Changing Perceptons of Masculinity

Stereotypically, manhood is considered to be a static, timeless inner essence that is characteristic of every man. Contrary to popular belief, masculinity is neither timeless, nor static; it is historical (Kimmel, 2009). It is also not a manifestation of inner essence, manhood is socially constructed (Kimmel, 2009). Our definitions of masculinity are constantly changing and it is not always easy to predict what direction manhood is going to take next. In my paper, I tried to understand what the current generation of young adults thinks about the concept of masculinity and how it is going to develop in future.

A problem of masculinity has gained attention of researchers with an appearance of a masculinity crisis concept. Before this time the question of masculinity had not been raised within a framework of social sciences. This has happened since the views on men were dictated by patriarchal positions, per which men have always been associated with power and authority (Horrocks, 1994). The fact some men were not in position of power or authority has not been challenged, but it has not been thoroughly researched either. However, the time has come when it became impossible to not analyze “problematic” men. Furthermore, perception and self-awareness of both men and women has changed, which also contributed to the necessity of farther research on the uncertain issue.

“Masculinity crisis” is a metaphor that implies inability of a man to perform traditionally assumed gender roles (Horrocks, 1994). In regards to this theory, society views men in this category as failures. Some researchers see the root of a problem in men as gender class or social group not being able to live up to demands of a particular time period (Horrocks, 1994). Their policies, activities, their perceptions of how to be a man, and especially their group identity do not comply with modern social conditions and have to be radically altered and reimagined. In other words, men have to make a step forward (Horrocks, 1994).

Other authors, conversely, see a threat to “natural” foundations of human civilization in social processes loosening male hegemony. Such authors encourage men (who by them are considered traditional protectors of stability and order) to end this degradation and return society back to “tranquil” and “sustainable” past. However, if “natural” foundations of human civilization are critically evaluated, it becomes evident that men along with institutional privileges have to face a number serious problems (Kimmel, 2009). The most representative account of these problems was given by Michael Messner who pointed out three specific factors of men’s public life.

First factor states that men as a group use institutional privileges at the expense of women as a group (Messner, 1997). Second factor reveals that narrow definitions of masculinity promising men high status and privileges are achieved by paying a price of having superficial interpersonal relationships, poor health, and premature mortality (Messner, 1997). Third factor documents that inequality of distributing patriarchal benefits applies not only to women, but also men mortality (Messner, 1997). Hegemonic masculinity of white heterosexual men of middle and upper class is constructed opposing not only femininities, but also to subordinate (racially, sexually and class) males (Kimmel, 2009).

Evidently, factors of male public life have both pos itive and negative aspects, which are directly connected to masculinity.

What exactly is masculinity and what is problematic about it? A more adequate understanding of the masculinity can be found in sociological approach to it. In constructionist approach masculinity is viewed as a product of culture, which has different variations, but simultaneously poses a number of policies, roles, standards of behavior, hierarchies of values characteristic of men in a specific society. In other words, masculinity is a social construction, an assembly of social perceptions about how to be a man and what qualities he should possess (Fausto-Sterling, 2000).

Notably, a sociological approach takes variability of masculinity concept into consideration. Partly, this variability can be seen in the fact that masculinity, like other gender categories, does not have uniform definition.

The term “hegemonic masculinity” is well settled in sociology of sex and gender. Hegemonic masculinity “legitimizes men’s dominant position in society and justifies the subordination of women, and other marginalized ways of being a man” (Connell, 2005). Hegemonic masculinity has been historically maintained through persuasion, the division of labor and the involvement of the state (Carrigan, et al., p.594); however, I believe that today such hegemony is much less evident than before.

Since its introduction, a number of theorists argued that masculinities exist in relations of hierarchy, dominated by hegemony operating through consent rather than force (Hearn, p.52). Therefore, nowadays, we can see less hegemonic masculinity in its traditional definition

In today’s reality, the concept of hegemonic masculinity is not clear enough and carries a number of contradictions, which results in failing to demonstrate the autonomy of gender system (Hearn, p. 58). It is unclear what has to be considered a demonstration of hegemonic masculinity. One of the examples of such ambiguity is men’s greater involvement in parenting (Hearn, p. 58). Does it indicate an increase in hegemonic masculinity? The answer would vary by individual; therefore, a classic concept of hegemonic masculinity cannot be universally applied without causing multiple contradictions.

Previously, men have been studied in context of a homogeneous group. However, domination of women is not an inevitable practice of all men as it was thought to be before. Male domination is a dynamic system constantly reproduced and re-constituted through gender relations under changing conditions, including resistance by subordinate groups (Carrigan, et al., p. 598). I believe that current reality leans more towards an idea of a hybrid masculinity, so original idea of hegemony is rather dated.

“Hegemony” refers to a historical situation in which a power is won and held, involving clear division of labor (Carrigan, et al., 594). I think that today these aspects are blurred, to say the least. We can see both men and women involved in a variety of occupations and social statuses, thus this original definition is hardly applied in reality.

Today, American men have undergone a number of transformations towards more “emotionally expressive” performances of masculinity (Bridges and Pacoe, 248). Men today are more likely to be involved as parents or cry in public. I think that this indicates a shift towards hybrid masculinities in society.

Another indication of a decrease in masculinity hegemony is decreasing “homohysteria”. More men no longer fear to be “homosexualized”. Moreover, disapproval of homosexuality is decreasing (Bridges and Pacoe, 248)

I conducted a series of interviews to better understand what modern young adults aged from 18 to 21 think about masculinity. These interviews provoked interesting reactions, which prove that current generation of male young adults find themselves facing a dilemma concerning their masculine identity.

Stereotypically, traditional masculinity is portrayed as completely opposing everything feminine. Traditional male has to fulfill the role of being dominant, emphatic, and tough. Every single one of my interviewees admitted to be raised in an atmosphere that reinforced traditional masculine behavior. For every one of them, their upbringing has been based on trying to live up to prescribed notions of masculinity. Since early childhood, everyone has been prevented from expressing their true feelings and emotions that were considered not masculine either by peers or family members. Crying has always been out of the question for each person I interviewed.

Most of the stories shared by my interlocutors may seem preposterous, but every person had similar experiences growing up. These stories vary from trivial daily interactions to extraordinary life events. For example, one person shared a story about his father not buying him a pink polo shirt, which was considered unmanly by his parents. Not only was he denied, but also publicly made fun of by his own father. Another interviewee was teased in school, because he used to interact with girls more than with boys, which was considered not manly by his peers. In one of more exceptional cases, one of my interviewees injured his ankle (which after a week turned out to be broken) and did not tell anyone about it, because he considered it to be an indication of his weakness.

These interviews also made me look back at my own childhood. When I was at elementary school, I had a “problem” with crying. I used to cry at the slightest pretext and could never hold back my tears. Whenever I had to cry, I always ran away to a place where nobody could see me. If someone saw me crying, I immediately got teased and insulted. I always felt very ashamed when it happened, because I thought I did not live up to the notion of masculinity. Even when I told my parents about this, they just told me to “not be a girl” and to “man up”.

Two of my interviewees indicated that they felt pressure from their peers just because of their appearance. One person was taunted because he was skinny and weak. Another one was mocked because of his height. Both reported being told hurtful things that undermined their masculine identity.

The dilemma this generation is facing concerns the way they want to bring up their children. Everyone stated that they do not have any regrets about their own upbringing. However, some of them felt that their parents (specifically fathers) could depend less on traditional masculine stereotypes and exercise a more emotional parenting style.

Four of my interviewees stated that they all looked up to their fathers who they considered as “real men” and their role models. Despite this fact, many of them describe their relationships with their fathers as rather distant. For example, one of my interlocutors told me that he was often afraid to share his emotions with his own father, because he thought that it could be considered a sign of vulnerability. In another case, my interviewee once told his father about being teased in school. In response, his father told him to “behave more manly” among his peers, which seemed to my interviewee like a “universal answer” he got from his dad. Another interviewee grew up without a father, but still has always been told to “be a man” by his mother. Despite absence of a father, “being a man” was a universal solution to every problem.

A pattern that I noticed in their responses is uncertainty about parenting styles they would want to utilize in raising their own children. Naturally, since everyone is pleased with how they were raised, they assume that such traditional parenting style worked when it was applied to them and they would probably want to apply a successful parenting style to their children.

However, young people today are in a peculiar predicament in that they have grown up with traditional gender ideals but are now having to choose between them and a new world view. The traditional paradigm asserts that sex and gender are one and the same. As a child, I heard them used interchangeably, and it is only recently that there has been a distinction. The contemporary view is that sex is biological but gender is sociocultural, which means that gender is determined through learned characteristics, cultural expectations, and behavioral patterns. It exists on a spectrum. In other words, you are born male or female, but your gender identity is your individual self-perception of what it means to be feminine or masculine. In this way, elements of the nature-nurture debate are combined. Although young adults today feel that they were well raised, they believe that they would have to employ a parenting style that combines traditional and progressive components. Implications of progressive components include more emotional parenting, less emphasis on gender roles, and absence of traditional masculinity stereotypes.

For example, one of my interviewees told me that would want his children not to be afraid of sharing their emotions with him just because he is their father. Another one stated that he does not want his children to see him as a “real man”, because he feels that such a stereotype about their own father does not provide a lot of “wiggle room” and would restrict his children from “embracing their true selves” if they look up to a stereotypical father figure.

Everybody claimed he stereotype of emotional stoicism in men is not only invalid but harmful. One of my interviewees even claimed that “it is rooted in false logic and outdated ideas”. Rather than a set of fixed attributes, masculinity is a fluid process of creating one’s identity that varies from person to person. The same thing can logically be said of femininity. One of them told me that their children should understand that “people must to be treated based on their personality and character rather than their association with a group”. I believe that there is no universal image of manliness, therefore these stereotypes are nothing more than an attempt to simplify our understanding of a complex world.

In order to understand the way, in which such stereotypes about masculinity are harmful it is important to examine older men. Traditionally, growing older provided men with status and earned them a kind of veneration from others. However, lately the new practice of “separate spheres” and a “cult of youth” has become more dominant than traditional hegemonic constitution producing new forms of domination and promoting gerontophobic masculinity ideals (Thompson & Langendoerfer, p. 120). This makes it hard for researchers to clearly identify current masculinity standard for older men. Using Brannon’s four-dimensional model of the cultural guidelines for being a man and examples, I am going to ascertain the degree to which grandfatherhood is simply a manifestation of traditional masculinity.

The first guideline is “No sissy stuff”. I believe that this guideline clearly illustrates traditional masculine behavior. Since childhood, most men are dictated by this principle. For example, older men do not tend to seek medical attention when they experience not very serious health problems. Moreover, they may live with chronic pains to not show their “weakness”. Older men also tend to hide their feelings and emotions. Research shows that such behavior is framed by “No sissy stuff” principle (Thompson & Langendoerfer, p. 123).

“The Big Wheel” guideline states that men must strive to be respected and admired (Thompson & Langendoerfer, p. 122). After reaching retirement, masculine identities shift from work to “being active” and “doing something useful”. Storytelling is an example of “The Big wheel” guideline indication in older men. They include performance of identity in their narrative blending in “big stories” and “small stories”, reflecting broader cultural discourse about working hard and their life experiences (Thompson & Langendoerfer, p. 127). Retired men may also find new activities and new spaces to reinforce their masculinities. Examples of such activities may include care work or volunteering (Thompson & Langendoerfer, p. 130).

“The Sturdy Oak” dimension is characterized by remaining calm even in the most hectic and frightening situations and handle difficult problems (Thompson & Langendoerfer, p. 122). Older men tend to show themselves capable of controlling their bodies and lives despite implications. Some older men consider their ability to live with health problems a masculinity practice. An example of this may be not seeking medical attention, because enduring can be considered masculine (Thompson & Langendoerfer, p. 131). Another example is how widowed men usually quickly adapt to losing a wife. Even when they admit being depressed and shocked, they immediately say how the rebounded from this situation (Thompson & Langendoerfer, p. 132).

“Give ’em Hell” dimension illustrates the never give up “tough guy” and living life on the edge persona (Thompson & Langendoerfer, p. 122). This dimension is very distinctive of young men, but as men age, they are less prone to take risks (Thompson & Langendoerfer, p. 133). Older men tend to take risks by usual trait of avoiding healthcare and even defying rehabilitation restrictions after experiencing something serious like cardiac arrest (Thompson & Langendoerfer, p. 134). Furthermore, some older men’s decision to end their lives by suicide or euthanasia is driven by “give ’em hell” guidelines. This is seen as a “manly” way to end their suffering (Thompson & Langendoerfer, p. 136).

The mental health of older men is an understudied issue in social science; however, it is widely accepted that grandfather involvement and meaningful family relations can mitigate the effects of depression in aging men (Bates & Taylor, p. 229). Research shows that involved grandfathers have more positive affect associated with mental health than disengaged grandfathers. Moreover, involved grandfathers have much less depressive symptoms than disengaged grandfathers. Grandfathers benefit emotionally from their interaction with grandchildren (Bates & Taylor, p. 236). For example, many mental health specialists encourage older men to participate in frequent contact with grandchildren to lessen the risk of developing depression. Meaningful and involved interaction with grandchildren can largely contribute to individual’s mental health of older men. Those who are less engaged are at higher risk of developing depression symptoms (Bates & Taylor, p. 237). Hence, it is evident that in order to avoid possible mental health problems it is important for men to step away from masculine stereotypes and reveal their more emotional and caring side.

Apparently, current young adults are amidst the occurring shift in perceptions of masculinity. They are facing a dilemma concerning the way they would want their children to be raised. Even though they have no major regrets about their own upbringing, they understand that their parents usually blindly promoted traditional gender stereotypes, which in some cases can deal more harm than good to a child.

All in all, every one of my interviewees stated that it is too late for them to change and abandon the notion of masculinity, which they were raised with. Nonetheless, they are willing to try and raise their children using a more progressive parenting style that is more caring, more emotional, and stereotype-free.


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