alizationMasculinity is a topic that has been debated in our society extensively, through research as well as in informal settings. Many wonder what it means to be masculine, and if we can really assign a definition to such a subjective term. After all, shouldn’t one’s own perception be the determinant of what constitutes masculinity? This self-construction would be the ideal in our society, but unfortunately, it represents a false belief. Masculinity has certain characteristics assigned to it by our culture. In this paper I will explore the many facets of masculinity and demonstrate how certain beliefs pertaining to it are perpetuated in our society. I will also uncover many of the contradictions between society’s assigned definition of masculinity and the expectation that males will somehow learn how to act contrary to that assigned and learned meaning.
Definition of Masculinity
Men are primarily and secondarily socialized into believing certain characteristics are definitive in determining their manliness and masculinity. These characteristics range from not crying when they get hurt to being and playing violently. The socialization of masculinity in our society begins as early as the first stages of infancy. A child’s burgeoning sense of self or self-concept is a result of the multitude of ideas, attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs to which he is exposed (Witt 1997). Later in this paper the question of whether there are genetic factors will be discussed. However, to further my argument at this point, I will discuss masculinity as it is socially defined. From the outset of a boy’s life he is socialized into the belief that he should be ‘tough’. Often when boys get hurt, ‘scrape their knee’, or come whimpering to their mother or father, the fated words, “Little boys don’t cry”, issue forth. Children internalize parental messages regarding gender at an early age, with awareness of adult sex role differences being found in two-year-old children. One study found that children at two and a half years of age use gender stereotypes in negotiating their world and are likely to generalize gender stereotypes to a variety of activities, objects, and occupations (Witt 1997). This legitimization teaches males that boys and men are not allowed to cry. There also exists the belief that boys are often required to do ‘men’s work’ outside of the home such as mowing the lawn, cleaning the garage, etc., and not ‘sissy women’s work’ such as cooking and cleaning, etc. Other factors help to perpetuate certain standards expected of men and boys (Stearns 1990).
The violence boy’s witness on television further legitimates this belief. Katz explains that advertising imagery equates masculinity with violence. For boys this means aggression is instrumental in that it enables them to establish their masculinity (Katz 1995). Lee Bowker researched the influence advertisements have on youth. He asserts that toy advertisements featuring only boys depict aggressive behavior. Strangely, the aggressive behavior generally results in positive consequences more often than negative. Bowker also looked at commercials with boys that contain references to domination. The results of all the commercials indicate that 68.6% of the commercials positioned toward boys contain incidents of verbal and physical aggression. There was no cross?gender display of aggressive behavior. Interestingly, not one single-sex commercial featuring girls shows any act of aggression (Bowker 1998). This research helps explain that it is not just the reinforcement of close caretakers to the child that legitimate masculinity but society as a whole (using the television as a symbol of society and it’s desires).
Another example of how this can be reinforced even by women who may or may not be trying to promulgate such a belief is with an experience I had growing up:
When I would get a cut or a bruise, I would muster up all the strength I had to not cry. I feared that if I cried I wouldn’t be worthy of being a tough kid. On one occasion I had a severe cut in my knee that required several stitches. When I took a look at the wound after rolling up my pant leg, my first inclination was to break out crying. However, at that moment my teacher told me what a brave boy I was and how amazed she was that I was not crying. She probably did not realize that she was sending a message to me that if I cried I would not be tough enough, and therefore I would not become a real man.
Athletics is another type of legitimation that reinforces society’s definition of masculinity. Boys watch how their fathers dote and fawn over ‘the game’, whether it is football, basketball, or any other sport that epitomizes masculinity. Children notice that the ‘men’ on TV impress dad and they want to be like that. This initial reinforcer is a major impetus for boys wanting to learn athletics (Thompson 1995). It may not be just that dad watches athletics on TV, but also in speaking with his son, he may encourage him to develop his athletic prowess. He can do this in ways such as buying him a baseball glove so they can spend time playing catch, or buying him other ‘masculine’ athletic equipment such as guns. All of these factors serve as primary socializers in instilling within boys the desire to excel physically. Similarly, how often are young boys seen competing with each other in bike races, acts of physical strength or even in something as simple as “My dad can beat up your dad?” Little boys are taught to see physical prowess as the ideal. An interesting aspect of masculinity is that we are not taught so much to be “manly” but rather to not be feminine. Most of what a young boy learns about what it means to be masculine is presented to him at such an early stage that he accepts it as an inevitable truth. Often young boys can be found taunting and even motivating each other with phrases like “Don’t be a (sissy) girl” or “Only girls do that.” It seems that there is a pervasive fear among all males that the worst possible insult is to be labeled a female. William Betcher reports that some societies take this concept to an extreme. He talks of the initiation rites of the Sambia of New Guinea saying, “Initiation rites begin when boys are seven to ten years old and include oral ingestion of older boys’ semen and painful bleeding by sticking grass reeds up the nose. The bleeding is a counterpart of menstruation and semen is ingested instead of mother’s milk” (Betcher 1993). Although these actions seek to mark the boy as “not a woman”, ironically they incorporate basic feminine biologic functions that men lack.
Secondary socialization then acts in the later stages of a boy’s life to reaffirm society’s beliefs about masculinity. As boys grow older, their bodies develop and they enter junior high and high school. At this point they begin to really understand that physical prowess and largess are the ideal. To see how this is done, we can simply look at the emphasis given to athletics versus the emphasis given to academics in public schools. Understandably, how schools emphasize athletics over academics is going to have some influence over the way young men think and visualize the importance of physical prowess, but the true legitimator is how athletes are seen by the student?body of the school. Pep rallies are thrown to support the ‘athletes’, the ‘stars’ of the school. Girls swoon over the masculine ‘hunks’.
As young boys move into adulthood they are told to “be men” when confronted with a formidable challenge or when they face some sort of agony. The implication in this phrase is that men should be immune to pain and not show any emotion. To show emotion would be a sign of weakness and society would view them as abnormal or inferior (Pollack 1995).
I have covered the socialization process showing how physical prowess is objectified and legitimated in males. This process, however, does not end in high school. As men move into their twenties and thirties, health and fitness become issues of concern. To see how health and fitness are socially defined as overly muscular men, one need only pick up a copy of Men’s Health. Invariably you will find on the cover, men flaunting their toned, muscular bodies, and often you will find them with a seductively beautiful and toned woman by their side. These toned and muscled men are seen and depicted by society as the ideal. They may not be the healthiest individuals and probably are not. Nevertheless, they are deemed as the ‘ideal men’ of our society. Along with the emphasis on health and fitness comes the continued advent of athletic prowess. How often are men asked “Did you see the game last night?” or “How about them Jazz?” In the work place and social groupings, men often turn the topic of conversation to athletic events, enthralled and enraptured by the topic. From the beginning of male life to the very end, society has determined that men must be strong, tough, aloof, and powerful to be considered masculine and not weak or effeminate.
Is this all that society (and women) want in men? Do they want simple-minded ‘hunks’ of musculature that are ‘tough’. It is no longer sufficient for men to just be ‘tough’ physically. They must also demonstrate competence intellectually, spiritually and emotionally. This argument is not to say that being physically fit and healthy is a negative characteristic, but rather it is only trying to point out that what society is defining as the ideal is later revoked by that same society, or at the very least discarded and seen as secondary to the truly important mental prowess, sensitivity and intelligence.
This is where the double standard becomes evident. William Pollack, a Harvard clinical psychologist, talks about how males have been put in a “gender straightjacket” that leads to anger, despair and often violence. Pollack states, “We ask them (men) to take a whole range of feelings and emotions and put those behind a mask . . . We tell them they have to stand on their own two feet and we shame them if they show any emotion.” Pollack says that boys are shame phobics and “some will even kill to avoid shame”(Gwartney 1998). It appears that the standard defined by society allows men to express their emotion only through anger. With such strict conflicting expectations, a male often doesn’t know how to act. Rigid stereotypes have been emphasized to them from an early age of what it means to really be a man. However, men are often criticized for being one dimensional in their behavior and emotions.
They are expected by society to be sensitive and show their emotions. “Men are so insensitive!”‘ Are they? Why do women think men are so insensitive? Do they realize that insensitivity is what men have been taught their whole lives? Realistically, men are in a no?win situation. If they don’t show their emotions, they are berated for being detached from the essence of what really constitutes a human being. On the other hand, if a male decides to expose his emotions, he is labeled as a “sissy” and not viewed as equal to other males who demonstrate more valor and bravery.
Genetics vs. Socialization
Why do we choose blue for boys and pink for girls? Why do we have girls take dance and boys play baseball? There is no genetic difference as to why women would do laundry and a man would mow the lawn. This is a result of externalization (Bowker 1998). But are males more prone to ‘toughness’ and masculinity than women? Could it be said that genetics play a factor in what is so often considered to be a socially defined aspect of male masculinity?
In general, males are much more aggressive than females. Biologists and anthropologists would propose that this is because humans have evolved from a polygamous society. In that society males competed hard to procreate, and females worked to raise and support the young. These roles demanded aggression in males, and promoted rules such as hierarchy, competition and dominance.
A theory promulgated by David Buss takes into consideration the social side of aggression while maintaining that biological instincts are the underlying cause. He suggests in his book The Evolution of Desire that the existence of large numbers of men who cannot attract a mate may increase sexual aggression and rape. He states that “violence is often the recourse of people who lack resources that would otherwise elicit voluntary compliance with their wishes.” Rape occurs more often by men who lack the status and resources that women want in mates (Buss 1994).
Richard Wrangham and Dale Petersen take another perspective with their insightful article about primates. From their research they conclude that a high percentage of matings were forced copulations. These findings were mostly with the orangutan species, but there is also evidence that chimpanzees and ducks participate in what appears to be rape. The theories suggest that natural selection has favored rape as a way for smaller males to impregnate females. This theory has also been argued with humans. Thus it could be said that males are genetically prone to violence and aggression (Wrangham 1997).
Is there a double standard in masculinity? It is apparent through my arguments that society expects men to be both ‘tough’ and ‘gentle’ while some might argue that genetics, instincts and their animalistic nature for men to act more tough than gentle. The paradox is evident, the source ambiguous. Regardless, masculinity is an unrealistic expectation of men. Who or what are they supposed to be?
Betcher, William R. et al. (1993) In a time of fallen Heroes. New York, NY, Macmillan Publishing Company.
Bowker, Lee H. (1998) Masculinities and Violence. Thousand Oaks, CA, Sage Publications, Inc.
Buss, David. (1994) The Evolution of Desire. New York, NY, St. Martin’s Press, Inc.
Gwartney, Debra. (October 17, 1998) “Double bind of boys concerns psychologists.” Oregon Times.
Katz, Jackson. (1995) “Advertising and the Construction of Violent White Masculinity” In Dines, Gail and Humez, Jean. (Eds.) Gender, Race and Class in Media. Thousand Oaks, CA, Sage Publications.
Pollack, William. (1995) “Deconstructing Dis-identification: Rethinking psychoanalytic Concepts of male development.” Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. 12(1)30-45.
Stearns, Peter N. (1990) Be A Man! Males in Modern Society. New York, NY, Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc.
Thompson, Neil. (1995) “Men and Anti-Sexism” British Journal of Social Work. 25(4)459-475.
Witt, Susan D. (1997) “Parental influence on children’s socialization to gender roles.” Adolescence. 32(126)253-257.
Wrangham R. et al. (1997) Relationship Violence in Demonic Males. New York, NY, Routledge.