Men are under attack. Everything that makes masculinity sacred — valor, honor, chivalry, leadership — is under siege.
What else could explain a recent commercial for a Gillette razor blade suggesting that men should spare each other from bullying and hold each other accountable for sexual harassment? How else should we interpret guidelines recently issued by the American Psychological Association to help therapists more effectively work with their male clients by better understanding the social pressure they face to be so-called real men?
Masculinity is having a moment. There’s a movement for a more expressive, more inclusive definition of manhood, but its critics see something more nefarious. If you listen to Piers Morgan or New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, skeptics of the Gillette ad and APA guidelines, you might mistake that movement as an assault waged by feminists and liberals when it’s really a quiet revolution staged in large part by men of diverse backgrounds who are tired of living by the very narrow, unforgiving standards of stereotypical masculinity.
Morgan lashed out at the Gillette commercial, now viewed more than 26 million times, by calling it “pathetic global assault on masculinity.” Douthat described the APA guidelines as the “latest flashpoint in the culture war over the sexes,” failing to mention that they’re based on years of professional insight and expertise, and using paper-thin ideals of manhood espoused by Victorian-era novelists as his righteous foil. Let’s also not forget social media personality Graham Allen, who saw the Gillette ad then promptly posted a family photo on Instagram of himself and his sons holding guns with the caption “practicing our ‘toxic masculinity'”.
The fear you’ve heard from skeptics of this moment is the fear of not knowing what lies beyond stereotypical masculinity — and what might emerge in its place. We associate numerous traits with different versions of manhood, including physical strength, courage, wisdom, stoicism, virtuousness, dominance, and wealth. Some of these are worthy attributes that help men excel in personal, social, and professional roles. They’re also frankly what many people, regardless of gender, aspire to become.
But the normative script that many boys and men feel obliged to follow at home, on the playground, at school, on a sports team, at work, and elsewhere can distort or warp their pursuit of admirable character traits. Women become objects, emotional vulnerability becomes a dangerous liability, and boys and men become subject to social or physical violence if they try to break free from or subvert the expectations of masculinity.
Fredric Rabinowitz, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Redlands who worked with 30 different psychologists on the APA guidelines for more than a decade, says he didn’t find the recent backlash too surprising. He knows that even talking about masculinity can prompt defensiveness. When you question whether we’re giving boys and men healthy role models and messages, that looks to some like criticizing manhood itself.
“Part of what’s happened, and it probably relates to the politics of this country right now, is that some people feel like their sense of self is being taken away by just talking about masculinity,” he says. (Douthat, he says, didn’t chat with him before penning his column.)
“Some people feel like their sense of self is being taken away by just talking about masculinity.”
Rabinowitz has well-informed insight into the male psyche: He’s run a therapy group for men who “want a place to be honest with themselves and others” for three decades. He’s worked with hundreds of male clients in individual and group therapy. Rabinowitz sees men who don’t necessarily think about their masculinity but nevertheless feel the pressure of living up to certain norms, like being seen as strong and independent. Sometimes they feel trapped by cultural and self-imposed expectations of what it means to be a man.
Rabinowitz works with men who don’t cry in front of others, men who can’t connect with their partners, men who refuse to see a doctor until it’s too late, and men who deal with frustration by turning to violence. Often, Rabinowitz can trace their suffering back to unfair expectations they’ve embraced or heard: Only wimps cry. Only weak men are sensitive. Only losers ask for help.
Admitting that men hear, internalize, and act on these “toxic” messages — to their physical, psychological, and spiritual detriment — isn’t a condemnation of men as a gender. Instead, it’s the start of a personal and cultural reckoning that can liberate men from the pressure to constantly perform someone else’s idea of masculinity.
It’s foolish to pretend that these ideas don’t hold men back from their full humanity. It’s also dangerous to deny that they affect men differently. A gay black teen, a Honduran undocumented immigrant, and a white man with a disability are all at the mercy of harsh cultural and social norms, yet how they respond depends on their unique life experiences.
If critics of the healthy masculinity movement can’t imagine what good could come of it, try considering this feminist’s vision of where it could lead us. Imagine a world in which the majority of men could, for example, cultivate physical strength and feel no shame for expressing vulnerability; take pride in their work without resenting their breadwinner wife; and feel confident as they seek help for depression.
A more generous, more humane world doesn’t steal a man’s masculine identity but makes room for it to be expansive. It’s not just “radical” feminists who envision such a world. It’s what many men have advocated for over the past few decades.
Men like sociologist Michael Kimmel, advocate Gary Barker, activist Tony Porter, and author and educator Jackson Katz have long spoken about the potential and real harms of exacting masculinity. While psychologist Jordan Peterson, known for preaching about the importance of patriarchy and male dominance, gets splashy media coverage, these men do the quiet work of changing minds and lives, one boy and man at a time.
Yet many men feel they can’t safely reject certain masculine norms. The problem, says Rabinowitz, is that masculine stereotypes often influence how men see themselves. Some feel their manhood must be earned and proven; they notice that men who do otherwise can lose their status. So they guard their masculine identity vigilantly and pursue what they’ve been told will make them a real man.
“Right now having more means having more money, status, and admiration, but at some point having more might mean, ‘Wow, I can feel all my feelings,'” says Rabinowitz. He wants men to enjoy the full range of human emotions, strong relationships, and self-confidence.
But Rabinowitz also doesn’t expect men to immediately embrace that idea, nor does he cajole men into opening up the first time he sees them. Instead, he tries to create a non-judgmental space in which they can be their true selves. And that’s really what the APA guidelines advised psychologists: See your male patients for who they really are, not for who society expects them to be.
If critics of healthy masculinity don’t want the same thing for every man, then they don’t deserve to be the loudest voices in the room.