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Defining Masculinity


Defining Masculinity

Stewart Slater

If it is sometimes hard to be a woman, being a man is hardly a walk in the park either. Men die earlier than women, are more likely to be murdered and are increasingly underperforming in education. The percentage of bachelor’s degrees awarded to women in the US, for example, is now higher than that awarded to men in 1972, when the federal government passed the Title IX laws to promote gender equality.

These problems are long-standing—but the situation for men seems to have worsened recently. According to survey data, male unhappiness has increased over the past 50 years: a period that has coincided in the west with a decline in the heavy industries that offered well-paid jobs to men without tertiary education (manufacturing has fallen from 32% to 8% of non-agricultural employment in the US, for example) and an increasing number of men have dropped out of the labour force altogether. Men on low or irregular incomes do not make attractive life partners, so the age of first marriage for men has risen steadily, as has the percentage of those who have never married. Along with fewer jobs and fewer marital prospects, men also have fewer friends. Little wonder so many of us are unhappy.

Some people attribute the increase in male unhappiness not to societal changes but to men’s beliefs about themselves—especially the cluster of values that characterise what they see as toxic masculinity. In this reading, it is not so much what has happened to men that has caused their unhappiness, but how they have reacted to what has happened.

In 2019, the American Psychological Association issued its first ever Guidelines for Working with Men and Boys, in which the writers argue that “traditional masculinity—marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression—is, on the whole, harmful.” According to the authors, this is not due to any innate problem with men: it is a result of the “way many men have been brought up.” If the male of the species has been installed with sub-optimal mental software, to solve the problem we just need to upload another operating system, encoded with values more traditionally associated with women, such as being more emotionally open and more focused on family than on work. Instead of asking, like Henry Higgins, “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?” we should seek to make men more like women. As Idrees Kahloon has recently put it, “Masculinity is fragile; it’s also malleable.”

The problem with this approach is that the values and beliefs that are under scrutiny have been around for far longer than the phenomena they are being used to explain. Stoicism in the formal, philosophical sense dates to c.300 BC, while in its more colloquial, stiff upper lip meaning associated with British public schools, stoicism was already fashionable in the 1800s. If it were truly the source of men’s problems, we should expect to see evidence of widespread male unhappiness earlier in history. The best we can say is that these values might have become maladaptive due to societal changes. This implies that, were society to revert to an earlier form—by, for example, restoring domestic manufacturing industries—they would once again become more desirable.

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We are all unique individuals with a variety of talents and predispositions. Rather than seeking to narrow our conception of desirable masculinity to a single authentic way of supposedly being a real man, we should recognise that men exist on a spectrum. We do need to set boundaries to male behaviour, but within those boundaries, we should recognise that there are many acceptable types of masculinity.


Lando Lincoln:
For later


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