International Men’s Day special – Unpacking Masculinity

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By Jai Thade, Head of Content

The American Psychological Association’s “Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men” mentioned how the way men are taught to conform to “traditional masculinity ideology” can limit their psychological development, constrain their behaviour and ultimately negatively influence their mental health. This is in-line with research that shows how globally the suicide rate for men is twice as high as for women. In fact, research published by “Our World in Data” showed how in many countries, this ratio is even further skewed against men.

However, in the same guidelines, they reference the usage of the term “masculinities” rather than “masculinity”, acknowledging that there are various conceptions of masculine gender roles derived from the multiple identities an individual has (e.g. a rural, working-class Bosnian teenager’s idea of masculinity may take a different form than an urban, African American adult).

In media and academic discussions of masculinity, the term “toxic masculinity” has recently become more frequently used. It’s often used to describe how cultural norms associated with masculinity are harmful to men themselves as well as all people in the societies they inhabit.

However, findings like the ones mentioned above highlight for us the importance of abandoning a simple, broad concept like “masculinity” in our critique, and instead focus on and engaging with specific dimensions/norms under its broader umbrella. Moreover, the approach of trying to develop and better channel masculinity seems to be a smarter approach than trying to completely do away with traditional masculinity altogether, since it appears, we benefit collectively from some dimensions of traditional masculinity.

For instance, in his book “The Boy Crisis”, educator, activist and author Warren Farrell Ph.D. puts forth a compelling idea: our societies have historically been dependent on the death of men for our survival – be it for hunting, war, or even various dangerous occupations of the 20th and 21st centuries (like mining and laying railroads). The traits that are demanded by such responsibilities correspond to various traditionally masculine traits (e.g. courage, strength, disregard for one’s emotions or safety, etc.)  Through social bribes (like giving them the status of “heroes”, or the promise of glory), and stories of self-sacrificing heroes, such traits were reinforced over generations. Interestingly, this proposition implies we are more insensitive to trends of male death since our survival as a society has depended on the willingness of our men to die. Greater sensitivity to its prevalence goes against our very survival instinct!

Today, we find ourselves at a strange crossroads. Farrell as well as other researchers like Phillip Zimbardo (psychologist and professor emeritus at Stanford University) talk about the women’s liberation movement expanding the scope of a female sense of purpose beyond the old paradigm of “only raising children” to also include participation in the workplace, or even trying to do a hybrid of both. However, this expansion of a sense of purpose beyond the old paradigm of “be a warrior” or “be the sole breadwinner” has not been done adequately for men. After being socialised for generations for one kind of a world (where their main purpose was to risk life and limb to aid survival), they find themselves in a completely different one where their social purpose is less clear and their traditional traits are treated as redundant (at best) or a detriment (at worst).

If we deny or aim to suppress in its entirety the natural masculinity men embody, the consequences might even be troublesome, as individuals seeking purpose and acceptance might be left vulnerable to violence and extremism.

Both researchers suggest doing two things: The first is Expanding the scope of masculinity. For instance, a movement similar to the one introducing more women to STEM fields can also be initiated to introduce more men to the so-called “caring” professions (e.g. nursing, teaching, social work). The second is channelling it in a positive direction. For instance, a traditional trait like courage can be channelled with regards to being courageous by calling out exclusionary or derogatory behaviour when a man sees it happen in their workplace.

Lastly, it is important for us to be careful what we attribute negative behaviour in various environments to. For instance, if male leadership in an organisation is insensitive to the needs of their team, this does not necessarily mean their gender is the cause of this insensitivity. It could be a result of life experiences, innate temperament, or any number of factors.

In the words of Farrell: “…there should be neither a women’s movement blaming men, nor a men’s movement blaming women, but a gender liberation movement freeing both sexes from the rigid roles of the past toward more flexible roles for their future.”



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