For as long as America has been a country, men have been king of the hill.
However, many men have had difficulty adjusting to relatively recent societal shifts from the increasingly powerful role of women in the workplace to the acceptance of same-sex relationships. With globalization, automation, the decline of manufacturing, and the increasing disparity of wealth; there has been a growing number of obstacles around what had historically allowed men to become dominant.
For a lot of men, being the breadwinner is the defining feature of masculinity. They staked their entire sense of manhood on their ability to be providers and protectors. In addition many working class men have had reduced access to more abstract forms of masculine validating power, like economic control or workplace authority. As a result, when changes arise, they feel humiliated. It’s not about being laughed at or embarrassed about being clumsy. It’s more profound. These men feel like they’ve failed at being men.
However, economic forces are only part of the paradigm shift currently occurring in our country regarding what it means to be masculine. The stereotypical male identity is built on a set of gender norms that endorses features such as toughness, dominance, self-reliance, restriction of emotional expression and the avoidance of traditionally feminine attitudes or behaviors.
Recently, there has been a closer examination of how we define manliness in the era of MeToo, while adjusting to the living embodiment of toxic masculinity as president. When president Trump talks about making America great again, one of the things he is yearning for is the re-establishment of “traditional” gender roles. These involve establishing men as dominant and women as subservient, while encouraging that anyone who questions them is attacked. In this way, men are punished (often by other men) in a particularly gendered manner.
For example, two five year old boys are on a playground. One five year old boy throws the ball and it doesn’t go very far. The other five year old boy yells, “Man you throw like a girl!” That is misogynistic because if being a girl weren’t bad it wouldn’t be an effective insult.
The boy who was called a girl responds with, “Shut up you fag!” Now, it is likely that this five year old boy has no idea what that word means, let alone the history of hatred, violence, and aggression associated with it. However, he knows that when he feels emasculated by misogyny, that responding with homophobia is a way that he can try and prop up his masculinity. These degradations work to police the boundaries of what constitutes “strong and weak” for men.
There are many men who have lived their life as a tough guy. Tough guys appear strong, but their strength is a mask of overcompensation covering up feelings of inferiority and inadequacy. Tough guys aren’t supposed to do a lot of things, like show fear or pain and offer compassion or vulnerability. Yet, men feel a full range of emotions, whether they are “supposed to” or not.
Some men learned that expressing any emotion other than anger was a sign of weakness. Suppressing occurs when we hold our feelings inside for fear of expressing it. Some may have been told that emotions are a sign of weakness or anger makes you tough. Many learn to deny and avoid feelings so they will not be vulnerable to emotional pain anymore. However, internalizing emotions has a negative impact on men’s health.
According to a study by the Harvard School of Public Health, men who suppress their emotions are 30% more likely to die prematurely than people who regularly express what they are feeling. A study in the American Journal of Men’s Health found that men who repress their emotions have an increased risk of self-harming behaviors, depression, anxiety, and aggression. To this end, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that the rate of suicide is 4 times higher in men than in women.
Perceived threats and unfavorable judgements around masculinity, fuel what author and speaker Tony Porter calls the “Man Box.” The “Man Box” describes the external expectations that society places on manhood such as:
Never show fear
Do not admit pain
Never show weakness
Do not ask for help
Do not express emotion — with the exception of anger.
Of course, the harm from the “Man Box” isn’t just limited to what these gender norms do to men. It is also directly linked to gender-based violence. When boys are pushed into the “Man Box,” women are seen as objects, property, and having less value. Sexism is a huge part of bonding among men who define themselves as heterosexual. The “locker room talk” that Donald Trump refers to, is not just banter, it’s an accepted, encouraged and repeated practice of objectifying and denigrating women.
In American society, violence against women is at epidemic proportions. We know that one in five women will be sexually assaulted during their first year of college. We know that every six seconds a woman is a victim of domestic violence. We know that one third of all women killed in this country are killed by men that lived in the home.
We need a system for repairing the pain that encourages men to be angry at the female gender. A man may have had one negative female in his life, but that can easily become generalized to the whole female population. As time goes by, he may come to think to himself “I am the victim of women, and I am entitled to get revenge, to victimize them as they victimized me. That’s fair.” He may lash out at any woman who is “weak” enough to love him. However, this mindset can be replaced with healthier, constructive feelings by accepting others help.
How then, do you get people to begin to change their thinking, change their behavior? Well, the first thing is to get people just to notice that, in fact, they make assumptions about other people.
Their conscious minds may not approve, but once they become tuned into these types of biases and are made aware of them, then they come to understand them as a problem to be addressed. One point to really recognize here is that having these biases doesn’t make people bad people. It makes them rather ordinary, having been socialized into a culture where these biases are embedded into the very fabric of our society. They’re picking up the messages. They’re not bad people. They’re ordinary. And that once men understand the problem that way, they can make a commitment to change, and they can start to think about the change process. If they are habits of mind, they can be broken like other habits can.
And there’s a number of interrelated factors that have to be set in place. People have to care. They have to be motivated. They have to want to do something. Without motivation, nothing will happen. They need to become tuned into, aware, and notice when they’re vulnerable to displaying biases. They have to have some tools and strategies to do something else, to disrupt that habitual way of thinking.
And then, like breaking any other habit, they are going to have to put effort into it over time. It’s not something that happens all at once. There’s not sort of a quick fix or a silver bullet, but we can empower people to make the change, and we can provide them with support to overcome these biases.