“You’re not a real man.” Ironically, hearing this statement, having one’s manhood questioned, is one of the few universal male experiences. This oft-cited phrase, however, is more complex than it initially seems. It betrays an implicit understanding of masculinity: that manhood is not a given for anyone with the ‘right’ combination of chromosomes, but rather a social condition that demands following masculine gender norms. Say you don’t live up to those standards? Then, “you’re not a real man.”
To this point, scholars Jennifer Bosson and Joseph Vandello undertook a study to empirically demonstrate this principle, which they dubbed “precarious manhood.” In their study, the researchers took two groups of men and assigned to each group an identical task: each group was given lengths of string and instructions on how to braid them together.
The difference between the two groups, however, was that one group was told they were being instructed on how to braid rope and the other was told they were learning to braid hair. The assignment of these stereotypically masculine and feminine tasks respectively, had a strong and demonstrable impact on the men for the remainder of the study.
The men who were asked to braid hair underwent what the researchers call a gender challenge, and consequently in the subsequent activity—punching a punching bag—they punched on average fifteen percent harder than the control group. In response to the gender challenge, the men performed acts of compensatory masculinity to reassert their manhood following the implicit accusation of femininity.
This finding corroborates the lived experience of the countless people who spend their time with men and sheds light on the frequently baffling displays of machismo that some men are wont to engage in. It was certainly my experience at the U.S. Air Force Academy, where hard-world philosophy predominated. What mattered was showing that you were stronger and more brutal than the person next to you.
What I’d like to know is, if in response to a gender challenge individual men engage in acts of compensatory masculinity, what is a society’s response to a societal gender challenge?
If you consume any amount of news media, you have surely seen breathless declarations of a so called “crisis of masculinity.” These lamentations have arisen from all sides of the political spectrum consisting of everything from Tucker Carlson bemoaning the “feminization” of the American military to New Yorker think pieces on men’s underperformance in education.
In many senses, there is a crisis of masculinity taking place in the United States. While patriarchal practices continue to predominate much as they have for the last ten thousand years of human civilization, feminist critiques and movements have made significant strides toward equality. Though far from achieving the material equity demanded by feminists, our society has begun to shift power away from patriarchal structures in a fashion that reactionaries tend to find frightening. As the saying goes, “To the privileged, equality feels like oppression.”
So how does a patriarchal society respond to a trend toward equality? If it behaves anything like an individual, it will do so through compensatory masculinity–particularly through displays of violence, control, and the capacity for violence. In practice, these policies are instituted by the legally sanctioned violence-doers of the state: police, military, and immigration control. If this theory holds, then we would expect rhetoric and policies regarding these institutions to become increasingly harsh, forceful, and punitive to compensate for the perceived “feminization” of society. That is, just like individual men compensate when they feel their masculinity is under attack, we expect that a society undergoing a gender challenge will similarly compensate.
Donald Trump demonstrates a clear example of advocating for compensatory violence at the societal level. He famously called for the reintroduction of military parades as a show of force and for police officers to be less gentle on those they arrest. He embodies an attitude prevalent among the “Blue Lives Matter” crowd: particularly, that the means of addressing social ills consist of instituting increasingly punitive policies to distinguish the in-group from the out-group; the citizen from the “criminal.”
Upending patriarchy means that an identity crisis is unavoidable. We can, however, prevent the accumulation of casualties in this crisis. We will do so at all levels, from the personal to the societal, by challenging the lie that we must “return” to a failed, patriarchal masculinity.
Men with any instinct for self-preservation have begun to learn this lesson. They see that patriarchy does not serve them in the ways that matter: it merely hurts them less than it hurts everyone else. The feminist author bell hooks is among the best thinkers on men and masculinity. In her book The Will to Change, she offers an alternative vision of positive masculinity, both for individuals and for society. In this vision, masculinity is not about climbing hierarchies of power, but instead about breaking down the hierarchies that divide us to enable radical vulnerability and support.
To fix the mire we’ve put ourselves in, men need to deconceptualize feminism as a threat and embrace it as a liberating philosophy. In turn the feminism we must practice must engage, support, and love men. If we adopt this vision, then maybe our society might respond to its challenges not with violence, but with empathy, understanding, and the will to change.