Over the last decade, masculinity has been publicly criticised in the mainstream press due to its supposed negative impacts on both men and women. But just what exactly is masculinity and why do some view it as so problematic?
To begin, we must examine the discipline of academic gender theory, which gained prominence in the 1960s and 70s. Spurred on by the writings of Simone de Beauvoir and the deconstructionist school of thought spearheaded by Derrida, prominent critical theorists argued that gender was performative rather than inherent. This was supposedly a product of the exploitative, heteronormative culture which thrived off of inequality.
Masculinity, therefore, was associated with traits which abetted such oppression: violence, selfishness, and carelessness. Taking a theoretical-sociological approach to human behaviour and largely ignoring biological traits is a problem in itself, but what this thinking seems to lead to is the viewpoint that masculinity in general needs to be curbed or conditioned in order for us to have a society free of violent, perverted, and emotionally detached individuals.
Christina Hoff Sommers, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, refers to a “War on Boys”, which describes the situation boys face in the educational system in the US for simply acting like boys. In an article written for Time Magazine, she demonstrates three instances.
The first one is the case of Christopher Marshall, aged 7, who was suspended from school for picking up a pencil and using it to “shoot” his friend. Josh Welch and Alex Evans, the same age, were both punished for similar causes; the former being sent home for “nibbling his Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun” and the latter being suspended for throwing an imaginary grenade at “bad guys” to “save the world.”
These are plain instances of boys having fun through playing out action scenarios. It’s exciting. It’s escapism. I know I used to enjoy this exact sort of thing. But there is undoubtedly a new push to take away elements of aggression in boys activities. Simply look at the newest calls this year from academics to take away tackling in rugby in schools up until the age of 18 – most likely replacing it with touch rugby. Is it really motivated by health and safety concerns? Many commentators, including former players, have noted that the safety concerns for adults will actually be much higher if this proposal is adopted. Even at such a young age, we can see how boys are being conditioned to suppress their urges to do as they do – leading to difficulties further down the line.
The greater autonomy of women in society, whilst an achievement, is also playing a role in shaping said “crisis.” It cannot be denied that the role of men has indeed shifted in the last few years – women are firmly within the workplace and are now occupying higher earning positions due to a greater rate of graduation from university than men.
Some men, like Jordan Peterson, have argued that the rate of male suicide, particularly amongst middle-aged men, is sustained due to their inability to play their traditional role – they feel emasculated and purposeless. This has been felt especially after the recent financial crisis, where many male-dominated industries such as construction felt the impact of the slump.
Politically, what does this crisis spell? What we’ve seen is a new pivot towards more authoritarian leaders – who deliver a form of distorted masculinity by proxy. Donald Trump is emblematic of this: he represents a nihilistic, no-holds-barred, hedonistic way of life which replaces the order and responsibility of masculinity with a certain coarseness and disregard that his supporters find refreshing. He is the embodiment of a reaction to a status quo that perceives masculinity as something to be challenged and chipped away at the root. No wonder men (and particularly working-class men) pulled the lever for him. But his masculinity is a twisted version of what his champions desire.
So what must be done? To solve this crisis, masculinity must not be associated with a form of archaic oppression. It has to be seen as a collection of traits which men share and aspire to achieve. Ultimately, we are still living in the hangover period from the turbulent 20th century, the birth-giver of social progress. Men will in time learn to adapt these traits to the new age. If not, however, we may see a great deal more clamour for hyper-chauvinism as an outlet.