Betty Friedan and Masculinity

Some words are still relevant today. This quote was taken from The Christian Science Monitor (1 April 1974). Masculinity has been something I have been contemplating for a while now. I would like to explore what it means to be a man in the 21st century. Is masculinity inherently bad? As masculine energy continues to be suppressed by ourselves, our peers, societal norms, and the women we love. How does a man express who he is? How does he weave through the fabric of patriarchal norms and gender stereotypes? What does the future of masculinity look like?


What do boys in America think about being boys today?

What do they imagine is expected of them? Whom do they look up to, and how are they navigating the transition from being boys to becoming men?

In a 2018 Times opinion essay “The Boys Are Not All Right,” the comedian and author Michael Ian Black writes:

The past 50 years have redefined what it means to be female in America. Girls today are told that they can do anything, be anyone. They’ve absorbed the message: They’re outperforming boys in school at every level. But it isn’t just about performance. To be a girl today is to be the beneficiary of decades of conversation about the complexities of womanhood, its many forms and expressions.

Boys, though, have been left behind. No commensurate movement has emerged to help them navigate toward a full expression of their gender. It’s no longer enough to “be a man” — we no longer even know what that means.

‘Good’ Men vs. ‘Real’ Men

In 2015, Michael Kimmel, a leading scholar on masculinity and the director of the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities, helped start the nation’s first master’s degree program in Masculinities Studies. The program, at Stony Brook University, explores what it means to be male in today’s world.

In “A Master’s Degree in … Masculinity?” Jessica Bennett explains how Mr. Kimmel begins his classes:

Michael Kimmel stood in front of a classroom in bluejeans and a blazer with a pen to a whiteboard. “What does it mean,” the 64-year-old sociology professor asked the group, most of them undergraduates, “to be a good man?”

The students looked puzzled.

“Let’s say it was said at your funeral, ‘He was a good man,’” Dr. Kimmel explained. “What does that mean to you?”

“Caring,” a male student in the front said.

“Putting other’s needs before yours,” another young man said.

“Honest,” a third said.

Dr. Kimmel listed each term under the heading Good Man, then turned back to the group. “Now,” he said, “tell me what it means to be a real man.”

This time, the students reacted more quickly.

“Take charge; be authoritative,” said James, a sophomore.

“Take risks,” said Amanda, a sociology graduate student.

“It means suppressing any kind of weakness,” another offered.

“I think for me being a real man meant to talk like a man,” said a young man who’d grown up in Turkey. “Walk like a man. Never cry.”

Dr. Kimmel had been taking notes. “Now you’re in the wheelhouse,” he said, excitedly. He pointed to the Good Man list on the left side of the board, then to the Real Man list he’d added to the right. “Look at the disparity. I think American men are confused about what it means to be a man.”

The messages boys get from society about manhood are confusing. They may also begin to see the ways in which this confusion impacts not just the personal lives of boys and men, but also their relationships, their work and the rest of the world. 

Definitions and Research: Masculinity and ‘Toxic Masculinity’

Gender and Masculinity

So, what does it mean to be a man? How much of that is determined by biology? How much is influenced by the society we live in? And how much control do we even have over the ways we behave?

• Sex refers to a person’s sexual anatomy, like chromosomes, hormones, and internal and external sex organs. The terms “male” and “female” are often used to talk about an individual’s sex.

• Gender refers to the characteristics and behaviors that a society or culture associates with males and females. The terms “masculine” and “feminine” are usually used to describe gender.

• Gender identity is an individual’s deeply held sense of being male, female or another gender. This is separate from biological sex. 

• Gender expression can be defined as the way we show our gender to the world. Societal expectations of gender expression are reinforced in almost every area of life. Even very young children are clear about the gendered choices that boys and girls are “supposed to” make in relation to toys, colors, clothes, games, and activities. 

• Research shows that there is little difference between male and female brains at birth.

• Despite this similarity, people of different genders do often think, act and speak differently. But, because we are socialized into gender roles beginning at a very young age, it is extremely difficult to determine how much our biology influences our gendered behavior and how much is our response to our environment. Most researchers agree, though, that culture has a significant impact on our gendered behaviors.

• While these biological and cultural forces are indeed real and powerful, we also — to a large extent — have a choice in how we present ourselves to the world. And, the more informed we are about the choices we have in expressing ourselves, the better we are able to completely and truly be our unique selves.

“Toxic Masculinity”:

One term that comes up often in discussion of gender and, especially, what it means to be a man, is “toxic masculinity.” But as Colleen Clemens writes in Teaching Tolerance, “‘Toxic masculinity’ is tricky. It’s a phrase that — misunderstood — can seem wildly insulting, even bigoted.”

The Good Men Project defines it this way:

Toxic masculinity is a narrow and repressive description of manhood, designating manhood as defined by violence, sex, status and aggression. It’s the cultural ideal of manliness, where strength is everything while emotions are a weakness; where sex and brutality are yardsticks by which men are measured, while supposedly “feminine” traits — which can range from emotional vulnerability to simply not being hypersexual — are the means by which your status as “man” can be taken away.

It is crucial, however, that we understand some key ideas:

• Talking about toxic masculinity is not about vilifying boys, men or any of the particular qualities society has deemed “masculine.” Rather, it is an opportunity to begin to reconstruct a more positive model of masculinity that makes room for the many different ways to be a boy or man and allows all individuals to feel secure in their masculine identity.

Michael Ian Black sums up this sentiment in a response to a reader comment on his Op-Ed, “The Boys Are Not All Right”:

Mr. Florentino: I cried as I read this. My son — a high school and college wrestler who achieved much success on the mat — is one of the most sensitive souls I know. But far too often, I cheered his masculinity, his fierceness, and his muscles. I should have been cheering his kindness, his empathy, and his innate ability to be gentle. Those emotional qualities are what REALLY make him strong.

MIB: I am very interested in a fuller expression of male strength. Physical strength is great (I wish I had more of it, because I would like, for once in my life, to look good shirtless on a beach). But a man’s strength can be expressed in innumerable ways, including the strength to be vulnerable, the strength to ask for help, to seek forgiveness, to display empathy. By all means, root for your son, but root for his entire being. It sounds like you’re doing that.

• Toxic masculinity is not just a men’s issue — its consequences are pervasive and affect everyone, including girls and women. Also, girls, boys, women and men all make choices about their behavior that can either perpetuate a culture of toxic masculinity or disrupt it. (And, of course, “toxic femininity” is its corollary.)

In “How to Raise a Feminist Son,” Claire Cain Miller makes some suggestions, like letting boys be themselves:

Offer open-ended activities, like playing with blocks or clay, and encourage boys to try activities like dress-up or art class, even if they don’t seek them out, social scientists say. Call out stereotypes. (“It’s too bad that toy box shows all girls because I know boys also like to play with dollhouses.”) It could also improve the status of women. Researchers say the reason parents encourage daughters to play soccer or become doctors, but not sons to take ballet or become nurses, is that “feminine” equals lower status.

Words by: Caroline Gilpin and Natalia Proulx
Source: New York Times