On a warm spring afternoon, the serene setting of a grassy knoll was interrupted by the sound of clanging swords. Ten male figures, dressed in medieval garb, each possessing a shield on his left hand, and clenching a sword with his right hand, proceeded to attack each other from opposite sides. As the battle for victory grew more intense, a figure with a crown on his head shouted, “I, King Peter, demand the return of the women you’ve kidnapped and enslaved now!” “Never,” responded the five on the left side as they continued fighting. Minutes into the fight, a middle-aged woman approached the center of the battle and said, “King Peter, the dentist office called. We have to drive now to get there in time.” King Peter looked at the woman and pleaded, “I’m trying to save the women of Narnia from the evil Lord Miraz…mom!” I know what you’re thinking: Phones and cars didn’t exist during the Middle Ages, and Narnia is a place you find in your walk-in wardrobe. You are quite informed.
However, before you report me to the Medieval Historical Society for historical inaccuracies, the events did happen in history—my history. As boys growing up, my friends and I often got lost in our imaginative role-playing games, constantly visiting our Narnias to live out our boyhood. If we weren’t playing Narnians versus Telmarines, we played Cops versus Robbers, Cowboys versus Cattle Thieves, and other similar variations. No matter what the scenario or time period of our games, we instinctively knew our roles as “wannabe” men—it was our duty to save and protect women. But do American men still believe this today, or is it lost like a raindrop in the ocean? Looking at only the last fifty years, historical, economical, and social factors combined and intertwined have influenced how men are men today—American masculinity is slowly changing.
The question of what being an American man means in this day and age intrigued me so much that I conducted an online survey of male and female college students aged eighteen to twenty-three. Although their responses aren’t indicative of the rest of society, the fact that they are college students gives us a snapshot view of a particular stage in life, an in-between stage where they barely left adolescence, and barely entered adulthood. In other words, they are still influenced by society and are still solidifying their identities. One male respondent said the obvious: “Men must have a penis.” But it’s not like we can go around exposing our genitals every time our masculinity is questioned. For all the respondents, having a penis was essential and necessary to being a man, but having a penis wasn’t essential or necessary to being masculine. A couple of females used the words “strong,” “brave,” and “courageous” in their description of an ideal masculine man. One female said that men should be “protecting and putting the best interest of the woman above himself.” Interestingly enough, men responded quite similarly. One male responded simply that men must be “strong, fearless, and confident.” A couple of male respondents commented on how being a man meant doing something active, like “being sweaty, lifting heavy things, [and] not asking for directions.” Both men and women had similar answers to what it means to be a masculine American man.
When I asked my respondents what gave them this impression of manhood, it wasn’t a surprise that the words “parents,” “school,” “books,” “TV,” “movies,” or “Disney” were common answers. All these words described agents of social construction. Masculinity and femininity are socially constructed, and gender exists based on how people act (Connell 1996). It is for this reason that masculinity varies from culture to culture and across time—what is considered masculine in Madagascar may not be considered masculine in China, or in England, and what is considered un-masculine in 18th century America may be considered very masculine today. It is for this reason that both male and female respondents, being raised in America and holding American values, had similar answers. It is also for this reason that masculinity isn’t just my story or the story of other men. Rather, it is a story that equally affects us all, women included. A man is a woman’s father. How he raises her can affect her perception of herself and how she perceives others. A man might one day be a woman’s husband. How they interact with each other depends on how they perform their roles. A man may one day father her children. How both decide to display their parenting skills affects how their children will turn out today. And of course, every man is a woman’s son. How she raises him will affect how he will treat men and women. Studying masculinity is studying how men relate with women and other men.
As I step out of the wardrobe to leave my boyhood Narnia, I return as a taller, wiser twenty-three-year-old Indonesian American man. I was astounded to learn that “masculinity” isn’t a homogenous set of characteristics, nor an absolute construct, but rather that multiple masculinities exist (Connell 1996). Individual men don’t “possess” a particular masculinity, but they are constantly and dynamically being constructed based on historical and contextual factors through what they “do” (Frank 1995, 2). Yet, it’s difficult to see that other forms of masculinity do exist in America, when I have to be judged and live up to one particular kind of masculinity—the kind of masculinity that is constantly sweating in the gym, talking non-stop about sports, or when agitated, is ready to pulverize someone with a high level of testosterone. Sociologists have a name for it—they call it hegemonic masculinity, a form of “institutionalized masculinity [that] is ‘culturally exalted’ above all others” (Anderson 2008, 604). Hegemonic masculinity supports heterosexuality; homosexuality is its antithesis. Therefore, when I talk about masculinity, I speak specifically of heterosexual males. Both the male and female respondents in my survey reflect a hegemonic masculine mindset when they answered that men must be “strong.” Hegemonic masculinity places some men with domineering power over others, while simultaneously placing women subordinate to them (Connell 2005). It’s not a surprise that the ratio of female-to-male earnings for full time working is still less than men—77 cents on the dollar (“Press Release”).
The United States of America contains about 148 million men (“Age and Sex”) Over the past fifty years, each generation of American men has been constantly bombarded and raised with images and icons for hegemonic masculinity. The smooth, ever-so charming and constantly womanizing James Bond is seen bedding his next Bond girl. He’s praised as a player! The broad-shouldered, gun-toting Rambo is seen raising the death toll of bad guys in four movies. He’s honored as a badass! Then, there’s King Leonidas, the visibly toned and muscular leader of Sparta, who along with his courageous and equally toned and muscular 299 men, hack thousands of bodies like a Friday the 13th wet dream. He’s revered for his brutality! Womanizing, revenge-seeking, violent—they all present aspects of the hegemonic masculine psyche. Hegemonic masculinity also praises men for their self-reliance, sense of adventure, toughness, and aggressiveness (Donaldson 1993), and punishes them for hugging another man, discussing their feelings, or even shedding tears (Coles 2008).
We raise men in a culture where “boys don’t cry.” If a little girl falls down, gets injured, and starts to cry, we let her cry. We may even try to comfort her. If a little boy falls down, on the other hand, we tell him that crying is a sign of weakness, and if he wants to grow up to be strong and tough and be a real boy, he cannot cry. Tom*, a twenty-three-year-old political science major is tall and skinny, but he can handle the physical aspects of playing football. He recalls how he cried when his high school football team hazed him. From then on, he lost the respect of the team and was constantly ridiculed for his weakness until Tom finally decided to quit the team. Tom said, “Men don’t tolerate crying, unless you get kicked in the balls or a loved one dies. Anything else shows weakness, and real men don’t show weakness.” When Tom cried, he broke a rule from the “Guy Code” and “Man Laws.” These are sets of rules for how men are to behave in their interactions with other people, and especially with other men. It is somehow passed down and understood by all men. “Bros before ho’s,” which is putting your brothers first before a woman is part of these rules. Knowing bathroom etiquette, such as knowing where to stand and urinate at the urinal when in the presence of other men is another (Kimmel 2008). Though these rules for accepted manly behavior may seem ridiculous, they can also lead to dangerous consequences.
There is a dark side to “culturally exalting” hegemonic masculinity. With men chastised for showing or sharing their emotions with others, they become depressed. They bottle up their frustrations, until one day, the bottle develops too much pressure and bursts. Hegemonic masculinity is partly responsible for making suicide the eighth leading cause of death for men. It’s only the sixteenth leading cause of death for women (“Suicide in the U.S.”). Hegemonic masculinity glorifies violence and the subordination, and unfortunately, men are responsible for 92% of all domestic violence incidents against women (“Domestic Violence”). Good and bad, it is a glimpse of the masculinity we venerate; one that is visibly alive and well. However, men are no longer made up of “frogs and snails and puppy dogs’ tails.” Out of the sunrise, new forms of masculinity are being illuminated, enlightening us of men’s potential masculinities.
As I observe a group of ten-year-old boys playing in my aunt’s backyard, I discovered that boyhood games hardly changed since my childhood. The fighting, the aggression, and all the elements to hegemonic masculinity are still all there. Yet, the ending to these games is quite different. Damsels are no longer in distress—they do their own saving! Thus, as American women and femininity has changed over the last fifty years, becoming more “Supergirl” and displaying more “Girl power,” American men and masculinity is slowly changing in response. Hegemonic masculinity is taking a back seat for once, allowing an anti-hegemonic masculinity to finally be noticed.
Sociologists don’t have a word yet to describe this new kind of masculine phenomena, but I like to call it the “snuggle-softener” masculinity. Metrosexuals are under the umbrella of this type of masculinity. Webster’s Dictionary defines metrosexuality as a “heterosexual male given to enhancing his personal appearance by fastidious grooming, beauty treatments, and fashionable clothes.” In 1994, British journalist Mark Simpson first coined the word to respond to the growing advertisements geared towards men, stating that “masculinity is more mediated, more commoditized, more exhibitionistic, more self-conscious, and more tarty than ever” (Simpson 2005). Men are becoming more vain, more concerned about how they physically look and how they dress. However, men are also becoming more soft-hearted, more sensitive, and more open to their feelings. In fact, new words are added to our vernacular to document these changing masculinities, and Hollywood pokes fun at them.
By adding the word “man” or its many variations to a word traditionally ascribed to the female gender, or by being a portmanteau of words, the new word becomes accessible to men. It becomes “manly;” something men do. This process led to the creation of Menglish, which is “a language used of, by, to, and about men” (Bingler 2006). Man bag is one, simply a shoulder bag worn to the side by a man (Longley 2004). Man date is another, which encompasses two straight men that meet up for a social outing away from a traditionally masculine setting, like drinking at a sports bar (Lee 2005). When men travel together on vacation, they go on a mancation (Morago 2006). When a man gets paid to take care of other people’s children, he is a manny, a male nanny. (Fray 2005). To manscape is to shave and trim a man’s body hair (Horiuchi 2003). Male rock stars use guyliner, eyeliner that is designed and specifically used for men (Hall 2006). Most men would be afraid of having a boyzilian, a Brazilian bikini wax for guys (Wee 2007), but apparently some men get it done. And then there’s the ever popular bromance, a merging of the words “bro[ther]” and “romance,” which the Collins English Dictionary defines as, “a close but nonsexual relationship between two men.” Skateboard magazine editor David Carnie coined the word in the 1990s when he observed the kind of relationships that were flourishing between skaters who spend many aspects of their lives together (Elliot 2007). The word has since taken a Hollywood spin. The MTV show, “Bromance,” features Brody Jenner, son of U.S. Olympic swimmer Bruce Jenner. He goes on several man dates with each male contestant and mancations with all the contestants to search for his new best friend in a style akin to “The Bachelor.” Paul Rudd and Jason Segel star in 2009’s “I Love You, Man,” pokes fun at bromance as Rudd searches for a male best friend to be the best man at his wedding. There are also real life examples of bromances in Tinsel Town: Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, George Clooney and Brad Pitt, and Matthew McConaughey and Lance Armstrong—they’ve become Hollywood’s new power couples. All these new socially constructed words would not have existed if traditional masculinity (hegemonic masculinity) was not being challenged. Why is masculinity changing now—what is the driving force? As mentioned earlier, Professor Blye Frank (Frank 1995) of Dalhousie University states that masculinity is constructed based on historical and contextual factors. Over the past fifty years, significant historical, economical, and social changes have occurred which had a direct affect on men and their masculinities.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, America was experiencing various forms of revolution. Among them was the famous Civil Rights movement, which protested racial discrimination and racism against African Americans. While racial discrimination was being fought, simultaneously, a sexual revolution was growing. Sex, a traditionally taboo subject, was now openly discussed. And with the invention of the birth control pill, women were sexually liberated as sex outside of marriage became more and more socially acceptable (Allyn 2001). Some women resorted to burning their own bras as a form of protest. They clothed themselves with feminism, demanding for equality. They were Wonder Woman in the flesh: strong, independent, and able to compete with men. While women were becoming more equal, men were left with anxiety, confused with what it meant to be a man. The Feminist Movement was the rock thrown into a pond causing ripples, leading to a chain of events that affected both economical and social factors, and ultimately changing men and masculinity.
The places where men could validate their masculinity with other men are dwindling as women compete for the same jobs. Over the past fifty years, “virtually every all-male college went coed, the military integrated, as did police stations, and fire houses, and every single profession and occupation” (Kimmel 2008, 18). When I was a boy, my dad said that as a man, I would one day have to provide for my own family. But, like many men, women’s independence has threatened the traditional gender roles. Women became competing “bread earners.” According to professor of sociology Michael Kimmel, of State University of New York, Stony Brook, “men who once found meaning and social value in their work are increasingly pushed into lower-wage service occupations…men experience their masculinity less as providers and protectors, and more as consumers or ‘ornaments’” (Kimmel 2008, 17-18).
However, there are unattended consequences to women’s newfound freedoms. With women working, there is a delay of childbirth. With the invention of contraceptives and condoms and with premarital sex being socially acceptable, men and women are able to have sex without consequences with whoever they want, whenever they want (excluding sexually transmitted diseases of course). “Hooking up,” having a relationship without any obligations or expectations, has become the new norm. These abilities allow both men and women to delay marriage to their 30s. According to the 2007 report by National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, the average marriage age for men is 27, which is also caused by men and women who pursue higher education (Bindley 2008). Divorce is another reason for the delay in marriage. Men and women lack positive role models for marriage, and as a result, marriage lacks its appeal. Why are divorce, a delay in marriage, and the rise of singlehood important in studying the changing American masculinity? One word: consequences.
The consequences lead many men drifting in life. Without marriage or children, men aren’t forced to grow up and take adult responsibility (Dugan 2009). John*, a twenty-two-year-old history major from Orange County, loves spending time with his male friends. He’s a muscular-built, football jock-type, with ocean blue eyes and dark brown hair, whose casual sports style runs to a blue LA Dodgers cap and Rainbow sandals. He wants to get married in his early 30s, when he’s done with school and has a stable job that could support a wife and children. Although his own parents are still married, he’s seen a lot more examples of marriages ending in divorce. Every time he hears of another friend’s parents divorcing, John questions whether marriage is really worth it when so many marriages he’s seen end up in divorce. He and his friends enjoy surfing at the beach, taking a hike, or playing video games to escape the “real world,” a life full of responsibilities and stresses. Men are in a perpetual state of boyhood, stuck in the wardrobe of Narnia with other man-boys because to be a man is to take responsibility, and to provide for a family is taking on a responsibility. Men want to avoid this as long as possible, and thus, “hanging out with the boys” becomes a necessity. Their relationship with other men becomes more important than finding a potential mate. As a result, friendship with other men becomes a sought out commodity during singlehood. This is the rise of bromance.
Feminist mothers or at least some aspects of feminism raised up many of the men in my generation (born in the 1980’s and after). They raised us to believe it’s acceptable for us to talk about our feelings, to cry, and even to hug. Steve*, a twenty-year-old computer science major from San Jose has what I call a “Clark Kent-Superman complex.” He wears glasses and studies a subject considered to be for “nerds,” but take off those glasses and place him at the gym and you’ll notice how athletic, strong, toned, and muscular he really is, especially when he can out-bench men bigger than him. He’s also my workout partner. On my birthday, I met up with him at the James Wooden Center, the gym at UCLA, to work out. I expected him to greet me with a “Happy Birthday!” and a one-armed side hug, the appropriate “man hug” according to hegemonic masculinity. You would hug in an “A-frame” position, where the body contact is mainly in the shoulders. Your right hand pulls in the other man’s right hand as a handshake and acts as a barrier for both bodies from actually touching, while your left hand goes over the shoulder of the other man, slapping his back twice. It may also include a grunting noise to assert your masculinity (Hubert 2007). This hug is brief, has minimal contact, and there isn’t a risk of two crotches touching. I expected this kind of hug from Steve, especially since we were in the gym, a stereotypically masculine setting. Instead, Steve comes to me with a full-frontal hug, saying “Happy Birthday.”
After we hugged, I looked around the gym. Were people staring? Was my manliness being questioned? According to Kory Floyd, associate professor of communication at Arizona State, affectionate behavior “isn’t part of the masculine gender role” because “we socialize men to compete, not to be affectionate” (Hubert 2007). This is where we know hegemonic masculinity is still alive. Men are still a bit wary with showing any form of affection or emotion, especially in public because their manhood is being judged through hegemonic masculinity. However, a man being affectionate with other men is slowly becoming the new black, so to speak. Perhaps it’s a positive thing after all. According to Geoffrey Grief, a Maryland-based psychologist, “men who are comfortable sharing their feelings with other men may actually make better partners” (Ogunnaike 2009). That’s great news for women.
Masculinity is socially constructed; it depends on the historical and cultural context of the time, and thus constantly changing. And multiple masculinities exist, despite hegemonic masculinity being the most widespread. Hegemonic masculinity still affects how men behave as men, challenging them to maintain the status quo. As a result, men must constantly prove to themselves and each other that they are men, fostering a culture of men surrounded in aggression and violence. But this kind of masculinity isn’t all bad—the need to protect and provide may be seen as admirable qualities. The knight in shining armor still exists. He wears his armor to protect himself from others because he loathes, yet fears vulnerability. It took a social movement and about fifty years for him to finally remove all the heavy metal. Beneath the armored exterior is a human man, made of flesh and blood, brimming with life and emotions. All he needed was for the time to be right to show a different side to his masculinity. That time is now.
On a warm spring afternoon, the serene setting of a grassy knoll was interrupted by the sound of footsteps. A crowd of people, dressed in modern clothes, each possessing a backpack on their backs, and clenching a cell phone in their hands proceeded to walk up and down Bruin Walk. As the battle to dodge flyers grew more and more intense, a figure with a notebook in his hand began quietly observing the scene unfold. Looking first at the women, and then at the men, he began writing down his observations of their behaviors and interactions. Minutes into writing, a young and beautiful brunette woman approaches him and says, “Giovanny, the psychologist office called. They think you’re insane! You look like a crazy stalker or serial killer writing down notes about people.” She laughs and continues, “Are you done with your masculinity paper yet?” I shrug my shoulders. If masculinity constantly changes, I don’t think I can ever be done. I looked at the woman and smiled. Then, I glanced at my watch. I’m late for my bromantic man date with Steve. He’s taking me to eat steak—a very manly meal indeed.
© Copyright 2009, Giovanny Panginda
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