Masculinity Is Dead. Long Live Masculinity.

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Andrew Smiler says that reports of manhood’s demise are premature. It’s as healthy, dynamic, and contradictory as ever.

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NYMag’s Ann Friedman recently asked “what does manhood mean in 2013?” It’s not as though she was clueless; in fact, she had too many clues. She’d recently been told:

  • guys are fairly simple. This from Bryan Goldberg, founder of Bleacher Report and some other websites, to New Yorker writer Lizzie Widdicombe. That may be the image, but it’s never been the truth. If it were, manhood wouldn’t be so confusing.
  • patriarchy had ended. This from Hanna Rosin, who also announced The End of Men a few years ago. Newsflash for Ms. Rosin: men are still here, we haven’t disappeared, and we’re not even endangered. Ditto Patriarchy; more on that later.
  • men say their children and their partners have had more an impact on their life and are more important than ball games, boozing, and boobs. This shows up in interview after interview in Esquire’s “Life of Men” project. If you’re surprised, then you’re spending too much time with stereotypes and missing what’s happening all around you.
  • men are changing. This from market research firm JWT’s report on “The State of Men.” That’s news? I guess if you think men are simple or that modern day men are basically Neanderthals whose grooming habits and table manners have barely changed after a few millenia, then change would be news.
The reality is that masculinity is changing. As it often has. 

What Friedman doesn’t seem to know is that masculinity is — and always has been — filled with contradictions and mixed messages. Many classic westerns, like Shane and Pale Rider, highlighted the tension between the settlers and the gunslingers. Neither trusted the other and, at least in those two films, each wanted to be like the other.

Contradictory messages about gender role are hardly new nor are they solely the province of men. The entire superwoman debate about whether or not women can have successful, high profile careers while also being the primary caretaker of their children is but one example.

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The reality is that masculinity is changing. As it often has. Men have routinely adapted to the culture and times around them. American manhood has been idealized – or feared – in a variety of ways over the last half century. Here’s a short list:

  • The Organization Man of the 1950s, who followed the rules and helped build the grand structures we now know as corporations.
  • His children, the “delinquents,” the scourge of the 50s and early 60s. They chafed under his rules and were epitomized in West Side Story (especially the Jets) and the career of James Dean.
  • The Sensitive New Age Guy of the 1970s, who explored his feelings, his sexuality, and pretty much anything else he could think of.
  • The macho guys of the 1980s, epitomized by a new generation of action films starring guys named Schwarzenegger and Stallone. Reagan’s bluster and one-day wars also fit the bill.
  • The 1990s saw another set of rebels, this time via the Grunge movement. They certainly didn’t look clean and their drugs were a lot harder.

There’s no particular rhyme or reason as to why these particular images of masculinity made it to the top of the heap, nor is there any meaningful way to draw a straight evolutionary line through all of them. The Organization Man doesn’t logically precede or contribute to the macho guys, while the delinquents and the grunge-rs don’t seem terribly different from each other.

Yet some parts of masculinity haven’t changed. We still teach and expect boys and men to be willing to sacrifice themselves for others, and thus require young men to register with selective service (but not young women). Despite the recent Mancession and Rosin’s claims, we still expect men to be the primary earner among heterosexual couples. Its part of the reason we can’t figure out how to talk about – and the census bureau can’t figure out how to categorize – stay-at-home dads; Esquire reminds us becoming a father is a defining moment for many men.

Instead of asking “what does manhood mean,” we should start asking what purpose it serves.

Hard work is still valued, as is leadership. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about heroes or villains, success is good. At mid-century, we gave real status to guys who joined and led community organization, but as Robert Putnam illustrated in Bowling Alone, those structures are dying out.

We still like the “quietly useful” guys, the men who show up to work every day, go home to their spouse and child, don’t particularly complain, and just make it work every day. Those Average Joes may not have the status of other guys, but we‘ve long loved them.

♦◊♦

Instead of asking “what does manhood mean,” we should start asking what purpose it serves. The answer is simple: it’s a way to compare men to each other. We start young by teaching boys they need to prove their masculinity so we can “separate the men from the boys.”

Not only are boys expected to prove their masculinity in order to become men, they’re taught that masculinity is so precarious they’ll need prove it repeatedly throughout their lives. That’s why 73 year old Jack Palance did a series of one-armed pushups, on stage and in a tux, after winning an Oscar.

The importance of these male-male comparisons even shows up in our language. The question “who’s more masculine: President Barack Obama or President George W. Bush?” makes sense, but the parallel question “Who’s more feminine: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or Secretary of State Condeleeza Rice?” doesn’t.

And that, Ms. Rosin, is part of Patriarchy. It’s about giving societal benefits to the folks who most closely conform to gender-based expectations. It hasn’t ended; you don’t need to look any farther than ads for pickup trucks or beer. Man Law anyone?

So Ms. Friedman, I recommend that you recognize the changes and understand that manhood changes over time. You can greet those changes with open arms or clenched fists, as you see fit. If you try to understand why things change the way they do or try to make logical sense of masculinity as a whole, you may drive yourself nuts. Then again, you probably don’t do that for femininity, so why should masculinity have different rules?

 -photo by jim orsini/flickr

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About Andrew Smiler

Andrew Smiler, PhD is a therapist, evaluator, author, and speaker residing in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (USA). He is the author of “Challenging Casanova: Beyond the stereotype of promiscuous young male sexuality” and co-author, with Chris Kilmartin, of “The Masculine Self (5th edition)”. He is a past president of the Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity and has taught at Wake Forest University and SUNY Oswego. Dr. Smiler's research focuses on definitions of masculinity. He also studies normative aspects of sexual development, such as age and perception of first kiss, first “serious” relationship, and first intercourse among 15-25 year olds. Follow him @AndrewSmiler.

Comments

  1. Hi Andrew

    A fine article .

  2. Yet some parts of masculinity haven’t changed. We still teach and expect boys and men to be willing to sacrifice themselves for others, and thus require young men to register with selective service (but not young women).
    Under threat of punishment no less.

    We still like the “quietly useful” guys, the men who show up to work every day, go home to their spouse and child, don’t particularly complain, and just make it work every day. Those Average Joes may not have the status of other guys, but we‘ve long loved them.
    I wonder though. Are they loved because they are useful, because they are quiet, or because being quiet is a part of their usefulness. Suffering in silence is considered useful.

    The importance of these male-male comparisons even shows up in our language. The question “who’s more masculine: President Barack Obama or President George W. Bush?” makes sense, but the parallel question “Who’s more feminine: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or Secretary of State Condeleeza Rice?” doesn’t.
    That second question doesn’t just not make sense but would be considered offensive to both Clinton and Rice. How dare someone try to impose some arbitrary standard of femininity on them. At the same time imposing abitrary standards of masculinity on men is par for the course.

    You can greet those changes with open arms or clenched fists, as you see fit. If you try to understand why things change the way they do or try to make logical sense of masculinity as a whole, you may drive yourself nuts. Then again, you probably don’t do that for femininity, so why should masculinity have different rules?
    I wager that she (and plenty of other people) is starting from a premise that femininity should be free to change without question but masculinity must be monitored because its inherently harmful or something like that.

    Good one Andrew.

  3. John Anderson says:

    I think the big problem with the end of man discussion is that people insist on a simple answer. Is it the end of man, yes or no? I think it’s a good thing to question whether men making up only 43% of undergraduates and getting only 40% of the degrees is related to bias against men. Maybe masculinity is changing and a lot of men don’t want to enter the rat race anymore, but maybe that’s not the reason for all the men not seeking higher education. Shouldn’t those men who want to go to college and get a high paying job, those who want to follow a traditional masculinity have the opportunity (at least a fair one) to succeed? Chalking that up to masculinity is changing simply puts us in a different box.

    • I think it’s a good thing to question whether men making up only 43% of undergraduates and getting only 40% of the degrees is related to bias against men.
      I don’t think that alone shows bias against males. What I think shows bias against males is when boys in the early years of education show signs of falling behind and instead of recognizing it people respond by saying that the fact that most of today’s CEOs are male means there’s nothing going on. The state of tomorrow’s men cannot be so directly linked to the state of today’s men. The fact that the top CEOs are male doesn’t prove that tomorrow’s men are doing fine.

      Maybe masculinity is changing and a lot of men don’t want to enter the rat race anymore, but maybe that’s not the reason for all the men not seeking higher education. Shouldn’t those men who want to go to college and get a high paying job, those who want to follow a traditional masculinity have the opportunity (at least a fair one) to succeed?
      Possibly. Personally I’m of the mind that the problems start at an earlier point (rather than the usual tactic of looking only at today’s 20 somethings and acting like they exist in a vacuum where their past education had no influence on where they are and what they feel today).

      • John Anderson says:

        @ Danny

        I’m not saying that the fix is at the college level. I think the educational system is biased against boys from the beginning and it contuses through the college years. One telling thing for me is that fewer boys take the SAT, but their average score is higher than the girls. It seems to indicated that grade school and high school are failing boys (lower rate of taking the SAT due to more boys dropping out), but the boys who do make it are better prepared than the girls, which doesn’t explain why they get degrees at a significantly lower rate. That indicates that there is some bias at the college level also.

  4. Hm. It’s not the kind of masculinity that’s seen outside of soft western countries. You know, the useful kind. The kind with aggression and competitiveness, objectivity first, not about feelings so much etc.

  5. I just want to comment a few things on this (I’ll try not to ramble).

    First of all, I’m a Psychology PhD student in England and I am researching masculinity and the categorisations of it (personal and media representations). I genuinely enjoyed reading this. As a female who is studying masculinity I’m often given the glance of ‘really? but you’re female!’ but it’s actually really fascinating and an area that I feel is grossly under-researched. Masculinity is such a fluid concept that I don’t understand how people can just try to pinpoint one specific characteristic as masculine and I find it horrifying that masculine research has commonly been linked to homphobia, bad parenting and violence. I hope to change that.

    ALSO, this is my last part. I feel like that men who write articles like this are the ones who are damaging masculinity and men’s image – this is the kind of entity who is undoing all your hard work at the goodmenproject. Thoughts or at least an article based on this entity’s (I refuse to call him a person) article needs to be written!
    http://mattforney.com/2013/09/16/the-case-against-female-self-esteem/

    • Andrew Smiler says:

      Hi Debbie,

      GOod for you with following your interests. There are a small but growing number of femalie academics who also study masculinity. Follow the link in my bio for Society for Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity – Division 51 of Amer Psychological Assn. (and please check me out in the academic literature.)

      The link was interesting. He’s certainly got a different perspective than what GMP runs. If you’d like to write a response to that post (or on another topic), GMP is always looking for contributors.

    • Oaklander says:

      Andrew, great article. Refreshing. I would share it with my partner.

      Debbie, the article you posted – well, I got about half way through it realized it was too rediculous to read. The individual who wrote is at the least attempting to elicit negative attention, at the most projecting some pretty obvious violence related trauma. I only hope that the latter is not the case, this degree of violence in his perspective would indicate many things went very wrong in his home as a child and young adult.

      Thank you both for sharing

  6. James Dean, Schwarsenegger, grunge movement, etc. these are all stories manufactured by the entertainment industry the people enjoy as escapism for a little while in exchange for money.

    What’s that got to do with anything connected to reality in the lives of real people in a real society?

  7. Hank Vandenburgh says:

    The “delinquents” are the sons of immigrants.

  8. The face of masculinity is changing due the fact that boys are being raised primarily by women. Im ready pfr the onslaught of whatever is coming. But the fact remains that women can never show a boy how to be a man. They can teach love compassion and tenderness, however Men need to pass along the traits.
    I feel as though our societal woes began when the family was fragmented by the need for two parents working out of the home. Without the stable family unit every role in that household changes. Quite honestly men have been villified for years for the decisions they made.
    Then man hating became the norm. Todays television is filied with gee dad dropped the ball again good thing mom has it covered. Or the typical American male only ever watched football and droinks each weekend mentality.
    There are many hard working quiet types that are never portrayed on television. Maybe a guy working with his hands would be refreshing to see. Not every job is in an office. Maybe the idea of working with ones hands could be brought back. Men can/are relatively simple creatures. Feed him, sex him, and praise him.

    • Good point. The detergent commercial where the wife tells the husband “you suck at folding clothes” angers me everytime it’s on. Gee how important is it how you fold clothes? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to fold clothes either, so it is insulting and embarrassing. But don’t get angry at women for this because most likely it is a man who wrote and directed the commercial. I think the media playing on this is what causes some of the rifts between mankind and womankind.

  9. Hello,how are ya’? Well,so much for the pleasantries,let’s debate.You write:”Yet some aspects of masculinity haven’t changed.” You then cite as one aspect, the imposition of the draft,exclusively for men,under threat of severe penalties for noncompliance.Makes sense to me.Allow me to drift off topic for a moment.That men have to be compelled with strong arm tactics to register for the draft strongly implies that the patriarchal connection to war has some inconsistencies.Ok,back to my point.Manhood or masculinity-I trust the terms are interchangable- as you observed it is detached from a man’s character and true nature.Masculinity defined this way doesn’t reflect a man’s organic behavior,his wants,his needs,his inherent strengths and undeniable weaknesses.Instead, from a distance, far away from the roots of his being something/one, seeks to define masculinity for him based upon who they are and what they want.Isn’t an expectation one places on someone else a reflection of what and who they are, rather than who the object of the expectation is?When men accept that masculinity is based solely upon what others expect of him has he not forfeited his identity and therefore also his masculinity? If there are thousands(at least) of different cultures among 7 billion people on earth and countless more have come and gone, then a single definition of masculinity has never truly existed.Ever.So,why keep looking for something that isn’t plausible?Isn’t then the answer to the masculinity question to develop openmindedness?To become flexible enough to change as times often dictate that we must?A point you recognize.There is no need to adopt another frail,fragile,rigid code of conduct defined by the few and vulnerable to the ravages of time.Nor is there a need for a renaissance.As you pointed out definitions change,pressed by the demands of the momnent.What men need they already possess,always have.I mean, anyone can learn to change a damn diaper AND change the oil in a car.It’s not zen.It’s not cute when a man takes care of his child.It just is.I mean WTF?!Yes,they look cute together but not because he’s a man,”being feminine,” or because he’s doing a woman’s job.Let’s be practical,a useful attribute that gets lost in this narrative of me and my feelings. This discussion spends so much time treading water in a stew of feelings we loose sight of what’s real.Feelings don’t exist in our hearts,they live in our brains.Change is impossible without reconditioning one’s brain.Having a change of heart simply isn’t real. If a job or role doesn’t define the person-unless they want it to-what does?Exactly.What they do.Besides,how in the heck is anyone going to convince and account for everyman,woman and child adopting a new definition of masculinity?To do so would be sociopolitically impossible.Trying to do that is how we got into this mess.No organization works well when one division decides to make unilateral changes to the relationship.No one can define masculinity or femininity.How many different ways over the millenia have they been expressed?Knowledge that is lost to us.Don’t they have as much merit as any other?If one has a penis AND has reached adulthood AND identifies as a man,they are masculine.Who has the authority to say otherwise and why would they?

  10. @Andrew I have searched in vain to find a single uniform code that defines or can encompass what masculinity is supposed to be.There was nothing in the dictionaries,science books or books about psychology that was uniform.Two things appear to be agreed upon:The definitions vary according to custom and traditions among people of various cultures.And the agents which it are a combination of nature and nuture.No one has a handle on which and under what contexts these agents act.Therefore,as I type,there are literally untold numbers of definitions simultaneously, in play.This fact is true not just around the world but is also true in America.This strongly suggests how powerful the nuturing agent can be.Growing up in the Haight-Ashbury of the sixties and seventies,I observed among my many friends of different cultures that included:Japanese,Chinese,Russian,Hispanic,Philipino,Caucasion and various Afro cultures,that each had different expectations of the masculine.Reasonably then,there is no such thing as A definition of masculinity.Which is why I continue to critique this phony inclusiveness that is embedded in the so called progressive narration of this issue.Folks who self-identify as progressives should know better than to use language like”men are in crisis” or “we need to reform masculinity”.Who has given them the authority to speak for everyone?What would be helpful for the purposes of furthering this discussion is for them to take a giant step back and check their egos and privilege at the frontdoor of this discussion.How difficult could it be to acknowledge the obvious that the world does not revolve around western concerns or worldviews.Imagine,how many workable,successful models of masculinity are there in the world that are being ignored in this current progressive narrative on all things masculine.The crazy assumption seems to be: 1) the only model of masculinity worthy of due consideration and that has value is western.How in the heck is that an enlightened point of view?How is that a demonstration of empathy and sensitivity?!And let me be clear,progressive women behave as abysmally on this issue as do progressive men.

  11. Tom Brechlin says:

    Ogwriter … how’s it going? Always enjoy reading your responses. LOL, came across this thread while recovering from cleaning up a household mess. You are right on target with what you said. Let’s see …my masculinity today entailed my reaching elbow deep in laundry tubs in that, taking laundry down to the laundry to throw a few loads in on my day off, I discovered there was a clog in the main drain line. Needless to say, the backup was more then dishwater, if you get my drift. I temporarily fixed the problem to where we can get by until the big guns (real plumbers) arrive. Cleaned my self up, got rid of the smell and am now making dinner. Good old fashioned boiled dinner. Started the mix for dumplings so when the wife gets home from out daughters place, we can have a nice meal together. There is no definition of “masculinity.”

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