Let's do an exercise together.
Go to Google Images and search "masculine".
What did you find? Were you surprised by what you found?
There, in the middle, sits a well-dressed Daniel Craig. There's no telling what operative he's standing over, playing the role of 007, or what means of force he used to floor said bad guy.
On my top row rests a young, ripped Arnold Schwarzenegger during his Mr. Olympia days. Strong, stoic, arrogant--a person knowing that he's more muscular than any man in the tournament.
For that matter, look at all of these tanned bodies with six-pack abs and bulging biceps. The steely, intense glares into the camera. The coiffed beards. The absence of smiles.
These visuals capture how many men learn to enact their gender.
Strong. Independent. Unflappable. Emotionless.
Men and Anxiety
In 1995, Raewyn Connell wrote the book Masculinities, reflections on a collection of interviews with Australian boys, teachers, and fathers. She defines masculinity from a relational perspective--"the patterns of practice by which men position themselves in a gender order". Connell explores how men use their bodies and other objects to express power of their surroundings and other people: violence, protest, sex (namely, heterosexuality).
Connell popularized the phrase "hegemonic masculinity" to describe how "successfully" men ascribe to the idealized version--stoic, strong, provider--of maleness.
Connell identifies three other classifications of masculinity. Many men receive benefits from the social rewards of masculinity, even if they fail to physically or financially attain hegemony; Connell describes this process as "complicit masculinity". Other men are blocked from the top of the hierarchy, either because of socioeconomic or racial issues (marginalized masculinity), or the practice of behaviors seen as opposite to the hegemonic model (subordinate masculinity), such as effeminate or gay men.
Most men, Connell notes, believe that a large portion of men reach the hegemonic image. We currently see Donald Trump feeding on this anxiety through his brusque, confrontational demeanor as Dr. James Hamblin explains in last week's article in The Atlantic "Trump is a Climax of American Masculinity". Trump has sold the narrative that our strength, our greatness, and our respect are being taken away from us by outside forces (feminism, Mexico, the Muslims), and that we must fight back to rescue and restore our country, and presumably, a traditional gender hierarchy.
Men and Therapy
There are three problems that I see with this anxiety though. First, studies show that few men actually achieve hegemonic status; refer back to last week's blog post "Men and Body Image" for more information.
Second, it appears that many men support the movement toward egalitarian power structures, particularly as voices from marginalized and subordinate masculinities rise to the collective surface. Erin Casey and others at the University of Washington recently polled over 500 college males about traditional gender roles. 88% of men fit into what she labeled "normative masculinity": an endorsement of egalitarian gender roles, a rejection of dominant practices over women, and a lower desirability of a masculine sexual script. The researchers suggested that these men fit into complicit, marginalized, or subordinate models of masculinity.
Only 8% of men in their study held rigidly traditional views of masculinity; the authors note that this group of men (though a small sample size) was much more likely to be violent and controlling in their relationships. The other 4% held rigidly traditional views around masculine sexuality, having significantly higher number of sexual partners, one-night stands, and experiences with pornography.
Which leads us to the third point. We need to redefine what masculinity means. The traditional views on masculinity no longer works for a lot of men (specifically young men).
More importantly, we need to have more conversations that define masculinity as a plethora of options: stoic and vulnerable, dominant and submissive, confrontational and peaceful. All of these characteristics are important parts of the male experience.
I (Jeremiah Gibson) am starting a Men's Group on Monday evenings, starting September 26, from 5:30-7:00, where we can deconstruct some of the narrow messages that we received about being male and reimagine how masculinity looks for each of us. For more information, check out our Men's Group page, or call us at 617-750-0183.