Is There Such a Thing as Precarious Manhood?

What defines a "real man" in today's society?

Posted Jun 10, 2013

What is manhood exactly?   Despite images of “real men” from movies, television, and magazines, the various “masculine” stereotypes set an imposing standard for men in modern society to follow.  Everything from Chuck Norris jokes to John Wayne movies suggest that there is only one “real way” for men to act and feel with anything else being condemned as “girly” or “unmasculine”.     

Though sex-role stereotyping begins at an extremely early age (pink for girl babies, blue for boys), most Western societies seem to be becoming less rigid in applying these stereotypes to children and adolescents.   However, boys and girls perceived as being overly feminine or masculine are still ostracized in many high school with harassment, bullying and even outright violence being more common that we’d like to admit.   Certainly most traditional religions allow little deviation between respective roles for men and women, ranging from separate “coming of age” ceremonies for boys and girls to traditional marriage vows outlining the different “duties” for men and women.

Oddly enough, the same social trends that have encouraged women to become more assertive and break down traditional barriers between the sexes have triggered a backlash as far as men are concerned.    Men are now being accused of becoming “too soft” and  their status as men seems more fragile than ever.    Anything that suggests feminine or submissive behaviour is taken as proof of this softness, and often includes the rise in equal status for sexual minorities, including gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people who are blurring the traditional gender lines.

At least, that is what a  special issue of the Psychology of Men and Masculinity is proposing.   Presenting the results of a recent forum, the issue describes some of the issues associated with being masculine in today’s society.    In the lead article by Joseph Vandello and Jennifer Bosson of the University of South Florida,  manhood is describes as a fragile state that needs to be earned and which can be easily lost or taken away.   More controversially, they also suggest that a similar situation doesn’t exist for women since womanhood is “typically  viewed as a status that follows naturally from biological changes and that, once earned, remains secure.”

But what is “real manhood”?   While behaviours and personality traits associated with manhood tend to vary across times and cultures, the need to “prove” manhood seems to focus on what Vandello and Bosson call the antifemininity mandate.   In other words, proving your manhood means demonstrating that you are as unfeminine as possible.   And the programming for that goes deep with boys caught playing with dolls or otherwise engaging in “girly” play being actively discouraged, if not punished.    Boys are forced to develop a sense of shame over any kind of feminine behaviour, and  anyone even suspected of feminine behaviour face far harsher punishment than girls showing “tomboy” qualities.   By the time boys reach adulthood, they are largely expected to give up any trace of their feminine behaviour and become “real men”.

The need to prove one’s manhood is a common feature in many cultures around the world.    Pre-industrial societies often involve ritualized tests of bravery, strength and endurance.   The Maasai of Eastern Africa have a traditional manhood ceremony involving the killing of a large animal (usually a lion), while Samburu boys in Kenya need to undergo a painful circumcision without flinching from the pain.     Sambian boys in Papua New Guinea need to endure ritual scarring to prove their manhood. 

 Though there is nothing equivalent to these manhood rites in Western societies,  street gangs, fraternities, and military societies all have “hazing” rituals which have men prove their worthiness to belong.   Still, no matter how many times men prove their masculinity, that “real man” status needs to be continually reinforced.   All it takes is one “unmanly” act to unravel the entire process and force the “real man” in question to start all over again. 

 That can include personal setbacks which undermine the idea of manliness.  A man who loses his job and is thus unable to support his wife and family as a “real man” should can experience considerable guilt and frustration, especially if his own perception of manhood is tied up in being able to follow traditional masculine roles.    For many males, perceived manhood is linked to their public image and the approval of friends, family and total strangers.   In other words, it is not enough to be “manly”  but seen as manly by others as well.

So what are some of the implications involved in the precarious manhood hypothesis?    According to Vandello and Bosson, there are three important implications involved with the fragile beliefs surrounding masculinity:

  •  First of all, males are more likely than females to experience stress and anxiety when their gender status is called into question.   That is not to say that females are immune to these concerns but they tend to have less ego tied up in their status as women (though this can vary across cultures).     In different studies examining how men and women respond to threats to their gender status (such as the job loss example above), males were likely to have higher levels of depression, anxiety and lowered self-esteem than women. 
  • Following gender threats, men are more likely to demonstrate or redeem their manhood through public displays of risky behaviour which can often include physical aggression.    One prominent example discussed by Vandello and Bosson is the hypercompetitive finance industry which is still a largely masculine domain.   Not only has research shown that men are more prone to taking financial risks, but they are also more prone to ostentatious displays of wealth to proclaim their status.  
  • From an early age, males are socialized to avoid gender-inappropriate behaviour and the punishment for such behaviour is usually more severe for boys than for girls.   In previous decades, it was also regarded by mental health professionals as “proof” of homosexuality and often meant boys being forced into treatment to “cure” such tendencies.    Even today, males and females face pressures designed to encourage them to conform to gender expectations though the backlash is usually more severe for males (at least, in Western countries).    One of the ways this has become more evident is in terms of work-life balance, particularly with housework and childrearing which have been treated as “feminine” activities until the present day.    While women regularly take advantage of flexible working hours for dealing with family responsibilities, men are often reluctant to do the same. 

How overblown are these fears about someone’s manhood being challenged?   Attitude research suggests that men overestimate how critical others would be if they fail to handle conflicts in the aggressive way that a “real man” would.   They often have incorrect beliefs about how females are attracted by aggressive males as well.    In many traditional cultures, the belief that a man’s status is measured by the extent that he can control the women in his life, whether wife, daughter or other female relatives, is also strongly enforced.  Hence, the rising incidence of “honour killings” to punish women violating cultural norms which, in turn, restore the honour of the men who acts as  “heads of the household.”   Still,  no matter how distorted these attitudes are, they do seem to lie at the root of some destructively problematic behaviour seen in many men. 

 But change is happening quickly.    Men and women work side by side in similar jobs  now and there is more equality in terms of sharing childrearing and domestic labour.   The rise of the gay, lesbian, and, to a lesser extent transgender communities also means that assumptions about “proper” male and female behaviour are starting to break down, at least to some extent.   Still,  the old gender stereotypes will be with us for quite a while longer.   Conflicts are already escalating because of the clashing views of manhood seen in different ethnic communities and even across generations.  

 While there is no question that women face these same kinds of pressures to conform, their gender status is usually not called into question the way it is at men (though critics of the precarious manhood concept have challenged that).    Still, Vandello and Bosson acknowledge that their research had focused on male gender stereotyping and that understanding manhood may not be possible without understanding womanhood as well.  

 As we explore the various beliefs associated with gender roles and what constitutes “real” masculinity or femininity, we will understand the many ways that our need to conform to these roles can sabotage how we interact with the men and women around us.  

 In the meantime, you might want to skip the next action movie and take in a nice chick flick instead.