So much for strong but silent. Loud headlines now proclaim that masculinity is in retreat. These noises are echoed by everyone from a sitting U.S. senator to an accused rapist popular on YouTube, and they are made in the apparently sincere belief that there is a “crisis of masculinity.”
But is it new? I am a social scientist who studies the nature of male-dominated subcultures—including Dungeons & Dragons, video games and the military—which means I discuss masculinity a lot, from both a contemporary and a historical context. And what I can tell you is that a panic about a supposed crisis of masculinity in the U.S. is not new.
The idea of masculinity in crisis is as old as this country, as sociologist Michael Kimmel noted in his 1996 book, Manhood in America: A Cultural History, now in its fourth edition. For nearly 300 years, in a cyclical manner, some segment of the American populace has expressed concern that men are too soft, too effeminate or too unfocused, compared with the “ideal” man. This notion of an ideal man is what scholar Raewyn Connell refers to as “hegemonic masculinity”: a perfected sense of manhood that is as glorified as it is unattainable. It is an ideal virtually no man can reach but every man is encouraged to strive for.
While cries of crisis are not new, what is new in this latest cycle is a sense of masculinity facing deconstruction, with the dispassionate labeling of some actions done by men as “toxic.” By reinforcing the idea that men are behaving badly (more than usual) and need real-time correction, there is a not-too-subtle inference that we need to be “policing” masculinity. The proposed remedy to prevent micromanaging gender, and to move more quickly toward gender equality, is to break down practices or behaviors that we code as masculine or feminine and to accept people as they are without the shackles of gendered expectations.
This is easier said than done. My recent research looked at Twitter postings responding to a rumor that Rockstar Games would be releasing a new version of the game Grand Theft Auto this year or next with a woman as the lead playable character. I studied one tweet about this leaked rumor, and analyzed the responses. I found that—predictably, in a sometimes misogynistic cyberspace—men either were fine with the decision or they hated it. But there’s one caveat: while some men applauded the decision, no social media posts that I could identify from men were overjoyed about it. So there was support but not gushing support. For those who hated the decision, the comments leaned heavily on sexist tropes of women: one commenter asked if one of the in-game tasks for a female character would be cleaning the house. Again, given the subject matter of Grand Theft Auto, which often has the player taking the role of a criminal who must do antisocial acts—stealing cars, for starters—to advance in the game, a dose of misogyny was not unforeseeable.
What was unexpected to me were some of the comments from identified women, who took the men who were complaining to task for their rudeness. My analysis showed that women in this circumstance themselves “weaponized” masculinity. They attacked the complainers by implying that they were in some way less of a man (for example, that they were not well endowed, gay or unable to attract women). In short, to attack what they saw as toxic masculinity, these women deployed toxic masculinity. They leaned on old tropes about what it meant to be a man and insinuated that anyone having a problem playing as a woman in a game could not measure up as a real man. Another popular attack was to simply label any man who had a problem as an “incel,” an involuntary celibate, whether or not that was true, because of the understanding that the label carried with it some stigma online. The reason these tactics work is because the idealized sense of masculinity, no matter how much we try to deny it, is still there, and shaming a man for not reaching that ideal has scant difference from the “toxic” masculinity of men we hear so much about.
Masculinity has been a term used through history but not deeply interrogated, as this example of masculinity-turned-toxic demonstrates. It was not until feminism rose as a movement and a scholarly subject that researchers such as Connell, James Messerschmidt, Mark Anthony Neal and others began looking into masculinity. And there are still a lot of questions for which we have no answers. There is not, for example, enough deep research on African American masculinities, Latino masculinities, poor masculinities or rural masculinities. Young scholars should consider delving into these arenas if we want to finally stop staged masculinity crises in politics and daily life that steamroll everyone from senators to video game car thieves.
Otherwise, that internal sense of masculinity, felt as “I know it when I see it” and framed within the impossible ideal of hegemonic masculinity, means the siren of crisis always beckons. That’s because while historical masculine roles of “protector” or “provider” must shift with technological, economic and social changes, there will always remain a desire among some to retain classic ideals, no matter how outdated and unnecessary they might be. Masculinity needs to adapt appropriately to a 21st century containing both feminism and women who game, and it must do so without falling into misandry. Solving that puzzle is the real crisis in masculinity.
This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.