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Outdated Blueprints of Masculinity Often Sabotage Older Men

Men who cling to stereotypical ideas of manliness struggle to adapt as they age.

tommaso lizzul/Shutterstock
Source: tommaso lizzul/Shutterstock

As men age, we often cling to outdated socialized expectations of “what it means to be a man” that we learned throughout our youth. According to a recent report, sticking to a rigid blueprint of masculinity can leave older men blindsided by the potential vulnerability and fragility that accompanies old age.

The findings of this recent report—co-authored by Edward Thompson Jr. and Kaitlyn Langendoerfer—were published in the journal Men and Masculinities.

A few years ago, Thompson and Langendoerfer asked themselves, “Does the cultural blueprint for ‘being a man’ direct older men into patterns of conduct and emotions similar to younger men?” To find an answer to this question, they delved into narrative data on masculinity collected from nearly 100 previously published studies.

They found that the stereotypically masculine "script" used by older men in the early 21st century was deeply rooted in the 20th century four-dimensional “Blueprint of Manhood.” This construct of what it "meant to be a man" was published in 1976 by sociologist Robert Brannon in his seminal book, The Forty-Nine Percent Majority.

Brannon’s groundbreaking research cobbled together an American model of manhood that boiled down to these basic four core tenets.

  1. No Sissy Stuff: Openness and vulnerability were viewed as wimpy and effeminate. Men were to avoid acting feminine at all costs and show no weaknesses, which meant bottling up intimate or emotional aspects of their lives.
  2. The Big Wheel: Men were expected to gain respect from their colleagues and to strive for power. There was a premium put on financial success, social status, and a need to be looked up to.
  3. The Sturdy Oak: ‘Manly men’ were expected to project an aura of confidence and self-reliance. The ‘strong, silent type’ who projected grace under pressure at all times was idealized.
  4. Give ‘Em Hell!: Being a man was also tied to toughness, testosterone-fueled aggression, and living life on the edge through an outgoing spirit of adventure.

Creating a simplified four-dimensional construct of the male sex role in 20th-Century American society made it easier for Brannon (and other sociologists and anthropologists) to deconstruct the facets of masculinity.

Interestingly, the narratives recently unearthed by Thompson and Langendoerfer still echoed Brannon’s four-dimension model of being an American man from forty years ago. In a statement to Wake Forest University, Langendoerfer explains,

"Who you are in the past is embedded in you. Men have trouble dealing with older age because they've followed a masculinity script that left little room for them to negotiate unavoidable problems.

In our study, we hear men struggling with grief, which is a vulnerable state, and caregiving, which is associated with femininity. If they must cry, men feel it's to be done in the home, away from others, even when their spouse has died. They have to renegotiate their masculinity in order to deal with what life is bringing their way.

We need to better understand how older men adapt to their stressors—high suicide rates, emotions they stifle, avoiding the doctor—to hopefully help them build better lives in older age." 

In my opinion, this is very tricky (but exciting) territory. Societal hallmarks of manliness are rapidly evolving... or are they? It is practically impossible for me to be objective about this topic. I've lived in Provincetown, Massachusetts full-time for most of the past decade and my views on masculinity are probably biased.

That said, since reading about this study last week, I’ve been filtering the findings through three different lenses. First, as a middle-aged man (well past my prime) I’m on the verge of fitting the demographic of this study. Second, as a gay man who was born in 1966, my constructs of what it means to be an American male have been skewed by my sexual orientation. Lastly, my pre-adolescent experiences during the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s became a part of my DNA because my mother was a political activist who took to the streets to fight for gender equality.

“I am Woman Hear Me Roar, In Numbers Too Big to Ignore”

“I Am Woman” by Helen Reddy was my mother’s anthem when I was growing up in the 70s. As a gay ultra-endurance athlete decades later—it became one of my anthems. This song probably became part of my DNA on an epigenetic level in 1975 when I was nine years old.  

Because my mom was both non-violent and militant in her fight for women’s rights, she always seemed more of an admirable “give ‘em hell” role model than my dad. In the 1970s, he still wanted to fit into the Ivy League “old boys club” described as the “big wheel” by Brannon. He strived to maintain the status quo. But, my father became more of a “give ‘em hell” type later in his life.... And, then, my mom had to become the “sturdy oak” after their marriage fell apart and he moved overseas, abandoning his family.

This is where the parental stereotypes of gender start to dissolve for me and create a type of pansexuality where each of my parents had masculine or feminine traits at various times of their lives. Throughout this time, simplistic representations of my masculinity seemed to ebb and flow depending on Top 40 radio and pop culture. 

For example, in the later 1970s, songs like “Macho Man” by the Village People and “I Can Make You a Man” from Rocky Horror Picture Show reframed how I viewed masculinity in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way performed by men. By the early 1980s, Madonna became my ultimate role model (in a “give 'em hell" and “no sissy stuff” kind of way) after seeing her perform live and realizing she had more balls than anyone I'd ever met. 

Obviously, it’s impossible to unpack all of these gender stereotypes about aging in a single blog post. So, I'll close with a quotation from Maya Angelou. This quote has inspired me to embrace all of the "wabi-sabi" chinks in my armor over the years. Hopefully, it will inspire you, too. Angelou once said, “The quality of strength lined with tenderness is an unbeatable combination.” I agree.