Masculinity

September 16, 2011

Masculinity defies a simple definition. It is typically represented as a set of stereotypical characteristics that constitutes an energy, an essence, or a state of being. But in this case, the whole would appear to be greater than the sum of its parts. We recognize masculinity when it is encountered, but it is difficult to distill the interacting components into a single, unifying definition that can be applied uniformly.

The most commonly encountered representation of masculinity is best described by sex-role theory, which proposes that humans unconsciously integrate archetypical ways of behaving that are appropriate to their assigned sex from society’s institutions (see Femininity). Sex-role theory characterizes masculinity as aggressive, rational, dominant, and objective, and organizes it as the polar opposite of femininity. However, life is not so simple. Instead, a majority of men and women in a given society at a particular point in time will endorse a hegemonic masculinity. This means that social processes are organized in cultures to maintain masculine power by ensuring that subordinate groups view male dominance as fair, reasonable, and in the best interests of society.

Despite varying standards of masculinity throughout history, it has always tended to define itself as different from and superior to femininity. In contemporary U.S. culture, hegemonic masculinity is exemplified by physical strength and bravado, suppression of vulnerability, economic independence, authority over women and other men, and exclusive heterosexuality with associated objectification of women. The fact that few men actually embody all of these qualities is of no consequence. U.S. society supports hegemonic masculinity in its institutions.

Societies tend to value masculinity over femininity. This is exemplified by the extraordinary efforts in which couples engage throughout the world to ensure that they produce at least one son. Furthermore, societies expend tremendous amounts of energy to guarantee that most males do not stray into the feminine realm and will idolize hegemonic masculinity. Additionally, the stereotypical traits embodied within hegemonic masculinity also are not valued equally. For example, gay men may exemplify all of the qualities of hegemonic masculinity, but because they fail on the most valued trait—exclusive heterosexuality—they are not considered real men.

Hegemonic masculinity reinforces the division of labor between males and females. Perhaps the most graphic example of this is that when men enter occupations dominated by women, such as nursing and elementary school teaching, they receive better salaries, are promoted faster, and are afforded more respect than their female colleagues. Therefore, despite all of the advances achieved through the hard work and dedication of feminists, power is still solidly within the realm of masculinity. How is this possible? Men have adjusted their relationship to women by accommodating superficial changes but they have not allowed genuine reform. Thus, within the paradoxical context of real progress, hegemonic masculinity has managed to hold and consolidate its privileges.

New movements have recently emerged that attempt to reject hegemonic masculinity in lieu of moving toward a more inclusive social framework. A notable example is the Mankind Project Network. This framework defines a mature masculinity as one that integrates archetypical representations of king, warrior, magician, and lover, and seeks to confront the destructive shadow side of each. For example, the warrior archetype consists of two opposite and equally destructive poles—the sadist and the masochist. A mature masculinity seeks to integrate the opposite poles for each of the four archetypes and find a center between them. The Mankind Project Network relies on the use of ritual and rites of passage as a means of connecting men to their growth process and the expression of moral and ethical behavior within society.

It remains to be seen if these new masculine movements represent a true reform of hegemonic masculinity or if they merely are a new form of accommodation to women that will result in consolidating male dominance.

SEE ALSO: Femininity, Feminism, Gender, Gender role, Homosexuality

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