A Crisis In Masculinity In The Modern Society

A crisis refers to the idea of something being in jeopardy and intense danger.

Masculinity is a concept that is much more complex to define, the traditional forms of masculinity that would be prevalent during the 1950s for example, would entail an entirely different set of male characteristics that are associated with being ‘masculine’ than that of today. Essentially, what meant to be masculine several years ago was regarded with much more clarity and the boundaries of masculinity were much narrower. This poses the question of is there a crisis in masculinity in contemporary society? And if there is a crisis, how can we identify this? This discussion aims to identify the main changes in the notions of masculinity and the consideration of an arising crisis in masculinity.

Social and historical contexts of society need to be considered when analysing the construction of masculinities, as masculinity itself is socially constructed. This means, it is moulded into whatever the current norms, values and ideals of that particular society is at the time. There is however, a dominant and widely accepted view of masculinity regarded as ‘hegemonic masculinity’. However, not all men demonstrate the characteristics of hegemonic masculinity, these characteristics are in fact only enacted by a minority of men who, in a sense, ‘achieve’ the most ‘respectable’ ways of being a man through, whether this is through their physicality; like having physically strength and prowess, or through their economic powers. Although only a minority of men demonstrate hegemonic masculinity, it is still normative in a way which makes any other types of masculinities marginalised and stigmatised. As discussed by Connell and Messerchmidt, hegemonic masculinity “embodied the currently most honoured way of being a man, it required all other men to position themselves in relation to it, and it ideologically legitimated the global subordination of women to men”(Connell R.W. and Messerschmidt J.W.,2005:832) this indicates that not only is there a most desired form of masculinity but there are also different hierarchies in masculinity that puts pressure on men by men.

This means that masculinity can be measured and judged between men themselves, and which type of ‘masculinity’ is more credible.

Masculinity can be constructed around the idea of being a bread-winner for a family. As Talcott Parsons wrote, the nuclear family, (a heterosexual married couple with children) consists of clear-cut gender roles. Women were to carry out the ‘expressive’ role, managing the families emotional and physical needs and they were “traditionally the person responsible for a complex of activities in connection with the management of the household, care of children, etc.” (T. Parsons, 1942: 609) while the men played the ‘instrumental’ role as bread-winners and supporting the family financially. Parsons argues that “It is of fundamental significance to the sex role structure of the adult age levels that the normal man has a ‘job'(T. Parsons, 1942: 603). This already sets out the clear expectations of a man, therefore it is no wonder that masculinity is often centralised around men’s economic capital and their ability to be a bread-winner. If they possess the ability to do this successfully, they can be considered as masculine and positioned at the top of the social hierarchy of men. It is clear that a historical pressure on men to demonstrate their masculinity is prevalent. This can be even interpreted from the works of Engels who explained that the monogamous, nuclear, and patriarchal family was created so that there could be inheritance of private property (Engels F. 2010). Not only was this seen as the ‘defeat’ of the female sex as women were seen as ‘mere instruments for production of children’ further reinforcing the gender roles, but also men were established as the financial providers for the family. This, in a way, creates the impression of an emotionless masculinity as for several years the expectation for masculine men was to not show any emotions. For example: commonly used phrases like ‘men don’t cry’ or ‘man up’ reject the idea that ‘real’ men feel emotion or empathy. Therefore, a crisis in masculinity may be prevalent in today’s society as the notions of being able to be carry out the same functions are gradually ceasing. With more women succeeding in education and therefore in employment and prominent positions within the work place, men may have lost the traditional ability to be the breadwinner that they once were expected to be. However, this may not mean that masculinity is in crisis, it may simply suggest that the idea of masculinity is changing. As Segal writes on the new dynamics of fatherhood, men now are more engaged and active in the bringing up of children, they are no longer an absent father who spends hours working. Instead, men can now take paternal leave and engage in more domestic tasks as well as childcare (Segal L. 2007). This has also brought about the change of attitudes about masculinity, now, masculinity can be defined around how good of a father emotionally, and not financially, can you be to your children, meaning men are becoming engaged in more of the emotional work with children (Segal L. 2007) This can suggest that masculinity is not in crisis necessarily, but that what it means to be masculine has a different interpretation as social attitudes and views are changing.

It could be argued that a crisis in masculinity is identifiable through the rise of ‘anxious masculinities’ which refers to the anxiety of being seen as homosexual. Homosexuality is associated with femininity and therefore, heterosexual men regulate their behaviours to fit the characteristics of what is considered to be hegemonically masculine. As it is suggested in the Research article by Arlene Stein, homophobia “affirms male identity by rejecting what is unmanly” and it is seen as “rooted largely in prejudice against gender nonconformity, with dominant men in particular subordinating less manly men in an effort to assert their power and dominance” (Stein, 2005: 603). So, by men being homophobic and showing outward and explicit hostility to other subordinated forms of gay masculinities, it helps to affirm their own status and position within their male identity. In contemporary society, the diverse forms of masculinity are common, masculinities are now plural, and the historical narrow explanation of masculinity as previously discussed, no longer suffices. As the key thinker Connell identifies, there are three types of masculinities; hegemonic, meaning the most dominant, for example, white, heterosexual and middle class; marginalised masculinity: a type of masculinity which lacks the key features of hegemonic masculinity, for example being non-white and working-class; subordinate masculinity meaning also lacking the characteristics of hegemonic masculinity as well as opposing the key features for example, acting in a feminine way (Connell R.W. 1995). The changing social perceptions and attitudes of men and masculinity leaves men questioning their roles in society; what is required of them and how they should and should not behave; the things that were once very clearly expressed through various social institutions like family, media, and religion. Now, the media promotes different types of masculinity. An emotionally-in touch, caring and compassionate man is encouraged in magazines and written about in literature, and as it’s suggested, books like Fire in the Belly by Sam Keen and Manhood by Steve Biddulph explore ideas about the emotional troubles of men which is seen as a revelation as “conventional western masculinity tends to suppress emotion and deny vulnerability” (Connell R.W., 2000: 5). With the conflicting ideologies of what men ought to be, and consequently how that will shape the idea of masculinity, psychologists offer the view that “modern men are suffering from a psychological wound, being cut off from the true or deep masculinity that is their heritage” (Connell R.W., 2000: 5). These contemporary expectations for men along with the rise in open homosexuality; men which deviate from heterosexuality yet can still be considered as masculine due to having other characteristics which may be aligned with hegemonic masculinity open up the narrow definitions of masculinity. However, instead of seeing this as a crisis in masculinity it could be seen as a positive change which emancipates men from the pressures of the expectations deriving from the ideology of hegemonic masculinity. The social liberation movements during the 1970s and 80s which aimed to abolish masculinity and femininity and impose androgyny by blending the two existing sex roles which aimed to educate and socialise girls and boys equally and similarly as well as making gender roles more fluid (Connell R.W. 2000). Alternatively, it could be argued that the rise in homosexuality and other forms of masculinity may suggest that a crisis in masculinity does not exist. There is growing acceptance and declining stigma of homosexuality – the inclusive masculinity theory outlines that homophobia has lost its power to regulate masculinities and now, there are multiple forms of masculinity and a greater range of behaviours open to contemporary men (Anderson E. and Mccormack M 2016).

The pluralism of masculinities can suggest that men indeed may suffer from a crisis in masculinity as there is no longer uniformity, and there is heterogeneity in regard to being considered masculine. The blurring of definitions makes it harder for men to find something to identify with to facilitate them with a stable sense of a male, masculine identity. The deterioration of the patriarchal family could embody the crisis. As described previously, the once glorified and normalised patriarchal family is now in decline which correlates to the jeopardy of the conventional hegemonic expectations for the male roles. Firstly, as argued by Castells, the signs of a possible crisis in masculinity is embodied through the decrease of household of married couples, increase in divorce, the increasing frequency of marital crises, increased autonomy of women and their reproductive behaviour meaning more children born out of wedlock and weakening patriarchal control and authority (Castells, 2010). The demise of the patriarchal family directly opposes the ideas of Parsons’ functional sex role theory (Parsons, 1942), it could be suggested that men are losing their place in the family and therefore in society and that social order is threatened by the dissolution of gendered and separate sex roles. With the growing autonomy of women; in terms of women being more financially independent and less likely to accept the domination by a man in a relationship – hence the growing rates of divorce and lone-parent households, men can be displaced in the family and it can be argued that in a contemporary society the conventional ideas of masculinity are deteriorating as more women are now taking over traditionally male roles. By 1990 women made up 32.1% of the global labour force, 41% of women over the age of 15 were economically active and in OECD countries the average participation of women in the labour force rose from 48.3% in 1973 to 61.6% in 1993 (Castells, 2010: 215). The growing independency of women undoubtedly changes the experience of men and the notions of masculinity considering that masculinity once revolved around having women depend on the man financially. Furthermore, women outperforming men in education and an increase of participation in paid labour globally as well as within developed OECD countries with men’s labour participation declining from 88.2% to 81.3% from 1973 to 1993 (Castells, 2010: 215). This means men have been in crisis for several decades and there is now competition with women as well as men and women are performing traditionally ‘male’ labelled tasks. However, John Beynon claims “men, either individually or in groups, may be plunged into crisis, but their sense of masculinity can, nevertheless, remain relatively secure” (Beynon J. 2002: 76).

When considering if there is a crisis in masculinity, it is useful to consider which type of men may experience a crisis more than others. As discussed, marginalised and subordinate masculinities may be more in crisis than hegemonic types of masculinity. With a rise in overt homosexuality for example, gay men may feel their masculinity is in crisis more than a heterosexual man as masculine is often confined to heteronormativity. Nevertheless, it is wrong to assume that sexual preference is the only factor determining whether men may encounter a crisis within their masculinity. Taking a more intersectional approach, subordinated, and marginalised masculinities revolve around the idea of how race, particularly men of non-white, ethnic minority backgrounds and class can affect the crisis in masculinity. With hegemonic masculinity being advocated, it can be seen how a crisis in masculinity can disproportionately affect the men who do not fit the narrow social characteristics; for example, white and middle-class. Black men in particular may fall victim to this, as it is argued by Connell, some mass culture generates images and interpretations of black males’ behaviour such as the one of “uncontrollable, violent black masculinity that is familiar in white racism” (Connell, 2000: 162). Black masculinity is essentialised in such a way that to be black and masculine is to be violent or to have an excessive sexual appetite, therefore the characteristics for hegemonic masculinity are only credited by society when regarding white men, the same characteristics found in black men are seen as problematic and labelled as excessive and harmful. The high crime rates amongst men can point to an existing crisis – when men cannot achieve hegemonic masculinity inherently, like being white or through legitimate ways, like having economic capital, they may follow an innovative mode of adaption as it is described by Merton’s strain theory (Merton, 1938). This can disproportionately affect men from ethnic minorities as they tend to make up a large proportion of the working-class meaning, they may feel like they cannot achieve anywhere other than the criminal street (Beynon J. 2002). As Goodey writes, “The history of ethnic minority oppression and racism, particularly against Afro-Caribbeans and African-Americans, can lead the male members of these groups to adopt an exaggerated form of emotional inexpressiveness” which can be very expressive, through crime (Goodey, 1997: 416). This means the high crime rates, educational underachievement and high rates of depression due to men’s ‘emotional inexpressiveness’ exemplify the intense difficulty in masculinity and how masculinity in a sense, creates a crisis in men themselves.

Conclusively, the changing structure of the patriarchal family and sex roles deprives men of their once conventional and secure positions within society. Now, the expectations and roles are obscure, and the idea of masculinity is conflicted by new societal ideals and changing attitudes. The growth of homosexuality and the broadening of the definition of masculinity and more fluidity in the way men behave, possibly ways which were condemned in the past, means masculinity is becoming a precarious concept to many men and although the inclusive masculinity theory argues there is growing acceptance of alternative male identities, it assumes all masculinities maintain equal social value. The intersectional consideration of masculinity maintains that a crisis in masculinity may be more prevalent in men from the most disadvantaged groups in society. The crisis is reflected by men being disenfranchised through educational underachievement, higher rates of mental health issues and higher rates of incarceration which are induced by the attempts to maintain hegemonic masculinity.