Everyone is familiar with the concept of cooties: the ever present germ spread by girls that menaces school age boys across the country. As adults, we smile wryly when children panic at anything contaminated by the female form, because we know better. Or do we? A quick look at popular culture shows a world defined by rigid gender barriers, where cross-contamination between male and female norms is swiftly punished.
The fact of the matter is, we live in a society where masculinity is defined in direct opposition to anything female, which serves to fragment men and isolate women.
Masculinity is typically viewed as a definitive character trait, granted to an individual through action. In reality, masculinity is not a concrete definition but rather a fluctuating antithesis to the human condition. The APA defines masculinity as, “[…] toughness, stoicism, acquisitiveness and self-reliance.” The ideology of masculinity takes very human characteristics common to all people, such as vulnerability, emotion, altruism, as well as community, and instead characterizes them as entirely alien concepts. In doing so, masculinity manifests not as a gendered cultural identity but rather as a psychological break from reality.
Masculinity, rather than uplifting men, becomes the catalyst for a psychological fragmentation that forces individuals to curtail behavior and repress emotion.
Masculine behavior is enforced from a very early age through social interactions, with studies showing that children ridicule their peers for any deviation from standard gender roles. But peers are far from the sole perpetrators. Therapist Marvin Allen notes that parents often play significant role in repressing the emotional expression of children, noting that while young girls are also victims of repression in many cases, the pressure is far greater on boys. This combination of social captivity and emotional control produces stunted adults that are unable to interact with a surrounding world outside of the narrow confines of gendered, stereotypical roles.
Ironically, masculinity is not just a male problem, as women also suffer at the hands of masculinity. Women who step into traditionally male fields often find themselves victims of ostracization and persecution.
Studies have shown that women who step into and succeed in male fields find themselves branded as “more selfish, manipulative and untrustworthy” than their male counterparts. The problem is again a social-psychological stigma. The peers of female in gendered-jobs will often ostracize them and project negative attributes as punishment for defying the gendered roles. The result is a distinct underrepresentation of women in positions of power, both in the private and public sectors.
Altogether, masculinity adds up to one of the most harmful and pervasive forms of social control in our society today, one that is toxic to all genders. The time has come for a careful reexamination of the rigid and inflexible definition of what makes a “man” in an increasingly tolerant and open world. Regardless of your gender, a breakaway from the restrictions of masculinity is necessary. Doing so risks persecution and struggle, often with unforeseen consequences.
But each little step forward weakens the masculine social stranglehold, and every small victory lessens the divide between sexes.