Andrew Smiler, Ph.D.

America's leading expert on the masculine self

Gender Roles

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"

Image by Jussi/flickr used under creative commons 2.0 license.

Men Defining Masculinity: It's Not About Sex

Gender Roles, SexualityAndrew Smiler

Imagine being asked to complete a survey in which you were asked to rate 13 characteristics commonly associated with masculinity. What would move to the top of your list and what would go to the bottom? Is being honorable more important than having success with women? Making a lot of money?

In a pair of studies, research teams did just that. The initial study was based in the West, involved nearly 28,000 men from the United States, Brazil, Germany, Mexico, Italy, France, the United Kingdom, and Spain, and was published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine. A subsequent study surveyed nearly 11,000 men in Asia, from China, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, and Taiwan, and was published in the Journal of Men’s Health. In both studies, the men ranged in age from 18-75, but participants skewed somewhat younger.

Is being honorable more important than having success with women? Making a lot of money?

The men were asked “what do you think is most important to the male identity (What do you think is important to be a real man)?” and given a list of 9 items (West) or 13 items (Asia). They were asked to rate each item on a scale from “not at all important” (score: 1) to “very important.” All surveys were administered on a computer. The item with the highest score was automatically identified; if men gave the same high score to multiple items, they were asked which of those items was most important.

Items 1 – 9 were included in both studies; items 10-13 were only asked in the Asian study.

  1.                  Having a good job.
  2.                  Having lots of money. (West: Having financial stability)
  3.                  Being seen as a man of honor.
  4.                  Having success with women.
  5.                  Coping with problems on your own.
  6.                  Having an active sex life.
  7.                  Being in control of your own life.
  8.                  Being physically attractive.
  9.                  Having the respect of friends.
  10.                  Being a family man.
  11.                  Having a manly image.
  12.                  Having an outgoing personality.
  13.                  Avoiding shameful situations.

The results showed that character was central regardless of country. “Being a man of honor” was the top ranked item among Western participants and 2nd among Asian participants. It received #1 rankings in six of the thirteen nations and was 2nd in three more.

“Being in control of your life” was ranked second among Western participants and 3rd among Asian participants. It took first place in four countries and 2nd place in seven more.

“Having a good job” took 3rd place. It was in 1st place across all Asian countries combined, but only took first place in one country. But it landed in 2nd, 3rd, or 4th in nearly every country and thus took the bronze medal.

The two items related to sexuality – “having success with women” and “having an active sex life” – were in the bottom half. Success with women was ranked as the most important characteristics of masculinity by less than 3% of men in every country except Korea, where 14% – about one in seven – gave it priority and made it the 3rd most important characteristics. Less than 6% of Western men and less than 2% of Asian men said “having an active sex life” was the most important characteristic of masculinity, with averages of 3% of 1%, respectively.

The two items related to sexuality – “having success with women” and “having an active sex life” – were in the bottom half of the rankings.

It wasn’t an age thing either, even though survey participants skewed younger. The research team also looked at results based on age group, 18-29, 30-39, and so on, ending with 60-75. For these two items, scores changed by no more than one percentage point when the researchers broke it down by age group.

Asian participants were also asked about the importance of “Being a family man.” It made the top 5 list in every country except Taiwan (7th). Who says being a dad isn’t important?

What does all this tell us? It means that when guys are asked how they define masculinity, character, self-determination, and work/financial stability rise to the top of the list. If we’re really interested in helping boys and men become better people, we need to help them develop inner strength (or character), teach them how to make good decisions, and give them a meaningful education.

When guys are asked how they define masculinity, character, self-determination, and work/financial stability rise to the top of the list.

It also means we need to stop stereotyping guys as primarily or only driven by sex because most guys don’t define their masculinity that way. They – we – are much more than “roving inseminators” and place real value on being parents.

It’s time to kick the stereotype that men are only interested in sex, porn, and video games. Nearly 40,000 men in 13 countries spanning 3 continents told us we’re way off base.

– photo by Brad Barth/flickr