What Is Masculinity?

Sunday, September 24, 2023
First Aired: 
Sunday, March 21, 2021

What Is It

Strong, in control, and stoic—these are traits of the ideal masculine man. Men who fail to conform to this ideal are often penalized, particularly if they are men of color, queer men, working-class men, or men with disabilities. So how do we create different visions of masculinity that make room for all kinds of men? Should we abandon the idea of masculinity altogether, or would that be throwing out the baby with the bathwater? Which models of masculinity will bring us closer to gender justice in the 21st century? The philosophers man their mics with Robin Dembroff from Yale University, author of Real Men on Top: How Patriarchy Weaponizes Gender (forthcoming).

Listening Notes

Does masculinity need a makeover for the 21st century? Should your gender matter to who you are as a person? Ray thinks masculinity is a tool of the patriarchy and should be rejected, but Blakey counters by suggesting that there may be multiple definitions of masculinity that need not all rely on narrow and stereotypical expectations. Ray is skeptical of a solution that would introduce more stereotypes into the mix, and they maintain that people should simply focus on what they have in common with all human beings. 

The co-hosts are joined by Robin Dembroff, Professor of Philosophy at Yale University, who argues that any idea of what someone must be or ought to be on the basis of gender is constrictive. Ray asks how their critique differs from standard critiques of masculinity, and Robin explains that their view emphasizes the close connection between masculinity and maleness. Blakey questions the ability to separate the two concepts, which prompts Robin to define masculinity as standing in opposition to femininity. Ray then considers how men are advantaged and disadvantaged by sexism due to the intersectionality between gender, race, class, and disability. 

In the last segment of the show, Ray, Blakey, and Robin discuss the connection between power and manhood and the behavioral aspects of gender. Ray proposes the possibility of broadening the definition of masculinity to be anything that a man does, but Robin warns that it may not be possible. Blakey asks what actionable steps could be done to create more gender equality, and Robin suggests degendering formal institutions such as on birth certificates, in schools, and in the incarceration system.  

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 3:05) → Ariella Markowitz talks to people who are helping men rethink their relationship to masculinity, such as clinical psychologists, second wave feminists, and health researchers. 

  • From the Community (Seek to 42:42) → Ray and host emeritus John Perry discuss what constitutes incitement.



Ray Briggs  
Does masculinity need a makeover for the 21st century?

Blakey Vermeule  
Should your gender matter to who you are as a person?

Ray Briggs  
Why think there's just one thing it means to be a man?

Comments (16)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, February 28, 2021 -- 4:58 AM

Your question regarding the

Your question regarding the masculine seems to correspond with notions I have had about two of your other posts: Misogyny and Feminine care. Men, whether particularly masculine or not so much,
have felt the pressures and pinch of the feminist movement and other pro- women forces. On the hand of fairness and equal treatment, this is viewed as a good thing. On another hand, it can be considered erosive: the rise of Donald J. Trump to the office of the Presidency is a prime example.

Disaffected males disproportionately supported and support Mr. Trump. He has vowed revenge for his defeat in the election and these men are gleefully backing that. This is demonstrative. And, I think
unhelpful. It encourages further erosion of democracy, in the sense of encouraging a revenge whch has no valid referrent: He lost the contest, fair and square. His insistence that it was rigged is , itself, a sham. But, obviously, brawny, masculline men may choose to feel differently and act on the feeling.
To use a part of my mantra, they are NOT ready to try harder, think better and cut the crap.

Reasonable people can disagree. Of course...

Guessedworker's picture


Thursday, March 4, 2021 -- 1:36 AM

Critical Theory never was

Critical Theory never was philosophy, and none of its current extrapolations are, either. They are anti-white racial animus gleefully of value only to over-socialised, post-religious faithists for whom the radical left offers the means to rebel against their own personality flaws.

It does not matter to them that their arguments are circular, their certainties self-proving, their justifications hypocritical self-deceptions. It does not matter that equality does not and cannot exist in Nature, and therefore in humanity, and that cause is a total waste of everybody’s time. It does not matter that there is no Marx Factor whirring away inside the human brain, cross-checking with flawless efficiency over the mountains and deserts and oceans to make quite sure that no one with white skin has evolved a difference above the neck or below the belt from someone with black or brown or yellow skin. It does not matter that being a man or a woman is not a personal choice because, y’know, you can’t choose your chromosomes. It does not matter that reproductively whole men and women, in whom the future of humanity is vested, are not equal to the reproductively disabled “letter people”. None of it matters because it’s religion. It’s all just a desperate, pathetically immature faith-rebellion in the maximally damaging cause of a relativistic universe voided of all annoyingly “white” and “masculine” absolutes like reality, facts, truth and, especially, inheritance. Would that these strange political animals had all been practising Christians after all. Then the most they could have done to save themselves would have been to go and prey in church every Sunday.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Wednesday, March 10, 2021 -- 6:28 AM



Where do you get this?... 'equality does not and cannot exist in Nature'. Equality of the sexes exists in many species as does inequality.

I'm not sure what you are saying there.

Guessedworker's picture


Friday, April 2, 2021 -- 2:57 AM

I might ask you the same

I might ask you the same question. On what definite basis, bereft of ascription, is the assumption of human equality in Nature made? (The same could be asked of the rest of mammalian life.)

What we know is that sex difference is an absolute, and gives of different forms, functions (including sociobiological traits), and costs. Enacted ideology based in a lie will produce social pathologies, the unimpeachable testimony for which assertion is the history of 20th century genocide in the name of equalness. Is it not time to work with Nature in Man instead of against it?

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Saturday, April 3, 2021 -- 7:28 AM



I'm not sure about 'will,' but I agree with you that ideology based on a lie 'can' produce social pathology.

Though you didn't answer my question, I will try and answer yours as it relates somewhat to your statement that equality can not exist in Nature. Rightfully I can't answer your question, however, without "ascribing" cause to Nature in the first place. I don't do that. You do. Why? There are too many forms of nature in Nature for absolutes.

If we have to limit nature to mammals (you didn't do that initially but do now – why?), then certain breeds of coyotes, apes like bonobos, and monkeys like northern muriquis all are examples of biological equality. The spotted hyena has interesting sexual dimorphism as the females are dominant. Montane and Prairie voles are equally fascinating.

Equality means little to animals outside of survival, gender even less if at all. These are human issues. Anthropomorphizing or zoomorphizing can be misleading and usually is misguided.

Men and Women are not equals, just as men and men are not equals. The difference in these populations' means is not indicative of the overlap in the spread around those means. Equality stems from their moral standing. This is the human equality that is at issue here. In this respect, it is time to work with human nature and not against women or men regardless of whether they are predominately masculine or feminine.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, March 12, 2021 -- 4:04 PM

No. I do not understand. I

No. I do not understand. I have suggested readings for insight into this and other questions. Susan Jacoby and Steven Pinker are two of my favorites There are dozens others. I don't contend these public intellectuals are 100% right, only that they offer valuable perspectives. I figure I still have a lot to learn. Life is just too short. We just do the best we can, with what we've got and what we know...
Warmest Regards.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Friday, March 19, 2021 -- 8:10 PM

Sex and gender are two

Sex and gender are two different things. Though we scientifically understand next to nothing about sexual orientation, we know something about gender and much more about sex. Most of us don't question our sex or gender, especially men, comfortable with their maleness and masculinity. Why should they? They are 'Real Men On Top' as Robin's forthcoming book is titled.

Here's why. There is no state or country where men outlive women. Being male kills men. Men are victims of crime at much higher rates than women as well. Men commit homicides nearly nine times as often as women. The stats go on and on.

There are biological reasons for this disparity, but social norms that don't support males through adulthood bring much pain and harm. That may seem odd to say men need support when they are the criminals and lottery winners with respect to wages and opportunity. Nevertheless, it is perhaps true. That men rarely are open and honest about their lives is further fodder for change.

The absolute best solution for the ills of masculinity is equal rights for women. Once we correct that wrong, we can genuinely share the childcare and parenting that perforce humanizes.

Women and men are more alike than they are different despite the broad differences in masculinity and femininity. Cognitively there is far more variation within the sexes than between them. SARS 2 may have reversed course on women in the workplace. Hopefully, we can right that ship. Male lives depend on it.


Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Sunday, March 21, 2021 -- 9:23 PM

Hmm... I'm not sure I liked

Hmm... I'm not sure I liked this show. Yet, just when I get heated Robin would say something reasonable. Overall I think there is too much here I disagree with to let this go without comment.

I don't see a clear path - which is what I ask of any professional philosopher. Clarity and direction... hmm. I'm not getting it here. Let me re-listen and write in a comment on this show, then come back and post it here.

I don't think this is going to be an easy edit. Robin is wrong on the science, the immutability of masculinity and femininity, and historical trajectory. This isn't going to be fun but maybe I am just not hearing this right.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Friday, March 26, 2021 -- 8:23 PM

Complete androgen

Complete androgen insensitivity syndrome (CAIS) and 5-alpha reductase 2 deficiency give me pause to accept Robin’s views toward masculinity. These can manifest in gonadal male youth being raised as girls until puberty, when their intersex is discovered. Any view of masculinity must include these males and protect their freedom, childhood, and bodies. This would entail a philosophical commitment to careful, cautious, and enlightened nurturing of all children through puberty and adulthood. Protecting youth is where masculinity philosophers need to focus their thought.

Parenting is a counterexample to the complementarity argument for using masculinity for its explanatory sake. Sensuality, pleasure, and friendship are other examples. Humans have standard biology, purpose, and meaning in life that far outweighs their gender differences.

It is incumbent on philosophers of gender to push back on feminist psychology that has co-opted gender to talk to female issues, values and emancipation. This is not pleasant work or popular. It is a foundation of the masculine view whether Dembroff agrees with it or not. They should speak to it. Philosophy needs a broader perspective than expressed by Robin here.

The history of gender, surgical reconstruction, and power are morally questionable. Dembroff needs to call these out more clearly (I hear them, but it has to be a primary and fundamental tenet) if they want to speak to utilitarian masculinity. The problem of women’s bodies is, to a large extent, masculine.

Overall I’m impressed with Robin’s theses and look forward to reading and reacting to this book. Sex, gender, sexual orientation, behavior, and sensuality are crucial to a happy life. It’s hard to be critical when this book is forthcoming, and I didn’t attend the show. This show didn’t go where I thought it would, and now I’m sorry not to have written in questions for Dr. Dembroff.

Cross post with Blog - https://www.philosophytalk.org/blog/what-makes-man

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, March 24, 2021 -- 7:17 AM

Sometimes, in my case anyway,

Sometimes, in my case anyway, something emerges from some remembered text read in past years. I have mentioned Julian Jaynes before. He was not as well known as some, but his idea of bicameral mind still nags at my consciousness, or fires a neuron when I am pondering some other problem. Masculinity. That has been a point of aggravation since I was a very young man. I wonder if being unable to make up one's mind part of the dilemma? It vaguely occurs to me that men's ideas about themselves are all over the chart. They are acutely aware of their public image and want to cast themselves in what they believe to be the best possible light. Much of this belief rests in peerage: with whom and where they feel at ease, 'comfortable in their skin'. This is not, of itself, indication of intelligence of dimness. They just want to have somewhere to hang their hat. Or hunt turkeys.

Like Jaynes' bicameral man, they do not really make up their own minds: they choose a template where there is most comfort and allow their attitude and behavior to be molded by the chosen herd.
Philosophy of psychology? I think so. Others must decide for themselves. Turkeys are difficult prey.
If you are playing by the rules.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Thursday, March 25, 2021 -- 9:18 AM

Difficult as it may be, this

Difficult as it may be, this turkey is worth hunting, needs killing, and unfortunately, tastes horrible. To that extent, I doubt I will get any philosophers to shoot here but saddle up! The hunt is on.

Jaynes is a must-read but retrospectively ignorant and foolish. Imagining a preliterate brain is a just-so story. Thinking of the brain as bicameral was useful, perhaps, is no longer helpful and will be thought of as quaint. That said, were Jaynes alive today – he would have three or four more books out and be considered an authority and top-notch philosopher on par with Daniel Dennett or Richard Dawkins for his theory of mind/self.

But this show/blog is not about Jaynes. It is, unfortunately, about Robin Dembroff and misnomerically masculinity. Dembroff is well-spoken, made me think/mold a bit perhaps, but is decidedly off point.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Friday, March 26, 2021 -- 6:37 PM

I'm going to re-read Jaynes

I'm going to re-read Jaynes and reconsider this comment. It's been too long and my take is too old to justify. I do feel like he got short shrift and was way ahead of the curve. Sometimes I can be too dismissive. This is one of those times.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Monday, March 29, 2021 -- 5:43 AM

I did just finish this. I'm

I did just finish this. I'm still saying it's far out there but if Freud gets a show Jaynes should as well. What may be the most interesting about Jaynes is his following.

It would take a very close read to point out all the issues with this book but easily 4 out of 5 ideas are just flat out wrong, but the book is 45 years old so that isn't that bad. Most of the best ideas have been explicated by Daniel Dennett without any of the errors or narrowness. One of the issues is in defining what consciousness is. But to his credit Jaynes mentions many major criticisms in his writing.

All of Dennett's works would make for better reading, along with Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel and Yuval Hariri's Sapiens. All of these books work with the depth that Jaynes does but don't lose the detail with the message.

One example of this (and there are many) is when Jaynes points to Tourettes as being akin to schizophrenia. You have to unwind most of these thoughts to get to the gold. The mind is not and never was bicameral.

All the negativity aside, this would make a great show if the right guest could be found to really dig down on this. I don't see any comprehensive critiques. Nautilus did an article on Jaynes in 2015.

When you take the time to come to terms with an author, it can be hard to see the forest from the specualtions. Often I am taken in. Not this time.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, August 28, 2023 -- 1:30 PM

It has been awhile since we

It has been awhile since we were here. Fortunes are won and lost. I learned from what Jaynes wrote and now know more about those short comings. Dennett? He is not teflon coated either, but I likewise learned from him---I hope so, anyway. Transgender issues, now more relevant that a mere couple of years ago, seem to subsume masculinity as a topic of importance The gender discussion, in itself, is unsettled and unsettling. No one can decide whether it is relevant, or no. AI; LLMs; Transhumanism and more, vie for our attention and/or support. I still know what I think. Others know what they believe, based on Interests, motives and preferences. There will always be a gap between what we think; know; and, believe.. And that, friend Smith, is just the point.

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mariahcarey's picture


Sunday, March 17, 2024 -- 8:42 PM

Efforts to create more

Efforts to create more inclusive and equitable models of masculinity wordle are essential for promoting gender justice in the 21st century.

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boystrong1002's picture


Wednesday, June 12, 2024 -- 9:42 PM

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