The pursuit of manliness harms men — and women as well

By Robert Jensen

with Gail Dines

Published in Philadelphia Inquirer · April, 2006

Philadelphia Inquirer, April 2, 2006.

Men are in trouble.

On average, boys don’t perform as well as girls in school. Boys engage in higher levels of risky behavior and are more violent. And, in the end, men die about five years earlier than women in the United States.

This crisis for men — which is all over the headlines, the subject of a new book and the talk of talk shows — is actually a crisis of masculinity. The high priests of masculinity tell us, not surprisingly, that the solution is more masculinity. The conventional wisdom is that the root of the problem is feminism and the feminizing of the culture and boys.

We argue the only hope for men is feminism.

The shallow bravado of the book “Manliness” cannot cover the fact that the dominant construction of masculinity in U.S. culture (rooted in aggression and a quest for power over others) leads not only to predictable injuries to women and girls (through the discriminatory practices and violence that stems from those values) but is also toxic to men. What creates risks for women also constrains the lives of men.

In this latest pop sensation book on the subject, Harvey Mansfield concedes that the virtues of “manliness” also foster some of these negative behaviors but concludes we must accept these “accidentally bad” consequences. This adds another voice to the decades-old right-wing commentary that suggests men are naturally brutes and that the role of society and family is to tame the worst of those characteristics.

Sometimes it seems the only people who routinely stick up for men’s humanity are feminists, and typically the most radical feminists

Feminists were the first to really explain how culture shaped masculinity and femininity, and how both were connected to gender oppression. We have always argued that this toxic masculinity is not inherent or inevitable but a product of a culture that either explicitly teaches or implicitly condones a definition of what-it-means-to-be-a-man that is marked by unbridled competition, emotionally disengaged individualism, and aggression.

And feminists were the first to say that not only women, but also men, deserve better.

Instead of accepting these insights, defenders of this traditional conception of masculinity have attacked feminists as the source of the problem for creating a “gender neutral” society that robs men of the ability to be real men. That blame is misplaced.

It is not feminists who have relentlessly sold to boys and men images of male=violent. Violent media (from cartoons for the youngest boys to Hollywood movies for adolescents) come from media conglomerates, not feminists. It wasn’t feminists who came up with professional wrestling and its grotesque levels of staged violence or pushed traditional sports such as hockey to be more brutal. Feminists didn’t create the multi-billion-dollar pornography industry that fuses sex with aggression and domination, in increasingly cruel fashion.

All of these media and cultural products, which are marketed primarily to boys and men, are the invention of people hot for profit, not feminists hungry for social justice.

No feminist denies the obvious physical and hormonal differences between the sexes. But we recognize that those differences don’t condemn men to pathological behavior. Are there “natural” psychological differences in men and women? For all the human species’ scientific cleverness, we know virtually nothing definitive and don’t have the intellectual tools to figure out much. Most of the masculinists’ claims are ideology-fueled speculation.

What we do know is that human nature — men’s and women’s — is widely variable and responsive to social structures and institutions. We can build structures to promote equality and foster egalitarianism — the goal of feminism and other liberatory movements — or we can continue to bolster and reward this toxic masculinity.

It’s long past the time for a national conversation about masculinity as a public health issue. This hyper-aggressive masculinity creates a world of relentless violence, from the intimate to the global — wars for domination not liberation, rape and battery, schoolyard bullying. While women are capable of violence as well, the vast majority is perpetrated by men against other men, women, and children. Our claim is not that all men are bad and all women are good but that a system rooted in men’s attempts to dominate can only lead to these kinds of violence.

The masculinists are right to point out that men are in trouble. But for all of men’s stoic emotional repression, they do not suffer those troubles in silence but instead visit them upon the world.

This world cannot bear the troubles of men forever.