Endangered Masculinity

February 16, 2016

I recently posted a reader’s letter about a very insecure ex, and at the end I wondered whether male insecurity is on the rise. There are several indicators that suggest it well might be. The traditional milestones of adulthood are increasingly delayed for young men:

  1. Males lag females in college attendance, with a current national ratio of 40% male, 60% female.
  2. More males age 18-31 live at home with their parents. 40% of males do, compared to 32% of young females. In the 25-34 age group, twice as many men live with parents as women.
  3. Porn is effectively rewiring young male brains.
  4. Technology traps men in a virtual world.

Michael Kimmel, author of Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, is an expert on masculinity and founder of the Men’s Studies center at Stony Brook University. Kimmel shares how his conversations with groups of college men usually go. First, he asks them what makes a good man. Typical answers include:

  • Caring
  • Honest
  • Putting other’s needs before yours

Then he asks them what it means to be a real man. This time the answers are very different:

  • Take charge
  • Take risks
  • Suppress weakness

Kimmel argues that men today don’t really know what values they should represent. They often attempt to pose as masculine without considering what that means:

“Guyland”: a world characterized by its celebration of camaraderie, promiscuity, conformity, consumption, and irresponsibility.

Guyland is frequently characterized by sexual entitlement and predatory behavior, partly fueled by porn. The result is a prevalent misogyny:

“Michael Kimmel, evaluating porn use by college men, reports: “The guys I interviewed consistently spoke of women more with contempt than desire. Women were ‘hos’, ‘bitches’, and ‘sluts’…” (Kimmel, 2008, p. 182). Men’s attitudes were, “You don’t have sex with women because you desire them; sex is the weapon by which you get even with them, or, even, humiliate them.” (Kimmel, 2008, p. 182).

After an article reported research that college science professors subtly prefer male undergrads, a study found that negative comments at the New York Times, Discover magazine and IFL Science were more likely to be made by men on the topic. About a third of the comments were:

  • Blatantly sexist
  • Justified gender bias
  • Denied the existence of gender bias

Comments like this one were made by men in all but one instance:

“In every competitive situation, with a few exceptions, the women I worked with were NOT competent, by comparison with the men.”


“I don’t trust anything that bleeds for five days and doesn’t die.”

Longtime readers of HUS can attest to the ready deployment of these kinds of nasty remarks by some male commenters.

Perhaps Ronda Rousey said it best, in an interview with HuffPo:

What do you think makes a “real man”?
“A real man is one that doesn’t feel the need to dim the light of his woman in order to make himself feel brighter.”

Paradoxically, male bravado makes men seem less masculine than ever. Far from suppressing weakness, it’s spawned a notion in popular culture that masculinity is fragile.

Last September a trending Twitter hashtag was #masculinitysofragile. UC Berkeley student Anthony Williams started it after seeing lots of men on Twitter agonizing over whether getting the rose gold iPhone would make them seem gay. The next day he woke up to death threats. Williams told the LA Times:

“When you challenge masculinity, it hits a nerve,” Williams said in a phone interview with The Times. “It makes some men nervous. But violence against women is a result of the fragility of masculinity. A woman can say ‘no’ to a man on a date, and she could end up dead. That’s what women have to deal with. And we as men have to recognize that.”

By Wednesday morning, the hashtag had broadened to include a conversation on the hypersensitivity of many men, and how they police their own sexuality and perceived “manhood.”

LA Times reporter Dexter Thomas noticed that companies have “no homo” marketing strategies for everyday products aimed at men specifically:

Screen Shot 2016-02-16 at 3.17.10 PMThomas:

The fear of emasculation is so ingrained in our society that it can make men violent, and make men afraid to touch each other or buy a pink iPhone.

That’s how fragile masculinity is. It is so fragile that it can be exploited to sell cotton swabs.

And it can even be fatal.

Other products with #masculinitysofragile ad copy can be found at Buzzfeed under LOL:

21 Of The Greatest Examples Of Fragile Masculinity In 2015

23 Gendered Products That Prove How Truly Fragile Masculinity Is

It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so pathetic. And yet the widespread nature of this strategy implies that sales among men go up when these “reassuring” ads are used. I’m glad to see at least some men saying how ridiculous this is.

Screen Shot 2016-02-16 at 3.25.36 PM

Of course, the radical feminists and men’s rights types started slinging mud at one another, but the idea was never to bash men. 

Screen Shot 2016-02-16 at 3.29.38 PM

The idea of fragile masculinity persists. Writer Joshua Adams recently called Kanye West an example of #masculinitysofragile after Kanye had a hissy fit on Twitter, saying terrible things about his ex and implying her child is his.

Kanye’s Twitter rampage is a case study in male fragility. Hypermasculinity is like a sandcastle; it looks sturdy, but crumbles with little effort, so even a hint of its destruction sparks vigorous defensiveness. It is reactionary and retaliatory, and the “best” way men think they can crush the ego of other men is through the women they are or were with. This why a “subtweet” could send the music icon off the edge.

Kanye has also taken to Twitter to deny certain sexual practices, anxious for the world to know he’d never take a finger up the butt. I guess he wants us to know he’s a real man.

Masculinity can’t be applied externally. It doesn’t come out of a package. It comes from having a purpose in life and meaningful relationships.

I don’t have a solution to the masculinity crisis in America, but I do know that today as always, women are attracted to effective men. We like men who get sh*t done and take care of business. Men who take care of family.

Women are not the enemy here. Our happiness depends to a great extent on both sexes thriving. We can’t make good partnerships with men if they’re preoccupied with these superficial notions of masculinity. To us, real men are good men. You really don’t need to shell out for your own box of Q-tips.