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Six Types of Masculinity in Contemporary America

Updated on December 28, 2019
The cowboy is one of the most enduring images of American masculinity
The cowboy is one of the most enduring images of American masculinity

Masculinity is ever a complex topic, changing and evolving over time as men present themselves and act differently in regards to society as a whole. Whatever basic human nature and biological distinctions between men and women may be, men have to react and forge new roles to technological and social change. These changes are an important performance which is done in order to meet social expectations and rôles which men are slated to carry out, and do not develop in a vacuum. Masculinity is complicated further by the fact that it is not homogeneous. There are plenty who reject the dominant view of what men should be, choosing alternative approaches. The result is a vast number of different roles and models for men in the first decade of the third millenia. It would be quite impossible to categorize every single one. Instead, a few of the types of manliness and manly behavior which exist today can receive their appropriate time in the sun.

Football is one of the most iconic and heralded examples of American sport masculinity
Football is one of the most iconic and heralded examples of American sport masculinity

The Sportsman

Unlike in the 19th century, mass sports, organized, disciplined, formalized, are no longer a new invention -- they have been around for significantly longer than a century. Despite the time which has elapsed, the connection between masculinity and sports continues to be just as important. Team sports are an important tool for homosocialization, building up team bonds among the participants, enabling camaraderie and esprit de corps. They are also, regardless of whether done alone or in a group, vital tools for displaying physical prowess, heroism, bravery, courage, endurance, and organized will to victory - all stereotyped as deeply masculine traits.

There are a huge number of sports. Some sports are dominated by women, such as bar events or gymnastics, and some are more egalitarian in their gender distribution. But sport is still overwhelmingly a male-centric phenomenon and a significant strand of masculinity is bound up in it. The most popular American sports are football, basketball, and baseball, which are all heavily masculine. They are also team sports, encouraging ideas of masculine cooperation to defeat an enemy team.

Today it is not only playing sports which is an important part of masculinity, but also watching it. Watching the football game with the boys, cracking open a beer, following your favorite team, provides a topic of conversation, socialization among men, provides identification with a masculine force either in a stadium or on a screen. This provision of the screen is crucial as it enables sports to be watched and enjoyed from the comfort of one’s home, instead of requiring to always visit the stadium when there is a sports match.

This focus on sports and physical performance is also bound up in gym and physical fitness. The gym of course, has plenty of uses, and isn’t just restricted to men -- plenty of women go there. But for men, the focus in gyms is often the formation of the bodybuilder, of physical beauty to attract the opposite sex. Bodybuilder culture, extant since the beginning of the 20th century, aims to create bigger and better muscles, most often for sexual appeal and to impress women, although also for competitive reasons. Both are typical displays of masculinity.

Sports masculinity is crucial for group bonding, providing men a sense that they belong to a community and are connected to other like-minded fellows. It enables competition, in team sports a practice not dissimilar to war, in a society which has long been worried by the nature of decreasing physical violence and internal struggle.

Much of this can sound very similar to sports from a century ago. Sports fulfill the same role as they did then, still provide for heroes and idols, for shared fraternal feelings and for instruction in and channeling physical strengths and aggression. Sports have proven to be one of the most enduring and stable expressions of masculinity in industrial society, and do not look likely to go away any time soon.

Although it may seem most like something from the 50s, the idea of the male breadwinner is deeply ingrained in our culture
Although it may seem most like something from the 50s, the idea of the male breadwinner is deeply ingrained in our culture

Male Breadwinner

Republican masculinity in the 19th century was focused on the idea of a Christian provider, who would be a family man and a self-sufficient producer for his family. Although the religious edge of this vision of masculinity has faded, there is still a strong masculine tenet that masculinity is based upon being a father and a provider to a family. A father exists as a pillar who the family can rely upon in need, who provides for his children and wife - and to not do so is shameful and dishonorable, creating intense feelings of helplessness.

Ideas of men being the breadwinner of a family, the sole generator of income, are a recent creation. For most of human history if there was a cash economy with proletarized labor producing income, there was a requirement for everybody in the family to work and generate money. It was only in the 19th century that Anglo-Saxon countries among the middle class reached a degree of economic productivity that the women could exclusively devote themselves to household tasks instead of providing additional economic activity. This matched the belief in separate spheres of domestic and work life, common to Victorian America which assigned women to the former and men to the latter. Over time increased living standards helped to make single-income families to some extent possible, although they were never universal. 30% of the labor force was composed of women in 1950, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistic. Since this era, the number of women in the labor force has grown to comprise 46% of the total. Clearly, the male breadwinner role has been on the decline in material terms.

However, in intellectual and moral terms, the notion of a breadwinner is still a very extant one in today’s society. Men are expected to earn more than their female partners, and the amount which men earns is a crucial factor in determining their attractiveness. The continued existence of the role of a family-provider has some real benefits - it gives a sense of stability to families, defines men in a way which positively focuses on helping others, and cultivates a sense of self-worth. But it also means that when men cannot fulfill these roles, as is increasingly in the case in an economy which leaves so many in marginal positions, that it can dramatically undercut that very sense of self-worth and lead to a sense of failure. It also harms the chance for positive engagement for men in what they can do, by placing additional expectations upon them in a relationship and hence raising further barriers to stable and healthy relationships.

When one thinks of the hypermasculine, aggressive, alpha male personality focused on material gain and ruthless pursuit of profits, the Wolf of Wall Street leaps to mind
When one thinks of the hypermasculine, aggressive, alpha male personality focused on material gain and ruthless pursuit of profits, the Wolf of Wall Street leaps to mind

The Achiever

One critical stand of masculinity is the focus on achievement. There are a lot of women of course, who focus on their career, achievements, material success -- women after all, perform much better academically and have higher university grades as just one example. But the stereotype of the highly driven, career-dominated, materially-oriented person continues to be a man -- is the female equivalent of the highly aggressive and materialistic masculinity displayed in say, the hit movie The Wolf of Wall Street even possible, even imaginable, in popular culture? In popular culture, focusing on career and focusing on material success is gendered as masculine: women are perceived as having to choose between either careers or families.

This is distinct from simply being a breadwinner and providing for a family because this search for great wealth is bound up with status, power, prestige, and superiority. Stockbrokers and blue-collar male workers both share a vision of themselves earning money, more than anyone else in their family unit. But the similarities end here - a stockbroker’s desire for more is for more itself, not just for demonstrating his honest labor and skills.The rewards are clear - luxurious houses, international travel, expensive cars, luxury goods, and with this all social capital required to both claim a prestigious place in society and attract a desirable mate.

Wall street bankers from pieces such as The Bonfire of the Vanities or The Wolf of Wall Street elegantly display the combination of greed, material lust (often married to sexual lust), aggressive dynamism, and ambition. But it could really apply to a broader set of men, united by ambition, ranging across the commercial sphere. Their link is a frantic energy to rise to the top, to earn more, to get rich, to find niches and spaces which would permit them to earn their dreamed-of money. In our society, business would be the primary ground of this type of masculinity, but the ambition could express itself in plenty of other ways - politics, cultural production, science, whatever is something which society ascribes value to and which men would strive ambitiously to hold.

Such an aggressive and materialistic masculinity could be romantically compared to plenty of primordial male activities -- the thrill of the hunt, the glory (however imaginary) of war, the excitement of exploration and discovery. Perhaps there is a link between the two, but it seems tenuous. More likely is that our contemporary society, which attaches tremendous value to money and which teaches us that if we possess sufficient money we will have deference, respect, perhaps fame, love, happiness, material security, and the good life, is what drives this. Men either are or are conditioned to be more aggressive and this is perceived as more positive with them in a professional environment (by contrast women, when they are aggressive and assertive, are more negatively viewed), and they are perceived as less caring, less emphatic, and more expected to ascribe their value and importance to careers. This is fertile ground for a masculinity which pins itself on material and employment success.

What sort of result does this produce? A masculinity focused utterly on achievement, on money and material gain, shouldn’t be discounted for positives, with the restless energy to find what doesn’t exist and to fill it, with broader economic benefits for society and rapid growth. But as the nature of this rapid and unstable growth, followed by economic collapse and depression in the business cycle of the capitalist economy shows, it also carries drawbacks. Above all else the question is whether such utter fixation on careers and ambition is positive for the very people who pursue them.

Very much the image of the masculine, solitary, deadly, hunter which might spring to mind concerning the idea of the outdoorsman
Very much the image of the masculine, solitary, deadly, hunter which might spring to mind concerning the idea of the outdoorsman

The Outdoorsman

The Outdoorsman

Just as in the 19th century, one common ideal of masculinity is of the rugged, individualistic outdoorsman. The “strenuous life” of Theodore Roosevelt still lives on in the current day to a great extent. Camping, hunting, hiking, are activities which are practiced by women of course, but for men it is a way to display their talents and it is assumed that they are able to connect to their rugged and primitive selves in nature. This happens with a large host of outdoors activities, but in particular outdoor activities for men are stereotyped as solo or small groups.

Consider for example something as lowly as fly fishing, which several months ago was the subject of a broadcast on National Public Radio upon the subject of gender balances. Fly fishing is a traditionally masculine sport, for reasons which match well to stereotypes of outdoorsman manliness. It is a sport which is practiced far away from civilization, which often requires hiking in for distances and thus displaying ruggedness, which is in pretense at least focused on killing and hunting animals (although often they are let go), and which is often done alone; in solitude in the great wild. It isn’t thus surprising that it was thus a great surprise when women started to move into the field with instructors and fly fisherwomen, as this was not normally the case previously. The outdoors is perceived as a masculine environment.

Another crucial part out of outdoors life is guns. Guns are intensely related to masculinity, given that men are normally assumed to be the warriors in society, fighters and those who have a monopoly on physical violence. Guns in American society have many roles, but almost all of them are masculine. They are a tradition, and one which is often portrayed as passing guns down from father to son. They are justified through their role in hunting, a legitimate display of physical violence. They are legitimized as a tool of self-defense, to be deployed in the defense of home and family, famously shown during the 1991 LA riots with the defense of Korean-owned stores against rioters by the Korean community’s rooftop shooters, or just body in states with concealed carry laws. Guns link back to the past too, to the idea of the brave pioneer and frontiersman with his rifle, to the idea of guns as the immortal defender of American liberty. And in any case they project an image of masculinity and power, as countless gang, crime, and police films can attest - or simple statistics, since the overwhelming majority of violence committed with guns is occasioned by men in the United States. To have a gun is to have power, and to be a man is to be powerful. The link between guns and masculinity is a strong one in the United States.

An outdoors-centric masculinity helps to promote the idea of a masculinity which is timeless, primordial, and based upon physical prowess and the ability to master and control nature and engage in physical violence. It connects masculinity to American tradition and history, through the ideals of the outdoorsman, the frontiersman, the hunter, the father with his gun, militiaman, and patriot.

Elliot Rodger, the poster child of the incel movement
Elliot Rodger, the poster child of the incel movement

The Hermit

Most of these versions of masculinity and male behavior are predicated on some sort of positive engagement -- that by performing certain roles men are able to carve out a niche in their community and in life which gives them social capital. In a certain sense they are representative of a hegemonic view of masculinity -- that masculinity is focused on impressing others, on positive contribution in some way, that male value is determined by achievements which are developed by men. But as with anything involving humans, there are inevitably some forms of exceptions: what about men who opt out of this focus on masculinity, who decide that it isn’t worth it? A hermit masculinity is that which chooses to disengage from society and to isolate itself, not making the effort to attempt to positively fulfill traditional masculine roles.

This can be a very broad category and with men who do it for different reasons. It can be extremely difficult to truly classify, since men who go against normative principles have such an incredibly diverse number of reasons for why they do it. Choosing the term hermit can lead one to think of monks, rejecting society and living in monasteries, or to return to the very original origin, on pillars in the Egyptian desert, alone and separate from society. Few from this group I would say, reject society out of a worship of god, or in any case no more than they have in the past. Instead, male-disengagement from society is driven by a feeling of abandonment, increasingly poor employment and livelihood possibilities (with rapidly rising costs of living and stagnant wages), changing social mores, and the isolating effects of the internet which provides for alternative communities without real-world engagement.

The result of this has been the formation of two groups today, Incels (involuntary celibates) and MGTOW (Men Go Their Own Way). The former in particular have received widespread condemnation and alarm over the tendency for rampant misogyny, crippling mental problems, terroristic attacks, and other antisocial behaviors. Their principle is that they are denied romantic partners on the belief that women are being monopolized by more handsome and successful men, typically labeled “chads”, while leaving them excluded. MGTOW-followers operate under the belief that romantic engagements are rigged against men and so therefor aren’t worth being in one. A common link unites them: as compared to standard masculinity which is to some extent anti-social and focused on individuality and distance from society, ruggedness and self-reliance, they take this to an extreme and completely remove themselves from broader society and the masculine game of display. In effect, they become hermits.

What role does this sort of masculinity bring about? There is no doubt that this sort of masculinity is actively negative, and unlike the others has almost no positive contributions to society to be made. Others can have weaknesses and drawbacks, but include positive features, generally predicated on that a man brings some sort of value to his community or society (although this might not always necessarily be positive for the broader world - gangs are highly masculine and members bring value to the gang, but gangs are detrimental to society as a whole). Instead of looking at the role to play the focus should instead be on the deleterious social conditions and influences which have conspired to produce such an unhealthy development: the isolating influence of the internet, decline of organic community life, decreasing social mobility, decreasing economic prospects for large parts of the population, and a lack of understanding of what constitutes appropriate engagement with broader society.

Is there any image more masculine than this?
Is there any image more masculine than this?

Men of their Hands

Men are generally expected to be good with their hands, good at repairing things, and to do activities which are practical and provide benefits. Woodworking, auto repair, and metalworking, are masculine domains, in contrast to more female activities such as painting, quilting, arts and crafts, etc. Men are traditionally stereotyped as being loners, autonomous, doing their own thing, and expected to use their muscles and physique to aid others, demonstrating that they provide for the weaker sex and showing concrete results to impress others, particularly women, and engage in homosocialization with their male peers.

This is an important part of household gender ideology, and the share of tasks which are allotted out in it. Women are generally responsible for things such as cooking, laundry, cleaning, shopping, and sewing (if that is still practiced today). The inventions of the past several centuries with the development of labor-saving inventions have helped to make these roles easier, but also therefore meaning that it is practical just for women to do them -- and therefor meant that for men to contribute in the house, their activities come above all else from occupations outside of this.

It also infers that homes are generally perceived as being female spaces, since their activities are ones which overwhelmingly happen within it. It is women who make the decisions over interior decorating, over furniture and apparels. One can observe this phenomenon with the apparition of the “man cave”, a room in a house which is specifically masculine, often bedecked with sports banners, a room for the guys to go and watch television, perhaps a football game, crack open a beer, play pool, and increasingly play video games. By its very nature it indicates that the house as a whole is feminine. The activities which men are stereotyped as partaking part in are mostly ones which are external to the inner sanctum of the house. Woodworking happens in a garage or shed, auto repair in a garage or outside, metalworking in a forge or workshop. Mowing the lawn takes place on the grounds. A car is outside the home, supposed to go somewhere else, a symbol of mobility rather than domesticity. Repair and general handyman work around the house is by its very nature a transitory experience, a temporary instruction intended to return things to the way they were before.

How many movies, magazine covers, pictures, have shown men under their car, clutching a wrench on their day off from work? Or washing it until it glistens in the sun? Or passing down skills of woodworking to their sons? Waking up early to go out and mow the lawn while the rest of the neighborhood slumbers, blearily staring in outrage at a cheerful dad innocently trimming the grass with his hyper-powered riding mower? The numbers are almost certainly impossible to quantify, but without doubt are enormous. It gives men a sense of purpose (one which otherwise is increasingly troubled in a world where there is less and less of traditional stable, prestigious, physical labor focused jobs for men), of value, serves to uphold separate domestic sphere, and assures men of their role as providers and protectors.

Conclusion

Every individual is not quite the same as another, every one unique in their own way. There are thus as many types of masculinity as there are men - and probably even more, since men are more than single identities, and display different traits of masculinity at different places, times, and events. This only scratches the surface of some of the masculinities which exist in America, and there are far more which are found within the United States, including in many communities which have received scant attention above - immigrants, sexual minorities, regional differentiations, differences between urban and rural men, disabled, the elderly and the young, and far, far more. What is the general principle which can be derived from the above masculinities, which I feel are representative of mainstream masculinity in the United States? That masculinity is based, inherently, upon action, upon doing, upon being, upon contributing, upon dynamism, and from this springs both its positive and negative elements. Masculinity which is by contrast purely negative - not in the sense of being bad, although it is that, but rather in the lack of change - is something which comes about through a perception that either the bet of masculinity is not worth it, or that it is unobtainable. Masculine roles are bets, wagers, which are grounded perhaps in integral biological factors, but which receive their diversity and variation in the effort to perform to have inclusion in the social benefits and prestige of being masculine.

Bibliography

Kim, Eddie “Our Love of Guns is Often Passed Down From Father to Son” Mel Magazine, May

2018.

Lears, Jackson. “Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America 1877-1920.” New York,

HarperCollins Publishers, 2010.

Pettegrew, John. Brutes in Suits: Male Sensibility in America, 1890-1920 Baltimore: John

Hopkins University Press, 2007.

Yi-Hsiu, Lin, and Chen-Yueh, Chen. “Masculine versus feminine sports: The effects of peer

attitudes and fear of negative evaluation on sports participation among Taiwanese college students.” Revue internationale de psychologie sociale 4, no. 26 (1999): 5-23

© 2019 Ryan Thomas

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    • emge profile image

      MG Singh emge 

      15 months ago from Singapore

      Great article in dissecting the American character. Interesting categorization

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