Our Misguided Image of Masculinity Still Prevails

You can also read this article in Psychology Today here

Many of us like to think of ourselves as enlightened when it comes to gender relations. Let’s consider just how enlightened we are with respect to two controversial and critical dimensions of how men and women interact: cooperation and aggression.

Congratulations on Your Promotion! Now Go Clean Up the House

First, let’s take a look at (one measure of) cooperation. Despite the fact that women have made striking strides toward gender equality—more women than men currently earn college degrees, for instance—and fathers are doing more housework and helping more with child care than they were back in the 1960s, US mothers are actually spending more time on child care than they were over four decades ago

According to Pew Research Center US-based time use data, when Mom is working and Dad isn’t, Dad spends, on average, about six hours more per week than Mom on child care and housework. When the tables are turned, on the other hand, and Dad is working while Mom stays at home, she spends over 750 percent more time than stay-at-home Pops—over 46 more hours each and every week—on these activities. 

That Hurts

Now let’s consider aggression. Mass shootings in which four or more people are murdered have been documented by independent research from the Harvard School of Public Health and Northeastern University and further corroborated by a FBI study. According to one database with data through December 2023, there have been a total of 149 mass shootings since 1983. 

All but five mass shootings were committed exclusively by men. (Both genders were involved in two incidents.) In total, 97 percent of the shooters were men

The male inclination toward aggression is nothing new. The arrest ratio of men to women in both the US and Canada is approximately 9 to 1, with men comprising 93 percent of felony weapons arrests

In general, men are more prone to aggression than women, at least in its more damaging forms. They administer more electric shocks they (falsely) believe to be hurting someone, for instance, in lab experiments. (Yet women are just as guilty as men in committing less assaultive forms of aggression such as verbally abusing, slapping or throwing an object at a family member or partner.) 

While there are certainly enlightened men—let’s call them SNAGs (Sensitive New Age Guys)—it doesn’t seem that men overall are shaking out too well, compared to women, in terms of how they interact with others.

What is a Man Supposed to Be?

Could it be our collective view of masculinity that’s to blame? To find an answer, look no further than the heroic image of male redemption through violence with which we inculcate our young men through movies, television shows and books. Our core cultural message seems to be that a man can only prove himself through displaying his competence, even if doing so includes violently attacking others rather than attuning and empathizing with their needs.

This male archetype permeates our society at every level: the image of the callous, distant, detached man who exhibits competence without every becoming close to others. The tragic, isolating sadness of this model for young men is sagely depicted by Bruce Springsteen:

The icons that were being sold to us [were] Western heroes. They were lonely. They were never fathers, never husbands, always passing through … The ultimate example of this is … John Wayne, who’s a misanthrope. He has a series of violent skills that he can use to impact and preserve the community, but he can’t join a community. 

Former President Obama reinforces the strength and ubiquity of this male archetype, which all too often places an intractable emotional and psychological distance between men and the close relationships they need to learn how to develop empathy and care for others:

The message American culture sends to boys about what it means to be a man … hasn’t really changed all that much since we were kids: the emphasis on physical toughness and suppressing your feelings, having success defined mainly by what you own and your ability to dominate. Rather than on your ability to love and care for others.

“The only clear, defining thing about being a man,” Obama continues, summarizing the prevailing image of masculinity that most men subscribe to, “is you excel in sports … sexual conquest … violence … [and] making money.”

If Obama is correct, increased competition and less opportunities to find a fulfilling job and earn enough to support a family would likely lead to more young men abandoning their hopes for assimilating into a peaceful society and resorting to violence.

This is precisely what’s occurring before our noses. Our competitive, capitalistic culture is not only an artifact of folklore. It’s real: the CEO no longer earns eighty times—as he or she did in the 1980s—but now over six hundred times what the janitor takes home to her or his children. In 2018, for example, the top 0.1 percent earned 196 times per year what the bottom 90 percent earned.

Each of us bears some responsibility to turn this disquieting societal trend around, starting with the urgent need to reform the image etched into our minds of what a real man is.

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