Are You a “Real Man”? How Men Earn and Prove Manhood Status

Daily life is replete with examples of men’s anxiety about violating the male gender role. Boyfriends and husbands refuse to watch “chick flicks” in the theatre; pop music enthusiasts keep their fondness for certain performers a secret (“I have lots of male friends who like Adam Lambert, but they don’t want people to think they’re gay”). Why might this be the case? Indeed, men’s tendency to appear “insecure in their manhood” may reflect an interpersonal concern about losing social status.

When a man hesitates to hug male friends in public or balks at the idea of carrying a female friend’s purse for her, we may roll our eyes and (at least privately) accuse him of being “insecure in hismasculinity .” After all, if he felt completely confident about his status as a man, the public enactment of stereotypically feminine behaviors should cause him no anxiety whatsoever.

But what if men really do have cause for concern about the security of their manhood? Not in a literal sense, but in the sense that it is relatively easy for men to lose their status as a “real man” in other people’s eyes. If so, then even men who are personally quite secure in their gender identity – their sense of themselves as a man, and the extent to which they identify with the male gender – might still suffer from concerns about the social repercussions of behaving in a stereotypically feminine manner. Thus, men’s tendency to appear “insecure in their manhood” may not reflect a personal shortcoming so much as it reflects an interpersonal concern about losing social status.

My collaborators and I recently began researching how people think about manhood. We propose that manhood, relative to womanhood, has historically been viewed as both elusive and tenuous. By “elusive,” we mean that manhood is not considered a developmental certainty, but instead is seen as a status that must be earned via action. By “tenuous,” we mean that manhood status, once earned, can be lost with relative ease, via a wide range of social shortcomings. Although these views of manhood may seem antiquated to those who possess a sophisticated understanding of gender, themes of the precariousness of manhood continue to emerge in daily discourse. Consider, for example, the treatment that U.S. figure skater Johnny Weir received during the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Canada. Commenting on Weir’s “feminine” appearance – Weir wore a costume adorned with a sparkly black shoulder pad, pink sequined detailing, and a pink tassel – sportscasters Claude Mailhot and Alain Goldberg joked that “We should make [Weir] pass a gender test,” and suggested that Weir should compete in the women’s Olympic events instead of the men’s (Garcia, 2010). Hence, a man who is deemed insufficiently masculine – that is, one who lacks stereotypically masculine traits and/or displays stereotypically feminine traits – is seen, by some, as no longer a man.

In this article, I summarize some of the research findings that have emerged from our work, and I highlight the implications ofprecarious manhood beliefs for men. In particular, we find that reminders of the precariousness of manhood encourage physically aggressive displays among men. As such, cultural beliefs about the tenuousness of manhood represent a social factor that may interact with biological factors (e.g., testosterone levels, genes) to shape men’s use of physical aggression.

Manhood as Elusive

Many cultures around the world treat manhood as an achieved status, or one that must be earned via action. As documented by cultural anthropologist David Gilmore (1990), some cultures ritualize the transition to manhood by requiring that young men pass rites involving risk, uncertainty, and a potential for injury. Those who do not successfully navigate these rites of passage will become adults in the biological sense, but not “real men” in the social sense. In contrast, most cultures treat womanhood as an ascribed status, or one that is assigned rather than achieved. As Gilmore notes, the transition from girlhood to womanhood “rarely involves tests or proofs of action, or confrontations with dangerous foes” (p. 12).

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