The Failures of Masculinity

There are few things in society that can be perpetuated that are so plainly false yet never have their merits questioned. The concept of masculinity is one of these things. It can take many forms, not just as a mindset but also through actions in our daily lives. Masculinity is believing that men need big muscles, hair on their chest, never to show emotions – and especially – never to cry. It is a repressive force that keeps men at a standstill, keeps women in a nuclear home holding cell, and adds absurd amounts of anger to the world we live in. First, once we fully understand the roots and causes of masculinity it will be easier to tear it down and place a functional belief set in its place.

Most of the things said throughout this essay are coming from the point of view of a white male that grew up with the typical ideas of masculinity. Because of that, this polemic is aimed mostly at men since we are the ones that must change our actions and mind states to help resolve the issue. But we shouldn’t forget that to end the patriarchal attitudes in society then it takes the effort of both men and women to remedy it.

We could analyze both the mental effects of masculinity and the outward physical actions that masculinity manifests in. When we look at the mentality of the masculine man we see a lot of things. The masculine man is characteristically aggressive, assertive, and dominant. The masculine man may have certain beliefs about his role in society, what he is owed from the world, and his place in the bedroom. We have the figures of the masculine men provided by media portrayals, everything from the calm confidence of James Bond or the suave heroism of Indiana Jones.

The mentality of the masculine is partly a set of beliefs that inform the man about the world around him. The belief that men are dominant over women (these often aren’t stated so blatantly, but manifest through things like assertiveness over women or failure to consider women’s status) is a common and pervasive thing amongst men. Men have the stigma that showing emotion, specifically feelings of empathy, fear, pain, or timidity, are only associated with females. Many of these belief sets come down to the man’s status and how he sees himself through that status. Any threat to that status is a direct challenge to the man’s masculinity. It is important to note that is not actually any real challenge to a man’s status that is the issue, it is the perceived threat to the man’s perceived status. This is an important distinction, because there can be a multitude of

Eve, the Serpent and Death
Eve, the Serpent and Death -Hans Baldung

challenges to a man’s status in daily life that is not perceived by that man, in which case it is nothing to him. For instance, I don’t know how many times I’ve seen the masculine man become territorial and jealous with other men around their girlfriend, regardless if they’re flirting or not. It’s not if they truly are flirting, it’s if the man perceives it to be that way.

Beliefs are something that a person takes on, not given. Many of the mental states of the masculine man are learned through association, often when they are too young to perceive the complexities of social situations. For instance, when I was younger I had a friend who learned it was the women’s place to clean the table after a meal. I went over to their house for a holiday meal and was confused why, after the meal, my friend and his dad both left the table while the mother and daughter cleaned off the table and did the dishes. In my home, we at least brought the dishes over to the sink for my mother and sister to wash, and I thought that was chivalry.

That interaction seemed strange to me, I had learned one thing about a man’s status while my friend had learned another. Those things had been down in our respective houses since we were small children and simple everyday associations like that go on to inform our entire outlook as adults. This comes down to that old truism as far back as Aristotle: we are molded (at least in part) by the environment in which we find ourselves. So, if a child finds himself in the masculine environment, he will be molded by the same toxic masculinity that he witnesses around him. After a boy is molded by this masculinity it takes a great deal of effort and concentration to break these habits (as a whole generation of people, including myself, can attest to).

Nobody comes to have the masculine mindset through reason or by a conscious decision, it is only through association. This is because it simply makes no sense to hold these groundless beliefs, so they are learned not be questioned. Once the masculine mindset has been adopted, that mindset manifests itself in the actions that the man takes. Much of the masculine mindset revolves around protecting their perceived status, and logically the man acts on that same principle. This explains the aggressiveness that is characteristically portrayed by men. We’ve all seen those men that butt heads over the smallest issues. Many men feel the urge – or even worse, the obligation – to fight other men. This is a direct result of masculine man’s sense of status. Not only are these acts of aggression cathartic, but the especially warped start to take pleasure in their masculine actions. There are those men that take pleasure in fighting other men, in putting down women, and having dominion over others.

The question then becomes why, if so blatantly destructive, why hasn’t society replaced our notions of masculinity yet? The reason being that we live in a system that rewards the exploitation of and taking advantage of others as a means to get ahead. It is easy to see how this goes hand in hand with masculinity. Therefore, if a person holds the masculine mindset then he may be rewarded by the system, and if he does not then he may be punished. Talking about changing the system is another discussion, for now we are concerned with changing the mindset.

Since we’ve seen that the masculine mindset is learned through association and not reason, and then manifests itself through the man’s actions, it is helpful to take a reasonable look at many of the things in our daily lives to see how masculinity negatively affects us. Once we take a calm logical approach and begin to question our attitudes to the world around us, then we can see the folly on which we act.

Sexuality.

            The masculine mindset is responsible for a whole host of not only sexual repression, but sexual injustices. Masculinity informs the man that he must have an unapologetically dominant approach in the bedroom. The man may only be concerned with his own pleasure and the pleasure of his partner is secondary and is only there to please him. The man uses his partner for his own end and feels it is his place to do this. What this really means is that total possible pleasure is lowered for both partners involved. The partner being used obviously is not having their needs completely met by their inconsiderate lover, and the masculine one is shutting the door to a whole host of sexual possibilities that he didn’t even stop to consider. This decreases the incentive for the partners to truly try and pleasure each other.

The masculine mindset closes off the possibility of showing any vulnerability in the bedroom. Even a hint of submissiveness challenges the status of the man and that can’t be had. It is amazing to me that people that claim to be mature adults don’t even realize that sex is a reciprocal act. You enjoy giving your partner pleasure because you know that because of that they will want to please you too, and in the end you take pleasure in the fact that you are giving pleasure. If these masculine men had stopped to think for even a second about the issue they would realize this.

There is a great scene in the first season of The Sopranos (a show which takes head on the issues of masculinity) which highlights some of these issues. In episode nine there’s a scene where the character Junior is lying in bed with a woman and she compliments him on his oral sex skills. Junior gets defensive, telling the woman not to talk about it or tell anyone that he performed oral sex on her. This causes him to get angry and threaten her with physical violence if she tells. He admits to her that it is a sign of weakness and that’s why he doesn’t want others to know. What this shows is that, while the character was more honest with himself about the reciprocal nature of sex, there was still a great deal of repression in him about it that is reinforced by the toxic masculinity and power structures of the outside world. The character expresses shame for it. What does this repression accomplish other than to add more misery to his life? This is a constant struggle for men.

Despite the tangent, the main point comes down to this: the purely masculine mindset towards sex can only lead to sexual repression and lower quality of sex. Ending the masculine taboos on the subject can lift the burden off the minds of men and allow them to really enjoy one of the greatest gifts of nature. Although, it should be noted that because of negative association it takes the masculine man a change of mindset to consider these things, and rushing into them will only cause more negative association. But the popular quip holds true: the first place to smash the patriarchy is in the bedroom.

Emotions and Pain.

Practically every boy being raised heard at some point or another the phrase “suck it up, be a man”. While learning to effectively deal with pain is an important part of life, that phrase teaches the child no practical knowledge other than the idea that men don’t show pain. What this leads to is a near complete repression of not only pain and sadness, but many of the basic emotions we experience. Showing emotions is a sign of weakness and therefore a loss of status.

Repression is not a healthy thing for anyone, and the psychological trauma that can follow from it is well documented. Repressing our basic emotions and not dealing with them in a healthy manner severely lowers the pleasure and joy we get out life, all for the sake of appearing strong. What reason is there for this? There is a reason the word catharsis exists, and that’s only because once the stage of repressing something is broken past it can feel so good to let that pent-up emotion out. If total repression did not exist, the word would lose its meaning.

What does hiding certain emotions and mental states add to our lives? Because of it we lose the opportunity to express our love for a partner, to express how much a good friend means to us, or to ask for help in a time of need.

An anecdote I like to tell from my life is the time I broke my wrist in the 9th grade. I was on the wrestling team for various reasons and I wasn’t very good at it. During practice I was paired with a kid that was noticeably more experienced than me, and because of the pairing process I was stuck with him. We both got in position around the circle in the neutral stance, and as soon as the whistle was blown the older kid went for the takedown. Almost immediately I was taken by surprise and slammed to the ground, landing all of my weight on my wrist. I had to sit out of the rest of practice. When I went home that night I showed my father my wrist and told him what happened, to which his only response was that I probably sprained it. It was a little swollen at that point but not visibly bad. My father made me exercise my wrist because he thought the movement was good for it, the entire time telling me to “suck it up”. He taped a bag of ice around my wrist and told me to keep clenching, unclenching, and moving it around to build my strength back. Of course when my mother saw my purple wrist the next day she was horrified and made me go to the doctor where I was informed my wrist was broken in several places.

I wasn’t allowed to express the pain of the situation I was and that only made matters worse. My father’s masculine dismissal of the pain of others and the bravado attitude of sucking up the pain caused serious complications with my wrist that otherwise could have been prevented. But let’s say that I was older and my father wasn’t involved in the situation. My masculine mind would be telling me “suck up the pain your wrist isn’t broken, it’ll get better in the morning” because I’m somehow invincible. How many men have refused help on these grounds? It’s damn near childish and has no basis in reality other than unchecked pride.

The repression of emotions and pain leaves a person in a state of dishonesty and delusion that only detracts from their quality of life. The masculine man does not need to address their feelings because that is something only women do, but while they continue to hold that silly idea they have no clue that they are hurting themselves in the long run.

Pride.

Although all humans suffer from the ills of pridefulness, it is especially men who suffer the brunt of its effects. Pride is directly related to the aims of status and recognition, and for this men have taken more refuge in pride than ever should have been necessary. When a man’s pride is hurt he takes retaliation against what he feels is an attack on his status and his ego only by denying the attack to save himself the pain. A man’s pride can be bruised by an insult to his character, having to ask for money to pay his bills, or to admit an embarrassing condition about his life. So when pride is in full effect, what we are essentially seeing is the man’s proudness about his status as a man, with any attack on that status conveniently brushed away in the name of that pride. Or, often times worse, the man may go on the attack when his pride is in question.

This isn’t to say that all types of pride are bad. I take pride in the work I do, I take pride in the things that I’ve accomplished throughout life with that hard work. But I don’t base my pride in baseless fancies about what I think my character should be like. Pride is more deeply connected to masculinity than many of the other things being addressed in this essay, so it is more difficult to talk about. Pride can pervade many of the issues of emotion and sex, but it also has distinct features of its own.

In my head I can picture a scene from a show where a man is working on a car, unable to get the problem resolved. A woman is standing behind him saying “let’s just call a mechanic to get it fixed” but the man refuses and keeps on working. I can’t point out which show this is from, because this very premise has been reproduced so many times in popular media. Instead of the man admitting the limits of his knowledge about cars, he allows his pride to take over and keep working despite the slim chances of him solving the issue.

The reasonable thing to do in this scenario would be to admit the limits of your own character and not lie to yourself. Pride does not benefit anyone but yourself, and in fact it actively hurts everyone around you. Even then, what pleasure do you get from pride besides being able to retreat to a warped sense of reality to hide from the pain you’ve caused to others?

Treatment Towards Women.

Perhaps the most despicable thing that masculinity has caused men to do is the ongoing and persistent persecution of women. Because of the masculine mindset, the man has already placed himself above the status of the women around him, he therefore has a certain dominion over them he wouldn’t otherwise have. The masculine man justifies in his head that he can use women for his own pleasure and gain, mistreat them with no repercussions, and still get the services he requires from them. The man sees it as his right to do these things and never once questions it.

The masculine man may have no respect for the women he’s trying to sleep with (and as we all know, may degrade her is she refuses to do so) and uses her for his own end without any consideration. Men’s perceived status have allowed them to get away with all sorts of disgusting acts: serious violence against women, victim blaming towards women, dehumanization through social customs, constant harassment, the list goes on. For instance, why are so many men quick to defend other men that have been accused of assault and rape? People will say things like “she had it coming” or “she shouldn’t have opened her mouth” or “her outfit was asking for it” and all that other crap that proves how contorted their minds are.

We also need to discuss the more noble treatment towards women that men do. The chivalrous acts, like holding doors open or pulling out chairs. This can be a tricky issue: on one hand, it is obviously kind to do these kinds of things for a woman, but it is often with the aim of either getting in the woman’s pants or reasserting the man’s status over her. To make any kind of moral claim about this would cause a lot of complications and any sweeping general moral statements could easily be poked full of holes. What I will say though, is that we often have to look at the reason men take these actions. If a man is doing chivalrous actions just to prove his status over a woman and sleep with her then it is a patriarchal act. But if out of kindness and respect then it is a friendly act. However, the truly egalitarian thing to say is that if a man is going hold the door for a woman, he must be prepared to hold the door open for anyone.

Not all acts towards women are malignant and evil though. There are many things in daily life that are unjust that we may not even realize. Next time you are in a social setting, try observing how often men are comfortable interrupting a woman while she’s talking, or talking over her to get the attention, or needlessly correcting her. This can be caused from several reasons. Men are raised in a culture that teach that raising yourself up over a woman is just natural and what a man is supposed to do, and therefore the man asserts his status whenever possible. But during these instances we must ask “what will a man truly lose by treating a woman as a fellow human instead of seeing her as lower?” The answer seems obvious.

 

Conclusion.

The question, out of all of this speculation, is what can be done to correct this social woe? Without the correction of the issue then all the information in the world on it is useless. One truth to keep in mind is that we often can’t decide ourselves if we are acting in a patriarchal matter. That has dual meanings. Men do not always make a conscience decision to act in such an imposing way, because that is what society taught them. In some minor manners, discretion can be advised. For instance, if you notice that a friend has a habit of talking over women at times and gives more time for men to speak than women, taking a harsh accusatory tone will only force his back against the wall. Instead – perhaps in private or in an honest way – point out to your friend his mistake and explain candidly why this is erroneous. Similarly, you are not always the one to definitively say if your acts are patriarchal. People’s kneejerk reaction often times will be to defend themselves, so it won’t be very apparent to them if their actions are exploitive; which means it is up to others to point this out to them and correct it. Reinforcement of these norms is the only way to solidify them.

It’s a sad fact that when a man fails enough to assert his dominance over others he will begin to resent them. He will resent his enemies in the same way that he will resent women that reject him and his status. This can lead to a slippery slope of misogyny if not tended to. Frankly, if a guy is an asshole and can’t get dates, if he isn’t told he is an asshole early on and informed how to change, he may start to hate women instead of considering himself as the problem. This sheds light on a truth of social norms: if we want a social standard to change then we must be willing to change ourselves and our actions. Ideas about issues change nothing if people don’t act on them in their everyday lives. Talking about change is just more of the same.

What this takes is for men to contemplate their own actions and motivations, as well as for others to point them out. The aim is to create an egalitarian set of social norms that acknowledges the autonomy and the needs of all people in our communal situations. While some shallow end spouters will talk about how these patriarchal mindsets are a byproduct of our harsh human nature, it’s important to note that part of our nature is that it is pleasurable to see others in happy and fulfilling situations.  And even then, our nature dictates that we learn much of our behavior from the social environment in which we find ourselves, which further proves the point that we should amend that social environment however necessary.

I feel the need to say that it is not just men’s job to end the effects of masculinity. It is up to women and all people to point out if another woman allows herself to be subjugated by others. Because if the woman knows to stand up for herself she likely won’t allow the men around her to act in a toxicly masculine way, ending both her subservience and rejecting the other person’s dominance. The point is to treat other people with equal respect, so we must not approach all women with hostility nor all men with hostility. If a man shows the spirit of egalitarianism and respect towards a woman, then she should show him the same thing, and vice versa. If one does not approach the other with respect, then they shouldn’t respect that person until they change their ways.

There is one disclaimer here I know I have to make: masculinity is not inherently wrong and I don’t discourage anyone from being masculine if it makes them comfortable. I, in some ways, still exhibit a lot of traits of masculinity and I’m fine with that. What I am arguing against is toxic masculinity, that is masculinity that impedes both yourself and others around you because of the unchecked nature of it. There is a difference and we should be weary of that.

I’m not an idealist because I acknowledge some people aren’t going to change their mind when you point out their misogynistic behavior. What that then requires is vigilance against their actions. It can be harsh and have negative effects, but social ostracization can produce results. If someone refuses to stop using slurs then threaten to push them out of your life and cast them out. This is more effective if you are an important person in their life, or if you can convince an important person in their life to do so. Belligerent and vigilant action is needed. It is up to us and those around us to regulate not only ourselves but others  on this issue, that way true solidarity can be reached and we can begin to live in friendship.

13 thoughts on “The Failures of Masculinity

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  1. Yes! There is no “be a man” model. With people more comfortable expressing their personal sexuality, being a man is undefinable. There are women with male parts. Their are women who are more masculine acting than me, a native male (for lack of decent terms). Separation of sexes and races goes back to animal instincts and has no place in a thinking society. Thanks for the article.

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  2. Thoughtful, nuanced meditation – several points resonated, I’m 70 and look back on my life as a man with many mixed feelings. Shocking how susceptible we all are to cultural norms …

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  3. Good post – always enjoy reading your contributions. We should be careful that social extremism does not take over from a common sense approach and that issues such as this one are not ‘over-thought’ by social activists and the rest of us. We are all equal under the law and it is to this end we should continue to work. This article veers toward the basic premise of Identity Politics – let’s instead walk a path where common sense is alive and well.

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  4. Excellent write up. It made me reflect on how growing up with my 3 brothers at home was like. There is always a high level of “man-up’ expectation imposed on men in general ie: step up to take responsibilities and to protect people around them. The opposite applies on women. Strong sexist subject here, and many different perspectives to look at.

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  5. Love how at least one man took a stand and reviewed what masculinity shouldn’t be about. Wish we could meet someday , it is amazing to have read your thoughts. Most female readers would agree to have seen the brutal side of masculinity no matter how small and the change in perspective need to be introduced before everything turns toxic. ~Molly

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  6. Hi,

    Let me begin by thanking you for this insightful essay.
    While you are absolutely right to a great extent, I should say as a male disapproving of the type of masculinity that you discussed, that what really drives men to act the way they do is partly biological. Hormones that is.
    Hormones tell us why men are less likely to comfortably express, and rely on, their emotions, and suppress pain or fear, or exhibit aggressive behavior and attempt to dominate.
    I should emphasize once again that I do not approve of the types of approach and behavior you dealt with in this essay, but just recommend that you reconsider your point claiming we should not argue that men’s natural characteristics also play a role in creating what you rightly call toxic masculinity.

    Note: I expect that you expand our minds with an essay on Feminism as well.

    Regards,

    Enes.

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  7. Hello, saw you’d been by, thanks. I’m assigned female at birth, transmasc, nonbinary, queer, person. More folks are going with nonbinary rather than fully transitioning, and as a student of how groups develop into empowerment I’ve been watching a small but growing group of folks who are FTM transgender but reject toxic masculinity. I’m in an unusual situation because I’m allergic to steroids and can’t tolerate testosterone so will never be consistently considered male when I’m out and about, or on the phone. My voice won’t deepen, I won’t grow facial hair (I’m genetically unusually hairless as it is already). But I did give testosterone a shot, trying to be socially something, by which I mean something, an answer to who are you, first pass, labels.
    Being on T, the expected things happened, my dick grew to be more seeable, my voice did get lower, I started to get more muscular and stronger. That was all ok, not ideal but tolerable.
    What was unacceptable was that my thoughts kept veering in directions I couldn’t accept. I mused often on women. There was a strain of dislike in those thoughts. I started to think women had difficult bodies filled with painful, gross details, I didn’t want to know. I generalized, didn’t even examine what my brain was doing, just passively allowed these images of women as Other, mysterious beings. Touching them might be good, they taste good, their skin is soft and they’re warm, way better kissers than the average man. But hell, they’re crabby and hard to understand.
    I had to stop the T of course. This whole manner of thinking is so far outside my value system, I couldn’t allow it to continue. What I fear is that it wasn’t the drug but just a revelation of something that had lurked there all along. It’s social, we’re all soaking in it, I’m not immune, I’ve been doing this human thing since birth.
    When I was pre-trans, in the lesbian community, I kept doing it wrong. I was accused of being male identified, I’d clearly internalized some values that oppress women. I liked glamour, I engaged in patriarchal activities like working as a model in heavy makeup and fancy impractical clothes. Some of it was just being a natural dork, male or female, always off. And I’m neurotypical. Might be easier if I were on the spectrum. This mental mess would make more sense.
    That’s all I have. Transgender folks are staring at this. My FTM friends who complete the testosterone effect and appear male report their salaries going up by 30%, while the MTF folks watch their incomes sink. Buried in there, many of us are opting out, switching to gender neutral pronouns and letting go of gender looks and gender thoughts. It’s surprisingly (or maybe not) difficult.
    All I know is that I have no other options. Looks like you might see why.

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  8. Good morning. You have a great post full of food for thought, and I find it true. I have found myself in situations that the best way to navigate them is to be kind and remove myself from the circle. I believe I can achieve more by example than by explaining. Cheers!

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