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A portrait of Asian-Australian masculinity. Image: Jo Duck

Weaponising masculinity

Australian ideas about 'manliness' are used against Asian, black and brown people

Stephen Pham

See Clementine Ford, Osher Günsberg and Vonne Patiag on the 'Man up' panel at All About Women on Sunday 10 March. Get tickets.

When I was fifteen I went with some friends to see the New Year’s Eve fireworks at Milsons Point. We didn’t drink then—we were there for a genuine laugh. A group of people in their twenties were coming towards us. At a glance, they were drunk. I looked to the ground. A pink-faced woman stepped out in front of me and ducked, blue eyes, her blonde hair swinging forward, flinging the scent of super-sweet Garnier Fructus and Jim Beam in my face. And then screamed, is it true Asians have small dicks? She returned to her friends, who yelped with laughter and they all walked on.

She was making fun of the stereotype of Asian men having small penises. My friends, who were also Asian, didn’t talk about it again that night, but as I lined up for the train home I thought about how I should’ve answered her. I could’ve told her the truth, that I didn’t know because I hadn’t seen many Asian penises. Or I could have been a smartarse: wanna find out? Instead, I’d said nothing, and perhaps perpetuated the idea of Asian men as weak.

Her racial abuse also attacked my sense of masculinity, in a complex intertwining of racism, imperialism, and misogyny.

The Australian patriarchy

Distance from masculinity is also proximity to femininity. As scholar Raewyn Connell argues in her seminal work Masculinities, the two are socially constructed in opposition to each other. Because patriarchy is a system by which men subordinate women, and masculinity is largely associated with men, a person’s distance from patriarchal masculinity is meant to be degrading. A man who fails to conform is asking for subordination along the lines of misogyny.

Patriarchy valorises masculinity as strong and active against a femininity imagined to be weak and passive. The white woman’s insult against me was not just racism, but also the same misogyny that deems femininity insult-worthy.  It might be more helpful to think of masculinity not in the singular but as masculinities, in its interactions with other social constructs like sexuality, class, and race.

Australia’s patriarchy is upheld by these interactions between misogyny, white supremacy, homophobia, and capitalism, with the bulk of power held by upper class heterosexual white men.

Just as there are no inherent traits in masculinity except for its opposition to femininity, so too are there no particular qualities of Asian masculinity outside of its opposition to white masculinity and Asian femininity. The stereotype of the weak Asian male has its roots in European imperialism.

“Australia’s white patriarchy disempowers cis Asian men, constructing us as undesirable in interpersonal relationships and hard-working, though unambitious, in the workplace.”

The disempowering stereotypes of masculinity

The treatment of Asian men echoes the attitudes of Europeans towards “the Orient” as a whole. Post-colonial scholar Edward Said sums this up: “passive, seminal, feminine, even silent and supine”, and thus deserving of European domination.

The stereotype of the small Asian penis encompasses all of these, and through it Australia’s white patriarchy disempowers cis Asian men, constructing us as undesirable in interpersonal relationships and hardworking, though unambitious, in the workplace. In these areas, we are sufficient, but inferior.

By contrast, white men are entrepreneurial and desirable, exemplars of healthy masculinity. Still, the humiliation that cis Asian men face about their penises from other men is not unique. Men impose shame on all women on all facets of their bodies and behaviours.

Image: Jo Duck

“Men and women both use masculine behaviours to navigate the system that marginalises them.”

The demonization of colour

Although misogyny is the basis of patriarchal insults, racial stereotypes of other non-white men show that masculinity in excess is bad.

After the 2000 gang rapes in Western Sydney, Arab-Australian men were construed to be hypersexual predators; African-Australian boys are seen as violent gang members; and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men are constructed to be violent partners and dropkick dads. It shifts the blame of colonial government policy onto Aboriginal men in a way that addresses the desires of a carceral state rather than the needs of these communities.

Amy McGuire emphasises the structural roots of what appear to be individual problems: “demonizing Aboriginal men does not work. Why do they drink? Why don't they have jobs? Why has violence become a social norm?

Meanwhile, heterosexual white masculinity parades as the healthy norm against which other masculinities are demonized. Even the most heinous cases of white, male committing murder-suicides are reported to be ‘good blokes’.

This reporting highlights the shock of their surrounding communities, but also overlooks the roots of this violence in heterosexual white masculinity. As Fiona McCormack, CEO of Domestic Violence Victoria told Media Watch:

“Men who kill their families usually have friends and families who loved them but providing quotes from those people without any context explaining the underlying sense of entitlement that makes these men think they have the right to take the lives of women in their family is one-sided and misleading.”

Reporting only the shock of the surrounding community without mention of the violent entitlement of white men towards the women and children in their families recuperates heterosexual white masculinity by treating these cases as deviation.

And while murder-suicides certainly are extreme, they are only what Margaret Simons calls “an awful climax to a previous history of abuse and/or violence”. This is not to deny that family violence also occurs in other racialized masculinities.

More than just ‘toxic’

There are of course huge differences between the humiliation of Asian men, the state surveillance of Arab, African and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island men, and the media reporting of violence by white men. When it intersects with race and heterosexuality, we can see that masculinity is far more complex.

While certain forms are harmful to men and those around them, it’s not just men who may use masculine behaviours to navigate the systems that marginalise them. For the conversation to evolve, we need to understand that alongside ‘toxic’ masculinity, there are masculinities that are strategic.

Stephen Pham is a Vietnamese writer from Cabramatta who has work in Meanjin, Overland, Sydney Review of Books and The Lifted Brow. He received the NSW Writer's Fellowship in 2018 to continue work on his manuscript Vietnamatta. Follow him at @stpstpstpstpstp


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