Rethinking masculinity: The relentless struggle for the masculine ideal

Article by Emilia Brugnano
Cover art by Kittiya On-in

At the end of May, a Pantip post circulated in the Thai Twitterverse with the heading 'รู้สึกว่าตัวเองโง่เพราะมีเมียฉลาด อยากให้เมียที่ฉลาดแกล้งโง่บ้างได้ไหมครับ' (I feel stupid because I have a smart wife. Can I ask my smart wife to pretend to be a bit stupid?').

The post garnered great attention due to what was read as its sexism as the writer finished the post by stating that he believed that many men may feel the same way and would appreciate it if women could ‘dumb down’ in mundane tasks to make the men around them feel more capable. Regardless of some suspicions that the post could be a trolling exercise, its content raises an important question of how Thai men are socialized and taught to understand themselves in relations to others.

Often, discussions on gender revolve around the experiences of women and the LGBTQ+ community, and rightfully so as they still suffer greatly from inequality and discrimination under the patriarchal, heteronormative society that persists. However, masculinity does not seem to be discussed often in a Thai context, specifically the impact that ideals of masculinity may have on men themselves.

So how can we begin to understand masculinity and its role in Thai society in order to have more productive conversations surrounding rigid gender roles, and expectations that are harmful to everyone?

For Dr. Wanchana Tongkhampao, a lecturer at Thammasat University who has studied masculinity, masculinity can be approached as a “collective understanding of traits that define what makes a person a man.”

This is not to say that masculinity as a form of gender expression is bound to those assigned male at birth. Gender identity is fluid, socially constructed, dynamic, complex, and even political. One can identify as a female but prefer to portray masculine traits, or vice versa. Yet, masculinity, as a socially constructed concept, places itself on a binary scale, the opposite end being femininity, which is often taught and portrayed as an undesirable trait for traditionally strong (real) men.

Interestingly, in the late 20th century, a new area of study emerged called masculinity studies, inspired by the continuous rise of feminist movements and gender studies. Masculinity studies tries to understand and solve problems that arise from patriarchy and violence specifically through the perspective of men and the impacts they have on them.

From this perspective, it is possible to see how masculinity, as a socially constructed phenomenon, can lead to systematic and structural inequalities, such as patriarchy, but that is not always the case. When approaching masculinities in plural form, it is possible to highlight how certain groups of men are more privileged, while others do not have the same opportunities (those others including men, women, the LGBTQ+ communities, or those that do not fit into a hegemonic masculine ideal).

Masculinity can then be understood more as the active and ongoing adoption of a particular appearance, body language, speech patterns, social relationships and career prospects. All of which can be considered social constructs that create a hierarchy of desirable and undesirable ways of being a man.

In the context of Thai society, the conception of Thai masculinity seems to stem heavily from both media representation and how one is taught and socialized to perceive one’s role according to a particular gender.

Media Representation

Wanchana explains how “the conception of Thai masculinity is often based on plural masculine forms as portrayed by familiar figures such as the monk, the businessman, the policeman and so on, that continue to be reproduced through media representations.” Because of this, Thai people come to form certain “prototypes” of masculine forms that are easily understood and consumed by everyone.

One influential prototype that has often been reproduced in Thai media is that of the ‘action hero’ seen in historical or Muay Thai films. These action heroes depicted in the form of the nakleng (ruffian, strongman) and suphaburut (gentleman), who show a level of moral gratitude (khwam-katanyu), are often portrayed with characteristics of fighting skills, bravery, morality, and leadership, all of which, as research found, seem to make up the concept of Thai hegemonic masculinity (i.e. the ideal and dominant masculinity).

This isn’t to say that people simply who see such figures in the media come to understand what gender, gender roles, or sexuality is. Rather, as Wanchana puts it, the “media narrative and ideology often intersect with knowledge in various forms such as education, customs, norms.” As a result, these masculine figures that are “closely related to the powerful social institutions such as religion and the state” come to gain power and affect the Thai perception of masculinity. 

However, it is important to note how these masculine prototypes (in any culture) are not stable and are constantly undergoing a process of conflict, negotiation, and contestation. They are simply different representations of what men can be and can achieve. For example, the categorization of "soft masculinity" amongst east Asian cultures, like that of K-pop idols or Japanese bishounen (pretty youth), sees men embracing both masculine and feminine traits, and is desirable. We see a similar rise in Thailand as well, with more Thai male celebrities taking after K-pop idols or the rise in genderless and androgenous fashion trends. Yet it is not possible to ignore that more traditional, rigid, masculine figures still persist despite these recent changes.

Socialization

Dr. Somporn Rungreangkulkij, director of the WHO Collaborating Centre on  Centre for Research and Training on Gender and Women's Health and Associate Professor at Khon Kaen University’s Department of Mental Health and Psychiatric Nursing, explains how most boys come to develop their understanding of masculinity through what is taught to them by their parents, teachers, and the communities around them. Such values as suppressing one’s feelings, being self-reliant, or expectations of becoming the head of the household, seem to be internalized early on in one’s childhood.

Although these ideals towards men are to a degree seen across cultures, the older Thai generations seem to have embedded such messages of being family-oriented and keeping the “face” of the family/bringing honour to the family name, as a highly valuable and sought-after trait. 

To understand more about the experiences of Thai men, three male interviewees: Napachol (21), a recent university graduate who studied abroad in Australia, Natthanon (23), a current law student, and Virawat (24), a finance consultant, were asked how they came to develop their understanding of what it means to be a man

Initially, all interviewees mentioned their fathers as being influential, as well as using the word 'ideal' to describe what masculinity seems to be. Though none of them perceive themselves as fitting or achieving this ideal image, they understand that there are certain expectations and responsibilities that society seems to want from them.

Napachol sees masculinity as subjective to the culture one is discussing. “In my opinion, it refers to a group of men who process more of a deeper understanding of themselves and sense of morality.” Interestingly, he brought up how the more traditional understanding of masculinity he's been taught, such as exuding aggression, being less emotional, being more mentally and physically tough, denotes more of what is perceived to be toxic masculinity today. 

Natthanon, on the other hand, described masculinity as “attributes that make up for a so-called ideal man.” Pointing to the importance of adhering to certain expectations about physical appearance like “being tall, muscular, having a deeper voice,” while also being “courageous, self-reliant, and a natural leader.” He mentionde how he was told growing up that being a man means to conform to what society wants from them. 

Meanwhile, Virawat explained masculinity through a more patriarchal lens: explaining how he finds it interesting that when talking about masculinity amongst his male friends, many perceive it to be related to an attribute whereby men are perceived to be superior to women. He himself also reflected on how “in particular situations, it seems that I [as a man] have more opportunity than women to perform certain tasks.” This seems to have stemmed from his own upbringing that has taught him how men should be the family’s leader and the breadwinner.

With these varied responses, it is then no surprise that tension and misunderstanding quickly arise at the mere mention of gender-related subjects since everyone has their very own understanding of it. And one topic of masculinity, that is toxic masculinity, seem to be one of the greater causes of contention.

Is there a fundamentally ‘toxic’ side of masculinity?          

Toxic masculinity has been adopted as a regularly used term to point out any sexist, misogynistic, or degrading action men have been accused of or caught doing. Thai netizens in particular have often been quick to explain similar stories or trends with the said term.

But has this term been understood and used most constructively?

The term toxic masculinity, as Wanchana describes, can be seen as “masculine practices that try to prove one's manliness by harassing or hurting others.” It is an “attempt to hold on to unhealthy or unreal masculine ideals” that potentially leads to “physical and mental problems for men themselves,” as well as those around them.

In an interview with The Atlantic, Raewyn Connell, a prominent sociologist in the field of gender and masculinity, explained how the term is used when applied to "the assertion of masculine privilege or men's power." Yet its current online understand seems to use it more as a catch-all term that leads to the assumption of fixed identities and character types of men and masculinity, regardless of varying political or socio-cultural factors such behaviour is observed in.

“We might want to keep in mind that "toxic masculinity talking" should not be an attack on any individual or men […] but on dangerous beliefs and practices,” Wanchana comments. 

This is because the term can become more damaging than effective as it tries to distinguish "bad" masculinity from "good": one side using the term as though it is the cause of all negative and dangerous actions done by men, while the other side seeing it as saying that those using it believe that all men are intrinsically bad. It also doesn’t seem to be truly addressing the cause of the problem as labelling doesn’t necessarily lead to dismantling the structural violence and patriarchy already engrained in society.

Still, Wanchana sees the term as “useful for finding common ground on how not to hurt one another while practicing and "performing" masculinity.”

A good illustration of this point could be the recent scandal over a Chulalongkorn University Law Men’s line chat group that has been considered as a form of sexual harassment. Wanchana suggests that this case can clearly show how such toxic behaviour stems from a “not-so-smooth” transition of traditional Thai masculinity to modernity. 

Wanchana explains how prominent Thai historian Craig J. Reynolds, once theorized that the nakleng was an important form of traditional Thai masculinity. The status of being a nakleng was to “perform courageous acts for male friends to observe. These performances must be risky in some ways to make them meaningful.”

Although they have long been attached to their “unlawful, transgressive, and deviant behaviours,” the nakleng as a form of Thai masculinity has also been depicted as developing “barami” (charisma) by being a heroic figure and protector of his community—attracting and wooing women in the process. This differentiates them from modern cases where women become targets of male attempts at sexual harassment them as a socializing activity amongst men. 

From this, while being cautious as to not romanticize them as “casanovas with only consensual relationships” (as Wanchana puts it), nakleng could be used to examine and compare how such actions like the chat room scandal comes to reflect “an attempt at bringing back old values of manliness that has gone wrong and become disturbing.”

“I am not saying that since men are also the victim of rapid social changes, they should be free of the responsibility of their crimes. But an understanding of the bigger picture can prevent more violence and unhealthy actions in the future.”

Napachol, who agrees that the term is both a form of gendered stereotyping and people’s attempts to try to understand the world around them, adds how he strongly believes that “reinforcing the positive traits of masculinity that are beneficial to the society could potentially act as social pressure for toxic masculine men to adapt and change into something more positive.”

Rather than attempting to explain every action as resulting from toxic masculinity, it would be more beneficial to see certain actions as toxic or bad, while coming to understand masculinity (and gender) more as a dynamic cultural process and practice that constantly shifts historically, contextually, and politically. 

So, if an older, more traditional, understanding of masculinity seems to have not transitioned well (or to Thai society’s greater benefit) to modern-day practices of masculinity, is this to say that Thai masculinity is in crisis?

The notion that masculinity is in crisis, a debate that predominantly rose in the 90s, stems from the perception that changes in the workforce in terms of modernity, technology, and culture that have provided more gender equality in the workplace, have come to make more men feel insecure, pressured, and distressed, because there are fewer jobs reserved only for them. This is often referred to degradingly as the “feminization of the workplace,” and has in some cases led to violence and aggression towards women.

Natthanon commented on how his experience growing up with a father who is a police officer, and grandfather who is a retired member of the Royal Thai Air Force, has taught him how society expects men to conform to the ideals set for him; that he is expected to receive a higher education, suppress his emotions, and “only pursue jobs that are popular among men.”

This points to how Thai society’s familial values and collectivist-oriented tendencies tend to encourage its members to put others before themselves, and because of that, rigid gender roles and expression come to be seen as a norm that must be adhered to.

However, with more women entering the workforce and taking up leadership roles—Thai women hold around 32% of senior leadership positions in mid-market companies—it could be argued that those who do perceive masculinity to be in crisis see this as an imbalance that causes more distress than it encourages society to progress forward.  

Wanchana sees the Pantip post as an interesting example of how it is possible to apply such a concept of crisis also to “a home and in a romantic relationship.” Because there is a change in how men come to perceive themselves when comparing themselves to capable women in a work setting, the same sentiment seems to extend to other areas of their lives as well. This suggests greater reasoning behind the writer's insecurities than can be explained by simply labelling them as a product of toxic masculinity. 

Somporn also notes how Thai society seems to perceive gender roles as natural and a given. “Thus, they do not see these rigid, socially constructed, gender roles as a reason that causes other issues that suppresses both men and women.” This also leads to a main criticism of using such a word as ‘crisis’ to describe the state of modern masculinity. 

The negative meaning attached to the word not only presents masculinity as a tangible object that is on the verge of being lost or destroyed, but that there is only one ideal version that everyone should aim to restore. 

Many cultures may share dominant masculine ideals that seem similar on the surface but are still culturally influenced and bounded by how such groups of men come to adopt and perform what they've internalized. 

Jaded Chaowilai, director of the Women and Men Progressive Movement Foundation (WMP), also remarked that Thai society’s mentality towards sex, sexuality, and gender has always been that it is a private matter, especially amongst family members. Because the subject is taboo, the already established patriarchy continues as many men may come to think that they have more power over others. This is then reinforced by the education system, news, and media outlets which still teach a traditional and rigid perspective of gender identity and expression. 

It might then be more useful to discuss the often unseen and undiscussed effects that masculinity—specifically masculine ideals and expectations bounded by the Thai cultural context—has had on men themselves. 

The strive to be masculine and its impact on Thai men

Last year, the reported suicide rate by sex showed the highest gap between women and men for more than two decades, with 12.27 men to 2.68 women per 100,000 population reportedly committing suicide according to the Department of Mental Health

Research by the WMP found that in 2019, 63.7% of news of gender-based violence done by men to men were reports of rape. 

What is often not discussed or even mentioned is the impact that gender roles and societal expectations for men (and women) has had on Thai men. As previously mentioned, this seems to stem from a combination of seeing this topic as a private matter, and deeply rooted traditions that do not bring great awareness of the flexibility of gender identities and roles.

And because of this, many still do not understand or are educated about the ways in which men can fall victim to mental illness and gender-based violence.

Somporn’s experience as a psychiatric nurse with first hand experience helping Thai male patients with clinical depression, observed how masculinity plays a major role in causing stress, anxiety, and depression, due to self-perceived failures of achieving societal ideals of masculinity.

Thai society often teaches men that by a certain age, they are expected to have a family, a steady job and financial stability—they themselves come to want to perceive themselves as being successful. So when some feel that they have not met these expectations, there seems to be a higher risk of mental health problems like anxiety and depression. This then pushes men to be silent about their troubles as “by opening up to others, they are seen as not “man” enough,” and leads them to perceive their problems as something they should try to fix themselves—this becoming a measure of how capable they are as men.

Although “some people are successful at coping with their problems by, for example, riding motorcycles, driving cars, doing physical activities, or anything that distracts them from their stress and allows them to fix their problems eventually,” some end up turning to alcohol or even drug use as they have been socialized to see such activities as stress relieving.  

Frequently, men who experience mental health deterioration will begin to stray away from those around them, or experience physical changes like insomnia, or mood swings. “More often, men will use the word stressed rather than depressed to describe themselves—they will not often admit that they are depressed.” Most men ending up consulting a general practitioner first, believing that they are experiencing physical illness rather than a mental one. 

And this is extremely dangerous. Somporn describes how this causes the people around them not to see their changes as a big problem as they do not understand that these men are experiencing symptoms of depression.

For Nappachol, who has struggled intensively with his own mental health in the past couple of years, “talking to the wrong people who have bad intentions or are judgmental can potentially do more harm than good.” This meant turning to his dad and a few close friends for comfort and advice.

But not everybody can say that they have a similar situation or support group around them.  Somporn notes that for many men seeking out a psychologist or therapy is a sign of weakness and disappointment. And when most people still lack understanding of the signs of mental illness, they may also end up attempting to “push” these men to take part in certain activities or do things that contribute to worsening their condition.

On the issue of gender-based violence, Jaded’s experience at WMP helping female and male victims of sexual assault emphasizes how dangerous the internalized traditional patriarchal mentality is for men in times of trouble. Much like female cases of gender-based violence, male cases have also not been given the attention or help it should be receiving.  

This mentality of “you’re a guy, how could you get raped or let someone rape you?” seems to be common not only in the communities that male victims belong to, but also among the Thai police. Victims of sexual assault are commonly blamed for putting themselves in a situation that makes it easy for them to be assaulted and are often pressured into accepting a financial settlement instead of pushing for the case to go to court.

But the problem already begins with the lack of reporting from male victims. Jaded describes how most men who end up telling someone about their case have reached the last resort in their own experience, as most simply do not tell anyone. “Thai men have been taught to see themselves (and act) as a leader […] and simply the bigger person in the room. So, when men get sexually harassed, they often feel like their masculinity has been destroyed, and if they tell others about it, they will be looked at as even less of a man.”

It also points to how most rape cases that do get reported and make it into the news are of young male victims assaulted by their teachers, mentors, or monks. In those cases, there is an adult to help the child through the process, and the public seems to believe in such events as there is a more clear-cut power dynamic imbalance.

But when it comes to adult cases, many are more cautious about believing the legitimacy of the claim, as they still do not understand how men can get raped when they are perceived to be strong enough to say no or protect themselves.

Jaded emphasizes that this is a result of people never being taught how "sexual harassment or rape has nothing to do with your gender. Anyone, regardless of your gender, can be sexually assaulted if the opportunity allows for it." Sexual harassment or assault has to do with the assertion of power over the victim, with the victims knowing their abuser 45-50% of the time.

And just like female victims of sexual assault, male victims go through emotional trauma and distress, paranoia, decrease in work productivity, and often attempts to hide what happened to them from those around them due to possible stigmatization. And yet, gendered stereotypes and expectations of masculinity prevent many from grasping the prevalence of such cases, further pushing victims into an isolated corner with no one to turn to out of fear of being rejected or denied help.

As Wanchana puts it, “gender is a complex subject that is always overlooked but one where nobody can escape the consequences of its complexity.”

But because of the lack of conversation about the consequences of setting such high ideals for men based on traditional patriarchal and socially constructed norms, many continue to struggle with not only understanding themselves, and projecting one’s own ideals onto others.

One should not be discouraged from trying to point out misguided behaviour that may stem from ill intentions. Holding people accountable for their actions is important, and depending on the case, most people should be given a chance to better educate and improve themselves. But this should not be deemed as anti-men or an attempt to discard their role in society.

Gender merely as a topic of conservation stirs up many emotions and opinions, as everyone is influenced by it. So when one side becomes too stuck with their own biases without considering where the other side is coming from, it is hard to take steps towards finding a middle ground. This is even more of a challenge when large parts of society have internalized and still perceive socially constructed norms as the natural order of things.

Somporn encapsulates this sentiment when commenting that “rigid gender roles that have been ingrained in our society need to be deconstructed within these groups of men in order to show how they do not need to exist simply within socially constructed binaries. This may start with educational reform that rids itself of the traditional patriarchal views on how each gender should act, and not having activities and roles being gendered in the first place.” But it also needs the willingness to listen and respect different perspectives of gender expression to allow for greater strides towards equality.

Advertisements

Since 2007, Prachatai English has been covering underreported issues in Thailand, especially about democratization and human rights, despite the risk and pressure from the law and the authorities. However, with only 2 full-time reporters and increasing annual operating costs, keeping our work going is a challenge. Your support will ensure we stay a professional media source and be able to expand our team to meet the challenges and deliver timely and in-depth reporting.

• Simple steps to support Prachatai English

1. Bank transfer to account “โครงการหนังสือพิมพ์อินเทอร์เน็ต ประชาไท” or “Prachatai Online Newspaper” 091-0-21689-4, Krungthai Bank

2. Or, Transfer money via Paypal, to e-mail address: service@prachatai.com, please leave a comment on the transaction as “For Prachatai English”