NYC250 cover image See all stories from issue #250, January/February 2016

What’s Your Definition of Masculinity?

We absorb different messages from the media, our family, and our friends about what it means to be a man and what is considered masculine behavior. These messages often contain gender stereotypes—generalizations based on how our society expects males (and females) to behave or look. They can be positive—“men are strong”—or negative—“men don’t cry.”

The best way to try and change these limiting labels is to prove they’re untrue by being ourselves. In the following interview, three of our male writers talk together about what masculinity means to them. The conversation is moderated by writer Aniqa Tasnim, who attends Brooklyn Technical HS. She spoke with Melvin Pichardo, who graduated from Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science, & Engineering and now attends Stella Adler Studio of Acting; Jovani (Jio) Hernandez, Brooklyn School of Collaborative Studies; and Oscar Petrero, Brooklyn Technical High School.

youthcomm logo

Aniqa: How does the stereotypical definition of masculinity compare with your own?
Jovani: Most people would say that a man is somebody who is brave but also sometimes ruthless and hostile. I don’t agree with the second part. I think you’re a man when you’re able to step up to the plate to face challenges in a way that’s beneficial to you and others. But you don’t have to be aggressive about it.

Oscar: I agree with Jio’s definition. Most people think the epitome of masculinity is being the alpha male, like masculinity is symbolic of power. But that’s not what I think. To me it’s being a father figure, being there for someone else, and not running away from responsibilities. But a female can also be those things.

Melvin: I think we have this image that’s tough, aggressive, or ruthless, or like a winner or a challenger, an intimidating person. But a man can be as sensitive, caring and nurturing as a woman. It really bothers me when I see a young boy crying and a grownup—usually a man—who says, “Stop that, be a man.” I think what you’re really telling that young kid is don’t be human.

Aniqa: Have you ever been criticized for being feminine?
Oscar: My mom doesn’t like it when I cross my legs. She says, “Don’t do that, only ladies do that.” Or she’ll pull out the gay thing.

Melvin: I get criticized for being sensitive and overly dramatic. I’ll take things way too personally. People have also told me I’m not intimidating enough.

Jovani: I get criticized for being chubbier than the normal, masculine persona. TV commercials don’t show guys cooking over the grill with a big stomach and long hair. They’re fit and wearing a tank top with muscular arms and grease stains and I’m nothing like that. I identify strongly with someone who’s open-minded and non-judgmental, and those traits are often associated with females.

image by YC-Art Dept

I’m the child of a single mother who I idolized. I’d see her take care of her hair and nails and wear a lot of jewelry and I do the same. So I take care of myself in a way that most men consider feminine. But I’m as much of a man as somebody who is ripped and wears muscle tank tops. Can’t I have long hair and blow it and straighten it and take care of a household? Does that make me less of a man?

Aniqa: What about women who step up to the plate and handle their responsibilities? Does doing that make them masculine?

Jovani: Anybody who is a protector is a man to me, whatever their gender. My mom worked two jobs and raised two sons on her own. She defied the feminine stereotype of vulnerability and dependence.

Melvin: It doesn’t make them masculine; it just means they’re competent. We shouldn’t categorize traits as being masculine or feminine. Both genders embody all human traits. We shouldn’t repress any of them.

Aniqa: My parents are often critical of my actions and behavior as not feminine, saying, “That’s not what girls do.” Like if I sit with my legs open. It’s easy to shrug off comments by people who don’t mean that much to you, but what if they’re from loved ones?

Jovani: Have the confidence and strength in your relationships to be able to say, “Mom, Dad I need you to understand that I’m a little different from you, and if you love me you’ll accept that.” And if they don’t, you’ll have to accept that they don’t accept you and that’s just how things are. I challenge a lot of my relatives who have a long tradition of how a Hispanic man is supposed to act. And it doesn’t include polishing your nails.

Oscar: When my mom made the comment about how I sit, I talked to her about homophobia. Eventually she stopped making those comments, so I agree that it’s important to speak up. People might not accept what you have to say right away but they might understand later on.

Readers, What Do You Think?

If a man feels afraid, does that make him not a man? If a woman is courageous, does that make her a man? Are some qualities we call “masculine” or “feminine” actually shared by everyone? Examining our assumptions around gender might help us challenge stereotypes and be fuller humans, so we encourage you to continue the conversation and write to us with your thoughts at

horizontal rule