How Traditional Gender Role Expectations Can Be Imprisoning for Men

Men are allowed two emotions: anger and happiness

“Rub some dirt on it.”  “Don’t be a sissy.” “Big boys don’t cry.”  “Come on, toughen up.” If you have heard these phrases you have been a witness to the gender socialization of men and boys.  It is expected of men to squash feelings while presenting a stable, stoic, and logical appearance.  Anything but anger and happiness is too vulnerable or risky to display. This message is delivered during childhood. Boys who swallow their emotions are praised for their “strength.”  According to Cassano and Zeman’s 2010 study, fathers deemed emotional experience and expression of sadness in their sons as negative.  This then transferred to their sons who also used negative language to describe their experience. Part of the human experience is the experience of the whole spectrum of emotions.  Our culture socializes men to be ashamed of their emotions and hide their expression. This is imprisoning in that our experience is our truth and if our truth is not acceptable, this translates into a message that maybe we are not accepted for who we are as we are.

Men must maintain manhood status

Men are expected to display their masculinity and make up for the moments where they did not appear as society defines masculine.  The phrase, “You just lost your man card” speaks to this concept. According to socialization, manliness requires a consistent performance to provide evidence, and it can be lost.  To prevent the loss of manhood status, studies show that compensatory behaviors emerge. One study found manhood to be more fragile than womanhood; therefore, threats to manhood may be responded to with attempts at compensation to regain manhood status (like risk-taking and aggression) (Kosakowska-Berezecka, et al., 2016).  In another study, De Visser and McDonnell (2013) found that sexuality, sporting competence, and alcohol consumption all increased perceived masculinity, but alcohol consumption was less of a contributor. These findings demonstrate how men will go to great lengths (sexual promiscuity, heavy drinking, risk taking) to maintain higher masculine capital.

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To be masculine is to deny and devalue any feminine (society defined) qualities

It may very well be that women are the oppressed gender partly due to men’s socialization to reject femininity in themselves.  “You throw like a girl” is a derogatory comment towards boys/men in being compared to girls/women. Feminine qualities expressed by men are frequently interpreted as homosexual.  In fact, research shows that when name-calling, the labels “gay” and “girl” are used interchangeably to represent the failure of meeting masculine standards (Myers, 2012). Taken even further, “Boys reject femininity in order to establish their dominance, and they must continually degrade girls and feminize other boys so as to maintain their status—even as they pursue girls sexually” (Myers, 2012, p. 128).  So how is this imprisoning? First, it is exhausting to constantly be required to prove oneself as masculine and perform to meet masculine standards. This again reinforces the message that a man’s value and identity rests in his ability to be perceived as masculine. Second, in truth, masculinity and femininity are different but not opposites. They are constructs on a continuum and both men and women hold both traditionally assigned masculine and feminine qualities.  Third, no matter your political persuasion, being expected to put down people groups (women and homosexuals) to elevate oneself is taxing on the spirit. Humanity was created for connection and this kind of destructive disconnection conflicts with the core of who we are. 

Men must must not be perceived as weak

There are physiological differences between men and women and one of those is that men are typically built for greater physical strength.  However, negative expectations accompany this. A strong man is expected to be tall, visibly muscular, able to grow facial hair etc. They are also expected to utilize and prove their strength.  The concept of strength is often equated to masculinity. Which as discussed previously is a status that has to be consistently demonstrated and can be lost. A study by Berke, Reidy, Miller, and Zeichner (2017) examined this concept.  After administering a gender knowledge test, men were given gender threatening feedback, or gender non-threatening feedback. Participants were then tested for pain tolerance. Those who received gender threatening feedback endured more pain (through pound force applied to the supinator muscle of the participant’s non-dominant arm) than those who received non-threatening gender feedback.  So, essentially, those whose masculinity was questioned endured more pain to prove their masculinity. Further than that, not meeting masculine standards led men to question their manhood when they had no question prior to receiving the gender threatening feedback. The gendered expectation of strength moves well beyond what is effective when he feels shame for not measuring up to social standards.  Shame says, “something is wrong with me.”

Brene Brown, a shame researcher and author, eloquently shares one reason why gender expectations for men are maintained: 

“Here’s the painful pattern that emerges from my research with men: We ask them to be vulnerable, we beg them to let us in, and we plead with them to tell us when they’re afraid, but the truth is that most women can’t stomach it.  In those moments when real vulnerability happens in men, most of us recoil with fear and that fear manifests as everything from disappointment to disgust” (Brown, 2012, p. 95).

We are all contributors to the socialization of men and women.  Knowing this fact, we can be empowered to transform into contributors for change.

If you enjoyed this post, please see my previous post on Traditional Gender Expectations for Women.  Thanks for reading!

Berke, D. S., Reidy, D. E., Miller, J. D., & Zeichner, A. (2017). Take it like a man: Gender-threatened men’s experience of gender role discrepancy, emotion activation, and pain tolerance. Psychology Of Men & Masculinity, 18(1), 62-69.  doi:10.1037/men0000036

Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly (p. 95). New York, NY: Gotham Books.

 Cassano, M. C., & Zeman, J. L. (2010). Parental socialization of sadness regulation in middle childhood: The role of expectations and gender. Developmental Psychology, 46(5), 1214-1226. doi:10.1037/a0019851 

De Visser, R. O., & McDonnell, E. J. (2013). ‘Man points’: Masculine capital and young men’s health. Health Psychology, 32(1), 5-14. doi:10.1037/a0029045

Kosakowska-Berezecka, N., Besta, T., Adamska, K., Jaśkiewicz, M., Jurek, P., & Vandello, J. A. (2016). If my masculinity is threatened I won’t support gender equality? The role of agentic self-stereotyping in restoration of manhood and perception of gender relations. Psychology Of Men & Masculinity, 17(3), 274284. doi:10.1037/men0000016 

Myers, K. (2012). “Cowboy Up!”: Non-Hegemonic Representations of Masculinity in Children’s Television Programming. The Journal of Men’s Studies, 20(2), 125-143.doi:10.3149/jms.2002.125

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