It has become a bit of a sport in contemporary society to ”problematize” masculinity. It is often claimed that all and any problems in our world is due to male gender norms and “toxic masculinity”. Interestingly enough this seems to be the case regardless of which sex is impacted by the problem at hand.
When boys struggle in school and get lower grades than girls (even though their test results are equal) this is said to be caused by an “anti-study culture” among boys. However, when females doesn’t advance as far as they’d like in their working career, this is never said to depend on an “anti-career culture” among women – instead this is said to be the consequences of male “frat club” behavior and discrimination.
When girls cut their arms, discussions roar on the pressure put upon them by the evil male gaze, but when boys successfully commit suicide to a much higher extent than girls, it is apparently sad that the male norm prevents them from being in touch with their feelings. No matter which way one turn, one seems to face the conclusion that all wrongs in the world are the outcome of toxic masculinity. (Problematizing femininity, however, seems to be something no-one would consider.)
Please note that I’m not saying that there aren’t any aspects of normative masculinity that cannot be harmful for their carrier. Excessive risk taking, unwillingness to admit weakness and/or asking for help, ignoring health warning signals (“a man can handle himself”) are all behaviors of malign nature. Also note, though, that these behaviors more or less only impacts men themselves.
Already here it seems questionable if the male gender norm can be held responsible for all and any societal problems, as most of its negative consequences primarily impact men themselves (rather than women). “But hold on”, you may say, “what about the fact that men are the ones committing crimes, killing and raping people, and starting wars?”.
Though this may be true if the dividing line is drawn between “men” and “women”, it isn’t if the line is drawn between “all men” or “a few men”. The male norm isn’t a sublime entity existing void of connections to the physical male individuals who form it. The male gender norm is obviously a result of the behaviors, actions and attitudes displayed by most men, and the expectations directed at them to maintain these patterns. Hence the term should denominate the (well-behaved) mass of men, not the delinquent minority.
When about 60% of all violent crimes in Sweden are carried out by about 1% of the population, and most men will never batter, rape or murder anyone, such behaviors can hardly be said to be part of the male “norm”. A more fair approach would be to simply call these behaviors “criminal”. Specifically on the topic of starting wars, research shows that both sexes tend to support their own country’s war efforts to approximately the same degree. Men’s motivation revolves around retribution for wrongs committed, whereas women tend to lean on fighting oppression as their primary motivation.
So, if the male norm isn’t neither war-mongering nor murderous, what then denominates it? Well, there’s obviously no objective answer to that question. I can only provide my view on the topic, and I intend to do so by listing traits and behaviors one could reasonably classify as “typically male”. Before I do so, this clarification is warranted:
I will be discussing averages and generalizations. Likely far from all men holds all the traits I list, and some may not hold even one. Furthermore, even though I suggest these traits as “typically male”, that doesn’t mean only men could hold them. Naturally women can too, and the differences between individuals of the same sex are usually bigger that the difference between the sexes’ averages.
What aspects of the male norm that stems from biology/genetics, and what stems from social construct, is also something I will not speculate on. Causality would be hard to prove, and for my line of reasoning what traits are displayed as normative masculinity is what counts.
Finally, my intention is not to claim that these traits constitute the only or best way to be a man. I simply claim that they are common parts of masculinity. Also, I definitely wouldn’t consider men and masculinity as superior to women or femininity (or vice versa). Both sexes have equal value, regardless of common or separating traits.
With this clarified, here are some traits that I consider a lot more typical for masculinity than blood lust or proneness for sexual crimes:
Determination. Men’s ability to take on a challenge, focus on the task, and with resolution and concentration fight to achieve their goal, is likely something that mankind has benefited a lot from throughout history. When men decide to bloody well set foot on the moon, it is more or less only a matter of time before they do.
Readiness to use violence. I will not deny that readiness to use violence (which isn’t equivalent to a desire to do so) is a part of normative masculinity, and that this readiness sometimes also crosses the line to actual infliction of violence unto innocents. Still, it’s worth noting the benefit human societies (and especially their women) has drawn – and still do – from male readiness to use violence. As a woman, in all honesty – upon nightly sounds like of burglars on the ground floor, is it you or your male partner that is the first one down the stairs…?
Loyalty and willingness to sacrifice. Throughout history – and still today – men have rarely had any problems to subject themselves for the greater, public good when called for. Those who voluntarily assume dangerous roles in purpose to protect others (police, fire fighters, rescue divers, hazmat handlers, last person off the sinking ship) are most often men. The loyalty men are capable of showing their families, friends, local communities or nations is not to be underestimated, even though its extremes (such as street gangs and hooligan “firms”) can also be harmful.
Competitiveness. No doubt a proneness to always compete can sometimes have problematic results, such as less competitive individuals (of any sex) getting run over. The male competitiveness is none the less a trait that has led to a lot of good. If men throughout history hadn’t competed with one another trying to create the fastest airplane, the safest car, the most energy efficient light bulb, the most viable crop or the grooviest rock song, where would that have left humanity…?
Being able to handle feedback. From very young years boys and men are taught to handle verbal jabs. Hanging out with the boys is often a quite constant game of King of the Hill, where points are awarded both for elegantly delivered challenges and stoically endured humiliations. This forms a male communication style that is direct and to the point, where men rarely have problems handling tough discussions face to face. The downside is the risk of hurting others by being overly tough in one’s discussion style, but on the other hand one’s career will likely benefit from both directness and being able to “brush it off”.
Confidence. Men are molded to believe in themselves, or at least to act like if they do. Taught confidence can definitely have malign expressions such as arrogance and overestimating one’s ability, but it is also a trait that contributes to both individual and societal gain. The difference between facing a new challenge with “I’ve never done that before, it’ll be fun to learn how to master it!” or by “I’ve never done that before, I’ll likely fail miserably at it” ought to be obvious. Sometimes a cause for fatal misjudgments, but more often a success factor.
Emotional stability. There are studies that show that men in heterosexual relationships normally know more about their female partner’s worries and concerns than the other way around. It is also quite common that men suppress their own troubles in purpose of sparing their partners emotional worry. The obvious downside of this is that men put their own mental health at risk, as being the supporting pillar no doubt equals more emotional wear and tear than being the one who can lean on it. The upside (for the individual male) is found on the evolutionary arena, as women seem to prefer “silent and stable” men over emotionally fragile ones.
So, in summary: The individual differences between men are naturally noticeable, but any trait common enough to be labelled as “typically masculine” are hardly one-sided malign. Conventional, normative masculinity is neither good nor bad, but holds traits with effects that vary from one context to another.
Hence, if someone claims that “masculinity needs to be problematized, as it is destructive” that equals claiming a majority of the traits and behaviors displayed by a majority of men are more malign then benign. Though this view is fully allowed, it is hardly realistic nor especially constructive…
I should probably conclude that none of the above means that one cannot (and perhaps sometimes should) criticize specific aspects of normative masculinity, or certain behaviors that seem to be more common among men. (This obviously goes also for any typically “female” behaviors.) Even though neither conventional masculinity not ditto femininity is inherently malign, there is still a point to widening the gender norms so that more behaviors and individual personalities would pass as socially acceptable.