“But I don’t want to look too gay,” my male friend tells me while looking at some jewellery. As he stood there, worrying about hijacking his masculinity with “girly” pearl necklaces, I realised how differently girls experienced shopping.
For us, the whole store was fair game. My girl friends and I could rattle on about different shoes, pants, dresses, even vests we saw online and wanted to try out, and pop between the different sections of clothes if we wanted to. But simply trying on small pieces of jewellery was a challenge for my male friends.
It only hit me then how deeply ingrained the lines between masculinity and femininity still were in our social psyche.
This Fathers’ Day, I talk to three men on what it means to be masculine and where the concept stands in our society today.
For GenZers, the line between femininity and masculinity has become more of a suggestion than a law. I’ve seen girls in suspenders and loafers, and boys in fishnets and gold hoop earrings strolling around in fashion-forward packs at Orchard and Bugis. But concepts of gender extend far beyond the clothes we put on our body. When I spoke with Rishabh Anand and Wong Ju Le (2 fellow GenZ men), I started off our conversations with a fairly basic question: what is masculinity?
I learned that in its most traditional sense, masculinity is about power. Apart from the typical “fuck bitches, get money” answer I expected, there was also much emphasis on having physical symbols and values that were usually associated with power and hence, masculinity.
Ju Le: “You should grow a beard, you should have this kind of hair, you should go to the gym... You cut wood, you go outdoors and hunt and things like that, you know, that is masculine."
Rish: “Someone who inherently has more objective power compared to people around them”
While being extremely cognizant to the traditional understanding of masculinity, there was also an ambivalence (even disdain) to it that I’ve noticed in many other GenZers. Notably, the word “masculine” has taken on a more negative connotation. “I'm not a huge fan of traditional masculinity”, Ju Le tells me, “I would call myself an artist, a filmmaker and anything [else] before I call myself a male.”
One issue he has is how it “[pits] men against one another”, because “men exist in a structure… Therefore, there's always this notion that we are supposed to be the alpha male, or that certain types of male [are] more masculine and that makes them more man[ly] than others.”
For Rish, traditional masculinity is equally peripheral, “There's really no point to it.” It’s such a big concept with many types of assumptions and interpretations and for Rish, navigating masculinity is all about self-awareness and knowing yourself well enough to know where you stand. “[Masculinity] is a spectrum, [on one hand] there is very timid masculinity… [and] on the other extreme, you have toxic masculinity… it's up to [men], whether they want to go more towards the toxic side or the more timid side, or they can strike a balance that they themselves feel is right.”
Even then, Rish argues that “there are some inherently objectively incorrect ways [in] the way they see things” when men fall between the two extremes. Nonetheless, wherever men may stand in regards to masculinity, it is still a concept that continues to rear its head in Singaporean men’s daily lives.
What’s popped up lately are doctrines that focus on the revival of the traditional male ego; ‘sigma males’, as TikTok users call it. This mindset embodies traditional masculinity to its greatest extreme where “nothing else matters, and everybody is a tool for me to achieve [personal goals and ambitions]... they see themselves as a singular unit. They're like, ‘no, I don't want to work with anybody’” (as Rish aptly explains to me).
The result is generations of men who refuse to ask for help and be vulnerable- something that both Rish and Ju Le had to learn to do on their own. In Singapore, where 7 out of 10 of suicides are by young men, the need to encourage our boys to be emotional and learn to handle their emotions is becoming more salient to many Singaporeans. Even then, many men still find it difficult to open up to each other, even between close male friends. As Ju Le recounted the first time he opened up to a close friend, he told me that “it wasn't an easy task” even after 10 long years of friendship.
“We didn't really have that heart to heart talk until much later in life… during [National Service]... That's the time [where men] need to really open up to ourselves and each other.”
Men hesitate to be vulnerable and form emotional connections with friends because it can be perceived as relinquishing power to other men. In group settings, the fear of being made fun of or even shunned prevents men from being the first to open up.
“Because of hegemonic masculinity, [men see each other] as a threat… therefore, to be vulnerable to each other also meant really putting yourself out there and… you don't really know if you can trust them per se, although they are your really close friends… If you shared with them, and they didn't react to it positively, you know, they might ridicule you in a guy way and that was not always the response you [would] want.”
In recounting his days in National Service (NS), Ju Le tells me that “it was absolutely horrible”. In NS, values associated with sigma males (i.e toxic masculinity) were often perpetuated; power was king, whether it was physical, sexual, or socio-economic. There was competition to be seen as the most masculine, or at least more masculine than other men, even in an environment that aimed to foster values like camaraderie and discipline. In Ju Le’s words, it was a “testosterone[-filled] beast environment”. Among fellow recruits, there was intense locker room talk where “the only things they ever talked about [were] women, sex, football and getting a scholarship”.
We could simply say that toxic masculinity is a societal problem that we all perpetuate and reinforce in some ways. However, in a digital age the importance of media and entertainment in reinforcing these ideals is undeniable. Characters like Captain America, the Hulk, Iron Man (characters who many men I know admire) embody the male ideals of strength and power and have undoubtedly become some of the most famous fictional characters of our century.
“So, so much of what masculinity is is defined by media…” Ju Le tells me, “If you look at media, you look at the notion of who guys kind of look up to, you've got characters like Patrick Bateman… John Wick… they essentially are alone [and these characters] say that about themselves because they're not like the other guys. And therefore, they do things by themselves and they're [more] capable by themselves and that’s what gives them power and that’s what defines their masculinity.”
Within families, toxic masculinity can also be experienced between fathers and sons. Neither Rish nor Ju Le hesitate in telling me that they had good fathers, yet both are very aware of how toxic masculinity has affected them. Rish, who is very close with his father, tells me that they rarely expressed their feelings to each other, if at all. “When it comes to emotion management, for example, I feel that objectively I am miles better than [my father]... when it comes to negative emotions, like sadness and stuff, he tends to bottle up or shut off [and]… get frustrated.”
Similarly, while Ju Le acknowledges that his father did fulfil practical needs and cared for him in his own unique way, he was still “an emotionally distant father” and Ju Le would have wanted him to be there for his emotional needs as well. “I speak to my dad maybe like two times a year, we stay in the same house, [but we don’t] interact with one another in a meaningful way.”
And so, with all these issues at hand, the next question to ask is how we should be raising our sons.
The traditional nuclear family is extremely important in maintaining Singaporean society. However, marriage is increasingly seen as a means to an end because of the practical benefits it brings: housing, tax breaks, and the ability to move out of your parents’ house. In fact, my friends and I like to joke about the ‘Singaporean marriage’: find a partner in your 20s, propose to your partner by applying for a Build to Order (BTO) flat, and once it gets approved, have a wedding and then move into your new house.
While the man is typically expected to take charge of earning money for the family, this assumption is becoming more obsolete the more educated the population becomes. In 2021, dual-income households where men and women had equal qualifications rose. Yet, for many Singaporean families, the gender roles stayed largely unchanged. Essentially, more women in Singaporean families are taking on more responsibilities; in addition to household chores and child-rearing is her full-time job.
For Nate (an alias), the rise of women entering the workforce reaffirms his belief that traditional gender roles and expectations are completely arbitrary. A father to an almost 2 year old girl, Nate moved to Singapore with his wife and started a family. Growing up in Belgium, he loved comic book superheroes and while admittedly not looking the part, enjoys sports like diving and snowboarding. That’s as traditionally male as he gets.
On traditional masculinity, he’s equally as dismissive as Ju Le and Rish, and firmly tells me that he’s never felt pressured to conform, “we’re just human beings at the end of the day”. As a husband, he sees no problem defying traditional gender roles.
“I quit my job with a happy face back in Belgium to follow her here,” he tells me, “my wife makes the money… we don't care about who's better than the other, who is above or below in our current financial situation… it's not important to know”. Defining relationships by what is masculine and feminine is, in Nate’s words, “fucking bullshit.” To him, relationships and marriages are about security and feeling safe. In his marriage, he only expects “to be sincere, transparent, [and communicative].”
Nate: "If I have to go on holiday, I know I can go weeks [with] no electricity, very far away from everything, no internet, nothing, and just be with [my wife]."
All in all, he was extremely content with the part he plays in his family, even if it did not conform to tradition.
As a father, there is a refreshing openness in his perspective on fatherhood. When I asked him if he plans on having conversations with his daughter about emotions and gender (something both Rish and Ju Le couldn’t imagine doing with their own fathers), his answer was simple: “if they have a question, you just have to answer”.
Too often, uncomfortable topics are ignored and avoided in Singaporean families. Which is why many children (sons and daughters) are left to explore topics like gender and sexuality on their own. For Nate, this curiosity is an essential part of growing up. “You’re becoming [an] adult because you’re taking risks right now,” he tells me, in a tone that reminds me of my mother. Parenthood is about guiding your children for as long as they need you, in the meantime “you have to let the children do what they want to do… [you] just have to [remind them to] protect themselves.”
In the same vein, Rish tells me that there’s a difference between a dad and a father. “Personally, it's that coolness factor… [for example] when a kid is holding a hose near their face, a father would take the hose away, but a dad would hold the end of the hose and then add a little pressure to the water.”
“We don’t realise how smart [children] are,” Nate tells me, “They don’t have any filter… [which] means children will always tell the truth… and you can always tell them the truth… just shape it in a nice way.”
On many fronts, the concept of masculinity is shifting, through our understanding of gender or the expectations of fatherhood. As Nate says, “I don’t think people change, [they] evolve”, and in our society this evolution has definitely been felt.
In mainstream media, male characters that once embodied traditionally male traits are becoming more humanised in mainstream media. Iron Man, for example, is one character Ju Le points out. “He comes into contact with his emotions, [other] characters… and I think that's what people also wanted, people wanted someone who can be emotionally vulnerable… as opposed to the hyper masculine male.”
To Nate, the most obvious indicator of change is in youth. “Outside, [the LGBTQ+ community] don't hide anymore”. Public spaces are becoming more inclusive, and the conversation about broader gender and sexuality issues are entering the mainstream thanks to young people. Other than that, another indicator is fashion. “First thing you see [are the] clothes. Men [wear tighter] clothes, and women, more [relaxed clothing]... depending on the age I can see the makeup… the colour of the hair, the brands they wear [are bolder].”
Beyond one’s gender and sexuality, all three believed that the basis of any human interaction should be respect for others. Aside from the personal benefit of self-acceptance, Rish also sees how society as a whole could benefit from this: “more than being masculine or even being a gentleman… we need people who really love their craft and who will support their friends and close ones and will… go the extra mile for [the] people they care about because that just ensures our society as a whole becomes so much more supportive.”
Similarly, Nate encourages others to focus on the now: “Make sure that the current moment in life, your present, is made of things you love. Not issues, not frustration, not polluted by bad thoughts.”
And to other parents, Nate’s advice is: “when you’re with your child… be focused… be physically and mentally [present] with your child… be positive, optimistic, and [listen], it’s all about listening.”
Crane proudly hosts the Lion City Divorcees Club - Father’s Day edition! While divorce-centric, all are welcome to our informal social support group. Grab a bite at our in-house eatery, browse through toy and antique vendors, maybe even play a game of ping pong and meet other fellow fathers- single, married, and divorced.