Masculine traits are defined differently in various cultures and societies throughout the world. These traits are formed over time by social and historical factors that eventually culminate in cultural norms around how people view each other and their respective roles in society.
For Americans, this is no different, and various moments in history have contributed to forming what we today view as masculine in American society. In order to gain a more nuanced understanding of American masculinity in today’s world, one must first understand the influence of American history.
The Origins of America
Throughout most of history, societies have held men as superior to women and, as a result, offer men more mobility, agency, and rights. When it comes to the inception of the United States of America, these ideas were commonplace among most people, including our founding fathers. Quotes from the declaration of independence, such as “all men were created equal,” shows that women were an afterthought in the founding of American society. This displays a feeling among early American men that women were second class, which would then imply that men were first class.
While this is not to paint a picture of all men being monsters, it is telling that within the constitution itself, men on the United States were put at the forefront of American society and the American government. These are the foundational roots from which American masculinity would evolve and eventually become what they are today.
Before World War II
Before World War II, masculinity in American society could be characterized by stereotypical ideas surrounding masculinity. These traits that characterize masculinity included strength, bravery, toughness, and even aggression. Men were still seen as the most important members of society whose roles were to work, provide, and build the country that was evolving with each passing day. These sentiments were reflected by politician Henry Clay’s quote that America was a “nation of self-made men.”
These ideas being emphasized by politicians further reinforced perceptions that masculinity involved men acting in ways to prove themselves through working hard and showing that they were tough, hardened men. While there was no indication that this would change, WWII would bring about a striking shift in the way masculinity was perceived and experienced.
The Effects of World War II on American Masculinity
WWII would have a significant and striking effect on what masculinity meant in American society. Whereas working certain jobs and providing money for families used to characterize the typical masculine men in American society, this was no longer the case once a large portion of men left to fight in the war. This left women with the duties of working and providing for their families. This changed what it meant to be a man by introducing the idea that women were capable of performing the same duties as men while they were away. While it might’ve seemed like things would have returned to normal once men returned from war, this wasn’t always the case.
The effects of trauma and physical injury left many men returning from war unable to work in the same capacity that they used to. As a result, some women had to continue acting as the breadwinners for their families while men were beginning to adopt more domestic roles. While this wasn’t the case for everyone, it was a common enough occurrence to begin to shift ideas about masculinity and what it meant to be a man in American society.
Though the aftermath of WWII began to force some shifts in perception, the 1950s still clung to some traditional, stereotypical views of masculinity and what it meant to develop into a so-called “proper man”. These values would be tested and rebelled against as a result of the hippie and countercultural movements that spread through America like wildfire in the 1960s. In many ways, the American youth began to radically oppose many commonplace norms of American society, including masculinity and what it meant to be a real man.
As a result, men began growing long hair, which at the time in American society was only typical for women. In addition, the hippie movement did not value toughness and aggression the way traditional values around masculinity did. This caused a widespread change in perception and affected even those Americans who didn’t agree with these views. As the young hippie generation that ushered in changes around masculinity grew older, their views began to cement themselves in the American ethos.
Masculinity in Modern American Society
Though many are still critical of masculinity in American society today, America has made progress in the last hundred or so odd years. Whereas in the 1930s, professional psychologists were warning parents that taking baths or writing in diaries were warning signs that boys weren’t developing properly, today, a lot of effort is being made to ensure that men and women are afforded similar opportunities in all fields of culture.
While some may still not view today’s American society as being progressive enough with its ideas around masculinity, there is still solace to be taken in the fact that it is generally accepted that men and women are equal, even if it’s only on the surface.
While, since the inception of the nation, men have made up a greater percentage of the population as college degree holders, a few years ago, women surpassed men. This speaks to the ways in which society has evolved and how expectations around women living domestic lives have shifted. At this point in time, both men and women are generally expected to work in adulthood, showing that values are nowhere near where they were only decades ago. This also makes apparent the significant evolution of education in America in a short span of time.
Understanding the Roots of Masculinity
While many have critical thoughts about masculinity in today’s American society, a short study of history shows that things have gotten significantly better in the last hundred years. While there are still areas in which American society can improve in regard to perceptions of masculinity, it is likely that there are more changes to come in the coming decades.
In the same ways that no one was able to predict seismic shifts around masculinity in the past, American society may change in ways that we can’t yet predict.
This content is made possible by Andrew Deen
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