Quitting the Masculinity Contest

Mariam Tchantchaleishvili, Tamuna Chkareuli,

How do we talk about the impact of mainstream masculine culture on men? More precisely, do we ever talk about the men who try to create their own versions of masculinity -- however controversial that may be at times? What happens when your style, voice, body language, relationships and, in general, way of life does not match society’s traditional definition of masculine?

Datuna, Drago, Luka and Mate are four young Georgians who have found their own way to express their masculinity. Their lives have been shaped by their desire to avoid wearing the “uniform” of masculinity as it is defined in traditional Georgian society. As a result, they have discovered ways to live with -- and create new definitions for -- masculinity.

“What would it [masculinity] look like if it could be seen? Masculinity would be the color of a swamp. It would be solid, it would be impossible to destroy. And it would also be covered in moss,” says Mate, 21, when asked to describe the color, form or texture of masculinity.

“If masculinity had a shape it would be a concrete cube," explains Datuna, 21.

“Masculinity is brown. It reminds me of a shiny body with tight muscles,” says Drago (not his real name), 17.

I don’t dress feminine anymore because that had been my way to demonstrate my aggression towards the notion of masculinity. But now that I have expressed it, I’m at peace with myself.

In reality, I am masculine. Crossdressing was the key to me understanding that.

Generally I love irony and drag queens have a very ironic approach to life – the greatest sense of humor. That’s why I love to perform whenever I have the chance.

Contemporary art is very masculine too, compared to the [ancient] matriarchate art. The cult of man restricts everything, and this restriction is exactly what masculinity means to me.

In its simplest sense, masculinity is perceived as a set of behaviors and characteristics that define what it means to be a “man, according to Ia Merkviladze’s Dictionary of Gender Terms.  According to this definition, it is obvious that masculinity is largely attached to sex. Being masculine means being a man.

But there is no one, universal, definition for masculinity. There has never been a single idea of what it means to be a man. In different societies various types of masculinities co-exist. They are not all equal -- some are dominant, some are subordinate and others are somewhere in between. Even though some have been defined, no single, perfect definition exists because forms of masculinity change based on public debate, political or cultural shifts and society's demands.

Despite this, there are some basic features: compulsory heterosexuality, power, control or aggression. But in reality, no one can really embody those ideals. Ideality prevents it from ever being embodied by a real human, according to Australian sociologist Raewin Conell.

Datuna, Drago, Luka and Mate recall being “encouraged” by others to embody a specific type of masculinity -- to grow up to be “a real man.” Drago, who identifies as queer, remembers when he was five or six and his father took him to boxing classes. It was “fighting without rules.” He stood there with his long hair and didn’t know what to do. Drago notes his father even brought boxing gloves home to encourage him to act like a boy. He failed to do so.

Datuna, an art history major at the Tbilisi Academy of Arts, recalls memories of playing with Barbie dolls.

“My sister’s friend was a designer and she sewed a dress for me because I played with Barbies. I went outside wearing this dress. My father became angry and he burned my doll's hair. It wouldn’t have been such a big deal if he had simply thrown the doll out. But burning the doll’s hair had a huge impact on me. When I was meditating several months ago, this image of burnt hair popped up first.”

Luka, 21, recalls when he was nominated among the best ten models in a local competition. When  a member of his family found out, he and his male friends repeatedly tried to convince him not to participate.  

“It was a lot of pressure and at some point I started to think about quitting this competition," Luka says.

A lot of people thought I was a girl because I have soft facial features. At first I fought against it, but now I’m ok with it. I assume that ‘androgenic’ look will follow me in the future, especially when I don’t have a beard.

Masculinity isn’t a bad thing, it’s just that it has become a monster in Georgia. The representation is rough and aggressive, which for me it’s not “masculine” at all.

I don’t live with “masculine” and “feminine” definitions in my head. Whatever happens, there is no label.

I’m directing a drag show at the moment and helping those who want to join the scene. I don’t see myself as a drag queen, though. I’m more of a performer.

Modeling provides an outlet for expressing identity. Some venues in the Georgian capital Tbilisi are hosting drag shows, which also help empower Georgia's queer community. Horoom nights at Bassiani, Success Bar -- where Luka works as a barman -- and Ballroom Bar host drag performances.

“With your performance and the character you choose, you are saying that I am a f*** man but I am more of a woman than you are,” Luka explains. For him, this kind of performance is an opportunity to become someone else.

The irony of a drag show is particularly appealing for Datuna.

Datuna says that in general his life is like a drag show -- being a drag queen allows you to be free since you are not limited to one image and you can play with masculinity and femininity and make fun of both of them.

He and the others – Drago, Luka and Mate – belong to the Troublemakerz Agency, the first Georgian agency to represent drag queen models. But the group is a lot more than just a modeling agency, Mate explains.  

“This is a union of people who do not care about your skin color, who you are sleeping with or how you look. We look for the individuals who are a good fit for specific projects, ideas, etc. We are not professional models, but we do our job perfectly. And the agency always remembers that you should be paid for your work -- you should receive some compensation and be supported morally. At the same time, the agency always tries to push models, to encourage and empower them," he says.

With drag, you can create a character who can deliver a message. During my first experience at Bassiani Club, I felt like an artist, like I was programming the situation.

The very first [gender-related] problem I encountered in my childhood were colors — I couldn’t wear red, pink or lilac like girls could.

My appearance and style [when I was not in drag] has always been normal to me and I never viewed it as sending a message.

In gay culture, it is common to call each other “effeminate” and I think it’s stupid to underline this. It creates a femininity-phobia inside the community.

I say that I’m queer in how I dress; it doesn’t have anything to do with either gender. I am a boy in heels and this is what I want to be called. It’s my statement — don’t hide and limit yourself to please someone else.

In Georgia, the most acceptable definition of masculinity may be a straight, ethnic Georgian, Orthodox Christian, married and financially stable man.

But when Georgians describe masculinity, are they really just talking about the opposite of being feminine?  

Mate recalls how aggressive people became when they realized he was a boy despite his more feminine features.   

“The source of their aggression was the fact that I was boy and looked like a girl. I always perceived myself as a boy; I haven’t questioned my appearance or tried to change it," he says.

For Mate, Datuna and the others, the question of what form masculinity should take in their lives can be an ongoing exploration. The form it takes can transform as they develop and grow older, as well.

Datuna recalls a period when he tried to embody femininity. He says that after several years, he realized that what he was doing was really a form of protest -- he wanted to be feminine because he believed this was the only way to resist masculinity. He was tapping into a type of masculine aggression to challenge masculinity.

“I suffered from bulimia and anorexia because I wanted my body to become androgynous. Now, after all this time, I realize that maybe I am masculine. Not the traditionally perceived masculinity, but a form of masculinity that I create on my own," he says.

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