Strong, in control, and stoic—these are traits of the ideal masculine man. Men who fail to conform to this ideal are often penalized, p...
Does masculinity need a makeover for the 21st century? Should your gender matter to who you are as a person? Why think there’s just one thing it means to be a man? This week on Philosophy Talk, we’re discussing masculinity and what makes a man.
Many people are suspicious of traditional masculine ideals, and for good reasons. We live in a culture that expects men to be dominant, powerful, and good at suppressing feelings (other than anger). These expectations, often called “toxic masculinity”, are harmful to men themselves, since ideals of masculinity are difficult and painful to attain. They’re also harmful for anyone who has to deal with men’s aggression.
Critics of masculinity typically don’t think that men are irredeemably bad; a set of expectations can be bad without reflecting negatively on the people who are subject to those expectations. But you might worry that we’ve dismissed the expectations themselves too quickly. Isn’t it possible to masculine in positive ways? Men can be caring fathers, or shy introverts, or figure skaters, and none of that should shed doubt on their identities as men. Maybe what we really need is a more flexible concept of masculinity.
On the other hand, what’s the point of having a concept of masculinity at all, if anything a man does counts as masculine? Why not focus on what we have in common as human beings instead of needlessly gendering everything? There are very few traits found only in men; there are women who coach NFL teams, operate ham radio stations, and grow beards. These traits might be statistically more common in men than in women, but they’re not more appropriate in one gender than another.
One possible response is to draw inspiration from ideals of masculinity, while being more flexible about who can embody those ideals. Nobody should be unfeeling, domineering, or violent, but there are good things about being strong, straightforward, or (to some extent) self-sacrificing. Perhaps it’s possible to clean up our masculine ideals, trimming away the morally worse parts, and making them flexible enough for anyone to opt in.
It’s also important to give people space to opt out. Expecting all men to have powerful muscles is unfairly burdensome to disabled men; expecting all men to be primary breadwinners is unrealistic in a capitalist economy with a widening divide between the haves and have-nots. There’s nothing wrong with being muscular or providing for your family, but it is unfair to place these expectations on everyone. Being perceived as masculine isn’t always beneficial either; black men in the US are doing worse than black women by many measures, and those who are perceived as large or tall are likelier to end up in jail.
So should we scrap masculinity altogether, or simply rehabilitate it? It’s not even clear that masculinity is one thing. Sociologist Raewyn Connell argues that we should think in terms of masculinities, which “are multiple, with internal complexities and even contradictions,” differ across times and places, and are influenced by women as well as men. So perhaps a better question is: which masculinities should we cultivate (if any), and which should fall by the wayside?
I’m excited to explore more about masculinity with special co-host Blakey Vermeule and guest Robin Dembroff, author of Real Men on Top: The Metaphysics of Patriarchy (forthcoming). I hope you’ll join us on this week’s show!