Following yet another mass shooting, social scientists and the American community at large are engaging in some familiar conversations. While some folks are looking at mental illness as a trigger to violence and others are asking for gun laws that would put restrictions on gun ownership, sociologist Tristan Bridges wants to draw some focus on the role of masculinity in violence.
Bridges told The Christian Science Monitor that he believes the mass shooters are “over-conforming to masculinity, because they perceive themselves, in some way or another, as emasculated… It’s a terrible statement about American masculinity, to say that when you’re emasculated, one way to respond is to open fire.”
In early April, a men’s fashion article in The Guardian explored the historical significance of beards, describing, for example, how early Egyptian pharaohs wore fake beards as a symbol of power. Since then, facial hair’s place in men’s fashion has waxed and waned, at times symbolizing political power while at other times representing radical lifestyles and rejections of social norms. French sociologist Stéphane Héas explained the political and social connotations of beards.
“Being hairless and clean-shaven, or not, is far from neutral,” Héas said. “Social norms determine how far a beard should be allowed to grow, when it should be trimmed or shaved off.”
He goes on to explain how facial hair has reinforced gendered power in modern western cultures:
The patriarchal, male-dominant nature of western society in the 19th and 20th century almost certainly explains the appeal of sophisticated beards and moustaches. Policymakers made their presence felt through their discourse and facial hair.
Yet despite the power and authority associated with having facial hair, Héas notes that, “being completely hairless has become almost mandatory for western women and is spreading to men.” The beloved beard may be on its way out yet again.
Sociologists are quite familiar with the combination of marginalized identities that can lead to oppression, inequalities, and “double disadvantages.” But can negative stereotypes actually have positive consequences?
Financial Juneteenth recently highlighted a study showing that gay black men may have better odds of landing a job and higher salaries than their straight, black, male colleagues. Led by sociologist David Pedulla, the study sent resumes and a job description to 231 white employers nationwide, asking them to suggest starting salaries for the position. Resumes included typically raced names (“Brad Miller” for white applicants and “Darnell Jackson”) and listed participation in “Gay Student Advisory Council” to imply the applicant’s sexuality. Pedulla found that gay Black men were more likely to receive the same starting salaries as straight white men, whereas gay white men and straight black men were offered lowered salaries.
Pedulla’s findings have sparked a conversation among scholars and journalists about the complexity of stereotypes surrounding black masculinities and sexualities. Organizational behavior researcher and Huffington Post contributor Jon Fitzgerald Gates also weighed in on the findings, arguing that the effeminate stereotypes of homosexuality may be counteracting the traditional stereotypes of a dangerous and threatening black heterosexual masculinity.
Understanding how rates of suicide are related to social conditions is a foundational theme in sociology dating back to the work of Emile Durkheim. Investigating how people’s mental health is shaped by the broader economy, social networks, culture, and identity continues to be an area for social research.
A recent article in The Dallas Morning News reports on research that shows a link between a weak economy and higher rates of suicide, particularly amongst men and in the recent Great Recession. University of Wisconsin, LaCrosse Sociology Assistant Professor Dawn Norris explains that for men in particular, losing a job is not just about the money but about losing one’s identity and sense of masculinity.
“Our societal definition of masculinity is being employed, being the provider, being the breadwinner.”
Norris explains that masculinity is linked to work, and without work, even wealthy men describe themselves as “impotent, deficient, worthless.”
“Work at the moment isn’t as central to who women are in society,” says Norris. In one study, Norris found that women who lost their jobs during the economic crisis could shift from the role of breadwinner to another identity such as mother and better cope with unemployment.
Losing a job can deprive people of social support networks and other mechanisms for coping with stress, depression and mental health conditions. Men are especially at risk because they are less likely to seek support and medical care because of stigmas around mental health illness.
Norris says that potential solutions include better work-life balance, along with job creation, which can help de-emphasize work as the most central aspect of people’s identities and lives.
Read Erin Hoekstra’s article about flexible work policies shown to help men and women improve their work-life balance here.
Religious groups are known for championing an abstinence-only approach to pre-marital life, and groups both national and local have been set up to promote and support this lifestyle. Sociologist Sarah Diefendorf spent a year with one – a small support group for young Christian men – and in a recent interview with the New Republic she explains how the abstinence-only approach did not necessarily make for a healthy sex life after marriage. This was in large part due to the severely gendered environment that Diefendorf encountered in which masculinity was equated with sexual restraint and femininity was equated with sexual disinterest – beliefs that led to long-term struggles even after marriage. Diefendorf told the New Republic:
For these men, to be a good man and a man of God meant saving themselves for the wedding bed. Amy Wilkins, a sociologist at the University of Colorado-Boulder, also interviewed men who pledged abstinence before marriage, and she argued that these men are asserting their masculinity in different ways. Rather than saying, “I’m a man because I engage in a variety of sexual activity,” they’re saying, “I’m a man because I can avoid that temptation; I can control these things.”
When it came to abstinence-only support for women, Diefendorf found that there was none. The men she talked to believed that women do not “naturally” have the sexual urges that men do, thus eliminating a need for female support groups in the church. She said:
The church, and the men that I interviewed, don’t believe that women would need a space to talk through these issues. They believe that men are highly sexual beings and they have “natural urges” that need to be controlled, but they don’t believe that women have that natural desire to be sexually active. Women are the providers of sexual activity for their husbands.
These notions of purity and masculinity, however, made for a difficult transition into married life for most of the men. Diefendorf followed up five years later and found that the men from the group who were married were still struggling with sexual urges that they felt were “beastly” and, without a support group to talk through these issues, they often turned inward and stopped talking about, and in many cases enjoying, sex altogether. Diefendorf explains:
When you spend the first twenty-plus years of your life thinking of sex as something beastly that needs to be controlled, it’s very difficult to make that transition to married life and viewing sex as sacred…The idea is that once you’re married, it’s all good— you’re supposed to be enjoying sex with your wife…But as one of the guys said, once you get married, the “beastly” doesn’t disappear. They still struggle with issues like excessive pornography viewing, masturbation. A few of them were worried that they might want to have an affair. They’re still struggling with these things, but they no longer have an outlet to work through them. They didn’t have the tools to engage in a healthy sex life.
For a great read on how abstinence-only groups target women by making abstinence “sexy”, check out this post by Soc Images.
From Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his controversial raids on and detentions of immigrants to Rush Limbaugh and his rhetoric about “feminazis,” some white men, those sociologist Michael Kimmel terms “angry white men,” are resisting perceived challenges against their masculinity and historical experiences of privilege.
In his new book Angry White Men, Kimmel has interviewed white men across the country to gauge their feelings about their socioeconomic status in a sluggish and globalizing economy as well as the legal and social advances made by women, people of color, GLBT individuals, and others. Kimmel has coined the term “aggrieved entitlement” to describe these men’s defensiveness and aggravation that both “their” country and sense of self are being taken away from them. Kimmel writes in the Huffington Post,
Raised to believe that this was ‘their’ country, simply by being born white and male, they were entitled to a good job by which they could support a family as sole breadwinners, and to deference at home from adoring wives and obedient children…Theirs is a fight to restore, to reclaim more than just what they feel entitled to socially or economically – it’s also to restore their sense of manhood, to reclaim that sense of dominance and power to which they also feel entitled.
Our lives are often defined by the impossibilities we face, and that can lead to some strange decisions. Take, for example, the hit TV show Breaking Bad: a middle aged chemistry teacher with inoperable lung cancer decides it’s easier cook and deal meth than to ask others for help with his treatment. That’s the whole premise, and a new article in The Sunday Times suggests Mr. White’s decision may be the result of a heavy dose of the “masculine mystique.”
First published by W.W. Norton & Co. in 1963, Betty Friedan’sThe Feminine Mystique argued that the dissatisfaction women felt with their lives wasn’t due to a “modern lifestyle” driving them away from an ideal feminine identity, but rather their inability to even imagine living full, independent lives. Friedan called upon women to recognize this possibility: a life free of gendered expectations.
Today, Stephanie Coontz suggests the media blitz over the “crisis of boys” (lower grades, reduced college graduation rates, and slipping economic prospects for men) stems from a similar problem with gender roles:
In fact, most of the problems men are experiencing today stem from the flip side of the 20th-century feminine mystique—a pervasive masculine mystique that pressures boys and men to conform to a gender stereotype and prevents them from exploring the full range of their individual capabilities.
The masculine mystique promises men success, power and admiration from others if they embrace their supposedly natural competitive drives and reject all forms of dependence. Just as the feminine mystique made women ashamed when they harboured feelings or desires that were supposedly “masculine”, the masculine mystique makes men ashamed to admit to any feelings or desires that are thought to be “feminine”.
Coontz also uses research on men’s shame around femininity and its impact on boys’ ability to imagine excelling in the classroom. Sound familiar?
In a book to be published next month, the sociologists Thomas DiPrete and Claudia Buchmann demonstrate that most of the academic disadvantages of boys in education flow not from a “feminised” learning environment, as is often claimed, but from a masculinised peer culture that encourages disruptive behaviour and disengagement from school. As Debbie Epstein, the British researcher, puts it, “real boys” are not supposed to study. “The work you do here is girls’ work,” one boy told an educational ethnographer. “It’s not real work.”
Gender roles create impossibilities for men and woman. And, while Breaking Bad takes the masculine drive for independence to a fictional extreme, the new lag in boys’ educational and economic achievement can be a new century’s call to get everyone to, in Coontz’s words, “act like a person, not a gender stereotype.”
Hey fellas! Craving a little yogurt, but worried about your masculinity in the dairy section? What a dilemma. Luckily, Ned Resnikoff with MSNBC has some great news. A new product, Powerful Yogurt (aka, “Brogurt”), is being marketed just to men. One of the company’s ads heralds a new day in gender equality:
Your wife and sister aren’t the only ones who can take yogurt to work with them. Protein-packed Powerful Yogurt can help fuel you through your workday or even that pick-up game with the guys.
Resnikoff readily admits that he is new to “the sexual politics of fermented milk” and other nonsensical things so he cites an expert on the topic, Sociological Images’Gwen Sharp, who has been tracking products that reinforce or create irrational gender stereotypes. As can be seen Sharp’s Community Page, Brogurt is just the latest product to be so heartily gendered it looks like a parody. (See also: manly candles in manly scents. For men.)
The proliferation and marketing of these products reinforces a stereotype problem. Needlessly gendered products are clearly trying to capitalize on gender norms we hope are well past their expiration dates.
When people do horrible things, it is often too tempting to obsess over the individual perpetrator, to ask “What went wrong?” through a slew of news headlines, childhood photo montages, and impassioned Internet comments. However, one of the basic tenets of Sociology 101 is that nothing happens in isolation—we must also look at the social sphere around an individual.
Michael Kimmel reminds us of this maxim in a recent opinion piece on Ms. Magazine’s website. Writing about the community response around a now-notorious Steubenville, Ohio gang rape, Kimmel argues that public outcry against the individual perpetrators (and trivial “poster boy(s) for teenage male douchery” who make light of the event) misses the point. What about the influence of a male-dominated community that could protect the perpetrators—those Kimmel calls “The 18,437 Perpetrators of Steubenville” in his title? He writes:
As I found in my interviews with more than 400 young men for my book Guyland, in the aftermath of these sorts of events—when high-status high school athletes commit felonies, especially gang rape—they are surrounded and protected by their fathers, their school administrations and their communities.
They did what they did because they felt entitled to, because they knew they could get away with it. Because they knew that their coaches, their families, their friends, their teammates and the police department—indeed, the entire town would rally around them and protect them from the consequences of what they’ve done.
The moment they are born (and even before), children are shaped by gendered expectations: boys today are born into a world of blue and girls in pink. Boys are expected to go outside and be rough, playing war games and cops and robbers, where girls play house or tend to dolls. Even toy stores are segregated, with “girl aisles” strewn in pink and bursting with dolls, wholly separate from those for boys, which are stocked with weapons and action figures. more...