If you were to imagine a man in your mind's eye, what would he look like? What would he sound like? How would he act? In Western culture, the idea of a man provokes thoughts of ruggedness, strength, leadership-- someone unemotional, but powerful. While some of these characteristics are true, they could not apply to every man. But are they altogether outdated, or even false?
Masculinity might be defined as the social, cultural, and political expression of maleness, but as a term has evolved significantly over the decades in Western culture. With the rise of women in the workforce, stay-at-home dads, and homosexuality becoming more widely accepted, what it means to "be a man" is changing. Dr. Elizabeth Birkshire believes that the psychology community rejects the idea of a fixed male identity. In fact, she questions if we can really talk about masculinity in the singular, or if it should be masculinities.
An important distinction is between the two terms: gender and sex. Whereas sex refers to the biological characteristics of maleness and femaleness, gender refers to the masculinity or femininity of a given life. Interestingly, Western culture tends to confer masculinity and femininity through the notion of sex, and not the nature of gender.
Birkshire adds that in the past, masculinity was constructed by morality. Now we shape masculinity by physicality. Even characteristics such as one's body could affect another's perception of one's manliness. For instance, if one's body projects physical hardness, that is associated with masculinity, whereas physical softness is linked with femininity. Birkshire says that culture's emphasis on physicality shows our ignorance or even disinterest for the emotions of men. For example, young boys are told to "man up," or "stop being a sissy," if they cry or begin to show emotion.
Many of the men who were taught this as a child find themselves taking part in mentoring with a local Kansas City organization, The Mankind Project. This initiative seeks to help men find out who they are and initiates the process of emotional literacy--being able to know and name what one is feeling and work to a place of courage and vulnerability. Charles Gruber, a mentor and elder with the organization, encourages men to tell their story without having to protect themselves.
- Dr. Elizabeth Birkshire, Adjunct Professor of Psychology at UMKC
- Charles Gruber, Elder with the Mankind Project