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‘The Trouble with Men’- Frameworks for African Masculinities PDF Print E-mail

This piece is written in very broad and generalised terms, and is in no way an in-depth discussion on the state of masculinities in Africa. It is not intended as a piece of rigorous academic exploration, nor of substantive social commentary. I write this as an opinion piece, largely to help me to contextualise for myself my explorations of gay male fetish sexuality in South Africa, the area of research for my PhD, and in the context of my ongoing attempts to contextualise my own personal experiences both in my personal life and in the environments of social theory and change.

I use the title without, I hope, implying that one can read any single sense of African masculinity, nor, I hope, implying that there is any necessarily coherent sense of African-ness. I also use the title without attempting to imply that I know anything substantive about what it may mean to be African, occupy a male body or exhibit any form of ‘masculinities’ in any sense other than that which I feel to be (transitively) true about myself.

The premises that I approach as perhaps underlying certain of the frameworks to African masculinities are but two of many, and I do not intend to imply that they are necessarily coherently set out as approaches that are consciously advocated in any particular forum, social or political approach. I merely see them as threads of discourse that are perhaps worth working with and through with an eye to formulating alternative mechanisms of social activism and influence in order to achieve more functional social relations and systems, thereby creating more valid social spaces for all people, in which individuals can achieve a harmonious sense of personal and social balance.

I apologise if the premises and opinions set out in this piece are wildly un-contextualised and off the mark in the worlds of contemporary African and international social studies and practice, particularly those pertaining to sexualities. I hope to engage in further discussion with a variety of people so that I may develop my perspectives to a greater sense of maturity.

Personal Context

Lincoln TheoI am African, both by virtue of birth and upbringing in South Africa, and of feeling that I belong in Africa rather than anywhere else. My social circumstances imply an identity for me as ‘white’, English-speaking and middle-class, which, in South Africa often results in incorrect assumptions, concerning my intentions, feelings and self-identity, that I do or should subscribe to the ideals, aspirations and frames of reference of others who self-identify as white, English-speaking and/or middle class. As Dr Kopano Ratele says:

“Another form of the Identity Puzzle that could be taken up is that even in the new society the name African, for instance, does not seem to ‘stick’ on white South African bodies or white citizens of Zimbabwe. The puzzling aspect is that this is even when the owner of the body him- or herself wants to take the identity of African on.”  (1)

This is certainly true of my experience. Many “white” African people in my South African context assume my collusion in their issues and concerns, while many “black” African people assume that I will not understand their lives, or, even more problematically, at times assume that I am ‘the enemy’.

This is as much my experience with maleness. People of all social and cultural backgrounds tend to assume that I am ‘male’, despite that I have difficulty unpacking what that really means beyond biology. Many people’s assumptions that the ‘white masculinities’ that I adopt as part of my (varied) collection of reference points are representative of an entire (fictitious) frame of mind, or of an internal feeling, a package of ways of being that all white men are ‘supposed’ to have. I get the sense that individuals’ reactions to me are often a coalescence of their experiences of those who exhibit similar biological, social and cultural characteristics. Depending on their individual choices of identity, I am often framed alternatively as one of ‘them’ or one of ‘us’.

Neither of these frameworks of ‘whiteness’ or ‘maleness’ apply wholesale to me, and the fictions that seem to adhere to me concerning my social and political identity,  interests and beliefs lead me to think critically about the frameworks of both representation and identity in a broader context, particularly those in relation to masculinities.

I am also led to attempt to undermine the various expectations of middle class, educated ‘white maleness’ through my body, which modern technology has enabled me to tattoo, pierce and surgically modify by way of physical and emotional ‘re-invention’ as well as of social activism. In so doing I attempt to publicly reject the restrictive norms of my context while at the same time incorporating certain body-based representations of the historical and contemporary collective cultural and social wisdom inherent in both the global and local contexts that I call home.  In so doing I like to think that I acknowledge the possibility of transcending essentialist conceptions of what it means to be human, and of making some kind of real connection to all people, irrespective of upbringing and socio-political affiliations. The product (of both body and intent) is what I like to see as some kind of melding of ideas of many cultures and many times, while not valorising any of them as being the panacea of the world’s or my own ills.


In my social context, and in many others’ in countries I have visited, there appears to be a sense that maleness is something by definition set up in opposition to femaleness, and that masculinities can therefore only inhere in a biologically male body. Yet there are many people whom I count as friends whose bodies tell another story. Some ‘masculine’ people are outright male in construction and some outright female, while others are indeterminately sexed. Some do and some don’t perform the gendered and social roles traditionally reserved for men. It is very difficult to identify and specify which of these people are ‘masculine’, and which ‘feminine’, when, how often and why, using the traditional western conceptions of  ‘masculinity’ as being aggressiveness, goal-directedness, undertaking linear thinking, action etc, and ‘femininity’ as being nurturing, gentle, maternal, inwardly directed.

These assumptions and bases of the ideas of ‘masculinity’ are of course highly simplistic and have long been discredited as approaches to gendered thinking, yet they still hold sway in many localised social and cultural contexts. It is therefore important for me to continue to work against them in order to influence how people see their worlds. For, if we engage endlessly in intellectualised discourses too rarified to have real-world application, or if we engage simplistic strategic organisational plans aimed at inciting change without critical reference to philosophical and theoretical frameworks, both without reference to real individuals in material reality, we are doing nothing more than exacerbating the dysfunctions of the world.

Perspectives on Two Premises for Social Frameworks in Africa

Colonial and globalising commercial forces appear to perpetuate the view of Africa as a homogenous and singular space in which there is little substantial social or cultural diversity or local flavour, or indeed varied performances of masculinities (2). At the same time the uncomfortable fictions of nationhood which are the product of the colonial era appear to insist on a specification of identities and ways of being that are some ways inward-looking, insular and restrictive (3). Unfortunately certain systems and leaders in Africa appear to perpetuate these kinds of thinking by claiming that certain ways of being are ‘unAfrican’ ‘imported’ from the outside and therefore subject to derision and control (4). This of course is blatantly untrue. In Africa many are aware of the intimate difficulties inherent in working with cultural and social identity, (in which I include that describing or prescribing gender, sexual orientation or any other kind of social identity), either imposed from the outside or willingly absorbed from the inside, and most often both in (discordant) concert.

People in Africa, particularly in urban spaces, often aspire to Euro-American sensibilities, while at the same time maintaining a ‘local’ sense of self arguably often based on a combination of indigenous perspectives and historical western influences, resulting in what could be described as a melting-pot of invented selves.

While I see a troubling identity dislocation, particularly in the youth of certain parts of urban Southern Africa who often aspire to, amongst other things, media-representations of African American youth culture, I similarly have difficulty relating to an idea of what is African that is not borne of an unproblematic and romanticised idea of the nature of pre-colonial African cultures. It is difficult to see how in pre-colonial times Africa could have been Utopian, rather than perhaps being differently functional or dysfunctional. Pre-colonial societies may appear, following dominant dualist and binary approaches, to have been either violently patriarchal in nature, or edenically synchronous and coherent. However, the truth, if there can be any, and as with most things, is probably somewhere in the middle.

It is important to avoid essentialist conceptions of either the past or the present. Arguments that rationality and linear thought are inherently Western and are therefore inappropriate in non-western spaces such as Africa, or that human rights, feminist or queer discourses are inherently Western in conception and therefore subject to suspicion outside of the West, or indeed that a pre-colonial Africa defines the ‘essence’ of what is African, are as much inappropriate, essentialist ‘grand narratives’ as those that prescribe a ‘national’ or ‘African’ social or cultural flavour. So is the idea that all humans are and should be subject to a single set of rules and structures. All grand narratives are, to my mind, of concern in localised spaces where one is talking about the lives of individuals and the interactions of communities, whose relationships at least partially rely on the perspectives not only of the regional and local cultures and social norms of those taking part, but of the individuals bringing their personal perspectives to bear. They are also of concern when speaking of mechanisms of activism to achieve change on a regional, local or personal level.

My concern with many larger-sphere arguments aimed at pinpointing the causes of (and therefore solutions to) social dysfunction is that they are often backward-looking. They often attempt to locate what are perceived to be static cultural, social, gendered or sexualised identities within a paradigm of historic trajectory. Somewhat like a kind of recipe, these sorts of arguments, albeit postulated with the best of intentions, often conceive of static cultural, social and individual identities in terms of proportions: “culture X is what it is because it is a mixture of two parts globalisation, one part commercialisation, a bunch of colonialism on a bed of indigenous frameworks, with a pinch of salt and a hint of pepper”. It is of course important to identify what went before, and to identify how traditionally, in this instance in Africa, people used to do things in a certain way at a certain time, and how those things were disrupted by particular historical processes, events and paradigms. Unfortunately these kinds of historical trajectory explanations easily become essentialist in nature, implying that cultures, societies and people are the sum of their parts with no individual agency, rather than simply being informed by their parts. They further imply that people and societies have static identities apart from political and social influences, and that these influences are things that should be monitored and marshalled in order to achieve a Utopian ideal of a static society, rather than acknowledging that individuals are, and have always been, influenced at least in part by the intersections of their experiences with their belief-systems and ways of doing things. The implication is that these approaches insufficiently identify the processes and choices that people have going forward, and simply assume that people will be what they mechanistically have been taught to be. However, what people are taught is not necessarily what they learn. There is no necessary specific, empirically determinable measure of how, how much or what people are going to learn, nor of how they are going to incorporate their environment into their self-definitions or actions.

This indicates that perhaps we should begin being more concerned with processes and activities rather than identities, which are, of course fluid and, arguably, to at least some extent performed.

Alternative Ways Forward? Two Discourse Premises to work with

Depending on the purposes for which readings of masculinities (and indeed many other things) are done, certain contemporary paradigms for social understanding and change can tend to be framed either in simple human-rights-based or in post-colonial, revisionist historical paradigms.

Yet there of course remains the possibility of alternative conceptions based on contextualised social and personal frameworks beyond those based on combative identity politics, which set poles of ‘identity’ against one another. There also remains the possibility of accessing contextualised discourses beyond what can become overly simplified post-colonialist or deconstructionist frameworks, which can leave behind a social rubble made up of what is wrong with the world, with little conception of what comes after the bulldozers in specific locales.

Perhaps one way of conceiving ‘what next?’ in the post-post-modernist post-post-colony is to explore integrative rather than exclusionary ideals. One of the strengths of many African societies is a foundation in community, rather than the polarised individuality that has characterised much post-enlightenment western thinking. Yet at the same time it is the individual in community who carries social perspectives forward. The individual in community potentially has the agency to effect change both on a micro- and a macro-scale. If individuals have the opportunity of stepping outside of the boundaries of what they conceive of as possibility for self-definition and self-determination, while still retaining a community consciousness, then perhaps individuals can shift dysfunctions and co-create communities based on self-respect and respect for others in terms of a better understanding of the value brought to bear on communities by all members, albeit in different ways.

Such potential ‘organic reconstructionist’ and inclusive frameworks, whose roots may lie in the histories of both western and indigenous thinking, may well be useful starting-points for developing the tools with which to interrogate and revise firstly the ideas of what people do, and secondly what their relations may mean on academic as well as practical levels.

In the context of masculinities, perhaps men can begin to conceive of their roles beyond the power relations of patriarchy, and beyond the restrictions of the falsely perceived static nature of society and culture and their role in that society and culture. In understanding that neither culture, nor society, nor even sex and gender are necessarily inherent and immutable, perhaps men can begin to revise dysfunctional actions in relation to others in their worlds, which actions are arguably often based on fear and misplaced responsibility.

In this respect it may be possible to take some of the insights gleaned from human-rights debates and juxtapose them against post-colonialist conceptions of Africa in light of how people might experience themselves as hybrid beings in a hybrid society, rather than as of a singular culture, society, sex, gender, sexual orientation or whatever else (5).

For example, in order to forward the well-being of women (and men) in an African context many people do not choose to read male-female relations as either being a function of human-rights violations where anything less than gender equality is seen as patriarchal violence, or exclusively from an ‘indigenous’ perspective where the roles, responsibilities and social support systems of women might in certain contexts traditionally have balanced out the power of men, thereby neutralising gender-based power-relations. Many people to whom I speak are beginning to relate well-being to a framework that goes beyond the idea of questions of gendered power relations to a conception of how individuals, who are not necessarily the sum of their body-parts, interact with each other for the benefit of both the individuals and the community. Many people to whom I speak want to move beyond these and many other binaries in order to live beyond patriarchy, which I feel is in some ways being supported by the paradigms of post-modernism, and attain an engaging sense of agency for all people who could then feel empowered to determine their own identities and social relations in a human-ecologically balanced way.

One of the frameworks worth more exploration may well be that of personal body narratives in the performances of identities and social roles such as masculinities. Postcolonialist and postmodernist conceptions of power (notably in the traditions of thinkers such as Said, Bhabha and Foucault), feminisms and queer theories have informed and instructed approaches to the place and power relations of the marginalized in the last decades, and continue to relate to how marginalized people situate themselves in current social situations. Looking beyond this, they can also inform how those designated as ‘empowered’, including men, might revise themselves and their roles and in the future adopt other roles that serve to incorporate them with a broader populace while remaining vigilant over the power struggles that systemic power such as patriarchy, religious conservatism, economic and political influence that serve as pitfalls.

This of course is not to advocate the resurrection of social constructionism, but rather a tentative exploration of the value of allowing organic growth as part of the process of reconstruction of dysfunctional societies by allowing all individuals, whether designated as advantaged or disadvantaged, to extract themselves from the expectations levelled at them by virtue of their physical forms and their cultural and social backgrounds, and allow those who wish to assist in the creation or resumption of functional social relations based on local exigencies to do so, while managing the processes of those who wish to perpetuate dysfunctional systems.

Another framework worthy of exploration might be a re-visioning of how people view social relations beyond the materially constructed ones that their own bodies premise. Traditionally, African relationships between the human body, the non-human body, organic and inorganic things held meanings incomprehensible to the proto-rationalist and religious conceptions of European explorers who, for example, imposed the idea of the ‘fetish’ as a negative. Today, Africans throughout the continent continue to relate with ancestors and divinities both within and outside the context of centrally organised religion, which conceptions are often inimical to modern, globalised frameworks of social interaction based on western post-enlightenment conceptions of logic, materiality, and value. Perhaps re-visioning this kind of cultural wealth in light of both current performances of self and modern globalised identities can help develop empowered senses of African-ness and of African senses of self and identities, including masculinities.

Conclusions (or rather perhaps a place to start?)

None of this is, of course, new thinking. Many people continue to work with these ideas, and do so much more eloquently and with more insight that I from both intellectual and social activist perspectives. However, it strikes me that in the process of working through paradigms of thinking for the purposes of effecting change, it is important to revisit and create linkages that are coherent in terms of both historical and theoretical trajectories, as well as being closely connected to the people whose daily lives are impacted by the frameworks of shift that are constructed.

Certain approaches based purely on linear thinking can tend to be characterised by the pathologising of individuals or groups, which potentially has the tendency to relegate the individual to a dependency on a benign social structure to grant him/her status- or life-experience-validity, and therefore the ability to effect personal and community change.

Alternatively, enforcing human-rights approaches for more than ensuring the ‘freedom from’ can result in a dependency on a benign social structure ready to grant an objectively-determinable pre-existing right to equality. It is certainly important to acknowledge the equal value of all humans, but perhaps in some ways certain human-rights-paradigms support the binary separations of, for example, men and women, rather than undermining them, resulting in the ongoing need to police power-relations (for example gender-based ones) rather than shifting conceptions of what it means to be male or female, the latter which could contribute to a shift over time of the very concept of power as we understand it.

Both the pathologising and human rights approaches are in some ways premised on macro-level ‘outside-in’ intervention in order to achieve social change and functionality on a micro-level (ie individually). Beyond these frameworks perhaps there is a conceptual state that can function as an attractive force for organic change, which could be useful both as a stick and as a proverbial carrot, and one that is based on a focus on relationship and community made up of individuals rather than based on antagonistic individuality between ‘enemies’.

Perhaps by allowing greater linkages between social activism and the development of organic, community-based yet still individually-oriented shifts in consciousness, rather than via rationalist-based macro-level interventions, we can access greater social change, thereby allowing individuals to re-vision themselves and become integrated in new wholes. In the context of masculinities, perhaps we can help men to access new facets of masculinities that do not polarise them either in concept or in the realities of their social, political and personal lives.

(1) Contradictions in Constructions of African Masculinities, on ARSRC website 
(2) In this sense I refer to the sense of gender and sex performativity expressed by Judith Butler in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity - (New York, Routledge, 1990) 
(3) see Bhabha, HK (ed)- Nation and Narration (Routledge, London & New York, 1990) 
(4) for example the many national debates across the continent on the supposedly ‘unAfrican’ nature of homosexuality
(5) in this context I use the concept of hybridity as espoused by Bhabha

© Lincoln Theo 2007


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