Home » In Search of Masculinity:Pt1

In Search of Masculinity:Pt1

Statue of a greek god with a cornucopia in hand
Classical masculine ideals have been around for centuries. Can they really be toxic?

I’ve posted a couple of times on the Gillette ad and an answering ad from Egard watches. I’ve explained my objections to the Gillette ad and why I think the Egard ad is not only more effective as an advertisement, but as a call to action as well. And now, I want to dig a little bit deeper into this whole notion of masculinity, and what it is all about, whether it is toxic or not, and if so, how it should be addressed.

The problem I’m having is that I’m not really sure where to start. I mean, this is a big issue. Is it inherently toxic to be a man? Is all masculinity toxic, or are we saying that just some parts of masculinity are bad? Is it just actions, or thoughts? Are their degrees of toxicity? Is there a corresponding toxic femininity, or is it only men who are toxic? Is there any science supporting this, or is it all philosophy and politics?

Making things harder is all the politics and power plays wrapped up in the current debate. Modern feminism (are we in third or fourth wave feminism now? I lost track.) is using ‘toxic masculinity’ as a rallying cry to try and gain power. (One common thread I’ve seen is condemning men for being competitive, as if that is a bad thing. I’ve noticed that most of those condemning competition are those who come up short when the competition is done.) They are conflating behavior with existence. For example, the #yesallmen hashtag, which condemns all men for the brutish actions of a few. Or the outrage that comes from feminists when women are taught to defend themselves. “Teach men not to rape!” they screech.

As if men don’t already know that. In what world is that a legitimate thing to say? We all know better. We all know that men and boys are taught that rape is bad. By taking the actions of a brutish few and using them to smear all men, they seek to strip men of their humanity and their worth, creating a vacuum where they can grow in power. It’s an effective tactic because nobody wants to be seen as defending rapists.

So when the APA announces new guidelines on treating men and boys, it is immediately seized on as a way to legitimize the attacks on all men. For example, I’m going to show you two article, both published by the APA and both revolving around these new guidelines. The first is a continuing education article, written by Stephanie Pappas. She describes the origin and scope of the new guidelines this way:

…draw(ing) on more than 40 years of research showing that traditional masculinity is psychologically harmful… (Emphasis mine)

APA CE Corner Vol 50, No1 pg 3

Right off the bat, we can dispense with one of the most prevalent excuses used when men get angry about being called ‘toxic.’ “We’re not talking about all masculinity,” they say. “Just the bad parts.” According to Pappas, all of traditional masculinity is “the bad parts.”

If there were any doubt about the intent of her phrasing, Pappas doubles down a few paragraphs later.

The main thrust of the subsequent research is that traditional masculinity—marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression—is, on the whole, harmful.

same as above

When Pappas gets to the concluding paragraphs of her article, addressing the goals of treatment, she writes:

Mental health professionals must also understand how power, privilege and sexism work both by conferring benefits to men and by trapping them in narrow roles.

same as above

Does this sound like psychology, or is it more sociology? Is she addressing treating a patient, or is she looking to “improve” society by ‘changing’ men and how they think and behave? The answer is in the last line of the article, which quotes Ryon McDermott, one of the people who drew up the guidelines.

“If we can change men,” he says, “we can change the world.”

same as above

Clearly, at least in Pappas’s view, all masculinity is toxic, and men must be fundamentally changed for the benefit of themselves and society. What makes this concerning for me is that, as I mentioned above, this is a continuing education (CE) article. Reading this article and taking a knowledge test based on it is how clinical psychologists maintain their license.

Let’s contrast the language and the contents of this CE article with the press release put out by the APA. Here’s the second paragraph:

Many characteristics commonly linked with masculinity — such as courage, strength, compassion, leadership, and assertiveness — are often associated with positive psychological and behavioral health. However, according to the psychological research cited in the guidelines, some masculine social norms can have negative consequences for the health of boys and men.

APA News; A Closer Look at the APA Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men.

Already, we see a tremendous difference in both approach and meaning. The press release does what the CE article did not do; it starts off by saying that there are positive aspects of traditional masculine norms, while also saying that these norms may have some negative consequences in some situations.

This is reinforced by the this paragraph:

Psychologists who treat men and boys already know that their male clients aren’t stereotypes. They have feelings, needs and desires. They’re adaptable. They possess many positive masculine characteristics. The guidelines are designed to give psychologists a framework to help men and boys embrace their masculinity in ways that are helpful, rather than harmful, to their health and quality of life.

same as above

Looking at these two articles, it’s hard to believe that they are discussing the same set of guidelines. In the first, all traditional masculine norms are harmful. In the second, a far more nuanced approach is taken. Masculinity can be embraced in a positive way and does not have to be changed.

And this illustrates what I’m talking about. What appears to be a thoughtful and reasonable set of guidelines meant to be used to help men and boys deal with issues they may have is being presented on the one hand as an indictment of masculinity and on the other as a set of tools for effective therapy. Which is the truth?

While we’ll find out after I read the guidelines, I suggest that this is a moot point because the bottom line is that most people will never read the guidelines themselves. Those who tend to believe as Pappas does will assume that the guidelines back their world view, and will accept her interpretation without question. “The science is settled” they’ll cry. “Masculinity is bad!” Those who disagree will dismiss the study that went into the guidelines as biased crap, and never think about the notion that our traditional masculine norms may have a cost associated with them.

Both articles quote statistics showing that men do suffer for being masculine, but hell, as men, we already knew that. The question that is not being addressed, and the one I want to explore as we move along in this series of posts, is whether the price we as men pay for our masculine norms is made worthwhile by the benefits we bring to the table.

My suspicion is that the benefits are well worth the costs. I base this on two things. First, I’m a man. There are things about being a man that I accept, usually without question. These things have a price, but they also produce a benefit, and to this point in my life, the benefits have been worth the cost. Throughout the course of these posts, I’ll be consciously questioning these things that I’ve accepted for so long. We’ll see how well they survive.

Second, most cultures carry these same unquestioned assumptions about masculinity. A Native American’s masculine role is very similar to that of a European, or an African man. The role transcends race. There must be a reason for it, whether it is genetic, i.e. bred into us, or cultural, i.e. these roles provide the best outcome for the culture. There’s a reason these roles develop; they work.

However, times change, and it may be that in this time, the roles no longer work as well as they did. It might be that we need to flex out of what has worked for generations and grow in a new direction. Personally, I don’t believe this to be true, but I’ll go where the road takes me.

I started this post saying that I wasn’t sure how to proceed. Now that I’ve reached the end, I have a roadmap and a plan for moving forward. I don’t know how often these will get posted, since this is going to take a lot of research and thought, but I’m going to aim for one per week. Hell, I might even add a day to my posting schedule and do 4 posts a week. We’ll have to see how it plays out.

2 Responses to “In Search of Masculinity:Pt1”

  1. Fred Chamness says:

    To me, the most masculine figure in my eyes is Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird. He displays compassion, decisiveness, integrity and a willingness to put himself in the forefront when required. I believe what has been done here is to confuse masculinity with virility. True masculinity does not require brute force but a willingness to use your God given attributes; whether it be mind, muscle or endurance to see justice done and the advancement of humanity.

  2. Rich Hailey says:

    A perfect lead in for Pt 2, which asks the question, “What is Masculinity?”

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