The Astoundingly Simple Truth About Masculinity and Goodness

Much is good about masculinity, writes Michael Kaufman, but the devil’s in the details.

You could get into a long debate about the many adjectives we’ve used to describe manhood in order to decide which are really the greatest characteristics of masculinity.

The truth is far simpler.

To answer the question, “What is good about masculinity?”, we need to remind ourselves that:

  • Masculinity doesn’t exist. At least not in the way we think it exists. There is no timeless definition of manhood. It varies from culture to culture, era to era. It’s simply how we define manhood and how we define the relations of power among men and between men and women.
  • That means that masculinity (like femininity) is a collective hallucination. It’s as if we’ve all taken the same drug and walk around imagining that masculinity is real. We might assume it is biological, we might think it comes from being male or female, but in truth, each culture makes it up.
  • Our contemporary ideas of manhood simultaneously do two things: First, they help individual men cement our roles at the top of social hierarchies. They help individual men take advantage of enormous privileges that men as a group enjoy. So, if you’re raised to be assertive, strong, and decisive, if you’re trained not to experience (let alone show) weakness or pain, you’re more able to lord over women or other men in the home, at work, in sports, in politics, in fights, and at war. The ways we raise boys to be real men is basic training for a world of (relative) power and privilege. And, when you don’t have power and privilege, you stoically accept your lot and don’t complain because obviously it’s you who is the problem, not the system.
  • The second thing it does is this—and here’s the great paradox I’ve written about for the past three decades:  the very ideals that confer and represent power and privilege, are a death trap for men. They are a source of enormous pain, isolation, and fear. The reasons are many: To demand that any human not feel or express pain is impossible. To push boys (and men) to ceaselessly prove we’re real men leads to a constant dialogue of self-doubt about making the masculine grade. It leads many men to hide their authentic feelings and to fear closeness to other men, lest they discover your supposed weaknesses. No wonder men are more likely than women to kill ourselves, be addicted to alcohol and other drugs, and fail to get physical or emotional help when we need it. No wonder we die younger.

Which takes us back to the discussion on what’s good about masculinity.

The answer is very simple: Pretty much everything. After all, to be courageous or emotionally strong, to be dedicated to a task, to be physically strong, to see yourself as a sexual creature, to provide for others, are all, simply, human attributes and ones shared by women and men.  All of these (and more) are part of our human birthright.  All are important for our survival.

The Devil, Though, Is in the Details

Devil One is the qualities that got voted off the island. All those things a given culture associates with femininity get denied to men. Men mustn’t over-concern ourselves with nurturing activities. Men mustn’t show weakness or vulnerability. Men mustn’t show love for other men. Men mustn’t be too empathetic. By denying such things (and more), men rob ourselves of huge parts of our human birthright. We become half the men we really could be.

Devil Two is that men learn early on to obsessively pursue the attributes we associate with manhood and avoid the things associated with femininity. Too many men become driven. Too many live in fear (especially when we’re teens and young men) of not being a real man. Too many men learn to disassociate ourselves from many things we feel and to obsessively pursue an iron-plated masculinity. In other words, masculinity isn’t just a gender definition; it is a fear-based construction.

Devil Three is the assumption that women don’t share the positive qualities we associate with manhood. Furthermore, male-dominated cultures have denigrated and belittled the qualities we associate with femininity.

So, rather than talk about what’s good about masculinity, I’d rather encourage both boys and girls, men and women to do two things: To celebrate and nurture the human qualities that are good for us all. And, secondly, to allow for true individuality: yes, some of us will be more one thing or another. Let’s let our boys and girls be those things without wedging them into the miserable world of pink and blue.

—Photo storymary/Flickr

About Michael Kaufman

Michael Kaufman is a writer and educator who’s worked for 30 years engaging men and boys to promote gender equality and transform our ideas of good men. He’s the co-founder of the White Ribbon Campaign, the largest effort in the world of men working to end violence against women. Author of 9 books, his latest is The Guy’s Guide to Feminism. @GenderEQ


  1. PatRiarchy says:

    Our contemporary ideas of manhood simultaneously do two things: First, they help individual men cement our roles at the top of social hierarchies. They help individual men take advantage of enormous privileges that men as a group enjoy.

    Would you please list these privileges.

    Is it the privilege to be killed at work.

    Is it the privilege to have no rights or choices like a female at the instant a pregnancy occurs?

    Is it the privilege to have the education system stacked against you so that more females attend university than men?

    Every time I ask for a list of all our privileges I get no answer. Please explain.

  2. On word… Testosterone. The natural conclusion should follow. Intellectualize that all you like.

  3. David Byron says:

    I didn’t know I was supposed to be able to lord it over women.
    Does anyone want to help me test this one out?

  4. Matt Casto says:

    We live in a world where manhood is not clearly defined. I think that we need to make a go at reestablishing the traditional values of manhood but done so within the context of gender equality, cultural diversity, social adaptation and globalization. I have five boys and the way forward for them as men is not very clear. I knew what it meant to be a man when I was a teenager. My boys are not so fortunate. I the problem is mainstream society do not know what it means to be a man anymore. I am even confused. In the quest for acceptance and equality we have lost manhood. I spend a lot of time with my boys and my primary objective is to help them discover their definition of manhood. It has definitely change since I was a boy and together we are finding the journey quite fulfilling. Together we are becoming men!

  5. Michelle Milenkova says:

    Yo you guys are trippin mad balls, nobodys training you so stop over analyzing life. If you wanna cry then cry if you wanna be a leader then lead and if someone says you can’t do something cuz ur a boy or a girl tell em to suck it and dont kick it with that person anymore. Don’t look at society as a whole because it’s disorganized and hypocritical, just deal with the individuals that give you problems. If everyone did that everything would just be easier

  6. It would be interesting to find out whether, in cultures where men are not required to take setbacks with quiet stoicism, if the suicide / alcohol abuse rate is much lower…

  7. The Bad Man says:

    I have to agree with the central tenet of not implying gender roles for boys and girls. Now lets follow through with that and campaign to stop violence against everyone. How about some “equality”, hmmmm Kaufman?

  8. Peter Houlihan says:

    “they help individual men cement our roles at the top of social hierarchies. They help individual men take advantage of enormous privileges that men as a group enjoy.”

    I take huge exception to this. Firstly, it ignores female privilege, secondly, it ignores women doing exactly the same thing.

    Other than that I’m not sure I agree with the idea that masculinity is purely social, the asethetic expression of masculinity varies enormously accross different cultures, but the root characteristics are the same. That said, biology isn’t destiny and I think a deconstruction of gender would serve us all better than to lionise masculinity (or femininity).

  9. Ben Kling says:

    I agree with most of this, but I have trouble with the position that men are “trained not to experience (let alone show) weakness or pain.”
    I think they’re trained not to recognize or acknowledge it, but ignoring or hiding the thorn in your side out of shame or a sense of duty doesn’t mean you’re not experiencing it.

Speak Your Mind