In what ways is masculinity socially constructed?
What do we mean by referring to the social construction of masculinity? When we think of the term “male”, our first thoughts often go to biology. Men are born, not made, many would argue.
And surely it is true that a man is essentially defined by his biological features. Well, yes, men are clearly born but masculinity itself is constructed in various ways. And each society plays a role in the social construction of masculinity.
Evolving societal constructs
We are constantly receiving messages, subtle or otherwise, telling us how a man should act. When we think of men’s clothing, it seems obvious to us that men should not wear skirts or dresses.
But where did this messaging come from? And why is it traditional for men to wear skirts or “kilts” in parts of Scotland? And why was it so common for men to wear dresses or “togas” back in Roman times?
It might seem equally obvious to us that only the most deviant of men wear make-up but why did no-one tell that to those of the male Aristocracy in the 18th century? Paintings of these men exist with their faces covered in rich foundation and the equivalent of blusher and lipstick to highlight their facial features. That was acceptably masculine back then.
Gender roles in the workplace
But perhaps the above examples seem superficial. Beyond the clothing and the make-up, society does not determine what it means to be a man, you might feel. However, social constructs of masculinity do not stop there.
Gender constructs also exist in the workplace. Take the assumptions that exist regarding doctors and nurses, for example. Not so long ago, it used to be common to assume the former to be a male figure and the latter to be a female.
This has begun to change more recently. And then there are the ways that even the names of professions once commonly reflected gender: fireman, policeman and salesman have only recently started to become firefighter, police officer and sales person.
Why is it that fighting fires, policing and making sales was once the preserve of maleness? What is it about being a biological male which makes only us capable of performing such tasks?
Signs of masculinity
The fact is that, from the clothing we should wear to the profession we should to choose, there are clearly societal constructs which can at times lie heavy on us all. But what about men’s more general behaviour? How should a man act? Is there a particular form in which a man ought to carry himself?
Many of us have heard the term “effeminate”, which is often used for a man who behaves contrary to expected gender norms. The idea is that the man is not fully a man in the way in which society would expect.
This effeminacy can occur in the way one talks (a man’s voice shouldn’t be too high-pitched), the way one walks (a man should not be too flamboyant when he moves), the way one uses one’s body language (a man should not be too demonstrative), even in the way one greets another (a man should make sure that his handshake isn’t too loose or slippery).
People assess and evaluate maleness all of the time and the attempt to observe the gender expectations of masculinity can become exhausting for many.
Take Tim, for instance, a man who now identifies as non-binary. He has spoken to this podcast about his uncontrolled anger. Tim, sometimes experienced it due to not allowing himself to be open to less traditional forms of masculine expression. He says that the lack of options men have when it comes to self-expression often force them to revert to anger as their only outlet.
Bode, a successful author, also spoke to the podcast regarding the way in which his austere upbringing caused problems for him both socially and psychologically as a young adult. His father felt that the only legitimate way he could interact with his son was with a focus on toughness and discipline.
It wasn’t until Bode’s dad finally openly showed him some kindness and concern that their relationship was able to develop new significance.
The future of masculinity
In a previous article, I reflected on why men find it so difficult to cry. A major part of this is to do with the social construction of masculinity. Crying is often a biological response to trauma, stress and suffering.
Yet it quite simply is not a masculine thing to do. It shows vulnerability, something that the social construction of masculinity tries to erase. But, as we have seen with elements of our appearance and the jobs we ought to perform. The socially constructed expectations of maleness are subject to change. And, if we see it as beneficial, it is within our gift to be part of that change going forward.
Such change, however, does not occur overnight. And one should expect there to be much resistance to it. Many of those of us who do find it easier to live up to masculine stereotypes will continue to be suspicious of those who do not.
But, as men, if we can take a step back and are honest with ourselves. Are there not ways in which each of us is disadvantaged by the straight-jacket that the social construction of masculinity places us within?
Embracing the evolution of masculine constructs
Going back to Bode, he talks about embracing his role as a stay-at-home father. This is something society is still, as a whole, ambivalent towards. But Bode talks about performing this role not out of weakness of “effeminacy” but out of love.
He missed being around during the formative years of his eldest child. He now wants to ensure that he is present for his youngest children as they are growing up.
Is this not a positive and inspiring vision of masculinity? Is there not something to celebrate in a man loving his children and being as present as possible during their most formative years? If the answer is “yes” then let us all consider loosening that straight-jacket a little more. Lest other males who wish to be equally as caring feel that they cannot due to the arbitrary pressures of our socially constructed environment.