Naturally, there are certain aspects of masculinity that are purely cultural. Various masculine traits shift and change over time, differ from society to society and bring honor or shame depending on the country in which you live. In fact, according to most anthropologists, the only consistent male gender roles by definition are men as a protector of territory, family and community, and men as providers. The rest seems to be flexible, changing with the expectations of the culture and time period.
Defining the American man, in particular, has been undertaken by a number of researchers, most notably Levant et al (1992), who comprised a list of seven primary attributes that are distinct to traditional masculinity. This code seems to be unbelievably negative to me and is not true of the men I do know and have known. Traditional or hegemonic American masculinity is summarized in these seven ways:
1) Be independent
2) Do not express emotions, vulnerability or attachment
3) Be tough and aggressive
4) Be driven toward a high social status
5) Sexually driven
6) Uninterested in anything feminine
If this is truly what boys feel is expected of them in America, then it is no wonder that we see a push for a redefining of masculinity. I’m not sure from reading that list if it would be wrong to do so. For too long men have been relegated to a very strict and often unspoken code that keeps them from living fully alive, emotionally healthy, and relationally vibrant lives.
The problem is that the push-back that has been rippling through society since the 1960’s, forcing a reevaluation of each individual’s place in society and seeking a redefinition, has led to more gender shaming for men. It’s difficult to recall the last time I read something that overtly praised masculinity, male strength or manliness in a news article without it being labeled sexist. Instead of bringing out the best in men, praising them for their unique places in our societies, families and personal lives, there seems to be mostly criticism.
Men are expected to be strong but vulnerable. They should be successful but not pushy. They need to be in touch with their feminine side but not wimpy. So often there is only whining about how all the real men are gone, without any positive reinforcement for the good men who are around us each and every day.
Our sons deserve to grow up in an America that appreciates men, just as our daughters deserve to grow up in a culture that honors women. Feminine and masculine traits have been torn down, each in their turn, and regarded as two warring parts of humanity. This will never do. Gender shaming as a replacement for the negative aspects of masculinity that we have seen and rightly taken note of in the past is no replacement. It destroys the future of our brothers and husbands. It rips apart the confidence of the boys in our schools and cities. It leads men to feel shame about who they are, without regard to each man and his personal strengths and weaknesses. Men deserve to be taken at face value, without preconceived judgment regarding their perceived faults. Men deserve to live free of inherited, cultural shame.
Do you think the definition of traditional masculinity is an actual trajectory for most American men? How can it help or harm boys on their journey into manhood?
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