‘Be a man’: What does that mean in modern America?

Why We Wrote This

Beyond angst over ads and concern that America is afraid to let boys be boys, there are areas of agreement: Neither men nor women should be boxed into stereotypes. Both should be able to be themselves.

Courtesy of Gillette
A Super Bowl ad campaign by the razor company Gillette brings attention to the issue of ‘toxic masculinity,’ asking, ‘Is this the best a man can get?’

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Gillette’s Super Bowl ad seems to take the nation’s men to task. Riffing on the company’s slogan, the commercial presents a collage of “toxic” masculine behaviors and asks, “Is this the best a man can get?” While the nation’s fast-evolving ideas about sex and gender have exposed a number of raw cultural nerves, questions about American masculinity have continued to give the country a particular jolt, as the #MeToo movement exposed the startling scope of harassment and sexual assault. But even within an era of gaping political divides, there are signs the conversation is finding overlapping points of agreement. “I think we're being challenged to ask the question more in the affirmative ... what is healthy masculinity?” says Prof. Ariella Rotramel at Connecticut College. “And I don’t think that has often been the conversation we have been having culturally.” Conservative social thinker David French wasn’t too annoyed by the Gillette ad, calling it a lesson in Morality 101. But he worries cultural trends are squashing traditional masculinity. “That desire to be risk takers, that more aggressive nature, that nature of physical strength – [we need] a young man to utilize those characteristics for virtuous ends ... and not to repress them.”

Almost a decade ago, when Timothy Malefyt was doing research on the nitty-gritties of masculinity for his client Gillette, he and his small team of corporate anthropologists observed what they considered to be a “paradoxical” set of masculine values among NASCAR fans.

On the one hand, there was a lot of drinking, bawdy jokes, and loud behavior among the men they observed at the Texas Motor Speedway in Ft. Worth, says Mr. Malefyt, the former director of cultural discoveries for the advertising firm BBDO Worldwide in New York. And the raucous groups of men were also relentlessly competitive about nearly everything: who had the best food, the best barbecue grill, or the most tricked out motor home.

His research took place in 2010, and at first blush their observations might seem to fit the same kinds of masculine behaviors that many believe might start out as merely busting chops but eventually end up fueling the attitudes that underlie widespread problems, including bullying and sexual harassment.

That was part of the message of the pre-Super Bowl Gillette ad that seemed to take the nation’s men to task. Riffing on the company’s decades-old slogan, the ad presents a collage of “toxic” behaviors that led to the emergence of the #MeToo movement and asks, “Is this the best a man can get?”

Yet the particular culture of male camaraderie among NASCAR fans was actually a lot more complex, Malefyt says. The men also placed a particular value on cooperation and sharing, he says, and they had explicit, rock-solid rules against any kind of violent behavior.  

“They shared their drinks with strangers; they offered to help fix broken grills, camping gear, and drive-around carts, and even discussed how their favorite racer helped other racers before a race by donating parts for broken down cars,” says Malefyt, now a professor of advertising at Fordham University in New York.

“And there were a lot of younger boys that would come along with their dads, kind of like learning how to be a man – like this cult of male camaraderie was passed down generationally to help boys grow into productive men,” he says.

The end result was an ad campaign, “Young Guns,” that celebrated what his team saw as the particular values of NASCAR fans: friendly competition, ingenuity at work, strong friendship, and intergenerational bonding.

And while the nation’s fast-evolving ideas about sex and gender have exposed a number of raw cultural nerves over the past few years, questions about the nature of American masculinity have given the country a particular jolt, as the #MeToo movement especially has exposed the startling scope of harassment and even assault among some of the country’s most visible and powerful leaders.

But even within an era of gaping political divides, there are signs that the conversation is becoming more nuanced and complex, even with overlapping points of agreement.

“We’re being challenged to ask the question more in the affirmative, asking about, what is healthy masculinity?” says Ariella Rotramel, professor of gender, sexuality, and intersectionality studies at Connecticut College in New London. “And I don’t think that has often been the conversation we have been having culturally.”

“To me, the most interesting thing to think about now is really, how can people proactively think about what it means to be masculine, or to be identified as a man, in a way that is positive?” Professor Rotramel continues, noting the ugly tradition of defining masculinity in the negative, using the image of feminine weakness or feminine slurs to describe men who don’t measure up.

‘Morality 101’

“I wasn’t terribly annoyed by the Gillette ad, even if it was a little overdramatic,” says David French, a conservative social thinker and senior fellow at the National Review Institute in Washington, who has been outspoken on what he sees as an outright assault on traditional masculinity.

“I mean, basically the Gillette ad was saying bad things are bad; good things are good,” Mr. French continues. “We shouldn’t be bullies; we should protect from bullies. We shouldn’t be harassers; we should protect people from harassers. I mean, that’s sort of Morality 101.”

On social media last month, the backlash to the ad was often ferocious. But overall, Gillette’s campaign was generally well received, according to a Morning Consult poll released last month. More than 60 percent of all adults felt positively about the ad, including nearly half of Republicans and 75 percent of Democrats. Some 57 percent of men felt positively about the ad, led by wide majorities of Millennials and Gen X men, as did 64 percent of women.

At the same time, too, there are signs that younger men and women are consciously rethinking the more rigid kinds of social expectations based on gender.

Tim Larkin, a noted self-defense expert, knows he already “looks the part” of the traditional masculine male with his brush cut, defined jawline, deep voice, and brick-house build. Trained as a Navy Seal and special-ops intelligence officer and now a member of the Black Belt Hall of Fame, he says he can look pretty imposing when he stands in front of one of his self-defense classes.

“And whether or not this facade is real or not really doesn’t matter,” Mr. Larkin says. Most of his clients would already assume he’s a guy who can easily defend himself. So his female instructors, those of average height and build, he says, are often better at conveying his techniques, developed for anyone of any size or gender.

“When she can show just how capable she is, she can really get across the idea of how to injure the human body as quickly as possible, because you don’t want to deal with bigger, faster, stronger,” says Larkin, who’s given a Ted Talk and written a book, “When Violence IS the Answer.”

And while he’s part of a growing chorus of men who have been feeling a little uneasy with all the discussions about “toxic masculinity” these days, Larkin says it’s been a good thing that women have been able to get out of what could be called a boxed-in notion of femininity, or the idea of “the white knight coming to save the fair maiden.”

“You’re talking to somebody who’s married to a police captain in Las Vegas,” Larkin says. “She’s an extremely capable woman in a male dominated space, and, yeah, I think that there are more leadership roles that you’re seeing made available for my daughters.”

‘Be yourself,’ unless you’re a boy

But there’s almost a certain irony in the growing cultural acceptance of female aggression, with ever more models of successful female athletes embracing hard-nosed competition, French suggests. Both he and Larkin, in fact, see a disturbing trend in the nation’s anti-bullying campaigns and other efforts to address boys’ aggressive behaviors.

“It’s something we’ve seen in schools and that we’ve seen in the larger culture,” French says. “This idea that boys, who have this kind of innate restless energy, that there’s something wrong with them, and that they need to calm down rather than be channeled in the proper direction.”

Indeed, it’s interesting, he says, that within the liberal cultural values that otherwise might emphasize that boys and girls should “be yourself,” it’s a value that often applies to everyone except the man who has what could be considered the traditional male characteristics.

“I think one of the traditional ways to deal with the inherent nature of boys – that desire to be risk takers, that more aggressive nature, that nature of physical strength, or all of those things that are more typically associated with boys than girls – has been to shape and mold a young man to utilize those characteristics for virtuous ends and not to deny them, and not to repress them.”

Both he and Larkin expressed concern that boys’ sense of adventure was being squashed.

In January, the American Psychological Association released its first ever “Guidelines for Psychological Practice With Boys and Men,” and it came to the nearly opposite conclusion. According to these guidelines, males socialized to adhere to “traditional masculinity such as emotional stoicism, homophobia, not showing vulnerability, self-reliance and competitiveness” can lead to “aggression and violence as a means to resolve interpersonal conflict” as well as “substance abuse, incarceration, and early mortality.”

Such gender-specific guidelines, however, ignore the growing understanding of gender as a spectrum, not one of two boxes to tick.

“The whole idea of gender as binary with inherent traits is moving to the idea of gender on a scale or on a continuum,” says Malefyt, the corporate anthropologist.

“And there are different qualities and characteristics that are in both men and women, and it’s more about how masculine or feminine behaviors come out in different situations,” he continues. “So I think where we’re really at is in an age where we’re looking at how we're redefining all these issues.”

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