Rethinking Men

What masculinity means in the 21st century.

Man Up!

When are men really men?

One of my friends explained her break-up with her husband: "He wasn't man enough for me." Synchronicity being what it is, unexpected, some of the women in my class (I teach a course on men) were complaining about men. Elizabeth said "They need to man up. " I asked what that meant. Melinda explained: "When you go out with them, they order white wine and baguettes! It's like going on a date with my sister!" As we all laughed, she added: "They need to hit on us more!" Who knew? I thought that all this hitting on women was a problem, and gave men a bad name, and was borderline sexual harassment. But perhaps that only applies to an older generation. Or perhaps it's a problem until it stops, and then there is a bigger problem—then the old problem seems more like a solution, when men were men, and... Who knows?

Anyway, it's a bit different for guys, who (if they knew the phrase, not everyone did) said it applied to encouraging some guy to (as Nike has it) "Just Do It!"—finish the job, ask her out, lift it. I recently moved and, as two guys struggled with a loaded filing cabinet, I overheard one guy say to the other: "Man up!"—which takes us back also to traditional masculinity as strength.

There is some support for my female students' views. A recent British study found that 61% of young British men said that they did not "feel masculine" compared to only 35% of the men born from the 1920s to the 1940s (The Brylcreem Mandom Survey, 2008). (What does masculinity feel like?) Again, it is shown in the mama's boy phenomenon: in the UK, the Office of National Statistics reports that almost one-third of men and one-fifth of women aged between 20 and 34 still live at home (BBC News 15.4.09). The young men are comfortable in their nests and do not want to face the world. Hollywood has picked this up. In "Failure to Launch" (2006), a serial womanizer played by Matthew McConaughey, has to be lured out of his parents' home; and in "Made of Honor" (2008), another serial womanizer played by Patrick Dempsey finally decides to commit. These are all the new boy-men, manettes.

"Man up" is the theme in "Gran Torino", in which a racist Korean War vet (played by Clint) befriends a young man being bullied by his family and by a local gang. He tries to teach him to be a man, first by working him hard, physically, and then by example. He eventually figures out that the only way to protect the boy and his family from the gang is to provoke them to kill him (he was dying anyway), which they obligingly did, and were promptly arrested. The boy gets the girl and the Gran Torino, but the unfortunate message is that to exemplify manhood, you might have to die. (But you will anyway).

In "Iron John" the poet Robert Bly described many contemporary young men as "soft". He described them as "lovely, valuable people," gentle but not happy and with low energy: "life-preserving but not exactly life-giving" (1990:2-3). He suggested that the reason for this apparent demise or decline of masculinity was primarily father absence due to work, since the Industrial Revolution, but also due to divorce and desertion, prison, addictions, early deaths or emotional aridity. Bly argued that it takes a man to teach a boy how to be a man. This may well be so, but father-absence is not something new.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

A second factor is relative peace, thank goodness. In past centuries, men have almost always had to be prepared for war. In that sense, men have always known who they were: potential fighters and heroes, and dead.

A third factor is the prevailing culture of misandry, generated by so many, but not all, feminists and pro-feminists. This male negativism in popular culture, based in victim feminism, blames men for the real and alleged oppression of women—but ignores the adversities of men and boys, and also the victimizing women in class and race systems—and must have a negative impact on men. Minority men, Blacks, Hispanics and Muslims, are probably the prime victims of misandric attitudes and policies. Women are not the only victims in this life, and misandry is psychic castration.

This misandry will be discussed in another post, but has been extensively researched by Paul Nathanson and Katherine Young (2001, 2006).

A fourth factor is the rapid and deep changes in gender relations since the 50s, and the invention of the pill. The pill facilitated a rapid decline in fertility, which in turn facilitated a rapid increase in women, freed from their biology, into the labour force. The 60s witnessed almost simultaneously the sexual revolution, the women's movement and the gay rights movement, which in turn generated the fledgling men's movements in the 70s, polarized between asserting women's rights or men's rights. The debates over rights and entitlement persist with BGLTI rights. But as occupations were integrated, and rights equalized, so masculinity was being re-defined.

The bread-winner and provider role is now shared or, often, reversed, and the warrior role is now optional and open to both sexes. In the recent meltdown of the U.S. economy, about 82% of the jobs lost have been men's jobs, 2.7 million: in manufacturing, banking, construction etc (NYT 6 Feb 09). And more since then. The re-definition of male roles and masculinity is accelerating, as are female roles and, presumably, femininity—and in opposite directions: each replacing the other. The old gender roles do persist to a degree in terms of self-concepts and occupational distribution, but with nothing like the same rigidity.

Anthony Synnott, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology at Concordia University in Montreal.

more...

Subscribe to Rethinking Men

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?