What is masculinity as a cultural concept?
Masculinity, or manhood, is a construct shaped by historical and ideological processes that results in many different masculinities. Not historically fixed or based on biology, masculinity is a dynamic progression that projects male identity as constantly changing through its contacts with various institutions and ideologies. Although strength and dominance have always been male attributes, variations in male identity are apparent, for example, from prehistoric hunters, to Greek warriors, to the Christian devout of the Middle Ages, to twenty-first century business executives.
The idea of masculinity, as opposed to manliness, or a man exhibiting an upright character, emerged near the beginning of the twentieth century as the dominant male attributes of the Victorian era began to fade with the advent of a new, more aggressive society. In the United States, manly self-restraint and respectability began to be perceived by mainstream men as inadequate to combat the surge of immigrants determined to prove their vitality and manhood. Also, the rise of women activists, suffragettes, or those merely seeking advancement was perceived to threaten manhood, creating an urge among many men to reclaim their former dominance. Men began to form restrictive groups and associations that championed specific ideas of masculinity. During this time, the Boy Scouts organization was begun as a way to remove boys periodically from female influences and “teach them how to be men.”
Despite the potential for change in male identity that exists naturally in the day-to-day lives of individuals, families, and communities, the force possibly most resistant to change is the construction of the hegemonic man in the media. Depictions of men in advertisements present images of masculinity that suggest power and control. Male characters in war or action films are depicted as aggressive and violent, and frequently mistreat women, children, homosexuals, and minorities. Men’s magazines tout hegemonic masculinity in the form of physically attractive leaders who are in control of their environment as well as their own destiny. These images undermine more conservative masculine identities in children and teenagers, and also prove detrimental to men who are uncomfortable with such portrayals.
Although studies in masculinity were largely an outgrowth of the feminist movement, whose attacks on male privilege eventually transformed ideas concerning manhood, evidence suggests that men had previously staged a rebellion against the predominant view of men as the mainstay of the family. Author Barbara Ehrenreich insists that the launch of Playboy magazine in 1953 was designed to indicate male dissatisfaction with the image of the man as a “breadwinner”; she also maintains that the feminist movement of the 1970s was really an assault on the men’s revolt.
Some men had already begun fighting the inequity of divorce courts, both in the financial realm and that of child custody, which favored the mother. A large number of men were already pursuing men’s liberation. However, although the impact of the feminist movement led many men either to angrily refute feminist charges or to engage in pro-feminist activities to make amends for their past behavior, others took part in a men’s movement that included writing and reading books on masculinity and its history, and joining various organizations for the benefit of fathers who had lost custody of their children, men unable to express their feelings, men alienated from the company of men, men who feared women, and men concerned with the effects of “traditional” views of masculinity on their sons, as well as gay liberation groups.
In some cases, violence has been the result of changing masculinity roles. The lack of positive father-son relationships has been blamed for incidents of youth violence and rage, including school shootings. While the emergence of the gay liberation movement allowed homosexual men to pursue lives that redefined masculinity, some heterosexual men saw these public avowals of homosexuality as a threat to their own masculinity and retreated into homophobia, a traditional male trait. As a result, some men engaged in acts of violence toward gay men and lesbians.
A major masculinity crisis exists in the area of men’s health, largely the result of unvoiced notions of strength and toughness that undermine men’s well-being. Ideals of masculinity seem to place low priority on maintaining health, eating a proper diet, eliminating harmful habits, reducing stress, or moderating risk taking. In the United States, men's life expectancy is about five years less than women's; their rate of completed suicide is almost four times that of women; and their rate of accidental death, compared with that of women, is shockingly high.
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