The New Burdens of Masculinity
Helen M. Hacker Originally published 1957
In the field of intergroup relations it has often been ruefully remarked that there is no Negro problem, but only a white problem, no Jewish problem, but a Gentile problem; in short, no minority group problem, but a dominant group problem. And the problem of the dominant group was not only that its attitudes perpetuated the minority group, but also placed limitations on its own development. Amusingly enough, when men are the dominant group, they are quick to admit that their chief problem is women. This answer may be in part defensive, in part facetious, but it is true that inadequate attention has been paid to the sociology of dominant groups, and the strains imposed by the burdens of their status.
Indeed interest and research in changes in men’s social roles have been eclipsed by the voluminous concentration on the more spectacular developments and contradictions in feminine roles, and changes in masculine roles have been treated largely as a reaction and adjustment to the new status of women. Possibly one reason why masculine social roles have not been subjected to scrutiny is that such a concept has not clearly emerged. Men have stood for mankind, and their problems have been identified with the general human condition. It is a plausible hypothesis, however, that men, as well as women, suffer from the lack of a generally accepted, clearly defined pattern of behavior expected of them, and that their interpretation of the masculine role varies according to individual personality needs and social situations. The massive social changes initiated by the Industrial Revolution have not only affected the complementariness of the sexes, but posed new problems of personality fulfillment for both men and women.
Analytically, contemporary masculine problems may be viewed as arising from three sources, which may prove difficult to disentangle. First, we may consider those burdens of masculinity which have survived from earlier periods, but which modern conditions may have aggravated. Men in their traditional role of breadwinners have always encountered difficulties, but it may be that recent developments in our occupational structure have added new tensions. Pertinent to this problem would be studies of occupational mobility and the increasing importance of education as both barrier and base to economic success, [and] of vocational adjustment and the new personality traits, such as skill in politicking, needed for high-level positions. We will return to this theme later on, when the worker role will be taken up explicitly. Then, too, from Adam on, men have had their troubles with women, but can we distinguish the enduring from the variable in their complaints?
Secondly, it may be useful to distinguish conflicts engendered by feelings of inadequacy in fulfilling role expectations from those stemming from feelings of uncertainty, ambiguity, or confusion regarding role expectations. A man may have no doubts concerning the criteria of masculinity, but feel that he does not live up to them, or he may be unsure concerning the requirements for validating manhood. Preliminary interview materials reveal that the ideal man is considered by men as being, among other things, a good provider, the ultimate source of knowledge and authority, and strong in character so that he may give a feeling of security, not only financially but emotionally, to his wife and children, and it was evident from their further responses that the respondents found themselves deficient in meeting these demands.
The norms of masculinity, however (and, conversely, those of effeminacy) may vary among social groups, and multiple group participations may set up contradictions and inconsistencies in outlook. For example, it was only after several months of counseling that a skilled mechanic developed the courage to dust off some old Caruso records he had stored in the attic, and find that listening to them was no threat to his manhood. The group memberships of a professional man, however, would hardly produce this particular conflict.
The third source or way of examining the problematic aspects of masculine social roles is interpreting them in terms of accommodation to the new freedoms and responsibilities of women. Here again we may look with profit to the minority group literature. Horace R. Cayton has spoken of the guilt-hate-fear complex of whites in regard to Negroes. He says:
Guilt, because his treatment of the American Negro is contrary to all of his higher impulses¼. But having such guilt and being unable and unwilling to resolve it, persons learn to hate the object they feel guilty about so the guilt turns to hate and with it the necessity to rationalize and justify their behavior. Finally there is fear, for the white man in all of his arrogance knows that in spite of his rationalizations about racial inferiority he would be resentful and strike back if treated the way he treats Negroes.1
Perhaps I would not press this analogy, if several men had not told me themselves that in their eyes men have guilt feelings about the whole history of male-female relationships, and that while the “emotionally stable” man was attempting to work out a new, more equitable pattern, neurotic men succumbed to the other elements in the complex by striving to stand firm on traditional male prerogatives or going too far in their subservience to women. Again, in the matter of social distance, some men are willing to admit their occasional need of exclusive male companionship, while others are afraid to recognize it. Some find friendship with women enjoyable, while others are as uneasy with “intellectual” women as the white Southerner with educated Negroes.
In fact the chief obstacle so far experienced in efforts to collect data as a basis for the formulation of precise hypotheses has been men’s reticence, which may be attributed in part, as mentioned previously, to the lack of cultural focus of attention on men’s problems, as revealed in the defensive answer, “women.” More important, though, is an element of the traditional masculine role which proscribes admission and expression of psychological problems, feelings, and general overt introspection, as summed up in the stereotype of the strong, silent man. True he may be permitted moments of weakness, some faltering in his self-appointed task, when he falls back on a woman for emotional support, but such support is in the nature of ego-building rather than direct participation and counsel. The ideal American male personality has been described by John Gillin2 as a “redblooded, gentlemanly, go-getter” and any confessions of doubts, uncertainties, or insecurities would tarnish this image, any sign of weakness might be taken for effeminacy. Perhaps this is the greatest burden of masculinity our culture imposes.
Nevertheless, there are objective indices that all is not well with men. Most obvious is the widespread expression of resentment toward women in conversation, plays, novels, and films. Modern women are portrayed as castrating Delilahs busily levelling men’s individuality and invading the strongholds of masculinity in work, play, sex, and the home. She seems to say, with Ethel Merman, to the man, “Everything you can do, I can do better.” She is the female insect who devours her lover (“The Cage”), the shrike who preys on her husband; she is a storehouse of evil desires, she constantly puts men to tests they cannot meet, she compels their submission. In the words of Oscar Wilde, women are seen as a brimming reservoir of all kinds of powers: physical, mental, moral, legal. In the comic strips, husbands and fathers are the guileless tools of their wives and daughters. To change Congreve’s phrase in The Way of the World, many men seem to see themselves as dwindling into a husband or other female appendage. Other indices, to be discussed later, are the increasing social visibility of impotence and homosexuality.
In seeking a conceptual model in which to cast masculine role problems, Kirkpatrick’s3 discussion of cultural inconsistencies in marital roles may be of service. He distinguished among three roles provided in our society for the married woman, each role implying certain privileges and certain obligations, and suggested that conflict might arise from the disposition of the wife to claim the privileges of more than one role without accepting its corresponding obligations, or from the disposition of the husband to expect his wife to assume the duties of more than one role without receiving its corresponding rights. This situation may be ascribed to social forces operating differentially on the American population, thus leading to a multiplicity of roles, no one of which has universal sanction and [is], consequently, not clearly isolated from the others.
Let us try to apply this notion of ethical inconsistency to some of the main statuses which men occupy in our society.
As a man, men are now expected to demonstrate the manipulative skill in interpersonal relations formerly reserved for women under the headings of intuition, charm, tact, coquetry, womanly wiles, et cetera. They are asked to bring patience, understanding, gentleness to their human dealings. Yet with regard to women they must still be sturdy oaks. As I heard on the radio recently, a woman wants a man to be “big and strong, sensitive and tender, the sort of person on whom you can rely, and who leaves you free to manage things the way you want.” This contradiction is also present in men’s relationships with men. As Riesman4 points out in The Lonely Crowd, now that the “softness of the personal” has been substituted for the “hardness of the material” men must be free with the glad hand, they must impress others with their warmth and sincerity (rather than as formerly with their courage and honesty and industry), they must be troubleshooters on all fronts. Yet they are not thereby relieved of the necessity of achieving economic success or other signal accomplishment, nor are they permitted such catharses as weeping, fits of hysterics, and obvious displays of emotionalism. Of course, it may be objected that as women are increasingly allowed male privileges, they, too, are restricted in their emotional expression. Yet in the present era of transition women may still, on the basis of the unpredictability of their sex, which is vaguely linked to biological functioning, have greater recourse to moodiness and irrationality.
In the status of husband, a man must assume the primary responsibility for the support of the home. A man who marries for money is exposed to more social opprobrium than a woman, and there is scant social support for the expectation that the wife should shoulder half the financial burden. The self-respecting male has no choice but to work. Rarely do marriage and homemaking offer an alternative! Yet his responsibility does not end there. Although he should excel his wife in “external creativity” he is also called upon to show some competence in “internal creativity” in developing the potentialities of the husband-wife relationship, and sharing the physical and policymaking burdens of maintaining the home. Or in Parsonian language,5 his specialization as “instrumental leader” does not preclude the assumption of “expressive” functions, particularly in view of the growing emphasis on friendship between husband and wife.
As a father, he bears the chief responsibility in law for the guardianship of the children, but often in practice plays a subordinate role. He may wistfully long for or stormily demand the respect of his children, but his protracted absence from the home makes it easy for them to evade his authority and guidance. Moreover, he is increasingly reproached for his delinquencies as a father. He is urged to strengthen his friendly, democratic relationship to his family without in any way lessening the primacy of his occupational role, though he is made to feel guilty for his efforts to support the home to the extent that they remove him from it. Indeed, the conflict between home and job is more salient and universal for men than for women. He has lost the security of the old paterfamilias, who was the autocrat of the breakfast table, and experiences difficulties in establishing a satisfying new role. That father is hard put to it to find his rightful place in the home is starkly summarized in the comment of the comic strip character, Penny, on the ambiguity of the father role, “We always try to make father feel he is a part of the family.”
Father is no longer the chief mediator between the outside world and his family. As Gunnar Dybwad6 has said,
While formerly the father carried prestige because he, largely, was the connecting link to community affairs, now radio and TV, women’s clubs and school organized activities have greatly lessened his importance in this respect. Moreover, with increasing mechanization, his maintenance concerns in everyday household affairs have decreased.
He may feel outnumbered in PTA organizations where mother is the parent most often represented. His absorption in work cuts him adrift from the new patterns of child development. It is mother who reads the child psychology books, accompanies the child to the guidance counselor, consults with teachers, and participates in community child projects.
Dr. Leo Bartemeier7 has pointed to a further conflict in the father role. In accordance with the cultural ideal of the he-man, fathers may feel that to be loving and gentle is consciously or unconsciously regarded as psychological failure, and indeed it may be difficult to make the transition from the attitude of ruggedness and toughness developed in schools, businesses, colleges, teams, and clubs to “the guiding light of paternal solicitude, love, and affection.”
The requirements of the father role are further obscured by recent over-emphasis on the mother-child relationship, especially in infancy. (See, for example, Talcott Parsons, Family: Socialization and Interaction Process.) Father is relegated to the role of mother-substitute or nursery assistant, and receives little help in becoming an effective member of the parent team.
As a son, he may face more obstacles to emotional maturity than a daughter. The dangers of “Momism” and the female conscience have been much propagandized.8 Exposed almost exclusively to the influence of women as mothers, teachers, and sisters the growing boy may identify goodness with femininity. Presumably the immediacy and comparative simplicity of the mother’s role in the home is more readily grasped by the daughter, but the son finds difficulty in identifying with the largely absentee father and is cut off from his occupational role. His mother wants him to be an all-round boy and is fearful lest he be a sissy, but she cannot show him what it is to be masculine. This he must learn in the peer groups of the youth culture so strangely detached from the adult world. Ruth Benedict’s9 comments on discontinuities in cultural conditioning apply with perhaps more force to boys than to girls. The personality traits which are rewarded in childhood do not bring approval in the peer group, nor are the values of the latter always conducive to success in the adult world of college and business. Arnold Green10 in his much-quoted “The Middle-Class Male Child and Neurosis” shows how the blind obedience and “love” for his parents which brings surcease from anxiety and guilt are ineffective in competitive relationships outside the family in which independent and aggressive behavior is demanded. Integration of the conflicting roles of dependence and submission inside the home with self-assertiveness outside the home is difficult because of the guilt feelings aroused for either violating the initial submissive adjustment or for not making the effort to achieve. So the son may envy his sister’s more protected role, because, although he is permitted greater freedom, more is expected of him in the way of achievement, responsibility, emotional control, and autonomy. To the extent that cultural expectations of masculine superiority persist, boys may resent invidious comparisons to their sisters and other girls in the matters of scholarship and social skills. Also to be mentioned is the greater social acceptability girls find in being tomboys than boys who incline to interests labelled feminine. One of my students reported that he wanted to skip rope as a child, and finally got social permission by saying he was practicing to be a prizefighter. Additional problems are posed by the earlier maturation of girls.
We turn now to a consideration of men in the status of lover. In one sense this role strikes at the heart of the problem of masculinity. The ability to perform the sexual act has been a criterion for man’s evaluation of himself from time immemorial. Virility used to be conceived as a unilateral expression of male sexuality, but is regarded today in terms of the ability to evoke a full sexual response on the part of the female. Men as the dominant group feel the strains of accommodating to the changing status of the minority group, and meeting the challenge presented by the sexual emancipation of women. Much as whites who feel constrained to convince Negroes of their feelings of friendliness and fair play, men seek from women the assurance that they are satisfied, and may become hurt and resentful when women play the part of psychological Lysistratas refusing to admit complete gratification.
The urgency of the problem of impotence may arise also from the psychological need to buttress masculinity in the one area safe from female competition, and it may also be that sexual prowess represents an alternative to economic success in validating manhood. Any deficiencies in this realm, therefore, are much more ego-threatening to men than to women. Sexual adequacy affects the relationship of men not only to women, but also to other men. Sexual contests may be important for standing in the peer group, and boys who have no exploits to recount may feel constrained to counterfeit them.
In general, it can be said that masculinity is more important to men than femininity is to women, and that sexual performance is more inextricably linked to feelings of masculine self-worth than even motherhood is to women. As stated previously, our cultural heritage has identified masculine with human, and both men and women aspire to masculine values. A dramatic corroboration of this hypothesis was made by Terman and Miles11 when they found in administering their test of mental masculinity and femininity to students at the University of Chicago that the scores of both men and women shifted toward the masculine end of the continuum after the subjects had been informed of the purpose of the test. If a man is not masculine, not a “real man,” he is nothing. But a woman can be unfeminine, and still be a person. There is a neuter category for women, but not for men.
The “flight from masculinity” evident in male homosexuality may be in part a reflection of role conflicts. If it is true that heterosexual functioning is an important component of the masculine role in its social as well as sexual aspects, then homosexuality may be viewed as one index of the burdens of masculinity. First, because of confusion of social and sexual role, as Margaret Mead12 long ago pointed out in Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies, in societies which differentiate strongly between masculine and feminine social roles, individuals who manifest personality traits ascribed to the opposite sex or who feel inadequate in fulfilling their part of the sexual division of labor may become confused in their sexual identification, and feel that they must also change their sexual object. Thus, the feelings of our mechanic who feared listening to Caruso records may be interpreted as a fear of homosexuality. Abram Kardiner13 in his Sex and Morality has elaborated this theme:
The difficulty in our society is that role expectations exercise an influence on sexual activity, sometimes in unexpected ways. The association of money, economic power and prestige with sexual potency or bodily stature is notorious. Money is a common form of the vindication of manliness; by the same token, absence of money may crush the feeling of manliness.
Kardiner further suggests that homosexuality represents a rerouting of aggression and hostility perhaps in response to heightened social demands—from women and competitors. He goes on to say:
These are the men who are overwhelmed by the increasing demands to fulfill the specifications of masculinity and who flee from competition because they fear the increased pressure on what they consider their very limited resources... This kind of man can get no comfort from the female because she is a threat to him, not a solace, because she expected him to be masculine. The best he can do is to settle for a compromise on sensual satisfaction without further commitment.
It would be a matter of empirical investigation to establish a typology of men, perhaps according to family constellation or social class position, in terms of their interpretation of the demands of masculinity and their felt capacity to fulfill them, possibly along the lines that Merton14 has suggested in his article “Social Structure and Anomie.” A greater range of feminine than masculine types seems available in our society, as suggested by such superficial indices as modes of dress and manner. Significantly, no typology of “masculine” personalities has been advanced, such as Helene Deutsch’s15 categorization of women.
By implication, if not directly, in the foregoing we have referred to men’s occupational role, and we may now turn explicitly to this area. The problems which men, more than women, experience on the job have already been mentioned: (1) the greater compulsion to success, if not from themselves, then from their wives; (2) the lack of an alternative to gainful employment; (3) the identification of economic success with masculinity (one woman of my acquaintance has told me that a man’s success is an important component of his sex appeal, both directly and indirectly; that men who feel themselves failures lack confidence in their dealings with women); (4) the new need for politicking or using traditionally feminine forms of behavior for ingratiating superiors, customers, et cetera; and (5) the feeling of being threatened by women in industry, who are seen as limiting opportunities for men, diminishing the prestige of jobs formerly held only by men, and casting a cold eye on masculine pretensions to vocational superiority. Also to be mentioned, although not new and not confined to men, are the problems of obtaining recognition, usually phrased in terms of earning more money, and job satisfaction in the sense of feeling that one is making a vital contribution to society.
The presence of women in industry is a disturbing fact on several grounds. First, it is frequently felt that women are not gentlemen, that is, they compete unfairly by using sexual attractiveness and other tactics closed to or beneath men. If the distribution of the sexes in positions of power were more equitable, this objection would lose its basis. Secondly, women who have ample opportunities of observing men on the job are not so likely, in the words of Virginia Woolf, to reflect their image double life-size. The man’s occupational role loses its mystery, and women need no longer depend on men as a link to the world outside the home. This problem, too, is one of transition, and should disappear when through habituation to working women both men and women no longer expect masculine superiority and establish casual, workaday relationships on the job. And if through propaganda and education the presence of women in the occupational world, like other minority groups, can be shown to raise levels of productivity and shorten working hours for men, then their competition will not be regarded differently from that presented by other men.
It remains now to gather up the threads of the discussion. The initial problem was posed as to whether men today in fulfilling masculine social role expectations experience difficulties unknown to their fathers, and since such expectations may vary according to social group, class, et cetera—most particularly, urban middle class white men of native parentage. Such difficulties might flow from stepped-up demands of the role itself making it harder to fulfill or from the infusion of ambiguous or contradictory elements into the role, requiring in some cases a double dose of obligation or causing men to cling to a double dose of privilege. Another way of putting this question is to ask whether substantial changes have occurred in the criteria of masculinity over the past fifty years. Everyone thinks he knows what is masculine, and how to recognize a “real man,” but no one can give an adequate definition. It is neither money nor muscles. A woman sociologist offered this one: “A real man is one who can take responsibility for a woman and their children.” While not probably in the forefront of men’s consciousness, this definition is no doubt the traditional one. A male professor of philosophy felt that the mark of a man was the desire to create something original and lasting, although he believed that woman’s ideal man was a subtle Kowalsky plus a smattering of the Saturday Review of Literature. A popular expression of professional men was that women were concerned with survival and men with honor.
At the present time I am engaged in a research project to uncover how men interpret the masculine role, to get at their feelings about being men, and to find out what personality and social correlates are linked to the various interpretations of the masculine role and the felt points of tension and strain. The underlying assumption will be that social change has introduced certain cleavages between values and behavior, and that the very forces which gave rise to these conflicts will contribute to their alleviation. In the meantime it will be of both practical and theoretical interest to know in what directions masculine roles are changing, and how men are handling these changes, and with what other variables are associated anxiety concerning these changes or an accepting, experimental attitude. If we can return to our dominant group, minority group analogy, we can say that men are paying a price for the past lack of reciprocity between the sexes, and the future solution need not be the reversal of the caste line in a matriarchal society as some men fear, but rather the collaborative effort of men and women in evolving new masculine and feminine identities which will integrate the sexes in the emotional division of labor so that the roles which men and women play will not be rationalized or seen as external constraint but eagerly embraced as their own.
1. Cayton, Horace R. 1951. “The Psychology of the Negro Under Discrimination,” Pp. 287-288 in Race Prejudice and Discrimination, edited by Arnold M. Rose. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
2. Gillin, John Lewis and John Philip Gillin. 1944. An Introduction to Sociology, New York: The Macmillan Company.
3. Kirkpatrick, Clifford. 1936. “The Measurement of Ethical Inconsistency in Marriage.” International Journal of Ethics 46: 447-448. Also found in Kirkpatrick, Clifford. 1955. The Family as Process and Institution. New York: The Ronald Press Company. p. 163-164.
4. Riesman, David, Nathan Glazer, and Reul Denney. 1953. The Lonely Crowd. Garden City: Doubleday Anchor Books.
5. Parsons, Talcott and Robert F. Bales. 1955. Family, Socialization and Interaction Process. Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press.
6. Dybwad, Gunnar. 1952. “Fathers Today: Neglected or Neglectful?” Child Study 29(2): 3-5.
7. Bartemeier, Leo. “The Contribution of the Father to the Mental Health of the Family,” quoted by Gunnar Dybwad in “Fathers Today: Neglected or Neglectful?” Child Study, 29(2) (1952). p. 4.
8. Cf. Margaret Mead. 1943. And Keep Your Powder Dry: An Anthropologist Looks at America. New York: William Morrow and Company. Mead, Margaret 1949. Male and Female: A Study of the Sexes in a Changing World. New York: William Morrow and Company. Gorer, Geoffrey. 1948. The American People: A Study in National Character. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
9. Benedict, Ruth. 1938. “Continuities and Discontinuities in Cultural Conditioning,” Psychiatry. 1: 161-167.
10. Green, Arnold. 1946. “The Middle-Class Male Child and Neurosis.” American Sociological Review. 11: 31-41.
11. Terman, Louis M. and Catherine C. Miles. 1936. Sex and Personality: Studies in Masculinity and Femininity. New York: McGraw-Hill.
12. Mead, Margaret. 1939. Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies. Included in From the South Seas. New York: William Morrow and Company.
13. Kardiner, Abram. 1954. Sex and Morality. Indianapolis and New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc. p. 168 and 175.
14. Merton, Robert K. 1938. “Social Structure and Anomie.” American Sociological Review. 3: 672-682.
15. Deutsch, Helene. 1945. The Psychology of Women, Vol. I. New York: Grune and Stratton.