Today, masculinity can be understood as the domination of “masculine” characteristics — strength and success — over the all-too-human characteristics of vulnerability and fear.
Michael Ian Black approaches the topic of current institutions of gender roles in the U.S. in his recent op-ed for The New York Times, “The Boys Are Not All Right.”
“The past 50 years have redefined what it means to be female in America,” Black wrote. “Girls today are told that they can do anything, be anyone. They’ve absorbed the message: They’re outperforming boys in school at every level. But it isn’t just about performance.
To be a girl today is to be the beneficiary of decades of conversation about the complexities of womanhood, its many forms and expressions.”
Women, historically pigeon-holed to be sweet but not strong and domestic but not successful, are starting to have conversations about disrupting these contradictions to work towards changing gender hierarchies.
Manhood, on the other hand, is a relatively new discourse in gender studies, with the most groundbreaking research in masculinity being published as recently as the 1980s.
In recent years, the discussion has centered around the vilification of masculine traits in a way that leaves men behind on these conversations. As a result, masculinity has been unquestionably upheld in various ways.
Masculinity gains traction through the media, by our schools and for some of us, even by our families.
The general consensus that these mediums accept is that anger is a “masculine emotion,” whereas sadness, shame and fear are not accepted.
This manifests in many ways in a man’s life, from childhood to adulthood. In the extreme, it can become a mass shooting, but more common are episodes of domestic violence and an inability to successfully grapple with feelings of depression.
As Connell and Messerschmidt wrote, “without treating privileged men as objects of pity, we should recognize that hegemonic masculinity does not necessarily translate into a satisfying experience of life.”
How do we rebrand masculinity in our society to mean more than it does — to encompass the full scale of human emotion? How do we convince boys that embracing vulnerability is what will truly make them “real men”?
These answers will bring us one step closer to making our society less violent — from bar brawls to domestic abuse to mass shootings.
Men can only benefit if they are present and willing to have these conversations as well.