Prince Nelson Rogers died on April 21st, 2016. The tributes and reminiscences and revelations following his shocking demise have been both heart-wrenching and thoroughly uplifting for everyone who was ever touched and changed by his genius, and we all agree that there will never be another. Prince was inimitable.
Of course, a huge part of Prince’s singularity was his refusal to be boxed into stifling gender roles. Sexy, sexual, soft, Prince was a delicious contradiction. He flew in the face of every masculine convention there was, eschewing machismo in favour of seduction, creating music about lust and love, about pain and control, about life, in ways that defied genre or gender. Prince even created his own symbol, an icon that looked exactly like his gender presentation; purple, flamboyant, having both sensuous curves and sharp points, a beautiful combination of and departure from the gender binary.
I originally finished writing this article the day before Prince died, but it became apparent to me as I mourned his passing that I would be remiss to discuss masculinity and its limitations without highlighting Prince’s incredibly complex, self-defined performance of gender. He said it best himself on I Would Die 4 U: “I’m not a woman/I’m not a man/I am something you will never understand.”
Prince was heterosexual and cisgender, yet his perfectly coiffed hair and pouty lips would not have looked out of place on a Playboy cover girl. He wasn’t afraid to wear glittery high heels, swing his hips in tight purple pants or suck suggestively on lollipops in public. It is almost unbelievable that one of the men most secure in his masculinity that the wide world has ever witnessed was a 5’2”, guitar-stroking, bikini-wearing, eyeliner-sporting genius who succeeded in eliciting lust in both your girl and you. Does a man get any ‘realer’ than that? How do we not all realise that we need a world full of men secure enough in their own skin to be Prince-like?
I saw a tweet by a man yesterday that said “RIP Prince. #NoHomo.” It would have been hilarious if it wasn’t so tragic. This person, so imprisoned behind the walls of gender, so afraid of losing his tenuous grip on manliness, could not even express affection for another man—despite the fact that the object of affection in question was a recently deceased creative legend—without highlighting his own straightness. #MasculinitySoFragile
Society continues to do itself a disservice by telling men and boys how they must act for their humanity as masculine beings to be considered legitimate. From a tender age boys are taught, often via shame and violent reinforcement, that certain attributes are ‘feminine’ and therefore undesirable. They are deprived of the permission to display vulnerability, feel grief, openly form deep and intimate friendships, fail gracefully, accept rejection or show weakness. They learn on the playground or sports field that there is little worse than acting ‘like a girl’.
Boys are made to understand that aggression and violence are acceptable and even necessary ways of establishing their value as human beings. The expectation is that they will prove their manliness by production or procreation, regardless of the circumstances. And if they fail? Then they aren’t really men at all. Manliness is rigidly defined and easily undermined, so that boys and men must always be alert to the risk of it being taken away from them. This toxic masculinity often hinges on the subjugation of anyone perceived to be either a threat to them or less powerful than them — and woe betide the person who somehow manages to be both.
The point is not to absolve adult males of their responsibility in perpetuating systems of oppression, nor is it to deny male privilege. However, it is undeniable that we all–whether we are aware of and/or admit it or not–are the result of socialisation (or, in the case of a courageous few, the interrogation and rejection of socialisation). We form our identities based on dominant social ideas, and masculinity as it is constructed, maintained and performed in contemporary society is damaging for men, and by an unfortunate but inevitable extension, dangerous for everyone else.
The world we live in is not a safe place because ‘real men’ exist in it. These ‘real men’ are products of the trauma of being denied access to whole aspects of their personhood. Is it any wonder then that they go on to cause harm to others, incapable as they are of feeling empathy, compassion, or love which is truly unselfish and can exist without domination?
I invite you to imagine a world in which men are able to process rejection. In that world, no women would be killed, maimed or hurt because of a man’s fragile ego. Imagine a world where male survivors of rape can speak up without being cast aside as weaklings. Imagine a world where women are free to explore their potential without fear of ‘emasculating’ the men around them. Imagine a world where broken and frustrated men can open up about their struggles and get support. Imagine a world where men can cry in safety, hold hands in public, and freely say “I love you” to other men. Imagine a world where men are understood and allowed to be fully human.
Unfortunately, we don’t live in that world. Even worse, the world we do live in has lost Prince, a shining example of what is possible when masculinity is discarded in favour of glorious authenticity. And more than ever before, I am dismayed by the reality that the iron-clad rules of gender which Prince transcended continue to dictate how boys are raised and how men behave. ‘Real Men™’ continue to be manufactured by the deeply traumatic process of chipping away at their humanity. And we are all the worse off for it, because far too few people ever defy the rules and taste the freedom that Prince embodied; the freedom to just be.