Why Do We Tell Boys to "Man Up"?
Research helps us understand how masculinity norms impact health
Posted October 17, 2016
Boys learn at a very young age from their parents and others around them about expected behaviors based on their gender. These societal norms are described as masculinity ideologies. Masculinity ideology refers to the traditional and socially constructed definitions about the cultural norms and expectations regarding appropriate male behavior. For decades, the dominant cultural image of masculinity has included heterosexuality, physical strength, athleticism, control over situations, family caretaking as the head of the household, financial success, and/or not crying or showing emotion (Wilson et al., 2010). These messages are often conveyed from cartoons, movies, and verbalized by parents.
What is Traditional Masculine Ideology?
According to Mahalik, Good, & Englar-Carlson (2003), traditional masculine ideology, is described in the U.S. as having some or all of the following perspectives on manhood:
- Men are the breadwinner and responsible head of household
- Males are anti-feminine, which includes concealing their emotions
- Heterosexuality as the normative sexual orientation
- Males are expected to have high status and confidence
- Men are violently tough and physically strong
Some research demonstrates that male’s endorsement of certain masculine ideologies are associated with a range of presenting problems. You might expect that boys and men who identify as gay or bisexual may be at a heighten risk for psychological difficulties. For example, one study among adolescents reported that gay and bisexual youth constantly struggle with navigating being “authentically male” while accepting their sexual orientation (Wilson et al., 2010). The authors note that these youth struggle to simultaneously develop strategies to negotiate dominant messages about masculinity that are difficult to change while also asserting a sense of self that resists those dominant messages (Wilson et al., 2010).Pascoe (2003), in his study of heterosexual masculinity, has also called for an examination of masculinity that illuminates the details and complexities in how young men negotiate masculinity, not just the categorization of masculinity typologies that are often discussed (e.g., jock, player, effeminate). Because of these messages taught to boys and men, they are often less likely to visit the doctor or reach out for psychological health to address emotional or behavioral issues (See my previous post on signs of mental health concerns https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-race-good-health/201610/world-mental-health-day-lets-break-the-stigma)
Common Types of Masculine Traits
Mahalik, Good, & Englar-Carlson (2003) describe some common types of masculine traits among boys and men.
1. Strong-and-Silent: Being viewed as unemotional is central to the “strong-and-silent” masculine script. Enacting this script helps boys and men to live up to masculine role expectations through being stoic and in control of one’s feelings
2. Tough-Guy: Closely related to the strong-and-silent masculine gender role script are those messages associated with being a “tough guy.” For example, when boys learn to be tough, they too frequently do so by suppressing emotions potentially associated with vulnerability. Other tough-guy messages that relate to presenting issues include prescriptions that men must be aggressive, fearless, and invulnerable.
3. “Give-’em-Hell”: Violence becomes part of the socialization of men early in life when they are encouraged to fight in order to “build character” and keep from being bullied. Thus, boys and men may learn that violence is, at least to some extent, a socially acceptable way to behave and work out problems, and they may not learn to separate aggression and violence that occur within the context of a sporting event from aggression and violence against others outside of the sports arena.
4. Playboy: Boys often learn to suppress the extent to which they allow themselves to care for and connect with others. This suppression may lead to nonrelational sex, which is a tendency to experience sex primarily as lust, without any requirements for relational intimacy or emotional attachment.
5. Homophobic Script: Being traditionally masculine is to avoid any features associated with femininity or homosexuality. Therefore, characteristics that are potentially associated with homosexuality, such as any intimate connection with other men, must be avoided in oneself and disdained in others.
6. Winner Script: An extremely important masculine script in American culture is that of being competitive and successful. This includes characteristics such as impatience, high drive for achievement, hostility, high need for control, competitiveness, and inability or unwillingness to express oneself.
Implications of Rigid Masculinity Socialization
Research notes that adhering to strict connotations of masculinity (i.e., traditional masculinity ideologies) can have a negative impact of both health and mental health functioning in boys and men. Below are a few potential issues that may arise:
- problems with dating and interpersonal intimacy
- greater depression and anxiety
- abuse of substances
- problems with interpersonal violence (e.g., sexual assault, spousal abuse)
- greater health risk (e.g., high blood pressure)
- greater overall psychological distress
Tips on Finding Professional Help
SAMHSA’s Treatment Referral Routing Service Helpline provides 24-hour free and confidential treatment referral and information about mental and/or substance use disorders, prevention, and recovery in English and Spanish. SAMHSA's National Helpline 1-800-662-HELP (4357) Website: www.samhsa.gov/find-help/national-helpline
Copyright 2016 Erlanger A. Turner, Ph.D.
Mahalik, J. R., Good, G. E., & Englar-Carlson, M. (2003). Masculinity scripts, presenting concerns, and help seeking: Implications for practice and training. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 34(2), 123-131.
Pascoe, C. J. (2003). Multiple masculinities? Teenage boys talk about jocks and gender. American Behavioral Scientist, 46(10), 1423-1438.
Wilson, B. D., Harper, G. W., Hidalgo, M. A., Jamil, O. B., Torres, R. S., Fernandez, M. I., & Adolescent Medicine Trials Network for HIV/AIDS Interventions. (2010). Negotiating dominant masculinity ideology: Strategies used by gay, bisexual and questioning male adolescents. American journal of community psychology, 45(1-2), 169-185.
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