Real Men: The Lasting Impact of Male Gender Socialization and the ‘Man Up’ Expectation
The cultural assumptions made around men tend to reinforce a view of men being ‘tough’. This assumption forms into an expectation of how men should and should not behave. A broad distinction is drawn between the appropriate ways in which boys and girls, men and women, ought to behave. This distinction shows a particularly problematic manifestation in how boys and men are expected to conduct themselves, offering not only limitations in how men can behave, but also deeply destructive cultural norms which negatively impact men’s psychological and emotional well-being, as well as breeding negative attitudes towards women and homosexual men.
The cultural expectation is unwavering strength, resilience and dearth of sensitivity in men. There is a demand for men to ‘man up’ in the face of problems, to never be uncertain or indecisive, to never feel unheard or overburdened. To never cry, or express strong emotions like glee or sadness. In many ways anger is the only acceptable masculine emotion in the face of trauma, adversary, conflict or pain. The support networks are shockingly lacking, with an indifferent air frequently felt around discussions, reflecting back on the attitude of self-reliance that men are expected to embody. For men, there may be an additional element of shame to these problems arising as a sense of emasculation at being unable to ‘tough’ their way through it, as well as feeling humiliated at even having such problems to begin with. Perhaps most strikingly this can be observed in men domestically assaulted by women: the entire ‘expected’ order is upended, they feel marginalized in their personal lives and in the discourse surrounding them, and they fear and experience mockery when they come forward. From childhood, being ‘beaten up’ by a girl is a taken as a sign of a truly lamentable example of a man.
The feminist movement has challenged and often done away with many of the previously held gendered assumptions, and it has, to its credit, lifted many of the restrictions placed upon women and, to some extent, men. It has won victories opening and allowing women into careers, identities, and environments where they have been made unwelcome previously. It has pushed for acceptance toward alternate forms of masculinity, such as queer masculinities. Yet in many ways the masculine expectations remain firmly entrenched. The question of teaching men to be tough, to loathe weaknesses, and to prize conventional masculine interests over ostensibly feminine ones continues to exist within culture. Some needles do seem to be shifting, of course — I see more men wearing pink shirts nowadays than ever before: a colour frequently associated with girlhood in more modern times — but the pace has been notably slower and taken up with less enthusiasm by men. Unfortunately, in many ways portions of the current men’s movement have a striking reactionary leaning, and seek to continue pushing back against progressive attitudes surrounding changing how we teach and raise men.
These modes of masculine policing can be observed in activities such as shaming men who are sexually inexperienced, more emotionally sensitive or uninterested in contact sports, presuming men’s friendships in women are fundamentally sexually-driven, or that their interest in women’s issues are sexually motivated, that boys who prefer introverted activities to extroverted ones are ‘wrong’ in some way — the continuing belief that boys must be ‘rough’ and ‘tough’. Likewise the idea that men should not be dependent on others, that men should not raise emotional concerns or seek meaningful relationships with women predominality. One still hears, “He needs to man up!” said by people of both sexes when a male friend or partner has been complaining. With men being conditioned to perceive non-toughness as shameful, it may enlighten as to why men are often so fearful of not appearing in appropriately masculine forms — as well as hostility towards the men who are not.
A study in masculinity in the United States found the traits often associated with masculine behaviour were emotional control, risk-taking, violence, being dominant,being sexually successful, being self-reliant and work-focused, homophobic attitudes, pursuing high-status, using violence, and having power over women. The bulk of these traits portray men as emotionally shallow with an interest in being aggressive, domineering and nurturing negative attitudes to women and homosexuality. And much of this information feeds into the difficulties men themselves face: a fear of being seen as ‘too soft’ or ‘too womanly’. These researchers also conducted another study on femininity, finding the expectations to be centered more on having a relationship, being a homemaker, being monogamous rather than polyamorous, and caring more about appearance. In many ways, the gendered behaviour is one of contrasts: men are proactive, women passive. And when either group stumbles at their assigned roles, they are expected to be shamed. Of course there are degrees to this behaviour, and in many cases the most aggressive manifestations of it will not simply be down to solely cultural expectation, but rather other sociological and psychological factors intersecting with the culture teachings.
Assumptions seem to made about the interior lives of boys, that they are often shallow and lacking emotional depth, and that they can take ‘tough’ treatment better than girls. The expectation appears to be that boys should be trained to endure and repress visible signs of weakness — “Boys don’t cry!” “Giving up’s for little girls” — and that inappropriate behaviour must be culled, often through invalidation, dismissal, and emasculatory shaming. The question of sensitivity in men is often seen as either a defect or a sign of homosexuality, or both, with the implication being that ‘real’ men don’t behave that way. One of the great problems in how men are raised is that we often try to mould them to the way men ‘should’ be. We try to stop them preferring books to sports, or to push them away from speaking about their feelings; to see women as dates rather than friends as well.
The cultural message often hammered into men, as far back as their childhood, is that emotional states like uncertainty, fear, anxiety, defeat and despair are not appropriate for men to feel. Likewise, behaviours, such as crying, seeking approval, and male-on-male affection are deemed ‘unmanly’ and shamed. Our conception of boys as more ‘rough’ or ‘rugged’ often blinds us to their emotional needs and their own childhood sensitivity; we teach boys to suppress themselves and encourage them towards only a limited and inadequate, means of expressing themselves. The more emotionally sensitive boys often face social rejection and ostracization, as well as emasculating bullying through homophobic slurs or comparisons to girls, for behaving in ways that are taught to be unacceptable. As sociologist Michael Kimmel once noted:
The impact of homophobia is felt not only by gay and lesbian students but also by heterosexuals who are targeted by their peers for constant harassment, bullying, and gay-baiting. In many cases, gay-baiting is “misdirected” at heterosexual youth who may be somewhat gender nonconforming.
Concerned parents frequently discourage young boys from playing with dolls, taking dancing classes, or wearing ‘girly’ colours; often hoping to shield them from mockery. Examples of the approved and conventional ‘real men’ abound in culture: they can continually be pointed out as being tall, handsome, wealthy, muscular, indifferent in the face of danger, highly successful, doing the impossible without a moment’s hesitation, and adorned with an attractive girlfriend (or several). They are powerful figures who dominate a group with their charm and innate leadership skills. These men do not cry. And if they ever did, it would (as the joke often goes) be a ‘lone manly tear’ capturing all of the deep emotional meaning of their pain without compromising their powerful masculine essence. The ideal men do not give up, back down, or complain. Where women tend to have a developing and complex variety of stereotype-breaking figures in media, men still have fairly limited representations of the ‘ideal’ manhood.
Where tomboys are becoming more generally accepted now as something that exists as a valid way that girls can express themselves, the less ‘traditional’ male figures are less common, and less accepted. The mere idea of encouraging depictions of diverse male figures can set some adult males into fits of apoplexy, outraged at how they are trying to ‘ruin boys’ and ‘feminize men’. Indeed, some research has indicated that men express hostility towards men who appear ‘too feminine’ or show degrees of disdain at cultural elements designed ‘for women’.
The participants in this study expressed overt homophobia towards images of men that were seen as too feminine or sexual. A study of overt sexuality in advertising by Elliott et al. (1995) found that men evinced a strong antipathy to the portrayal of men in advertisements for Obsession perfume and this vocal expression seemed to function to protect them from any suspicion of homosexuality by other members of the group and this was related to the advertisements being created for females rather than for them.
The impact of the surrounding fallout for men who ‘fail’ to live up to society’s masculine expectations is significant. One can posit we have a pervading view of the masculine as superior: that men should like male things, and that female things are considered lesser in comparison. “Why like that, Billy? That’s a girl thing!” is not an uncommon phrase. The common tactic to shame men and boys out of things they ‘shouldn’t’ like is often to assert how unmale it is and question their sexuality: female and gay is lesser, the lesson goes. Recent controversies over the last decade in both geek culture and sports have reinforced the hostility towards women entering male dominated areas of interest: akin to the classic example of men bemoaning women being allowed entry to golf clubs or even pubs, as if some great violation of their rights has been committed. The book Toxic Geek Masculinity summarises the difficulty women still face entering, and belonging, to ‘geek’ communities:
For women within geekdom, the only available spaces are contested and marginalized: fake geek or fan girl? Sex object or feminist bitch? For women, there’s often no answer that doesn’t lead to further pigeonholing and silencing, and either extreme can be used as an insult or excuse for marginalization.
In this regard, women report a lack of empathy from men in this community. The sense of gendered expectation is retained in the belief that women cannot engage with the same passionate or deep interest that men do. Men define themselves, women are defined, the message appears to read. Historically, and outwith the ‘geek’ subcategory, the divide between where men and women could go was significantly stricter. Over time, many of these expectations have been tempered and a more egalitarian setting has evolved. Yet some attitudes like this still remain: drunkenness is still sometimes viewed as ‘unladylike’ and ‘uncouth’ for women, whereas it is seen as forgivable and youthfully experimentative for men in some circles. But women are making their way into areas that, typically, have not been seen as appropriate for them. Men are still some way behind, and movements encouraging them towards these goals are significantly more sparse. The mantra that boys should like boy things still seems a lot more ingrained in the cultural fabric.
Furthermore, when we look at the culture of emasculation surrounding men who do not perform ‘adequate’ masculinity, it can be speculated that male dominance in certain areas offers an idea of quality. Perhaps ‘nerd’ cultures, for example, already viewed in effeminate terms by lacking conventional male barometers such as physicality and risk-taking, exhibit a modern sense of this hostility to try to play within the realm of the masculine superior thought. By allowing too many women into their spheres, it emasculates them , and thereby lessens their intrinsic male value. Being outperformed by a woman in some area has often been one of the great male fears: if a woman can be better than you — especially in a culturally male domain — how can you really feel manly?
The reality is that men do have a vast array of emotions and emotional needs. They do feel insecure and anxious, and often struggle with the sense of shame that arises when they feel these emotions that compromise their expected role as men. We train men, from boyhood, to view elements of their psychology as wrong, to view aspects of their personality as embarrassing, to feel emasculated if they connect with entertainment or interests that have not been ‘designated’ to their sex. In his book Guyland, Kimmel, after speaking with boys across the United States, concludes many had adopted a belief that “it is better to be mad than sad,” as well as “be a man,” “just do it,” and “boy’s don’t cry,” framing aggression as a proactive, positive emotion and sadness as a passive and weak one. For men, it seems, the ingrained notion is frequently that a sense of helplessness is intolerable: take action, always, and never let the world see you falter.
Psychologist Joseph Nowlinski writes that the general understanding of men as strong and women as more frail is misguided, stating:
If anything, research suggests that boys, despite their preference for rough-and-tumble play and their attraction to risk, may actually be more emotionally vulnerable and less resilient in the face of trauma than girls.
He notes the increased suicide rates of men, the increase of conduct disorders in adolescent boys, as well as their almost triple use of alcohol abuse to deal with feelings of emptiness and depression. In particular of men who have been raised in adverse environments, exposed to violence and abused, or invalidated regularly, many will develop deeply problematic coping mechanisms, often feeling unwilling to ask for help or reach out about their brutalized past. Men are significantly vulnerable, often lacking meaningful support networks, and ashamed to have problems at all. When boys are expressing sensitivities, vulnerabilities, or showing the impact of trauma or bullying we often tell them not to act that way or feel that way, but these forms of response are ineffective and even harmful. What men and boys need when dealing with these difficulties is understanding and empathy, not being trained to suppress their own suffering, to whatever degree it has taken hold of them.
“Don’t feel that way!” will not be sufficient to make insecurity go away. Even worse are efforts to shame boys out of their insecurities. Unfortunately because they buy into the myth of the tough boy, parents sometimes try to get boys to “tough it out” or “man up”.
Research indicates that men are considerably less likely than women to seek help. Many men express feelings of shame at being wrong, at not being seen as in control, at being perceived as sensitive or weak. As Brene Brown writes in her book about shame, Daring Greatly, “Men live under the pressure of one unrelenting message: do not be perceived as weak.” This chronic sense of self-loathing in the face of feeling vulnerable or incapable is a major hurdle for men. Men often feel uncomfortable asking for help, advice, or seeking out resources. Many men emotionally shut down to deal with challenging emotions or topics. The legacy of the gendered training men are raised with has serious negative consequences on men’s mental health, to the point where men would rather deny psychological or physiological problems than seek help for them, or admit them to a friend or spouse.
“Man up” does not teach men how to be strong, it teaches them to hate themselves for not feeling strong all the time. We appear to imbue men with values that can breed into self-hatred and disdain towards others when we condition them to view themselves in this way. Studies indicate that we tend to judge others in the areas where we might feel ashamed ourselves: thus men who feel shame at their own masculine performance might often shame other men who they view as being inadequate at masculine expression. A painful cycle is born and upheld by the cultural attitudes we continue to enforce surrounding how men ought to think, feel, and act.
If men are not allowed to feel vulnerable, men are not allowed to fundamentally be fully human.