Researching How Manhood is Reclaimed When It’s Threatened

Illustration by Carly Jean Andrews

by C. Brian Smith

Being a man in America today could mean any number of things: Losing your blue collar job and your wife in the same year and picking up a smack habitalong the way; straddling a blurry line between chivalry and chauvinism. Maybe you’re a nurse; or a graphic designer wearing $425 jeans with fake, caked-on mud to work (and some under eye concealer). Or perhaps you’re a straight man in the rural Midwest who occasionally sucks your friend off after coffee — y’know, to help a bud out.

One thing’s certain, though: This is not your grandfather’s masculinity.

Or put another way, today’s masculinity is “precarious.” At least that’s what social psychologist Jennifer Bosson calls it. She argues that “manhood” these days — however you define it — is a status that must be continually earned. It’s precarious because it can be easily lost, which is why men are constantly looking for ways to reaffirm it.

How exactly? That’s what she and fellow University of South Florida psychology professor Joseph Vandello attempt to find out at the university’s Gender & Interpersonal Dynamic Lab, where they’ve conducted numerous studies over the last decade to quantify “precarious manhood” scientifically. These studies include…

Measuring Aggression When Masculinity is Threatened
In one study, Bosson and Vandello had men either braid a female mannequin’s hair or a “gender-neutral” rope and then choose between punching a bag or doing a puzzle. Those who braided hair were more likely to punch the bag than men who braided rope. In a second experiment, they let everybody punch the bags but tested who hit the bag harder. Men punched significantly harder after the hair-braiding task than the rope-braiding task. Finally, in a third test, they had everybody braid hair but only let half of the group punch the bag, which left the other half more anxious and unnerved. “The study makes the point that men have more anxiety, stress, discomfort and unhappiness after falling short of perceived manhood ideals,” Bosson explains.

MeasuringPerceived Masculinity After Job-Loss
Another study sampled people who had lost their jobs as a result of the Great Recession. They were asked “to what extent did other people think you were less of a man or less of a woman when you lost your job?” Women didn’t think they were less of a woman for losing their job. Men, however, retrospectively thought that people thought they were less of a man after losing a job. And even worse: “Believing that others thought you were less of a man correlated with depression and anxiety,” Bosson says.

Measuring Masculinity with Action Verbs
In a third study, participants were asked to fill in 25 sentence stems that began with either “A real man…” or “A real woman…” Results were coded according to whether the sentence completions contained actions (e.g., “tells it like it is”) or adjectives (e.g., “is compassionate”). The findings revealed that men described “a real man” with more actions than adjectives, and described “a real woman” with more adjectives than actions. “Thus, men define their own gender status in terms of the active things that men do rather than the ways that men are,” the researchers wrote in a paper published in Current Directions in Psychological Science. They suggested that this could explain why men take more physical risks than women since risks are convincing ways to prove manhood, especially when it’s been threatened.

Bosson thinks men’s unwillingness to violate old-fashioned gender roles stems from how cultures define manhood. She also thinks it’s one of the worst times in America’s history to be a man who relies on traditional ways of demonstrating manhood. “That’s because we’re still close enough, historically, to a romantic nostalgia for the 1940s and 1950s, when middle class men could earn masculine credentials by being the sole breadwinner doing a manly job with a stay-at-home wife.”

But again: This isn’t your grandfather’s masculinity.

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