Andrew Smiler, Ph.D.

America's leading expert on the masculine self

Man up . . . Whatever that means

Gender RolesAndrew Smiler

Telling a guy to “man up” or “be a man about it” or “not act like such a girl” can be an amazingly powerful insult. When used in just the right away, especially by a powerful or popular male, the guy on the receiving end of that jibe might find himself doing things he wouldn’t otherwise do. As psychologists, it’s time to take a critical look at the concept of masculinity.

The Power of Masculinity

The insult’s power is derived from what seems like a fairly simple source: Most guys believe it's important to be “masculine,” or “man enough.” Masculinity is generally understood to be an achieved status that needs to be proved. Historically, and across many nations, “manhood” can be proven by completing the culture’s coming of age ritual or earned through the 3 P’s: providing, protecting or procreating. In these cultures, manhood delineates a shift in status from juvenile to adult.

In current day America and other post-industrial nations, masculinity is not delineated by adulthood and there is no enduring standard by which masculinity can be proved once and for all. Instead, masculinity is inherently “precarious” (PDF, 101KB) and must be proved repeatedly; challenges to a guy’s masculinity should be answered immediately. Even 73-year-old Jack Palance felt the need to prove his masculinity bydoing pushups on stage when he received an Academy Award (for playing iconic tough guy Curly in “City Slickers”).

The Pieces of Masculinity

In order to prove — or defend — his masculinity, a guy needs to act in ways that will readily be recognized as masculine. But “readily recognized” is often enacted by conforming to stereotypes of masculinity, particularly aspects of masculinity such as violence (i.e., fighting), risk taking (e.g., excessive alcohol consumption) and some forms of hooking up and promiscuous sexuality (e.g., who can find the ugliest partner), and hiding one's feeling (except anger). Talk with friends that is sexist, misogynist,or homophobic can also serve this purpose; these aspects of masculinity, sometimes labelled “hypermasculinity” or “hostile masculinity” in the literature, typically receive low levels of endorsement (PDF, 55KB) on the scales designed to measure them.

Masculinity can also be defined in positive ways that highlight leadership, decisiveness, intelligence, perseverance and problem-solving. Measures that assess these aspects of masculinity reveal a pattern ofever increasing scores among both male and female undergraduates from the 1970s through the 1990s.

Yet what it means to be a man varies with ethnicity, nationality, age, and generational cohort, as we as life stage. Within the U.S., African-American males often identify responsibility and accountability, autonomy, respect and spirituality as important components of masculinity. Latino-Americans include concepts such asfamilismo, personalismo, simpatia and respeto. Similar themes were identified in a multinational study, with participants identifying the primary components of masculinity as being a man of honor, being in control of one’s own life, having the respect of friends, having a good job and coping with problems on your own.

Asian-American men report challenges proving their masculinity due to stereotypes that describe them associally awkward and nerdy. Yet in a study that included men from five Asian nations, the primary attributes of masculinity were identified as having a good job, being seen as a man of honor, being in control of one’s own life, being a family man and having lots of money, while being promiscuous was rated among the least important behaviors.

Age, generational cohort and lifestage also influence the ways in which individuals define masculinity. Compared to older generations of men (Baby Boomers and their predecessorts), younger generations of men indicate they are somewhat more emotionally expressive and are less homophobic. Lifestage also plays a role; men who are parents, including teen fathers, typically emphasize breadwinning and financial providing in ways that (presumably childless) undergraduates and other young men do not.

Sexual orientation may also play a role. Many people, especially those from older cohorts, believe masculinity is inherently heterosexual and thus gay men are “gender inverted” and want to be women (thanks Freud). Some current researchers also rely on the notion that masculinity is heterosexual and label other forms of masculinity as “queer.”

The Plural of Masculinity

Jibes like “man up” imply there is only one way to be masculine. Yet the previously mentioned variations indicate that many definitions exist. This led to the notion that there are multiple “masculinities.” Originally used to contrast the “hegemonic” version of masculinity that forms the center of our cultural definition and reaps the most benefits from patriarchal power structures with other versions of masculinity that either support or challenge the status quo, the term “masculinities” has also come to incorporate a breadth of forms that overlap and intersect with demographically based identities (e.g., ethnic, sexual orientation). Others have argued that social identities such as jock, player and nerd represent different masculinities.

So how might a psychologist respond when a client talks about manning up? It depends, of course. But psychologists should have the ability to examine the power dynamics inherent in those words, educate their clients about the potential meaning of masculinity, and expand their clients’ understanding of masculinity.

Originally published by the American Psychological Association "In the Public Interest"

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