The spectrum

The more brawny professional footballers and bird-bodied hipster dudes I meet, the more impressed I am by the spectrum of masculinity that exists in this country.

While one man polishes his tackling technique, the other his Tumblr account, both are valid expressions of blokedom. Why, then, is your average muscled sportsman considered more "manly" than a foppish fellow in thick spectacles and cardigan?

Typically one can physically dominate the other, but in world in which a weakling with an automatic weapon can murder 12 people in a movie theatre, the capability of violence seems a perverse method of determining masculinity.

How then do we assess a young guy such as Warren Beatty and Annette Benning's brilliant son Stephen - formerly their daughter Kathlyn - whose plea for transgender understanding drew almost 500,000 views on YouTube last month?

Or NBA stars Lebron James, Russell Westbrook and Dwyane Wade who've made "geek chic" their new thing - carrying man-bags and dressing in cardigans and nerdy glasses?

Recently, I shot the pilot for the awesome new All Men Are Liars TV and, during a discussion panel with several well-known footie players about feminism, I was overwhelmed by my own ... dampness.

I couldn't help feeling these "blokey blokes" thought me just a little wet and, reacting to this, I dismissed them (in my head) as "less-evolved".

I seem to have a similar effect on Melbourne guys who wear thick spectacles and cardigans because they'll often characterise me as a Neanderthal yobbo, casting themselves as the sophisticate.

It says something about the gender divide that we still use descriptions of the opposite sex to deride our own, so an "effeminate" guy or a "manly" woman is social shorthand for "less than ideal".


It also says something about the conservatism of human nature that we have 147 perfectly "acceptable" options for milk, herbal tea and house paint, yet only two for sexual identity.

Of course, many of us now acknowledge the validity of homosexual and intersex individuals but I reckon most people would still insist there are only two "real" or "natural" sexes.

You're born either a boy or a girl, right?

"In Western society, when an infant is born, its sex is assumed to correspond to the visible external genitalia, but there are not just two ways human genitalia appear in infancy," Professor of Anthropology at Berkeley University, Rosemary A. Joyce, says.

In fact, doctors will tell you that about one in 100 babies have bodies that differ from the "norm", while in about one in 1000 live births, the differences in genitalia often see specialists operate to alter the child's body to match one of the two expected categories, Joyce says.

"Clearly if you have to alter one in 1000 people, the categories are not natural; instead there is a range of variability in the human species," Joyce says.

"When we ask if someone is male or female we're imposing a kind of categorical distinction. The question assumes there is a binary and so it will always find that binary.

"Real people will have to be assigned to one category or another whether or not they differ in major ways from others in the category or are more similar to people in the other category," she says.

Archaeology tells us this is not a new issue, with many ancient burial grounds demarcating plots for "third", possibly even "fourth" and "fifth" sexes. There's documentation of more than 100 Native American tribes of their acceptance of "two-spirit" people - classed as neither male or female.

Yet, in 2012, we still lumber on using this binary, either/or model of physical gender, with anything outside this considered "defective" rather than natural diversity.

That doctors can classify an intersex individual as "abnormal" because they don't fit one of two categories is profoundly, culturally informed.

It also means that, aside from those who are physically different, we also label as "not normal" boys who like ballet and fashion, and girls who do not, let alone boys who like boys, girls who like girls, or girls who want to be boys like Stephen Beatty.

When MasterChef construction worker Beau Cook was eliminated from the TV cooking competition, he was told by the well-meaning judges: "You've constantly surprised us ... with what you've been able to do, and with the dishes you've consistently put up."

They were surprised because Beau is a "blokey bloke" and, of course, those kind of men can't cook, which is as limiting and patently false as saying "a woman can't be Prime Minister" or "guys in nerdy glasses can't be 'manly'".

Sam de Brito's latest novel Hello Darkness is in bookstores now. You can follow him on Twitter here. His email address is here.