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Monday, October 18, 2021

The Minority Report

JAY GELVEZON / AGGIE
JAY GELVEZON / AGGIE

Fragile masculinity is a byproduct of the social construction of gender

Masculinity is more fragile than it’s ever been.

The tendency now by some men to overcompensate for perceived slights and threats to masculinity has invited a wide range of responses, from the sarcastic #MasculinitySoFragile to products like grenade-shaped bath bombs. “Masculine” Q-tips, advertised as a multi-tool for detailing, cleaning and building, have hit the shelves.

While the hashtag in particular uses humor to question the state of masculinity, there is an underlying issue here — some men really do believe that expressions of tender emotion and floral-scented soaps pose an existential threat to manhood and masculinity.

This is a ridiculous notion. Gender is a social construct, a made-up grouping that we have allowed to hold meaning in society. And with our conception of gender comes gender roles — the behaviors, emotions and personality traits we deem appropriate for each gender to exhibit.

This means that masculinity and the attributes usually associated with it strength, heterosexuality, inability to feel pain are also made up. The same goes for femininity. There is no real reason a man is supposed to be the head of a household and a woman is expected to be more domestic. These are views based not on biology or anthropological fact but in traditions and stereotypes. No one is born to behave in masculine or feminine ways at least not in the ways we have to come to define the terms. Rather, we are socialized from birth to believe in these constructs and behave according to them.

The question is this: if masculinity means being strong and tough and unafraid, why do some men seem to be easily threatened by the mere notion of anything even vaguely feminine?

Frankly, it’s sad that some young men immediately default to defensive cries of “no homo” after expressing affection for another man. This is as if to suggest only gay men are affectionate or that being gay is unmanly, or that expressing affection and love for one’s friends is effeminate and therefore degrading for a man to do. This is one reason our current definitions of femininity and masculinity are harmful.

Expectations restrict people. They leave little room for variation, though they leave plenty of room for ostracism and judgement. Moreover, expectations imply that gender is fixed and binary, when in reality it exists on a spectrum. This means gender is not solely based on sex or gender identity but also on gender expression and how one chooses to behave and present themselves to others.

There shouldn’t be any limitations or expectations on how we express ourselves, and yet our current definition of masculinity restricts young boys and affects how men see themselves in relation to women. Gender roles can pigeonhole them into being emotionless, “tough” men who do not show weakness or vulnerability.

But the truth is that men do cry, and sometimes they might even want to talk about their feelings. Men are, despite gendered expectations, people capable of feeling the full range of human emotions. And they should not feel threatened by stereotypically feminine behaviors. Being feminine does not mean being weaker. Femininity is not the opposite of masculinity, and it is definitely not lesser than masculinity. Men should be allowed to like flowers and hug their friends without fear of social ostracization or having their gender or identity insulted or called into question. No one should feel pressured or forced to conform to a gender assigned role.

To do so, we need to stop generalizing and stereotyping those around us based on their perceived gender. There is no way to determine behavior based on gender, nor can we use gender to excuse, restrict or dictate behavior.  

So instead of focusing on traditional definitions of masculinity and femininity, we should focus more on being decent and respectful human beings to one another.

And if being decent isn’t a good enough reason, consider this: The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reported that men are 3.5 times more likely to die by suicide than women.

When boys are taught to hide their emotions, it can become more difficult to discuss depression as adults. There is already stigma that comes with getting help for mental health issues. Social enforcement of gender roles that punish men for being emotional and vulnerable, or admitting to hurt and asking for help, make the stigma that much worse. Mental health issues are serious, and while there are certainly other factors involved, it’s likely that fragile masculinity and pressure to conform do play a role. No matter how small that role may be, the risk is far too great not to give it the attention it deserves.

Written by: Jeanette Yue — jyyue@ucdavis.edu

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