Remembering why redefining masculinity is important


Much of the work I’ve done here at Feministing has been an attempt to unpack the oppressive nature of our current constructs of masculinity. Sometimes this means discussing the ways in which defining masculinity around dominance, violence, coercion, and invulnerability limit the identities and expression of men who are beholden to this definition.

And I continue to believe that is an important conversation to have. It’s true that a patriarchal definition of masculinity and manhood is damaging to men — physically, emotionally, and psychologically.

But I’ve recently been disheartened by conversations I’ve had with activists and advocates who believe deeply in redefining masculinity, but only speak of it in terms of how it affects men and boys. I understand the impulse. We can pour through our culture and see the ways in which men have attempted to define themselves, but there’s been little in the way of an intentional conversation that gets to the heart of “why?” Why do men believe their manhood is defined through physical domination or sexual coercion? Why do men think that in order to be properly performing manhood they can’t express any emotions other than anger? Why is only one narrowly defined sexual identity considered acceptable under the current definition of masculinity? These are all questions that deserve answers. And after we have answered them, we need to move forward in finding ways for men to not be limited to this archaic view of masculinity in their daily lives.

My issue is that masculinity acts as oppressive force, and any conversation about oppression that leaves out the oppressed is not one I find worth having. What masculinity does to heterosexual cis men is important to discuss, but what it does to everyone else, especially women, is far more important. Because while it can leave us men broken in many ways, the privilege to be able to move through the world adopting this masculinity bestows upon us a tremendous amount of power. That power has been used to render everyone else second- and third-class citizens. This is the true danger.

When people of good faith and goodwill push this to the side to focus solely on the ways in which masculinity affects men and boys, it only serves to diminish the fight for gender equality by not dealing with it directly. When we re-center men in this discussion, we’re saying that the effects felt by women are not just secondary but can be ignored and still eradicated. That’s simply not true. It’s possible to do the work of redefining masculinity and liberating men from patriarchy and still reinforce the same gendered power dynamics under the guise of a “progressive masculinity.”

Ultimately, the definition of a progressive masculinity, if there is to be one, will not be cis het men’s to define, but to actualize. We will not be the experts on what this new masculinity should look like because we are not the ones whose liberation is truly at stake. We will only benefit from redefining masculinity if it is done with the goal dismantling the current power structure. We are not the ones best equipped to do that.

Mychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute and contributing writer for The Nation Magazine, as well as columnist for and Salon. As a freelance writer, social commentator, and mental health advocate his work has been seen online in outlets such as The New York Times, The Atlantic, Salon, Al Jazeera English, Gawker, The Guardian,, Huffington Post, The Root, and The Grio.

Mychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute and contributing writer for The Nation Magazine, as well as columnist for and Salon.

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