie pie", rather than "buddy" or "champ".

"There are so many angry men around us. There are angry women, too," she wrote. "But . women's public anger delivers deliberate messages - it's pussy hats, reclaiming our time, and #MeToo. It's the kind of anger that gives girls voices. Men's anger tries to shut down the voices of others. Today's angriest women galvanise; today's angriest men murder."

It's hard to argue with that.

Growing up in the '90s and early 2000s as someone assigned male at birth, I often feel envious of younger generations growing up in a society that embraces increasingly nuanced gender expression. I imagine the world of good it would have done not just me, but also the womxn around me as I grew up without feeling the pressures of holding back tears, or expressing vulnerability - because ''boys don't cry".

I imagine being able to avoid the escalation of sibling rivalry to physical fights between my sister and me, mitigated by an absence of the pressure society puts on boys to, often violently, assert their boyhood.

According to Brenda Goldblatt of Brothers For Life, a men's "social and wellbeing" organisation, violent masculinity is a result of many factors, and more specifically, trauma. "If you read the research done by Nicola Christofides of the Wits School of Public Health and Sonke Gender Justice in Diepkloof, they find that men who are violent are often deeply traumatised," she says, adding that violent men are "made, not born".

"Christofides found that experience of trauma made a man up to five times more likely to perpetrate sexual violence - and South Africa is a place where trauma is a close companion of all of us. They also found that violent men were more likely to hold inequitable views about gender. We must also look to the world in which violence is played out: if society believes that it is acceptable for a man to beat his partner, or if a company overlooks its bosses' predatory sexual behaviour, they are setting the norms of what society believes masculinity is."

As someone who grew up with the pressures of masculinity, which encouraged me to conceal my affinity for the "softer" things often linked to femininity, the trauma Goldblatt refers to is inextricably linked to the way I was raised to become a "man".

Mayisela adds on her Boys Don't Cry visual series: "We box boys up in a construct that prescribes how they are meant to be, and how they are not, instead of letting them truly be."

*"Womxn" is an intersectional feminist term referring to people beyond those assigned female at birth.