March 04, 2016
Women as Agent of Masculinity Transfer

Sometimes patriarchy is defended and perpetuated not by men, but by women, who become agents of masculinity transfer.

by Fathul Purnomo
Issues // Gender and Sexuality
In a patriarchal system, there is an illusion of gender performativity that places masculinity as higher than femininity. From generations to generations, the masculine traits are fiercely guarded, lest they become extinct, or lose it out to the feminine traits. To those who protect masculinity, the new form of masculinity that blurs the line separating it with femininity – such as in K-pop culture ¬¬– is a cause for concern as well as target of ridicules. In a society that presumes that all humans were born cisgender, masculinity is preserved to maintain men’s power over women.

To perpetuate the masculine traits, a father teaches his son to do activities that are considered manly. In most societies, the earlier form of masculinity transfer is the tradition of introducing boys to games that tend to be more public, like football. Games done by boys also require more muscle, thus the male sex can be physically stronger than female. This may contribute to domestic violence because, regardless of a man’s physicality, he is under the  “big muscle illusion”, which translates to the holder of the highest power.

Let’s compare this to girls. Girls’ conventional toys imply that women are to be domesticated. Playing with dolls, for example, encourages girls to hone their skills of  dressing up their dolls or organizing kitchen utensil. Playing with dolls makes girls grow up  feeling the need to always take care of the private matters – thus begins the motherhood narrative. Because it deals with the private space with no exposure to public, it creates a mentality where women may not feel confident in public space. This is the reason why public figures are mostly male. Men are designed by society to be visible and to be out there, as well as to use their muscles. 

One tribe in the remote area of Papua practices the transfer of masculinity ritual orally. The male youth who is about to enter adulthood is required to perform oral sex to an older men, who is as an ideal masculine figure. In Nias, the male youth has to jump over a 2-meter high stone.  If he makes it, he is officially considered a complete man, masculine and ready to marry.

Masculinity becomes important because aside from being considered the highest gender in the patriarchal system, it is also closely related to a society’s survival. To put it simply, young men in Nias who fail to meet the jumping challenge are considered weak. In hunter and gatherer society, jumping is a mandatory skill that has to be mastered by the young men so they can catch the biggest boar in the forest.

Because of its importance and its relation to the community’s survivability, masculinity then is not only being passed by men, but also by women. In my family, my mother is a masculine figure and is also the one who transfers masculinity. My mother has always told me about the big responsibility of being the first child. In a Javanese feudalistic family like mine, the first son bears the family’s biggest hope. If I lean on the side of feminine too much,  my mother warns me that I will have a lower survival chance (a remnant of the hunter and gatherer culture). So my mother taught me how to be masculine.

As a child I was a feminine boy – and my mother saw it as a dangerous threat. Hence, the first thing she did was to encourage me to mock other effeminate boys. After all, in a patriarchal system, men with feminine characteristics must be “straightened”, and one of the ways to do it is by bullying them. This bullying culture has taken many victims, with a lot of effeminate boys deciding to end their lives. Bullying another person was a way to tell that person that what he did was wrong, and that I, myself, was not wrong like him. 

After my teenage years, my mother taught me how to drive. For her, men have to be skillful at driving. This goes back to the agricultural society, in which only male farmers get to ride cattle and horses in the field. In cultural traditions like Karapan Sapi race in Madura and horse races in Nusa Tenggara and cows in West Java, it’s always the men riding. Consequently, riding is considered a male activity. History teaches us that women, apparently, were not obliged to know how to ride, until the industrial revolution and the emergence of automotive factories. After thousands of years of immobility, cars and motorcycles are now available to women too. Still, even to this day, there remain gaps in the number of men and women drivers, as well as the driving skill between the two genders, thanks to history. 

After I finished college, which in Indonesian society is an ideal time to marry, my mother encouraged me to gain higher education, climb the career ladder and build a house. The idea of property ownership comes from the age of farming, where males  open field and fight over land. Those who have the largest farm fields would be able to produce higher harvest yield – hence higher rate of survival. 

To my mother, ideally, the perfect masculine man has to be able to provide for his family – and men must not make less money than their female partners. At this stage, my mother fed me with her self-loathing beliefs. She thinks that women don’t have to have high education, because it will be wasted anyway. At the end women will be domesticated and will live under the shadow of their husbands. Women do not have to work because their main job is to take care of the domestic area – a notion first introduced while playing dolls. 

And at this point I realized that the one who planted the ideal image of masculinity in me and who taught me to be a misogynist is indeed a woman – my own mother. Masculinity and misogyny are not always transferred by men. Sometimes women serve as agent in this system, particularly those who  are themselves victims of patriarchy. 

*This article was translated by Ayunda Nurvitasari from the original version in Indonesian. 

Fathul Purnomo is a full time sleeper and dreamer, and part time student of philosophy at the University of Indonesia. He is also actively participated at the University’s Liberalism and Democracy Study Club. He can be found on Twitter with the handle @purnomousmaw.