Why do men feel the need to prove their masculinity?
Last month, as I flew to a conference, I exchanged small-talk with the guy sitting next to me. I asked him about his three kids and he asked me about my eleven-week-old daughter.
I told him that I get paid to study masculinity, which is true. A few minutes later, the flight attendant came by with the beverage cart and I asked for ginger ale. He asked me if that was “manly enough.” I’m still not sure if he was joking.
But “is that manly enough?” is a question that most guys get asked, somewhat regularly, during the first half of their lives. A guy’s masculinity can be questioned anywhere, by almost anyone, for almost anything: backing down from a fight, adopting an unpopular opinion, or expressing feelings—even something as insignificant as ordering a ginger ale.
The research tells us that this kind of pressure starts during elementary school and continues into a guy’s twenties or thirties; it mostly ends when a guy settles down (whatever that means), though it never entirely goes away—remember actor Jack Palance proving that he was still manly by doing one-armed push-ups when he received an Oscar at age seventy-three?
We might ask “why?,” but that seems obvious: it’s about proving that you’re one of the guys. As human beings, we need to feel like we belong to a group. Proving that we fit in—that we’re masculine enough to hang with “the guys,” is necessary in some circumstances.
Joining a fraternity, for example, is one way guys try to prove their masculinity. Often, it involves some form of hazing. And although thousands of young men experience this, there are a few hazing deaths every year. Male athletic teams also haze their players, occasionally to the point of severe injury or death. And this is almost exclusively a male phenomenon; dangerous hazing is almost unheard of among sororities and female athletes.
It’s not just about fraternities and teams; in daily life, when a guy gets called “girly,” or “wuss,” or “fag,” he is likely to feel the need to prove himself. Often, it’s more subtle than that—nobody called out Jack Palance at the Oscars, but he was still determined to prove his manliness.
Psychological studies of masculinity help us understand what’s going on: most guys are of middling masculinity. It doesn’t matter how we measure—most guys score close to the middle of the scale.
The research also tells us that most guys think they’re not as masculine as other guys they know, and most guys don’t think they’re as masculine as they ought to be.
In other words, the typical guy thinks he ought to be more masculine. He’s likely to believe that he’s the least masculine guy in the group. From that perspective, it’s no surprise that guys make the effort to prove their masculinity again and again—and that it doesn’t take much prodding, even when it involves doing something stupid.
If we want to stop needing to prove our masculinity—or at least stop some of the crazy behavior that happens because of it—then there are a few things we can do.
First, we can be realistic about where we stand in comparison to everyone else. The vast majority of guys are only kind of masculine; most guys aren’t overly macho or overly wimpy.
Next, we can ask who we’re trying to prove it to—some stranger that just called us out? A group of friends or “brothers”? Some guy in our heads that we think we’re supposed to imitate, like dad or Stone Cold Steve Austin?
Finally, we should consider the risks and benefits of not responding to every challenge to our masculinity. Does it matter if some stranger doesn’t think I’m masculine enough? Will my friends treat me different or throw me out of the group if I don’t rise to the occasion?
If they do, maybe mom was right, and they’re not really my friends.
Andrew P. Smiler, PhD, is a visiting professor of psychology at Wake Forest University and the president-elect of SPSMM. More information is available on his website.