J. J. Bola’s new book tears the mask off masculine norms: Macho behaviour makes hetrosexual relationships suck

Poet and writer J. J. Bola presented his new book Mask Off in King’s Cross earlier this month. The sanctum of Housmans’ iconic radical bookshop, provided a fitting setting for a far-reaching discussion. Here, we were surrounded by the novels, essays and zines of both contemporary and classical radical thinkers; fine company for Bola’s interrogation of masculinity.

Mask Off has a wonderfully clever cover. It depicts two pink blobs either side of a thick, pink line. Correspondingly, Bola’s discussion of the patriarchal apparatus, wherein masculinity exists, cheekily reflects the resulting soft phallic imagery. The amorphous nature of patriarchal oppression comes to the fore in Bola’s conversation about decolonising masculinity.

J. J. Bola’s Mask Off (Pluto Press)

Bola was born in Congo. But, fleeing war, he settled in Tottenham with his family as a child refugee. In Congolese culture, holding hands is normal between men, whether friends or family. However, in the gritty, urban Tottenham, Bola explains, this didn’t translate well. Homophobia was, until recently, something tolerated through our vernacular, with words like “batty boy”. This Jamaican Patois term burns males who overstep the macho code of conduct; by, perhaps, using chapstick in public.  

Hetro men become anxious to show how their “red-blooded desires are strictly reserved for pussy”

Consider how macho culture makes hetrosexual men unable to complement each other’s looks. Compliments between men are hastily followed by the quick “No Homo” escape clause, just to re-affirm that their red-blooded desires are strictly reserved for pussy. It gets worse. Men can’t to cry after a shit day. They can’t read poetry before bed, or admit that football is overrated. At least, they can’t do this without being told that they’re gay or should stop off at Boots for tampons. This is the sad result of a western, patriarchal vision of “real men”.

The idea that real men consists of certain uniform rules and traits, erodes men’s sense of individuality. Disproportionate suicide rates among men are, partially, down to this deprivation of uniqueness and right to vulnerability.

What’s more, the sad truth is that many women find men in touch with their feminine side appealing. Our overriding notion of masculinity, rooted in patriarchal standards, erases what women want in their partners, and ruins men. I implore you to watch the Friends episode “The one with Ross’ teeth”. In it, Joey – the show’s most masculine male lead – experiences a redefinition of his manhood. This episode depicts his conundrum in choosing between his masculinity and his newly discovered feminine side.

The show depicts Joey’s femininity through his interest in flower arrangement, potpourri and artwork featuring babies. Eventually, his flatmate and feminine influence, Janine, moves all the feminine furniture into his bedroom. The following resolution is comedic, but also tragic as Joey’s partially conceals his identity from his male friends and withdraws from shared spaces. It suggests women who have the pleasure of sleeping with Joey will be privy to his feminine side. But Joey is unfazed about this. So, is the need to appear masculine really about attracting women?

Gender norms are as much fun as cuddling a hologram

Bola didn’t entirely deride masculinity. But nor did he dismiss that performing masculinity in settings. In “the ends” of Tottenham, it’s crucial to your survival. However, masculinity means different things to white and BAME men. Patriarchal demands on bodies and minds affect them differently. But this doesn’t, excuse the effects of the patriarchy on women or suggest that men have it worse; they don’t. Bola admits this; no man could possibly say the patriarchy hasn’t benefited him.

This is where you realise the patriarchy is a vicious circle. Men gain rewards for supporting a system that oppresses them (and women!). Meanwhile, women are still fighting to de-politicize their bodies and gain autonomy over them. We’re talking basic human rights here, never mind the gender pay gap.

Some spaces must remain exclusive for everyone who identifies as a woman. Nevertheless, there’s a strong case for cross-gender efforts to dismantle the patriarchy. These efforts have to emerge from the feminist movement.

Quoting Frankie Boyle, Bola delivers a witty punchline: being an anti-feminist man is like throwing rocks at the fire brigade while they’re extinguish your burning house. As Boyle once tweeted, “Men, feminists are the only people who have a vision for you that isn’t wanking to a flickering screen in unbearable sadness. Go with it.”

Masculinity has made dissatisfaction in heterosexual relationships become inevitable. Chasms between what we feel we should look for in a partner and what we get causes bitter disappointment. As a result, we feel like we deserve more, or that we aren’t good enough. Hence, we’re constantly trying to love our projections of what we think security and desireshould be. That’s as much fun as cuddling a hologram.

Sukhmani Sethi studies law at University of London and blogs at sukhmanisethi.com.

Mask Off: Masculinity redefined by J. J. Bola’s is out now from Pluto Press for £9.99.

Photo credit: Matt Round, © Matt Round Photography/TEDxExeter 2018, reused under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Would you like to write a reply? If so, email the opinion editor at david.dahlborn.13 [at] ucl.ac.uk.

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