Mask Off: Masculinity Redefined

JJ Bola was born in Kinshasa in the Congo, and fled with his family to London when he was six years old. In his book Mask Off: Masculinity Redefined, he begins by indicating that this change of location was decisive for his reflections on gender roles. Early on, he noticed that the behaviour of Congolese men behave differed significantly from that of English men in various respects. For instance, while it is quite normal for Congolese men to hold hands during conversations or walks together, Bola was insulted and shamed for this kind of behaviour in London. This observation laid the foundation for his insight that masculinity is a culturally-determined construction. How and where the local, normative understanding of masculinity is created and what effects it has, he vividly summarizes in his easy-to-read volume.

Bola makes it clear that the system that perpetuates harmful myths of masculinity is patriarchy. It permeates all areas of pop culture, sports, family, love, sex, politics, and so on. With quotes from rappers, examples from football and basketball, Bola breaks down the stereotypes associated with tough guys . Through statistical data about suicide rates and mental illness, he underlines the harmfulness of these clichés. He makes a plea to work to replace these with heterogeneous expressions of one’s own gender role, and he praises feminism. Bola recognizes that feminism is not a movement against men, but one that seeks to end patriarchy. He quotes a wonderful source familiar to me, the African-American scholar bell hooks. He also doesn’t forget to recognise the intersection of different vectors of oppression.

As I read the book, I had the feeling that its main target audience is young boys who struggle with the expectations of having to be tough guys. Bola mentions that he wrote Mask Off precisely because he himself would have wished for just this book in his youth. He would have liked to know earlier that a rigid, restrictive understanding of masculinity can and must be broadened. That I don’t belong to this target market is not to say that I didn’t find the book interesting, but let’s put it this way: the examples and anecdotes are very far removed from my own lived reality, yet they did not surprise me. It is an excellent introductory book, especially for adolescent or young adult brothers, sons, nephews or grandchildren.