What do people want from masculinity? This is not entirely the same question as “what do people want from men?”, although it is certainly related. Regardless of one’s personal feelings about the matter, there are evidently people who want masculinity for themselves, or from others, and are disappointed or affronted by what they see as failed or misconfigured masculinity. A lot of popular man-dragging discourse online is haunted by a sort of inchoate demand for correct or adequate maleness, for men to fulfil a role that, on inspection, turns out to be inconsistently defined and impossible to realize. Of course this has been a feminist complaint for a long time: women are subject to contradictory social expectations, which mean that it is never possible not to be too much of one thing while also being too little of another. Whichever way you turn, there is some disciplinary admonishment waiting for you. But this contradictoriness is intrinsic, I think, to the nature of the object — “masculinity”, “femininity” — which is an imaginary projection into which all kinds of real wants, demands and aspirations are crowded together. Its physics is a pataphysics (“the science of imaginary solutions”). It can never possibly work.

It isn’t an accident that “masculinity” and “femininity” concentrate a variety of contradictory and burdensome social expectations: these terms are indexed to social roles, a division of labour, a power structure, all of which are shakily historically contingent and vociferously contested in the present moment. They are also tied up in erotic schemes, in the complex of feelings people have about their parents, their lovers, themselves as agents and possible objects of desire. There is a lot of aliasing and proxying going on here: one thing standing for another, or two things superposed in the same site. For some people, their sense of self is strongly articulated through this complex of feelings; for others, it largely isn’t (it isn’t that gendering never occurs to the latter, but that when it occurs it does so as a sort of intrusion, an interpellation, a call to attention). There are many different strategies for anchoring oneself in the world.

When the incoherent character of masculinity is posed as a problem to be solved, a crisis demanding action, what’s being called for is a flattening and simplification of the range of possibilities, the confabulation of a stereotype which commands recognition and consent. Once we see it, we’ll all agree that it represents the selves to which we should aspire, and the matter will be closed. But I think this entire approach is a hystericisation of problems whose real locus is elsewhere: fix up your masculinity, and your precarity, anxiety and anomie will all be taken care of. You will become a viable agent and object of desire, you will accrue social credit, you will become significant and worthy of others’ care and attention once again. This is the classic fascist devil’s bargain, in which you put on a uniform in exchange for psychological safety. The real problem is the feeling of unsafety — the stamp of neoliberal subjectivity.