Discussions about a "crisis in masculinity" are widespread. What is the nature of the crisis? It apparently has to do with contemporary uncertainties about what is masculinity, uncertainties over social roles and identity, sexuality, work, and personal relationships. But is it a crisis in masculinity or is it a crisis in the relationships between men and women?
Can We Really Define Masculinity?
Usually, masculinity is defined in terms of various lists of traits or characteristics. However, there is no authoritative list of such traits. The list can vary with time, situation, and culture, for example. There are several strategies that try to sort out the type of person who is masculine:
- The Trait Theory or 'Men are from Mars Women Are From Venus' Theory. Social scientists want to define masculinity as those traits on a psychological scale that differentiate between men and women. The best outcome would be that there is no overlap—like Mars and Venus. Never happens!
- The Norm Approach. What is masculine is what ought to be for men, not just what is. Never happens—turns out men are different from each other not just from women.
- The Symbol of Masculinity. This is the strategy by which what is masculine is the symbolic standard and femininity is defined as lacking that star quality. The current best symbol that stands for masculinity is Testosterone—get it at your local drugstore—be sexy, strong, powerful!
We now have added the idea of toxic masculinity in which people rethink certain masculine traits such as aggression and self-entitlement, which are now viewed as bad. Identifying bad masculinity preserves the idea of good masculinity. It is bad masculinity that causes bullying, sexual harassment, misogyny, and negative health outcomes for men.
While some people talk about toxic masculinity, others rail against what they see as an attack on manhood itself. They see a global crisis in masculinity. An example is Jordan Peterson, a Canadian Psychologist and author, who laments that the West has lost faith in masculinity. He views feminism as an emasculating force; that men ought to be allowed to be unapologetically tough, ambitious, competitive, and forceful. He denounces the “murderous equity doctrine” that women argue for.
And, then, we have the incels—men who blame women for their inability to attract a mate. The word is a contraction of “involuntary celibate.” Peterson offers “enforced monogamy” as a societal cure for incels and other disgruntled young men.
Masculinity Is Linked to Femininity
The idea of ‘masculinity’ does not exist except in contrast with ‘femininity.’ Cultures that do not treat men and women as polarized opposites do not have a concept of masculinity in the way it is used in modern American and European cultures.
Using ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ came with the industrial revolution and the middle-class notion that men live in the world ‘outside’ and women live in the ‘inside’ world. The heightened gender differentiation of this era morphed into biologically determined, timeless truths about masculinity.
The rapid economic, social, and technological changes occurring in the 21st century resulted in large numbers of uprooted and bewildered men in the quest for the masculine identity. We have moved from the traditional sources of manliness to become what Susan Faludi calls the ‘ornamental culture’—ruled by commercial values that are defined by who has the most, the best, the biggest, and the fastest.
It’s a Crisis of Gender, Not Masculinity
While men continue to struggle with how masculine they are, women are not struggling with their femininity. Women are blowing up the whole gender thing. Women are looking to enter the ‘outside’ world of men. They want men to enter their ‘inside’ world, to share power and authority inside and outside. This is the crisis that threatens the idea of masculinity you see expressed in the protest of such men as Peterson and the ‘incels.’
The crisis of masculinity is, thus, a crisis of gender. To talk about ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ is to talk about gender relationships—the patterns by which men and women engage with each other dictated by the idea that they belong to different spheres of life.
Can Men and Women Interact Without ‘Doing Gender’?
The crisis in gender relations is all around us…at home, a work, and in the public arena.
What about a husband who is exhausted from work and wants some support from his wife when he comes home? And, husbands of working wives are being divorced because they don’t do their fair share. To do gender … or not?
Subtly reinforcing gender-differentiated roles for you and your spouse in your marriage creates your own private ‘gender factory.’ Household tasks as well as other family activities must be negotiated not assigned by gender. Being able to negotiate collaboratively is the alternative model of a relationship to doing things by gender.
At the Office
Without the avid support of men, usually the most powerful people in an organization, significant progress toward ending gender disparities is unlikely. For men to be ‘male allies’—men committed to building de-gendered relationships with women—in the business world, it is important to be aware of the cost of acting as an ally:
- Wimp Penalty—being perceived as less competent, i.e. less masculine.
- Using Feminist Cliches—women are skeptical about men who spout worn-out feminist clichés such as “My mother taught me to respect women.”
- Pedestal Effect—when men are given special shout outs for even small acts of gender equality.
There are ways to be a better ally to women. Here are a few suggestions:
- First, listen—focus, don’t interrupt, value her experience.
- Get comfortable being uncomfortable—learning and advocating for gender equity will not be easy.
- Engage in supportive partnerships with women—ask how you can share your social capital (influence, organizational resources, etc.).
Hostile sexism is decreasing in the public arena. But, ‘benevolent sexism,’ while not appearing harmful to women, tends to reinforce the status quo—restrict gender equity. The table below shows a few typical benevolent attitudes and the stereotypical ideas on which they are based:
People—men in particular—don’t often identify “benevolent sexism” as a form of gender-based prejudice. Complimenting a woman on her looks may be just a compliment—in some circumstances. But complimenting an author on her appearance rather than on the content of her writing—or mentioning how surprising it is that she is a woman since her field is mostly filled with men is a different story.
It’s a Crisis in the Relationship Between Men and Women
I started out examining the idea of a crisis in masculinity and ended up seeing it as an ongoing crisis in the quality of the relationship between men and women. Screw ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity.’ Things are changing and it is not easy. We can do it!
- There is no definitive definition of ‘masculinity.’
- The concepts of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ came with the idea that men belong in the ‘outside’ world and women in the ‘inside’ world.
- We do not have ‘masculinity’ without ‘femininity.’
- The so-called crisis in ‘masculinity’ is a crisis in gender relations.
- It is time for men and women to negotiate a new, better kind of relationship.
1. Connell, R.W. Masculinities. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
2. Connell, Masculinities
3. Faludi, Susan. Stiffed: The Betrayl of the American Man. New York: William Morrow Paperbacks, 2000.
4. Aponte, Catherine. A Marriage of Equals. Berkeley: She Writes Press, 2019,