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Yesterday, I was reading the transcript of a recent episode of the NPR podcast, Life Kit, with Frank Festa, entitled, “Defining masculinity on your own terms.” In the podcast, one of the guests says, “Masculinity, in many ways, is a performance.” Hmmm…an interesting assessment. One that strangely sparks memories of my youth.

I grew up loving comic books. Superheroes. Fascinated by the stories. Champions righting the wrongs. Fighting the bad guys. But I was particularly drawn to the idea of the secret identity/alter ego. Who is the true self? The one conceived at birth or the one who emerges. Peter Parker or Spiderman? Bruce Wayne or Batman? Diana Prince or Wonder Woman? Authors of the genre say that the secret identity exists to protect the hero and their loved ones. It also gives the hero the opportunity to have more of a life beyond their crime fighting. And, no doubt, the alter ego effect provides the author with all sorts of compelling plot twists. For a young me, this literary device helped me explore the “voice in my head,” my alter ego. He spoke to me and I talked back. I fantasized that I could conjure this hero who could change the world. He was something different, someone more. I suppose it really wasn’t about changing the world, it was always about changing my world…me.

So, what does this recollection have to do with masculinity as a performance? First, I want to share that I am starting to get frustrated by the ongoing attention and debate around masculinity and femininity. Certainly, my exposure to this subject matter might be enhanced by the “water I am swimming in,” but it’s just not that because the subject of sex and gender is all over mass media as well. Personally, I would prefer we talk more about our humanity, but here we are, and for now, I trudge on. Despite all the societal gender bantering, my perspective is that our social systems and constructs are still all about instilling traditional gender norms and most of us fall in line with that. But my gut tells me that for many of us those norms, the falling in line, that identity doesn’t fit. Yet, we perform. Our secret, real self hides behind the alter ego. In the context of a comic book story, this performance may be a necessary one. But, in the real world, I wonder if our Clark Kents inhibit our Supermen (enough with the superhero analogy?). I’ll be 60 this year and I still dig superhero stories. I think, for the most part, me and my alter ego have integrated over the years. Life is certainly simpler that way. What a hassle it is to keep the secret and to always be performing. Might as well just be me. How about you?


  • todd says:

    didn’t know that about your love for comic books Shaun. Who is/was your favorite? Regarding masculine/feminine- is it the frame work that frustrates you? the debate about it? or all of the above? i have no problem with the framework, but i can see how the debate can be exhausting. however i’m a bigger fan of frameworks than you are. what if we threw away the labels and instead said i need to get more in touch with my soft side or my more stoic/forceful side as opposed to the need to get in touch with my feminine or masculine? would that help?

    • Shaun Emerson says:

      a favorite?? that’s a tough one. probably super because I was first exposed to george reeves as superman before I even bought a comic. you? RE: M/F, it’s all of the above. For me, there is not much value in exploring these different sides. I am interested in understanding my integrated self and how he shows up in the world…consciously, candidly, curiously, emotionally and intentionally. 😉

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