Masculinity has been under a spotlight lately and people are lining up to take sides. Some want to re-engineer the current model while others are actively defending it. Regardless, it is a transformational time for men. The American Psychological Association (APA) started off the year by publishing new guidelines suggesting that ‘masculine ideology’ was responsible for perpetuating the worst behavior in men. Shortly thereafter, Gillette ran a new ad calling out men’s sexist and derogatory behavior asking men to be more morally responsible. The ad and guidelines both created a huge furor; some heaped them with praise and while even more bombarded them with abuse.
Online comments from many men were aggressive and defensive. One guy said, “Let the women defend the town themselves and go home and have a manicure”. It is time to rewrite the script on this distorted warrior archetype but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Masculinity has many strengths or virtues. The problem comes when those strengths are dialed up to the extreme and become out of balance. That’s when too much of a good thing becomes a bad thing- strengths become weaknesses and virtues becomes vices.
Some of the attributes listed in the APA guidelines are worthy while others are toxic, yet they have all been lumped together as problematic. For example, the report says ‘traditional masculinity’ is characterized as anti-femininity, achievement, rejection of weakness, adventure, risk and violence. Let’s review these one by one:
- Anti-femininity is a vice. Individuals whose sole motivation is to move up higher on the hierarchy are prone to be anti-feminine as society has historically treated femininity as ‘less than’. The desire to keep the masculine club exclusive not only leads to prejudice, it means that these individuals have trouble developing the sensitivity and empathy which allow them to bond and engender the loyalty of others. All of us, regardless if we are male or female, have both energies in us. We need them to emerge and work together so we can be balanced leaders. If we accept both energies we can freely use them and choose the best attribute for every situation and audience.
- Achievement is a virtue. Many great and important discoveries can be credited with knowing what we want and working hard to get it. That desire will push us to greater heights. Consider the achievement of the three African- American women mathematicians depicted in the film “Hidden Figures”. They served vital roles to put NASA ahead of the Soviets in the space race. With no desire to achieve we will keep from trying things, squandering our talent and abilities. Both genders should strive to achieve but use it to follow their dreams. Using it to conform and fit into the beliefs of the dominant group will result in hollow rewards.
- Rejection of weakness is a vice. Under this scenario men who are naturally physically strong will pride themselves on not being weak ‘snowflakes’. Instead, they envision themselves as the lone ranger, independent and self-sufficient. Unfortunately, those who consider it a weakness to need others will become disconnected and narcissistic. We all have weaknesses and admitting them allows us to make improvements and corrections. Denying our weaknesses is like the hamster on the wheel, making no progress as we repeat problematic behavior. The paradox is that in trying to appear strong, many of us will stay safely in our gender box which doesn’t take courage at all.
- Adventure is a virtue. Personally, I love adventure and anything that makes me feel adventurous- like a new pair of wild glasses. I thrive on adventure travel as it is a wonderful way to experience life. It has boosted my confidence and increased my zest for living. Health experts say this stimulation will improve my immune system and keep me mentally sharp. Both women and men enjoy the challenge of the unknown as demonstrated by John Steinbeck who said, “life’s an adventure” and Amelia Earhart who said, “Adventure is worthwhile in itself.” This Masculine Energy virtue is plentifully found in both men and women.
- Risk is a virtue. It is well known in investment circles that opportunities come from taking risks and the same goes for our careers. If we want to advance, we have to take risks. Some are reluctant to take risk due to fear of failure but we simply have to view mistakes as an chance to learn and improve. From a young age boys are encouraged to venture off and skin their knees while little girls are told to be careful three times as much as boys on the playground. Thus, it is not a surprise that girls grow up to be more risk averse than boys. The problem comes when risk is dialed up to the extreme and becomes recklessness. That’s when companies and relationships fail.
- Violence is a vice. Most of the violent crime is committed by men, and women are most likely the victims rather than the perpetrators. Nearly 1 in 5 women is raped; compared to 1 in 71 men and these statistics include only the rapes that are reported. Additionally, over the last 35 years men committed 88 mass shootings in the United States while only 2 were committed by women. Yet, in spite of these lopsided numbers there is no conclusive evidence that men and women differ in their innate predisposition for violence. What is proven is that violence against women is most likely when the power differential between the genders carries a wide margin.
Of the 6 characteristics APA defines as ‘traditional masculinity’ half are virtues and half are vices. Let’s praise the men in our lives for their virtues and reassure them that we don’t want them to give up those strengths! Let’s not vilify men who carry these vices but encourage them to sort through the traditions they have been handed and adopt a more enlightened masculine model. And remember that women can carry these positive and negative masculine attributes as well. After all, we are all humans first, made up of a myriad of characteristics.
Let’s also acknowledge Gillette for taking the initiative to try and influence culture. Each of us have a role to play as well in reinforcing or changing stereotypes. We all want to feel secure in our identity and it is a transformational time for men. Let’s help them see masculinity as a more diverse concept and congratulate those who do!