The strong, silent type has been a manly ideal for a long time, embodied by the likes of Clint Eastwood, James Bond, and John Wayne characters. Tough and stoic, their lack of emotional expression has long been a hallmark of traditional masculinity.
Whereas girls tend to express their emotions more openly, boys learn that sharing their feelings is less than manly. This gender difference seems so obvious that it rarely gets questioned, yet it’s not really clear why emotional stoicism is a key part of the masculine gender role.
After all, other components of masculinity—like aggressiveness, dominance, competitiveness—have some biological roots in boys. Even before birth, males have far higher testosterone levels than females, and this contributes to different temperaments seen very early in life, independent of socialization. On average, young boys are more impulsive, physically active, and have more intense emotional highs than young girls.
These characteristics actually seem inconsistent with greater male stoicism, suggesting that this last component of masculinity is more a product of socialization. Further, the “cool, calm, and collected” image is held as a manly ideal across many cultures, so there’s probably some reason it gets socialized, rather than being a random quirk of culture. So why is stoicism bound up with masculinity?
To begin with, consider that some of our most destructive societal problems—like wars, homicide, and other violent crime—result from extreme cases of male aggression and hyper-competitiveness. While these social problems are not directly about masculine identity, the vast majority of violence is committed by males acting out these macho traits to the excess. Because this has been the main source of violence since the dawn of civilization, society would want to find ways to control this behavior, since laws and the risks to one’s own safety don’t check aggression as much as we’d like.
One crude but far-reaching strategy would be to discourage males from expressing their emotions altogether. It’s not enough to discourage the expression of anger and rage, because violent outbursts are sometime driven by fear, jealousy, envy, shame, humiliation, contempt, and frustration. The safest bet would be to defuse them all. Though you can’t prevent people from having these emotions, you could convince them that hiding their feelings is the very essence of manhood.
Thus, stoicism is linked to masculinity to act as a restraint on the aggressive side of this identity that sometimes runs amok, and we can see the incentive for cultures to do this. All told, this practice has probably prevented countless cases of violent outbursts and many casualties throughout history.
Of course, discouraging men’s emotional expression has other repercussions as well. For one thing, it reinforces the popular stereotype than women experience emotions more than men, when if anything, the opposite may be more true when it comes to emotional extremes.
Second, to succeed in hiding your feelings from others also requires hiding them from yourself, either by ignoring or denying their existence. As a result, masculinity often means not being comfortable with your emotions and having less self-awareness about your own mental functioning.
But what else should we expect when boys learn that “real men” are supposed to cover up their feelings?