A New Vision of Masculinity
Published originally in Changing Men, Spring 1985, and reprinted in many other journals and
books, including New Men, New Minds, edited by Franklin Abbott, Crossing Press, 1987 and
Race, Class, and Gender in the United States, edited by Paula S. Rothenberg, Worth Publishers,
I was once asked by a teacher in a suburban high school to give a guest presentation on male
roles. She hoped that I might help her deal with four boys who exercised extraordinary control
over their classmates. Using ridicule and their status as physically imposing athletes, these four
wrestlers had succeeded in stifling the participation of the other boys, who were reluctant to
make comments in class discussions.
As a class we talked about the ways in which boys got status in that school and how others put
them down. I was told that the most humiliating put-down was being called a “fag.” The list of
behaviors which could elicit ridicule filled two large chalkboards, and it was detailed and
comprehensive; I got the sense that a boy in this school had to conform to rigid, standards of
masculinity to avoid being called a fag. I, too, felt this pressure and became very conscious of my
mannerisms in front of the group.
I decided to test the seriousness of what they had told me. Since one of the four boys had some
streaks of pink in his shirt, and since he had told me that wearing pink was grounds for being
called a fag, I told him that I thought he was a fag. Instead of laughing, he said, “I’m going to kill
Such is the stereotypic definition of strength that is associated with masculinity. But it is a very
limited definition of strength, one based on dorninance and control and acquired through the
humiliation and degradation of others.
Contrast this with a view of strength offered by Pam McAllister in her introduction to the book
Reweaving the Web of Life:
The “Strength” card in my Tarot deck depicts, not a warrior going off to battle
with his armor and his mighty sword, but a woman stroking a lion. The woman
has not slain the lion nor maced it, not netted it, not has she put on it a muzzle or a
leash. And though the lion clearly has teeth and long sharp claws, the woman is
not hiding, nor has she sought a protector, not has she grown muscles. She doesn’t
appear to be talking to the lion nor flattering it, nor tossing it fresh meat to distract
its hungry jaws.
The woman on the “Strength” card wears a flowing white dress and a garland of
flowers. With one band she cups the lion’s jaws, with the other she caresses its
nose. The lion on the card has big yellow eyes and a long red tongue curling out of
its mouth. One paw is lifted and the mane falls in thick red curls across its broad
torso. The woman. The lion. Together they depict strength.
This image of strength stands in direct contrast to the strength embodied in the actions of the four
wrestlers. The collective strength of the woman and the lion is strength unknown in a system of
traditional male values. Other human qualities are equally foreign to a traditional conception of
In workshops I’ve offered on the male role stereotype, teachers and other school personnel easily
generate lists of attitudes and behaviors which boys typically seem not to learn. Included in this
list are being supportive and nurturing, accepting one’s vulnerability and being able to ask for
help, valuing women and “women’s work,” understanding and expressing emotions (except for
anger), the ability to empathize with and empower other people, and learning to resolve conflict
in nonaggressive, noncompetitive ways.
All of this should come as no surprise. Traditional definitions of masculinity include attributes
such as independence, pride, resiliency, self-control, and physical strength. This is precisely the
image of the Marlboro man, and to some extent, these are desirable attributes for boys and girls.
But masculinity goes beyond these qualities to stress competitiveness, toughness, aggressiveness,
and power. In this context, threats to one’s status, however small, cannot be avoided or taken
lightly. If a boy is called a fag, it means that he is perceived as weak or timid, and therefore not
masculine enough for his peers. There is enormous pressure for him to fight back. Not being
tough at these moments only proves the allegation.
Violence is learned not just as a way for boys to defend allegations that they are feminized, but as
an effective, appropriate way for them to normally behave. In “The Civic Advocacy of Violence”
[M. magazine, Spring 1982] Wayne Ewing writes,
I used to think that we simply tolerated and permitted male abusiveness in our
society. I have now come to understand rather, that we advocate physical violence.
Violence is presented as effective. Violence is taught as the normal, appropriate
and necessary behavior of power and control. Analyses, which interweave
advocacy of male violence with “SuperBowl Culture”, have never been refuted.
Civic expectations – translated into professionalism, financial commitments, city
planning for recreational space, the raising of male children for competitive spot
the corporate ethics of business ownership of athletic teams, profiteering on
entertainment – all result in the monument of the National Football League,
symbol and reality at once of the advocacy of violence.
Ultimately, violence is the tool which maintains what I believe are the two most critical
socializing forces in a boy’s life: homophobia – the hatred of gay men (who are stereotyped as
feminine) or those men believed to be gay, as well as the fear of being perceived as gay; and
misogyny – the hatred of women. The two forces are targeted at different classes of victims, but
they are really just the flip sides of the same coin. Homophobia is the hatred of feminine qualities
in men while misogyny is the hatred of feminine qualities in women.
The boy who is called a fag is the target of other boys’ homophobia as well as the victim of his
own homophobia. While the overt message is the absolute need to avoid being feminized, the
implication is that females, and all that they traditionally represent, are contemptible. The United
States Marines have a philosophy, which conveniently combines homophobia and misogyny in
the belief that “When you want to create a group of male killers, you kill ‘the woman’ in them.”
The pressures of homophobia and misogyny in boys’ lives have been poignantly demonstrated to
me each time that I have repeated a simple yet provocative activity with students. I ask them to
answer the question, “If you woke up tomorrow and discovered that you were the opposite sex
from the one you are now, how would you and your life be different?” Girls consistently indicate
that there are clear advantages to being a boy, from increased independence and career
opportunities to decreased risks of physical and sexual assault, and eagerly answer the question.
But boys often express disgust at this possibility and even refuse sometimes to answer the
question. In her reports of a broad-based survey using this question, Alice Baumgartner reports
the following responses as typical of boys: “If I were a girl, I’d be stupid and weak as a string;” “I
would have to wear makeup, cook, be a mother, and yucky stuff like that;” “I would have to hate
snakes. Everything would be miserable;” “If I were a girl, I’d kill myself.”
The Costs of Masculinity
The costs associated with a traditional view of masculinity are enormous and the damage occurs
at both personal and societal levels. The belief that a boy should tough (aggressive, competitive,
and daring) can create emotional and physical pain for him. While a few boys experience
short-term success for their toughness, there is little security in the long run. Instead, it leads to a
series of challenges which few, if any, boys ultimately win. There is no security in being at the
top when so many other boys are competing for the same status. Toughness also leads to
increased chances of stress, physical injury, and even early death. It is considered manly to take
extreme physical risks and voluntarily engage in combative, hostile activities.
The flip side of toughness – nurturance – is not a quality perceived as masculine and thus not
valued. Because of this, boys and men experience a greater emotional distance from other people
and few opportunities to participate in meaningful interpersonal relationships. Studies
consistently show that fathers spend relatively small amounts of time interacting with their own
children. In addition, men report that they seldom have intimate relationships with other men,
reflecting their own homophobia. They are afraid of getting too close and don’t know how to take
down the walls that they have built between themselves.
As boys grow older and accept adult roles, the larger social costs of masculinity clearly emerge.
Most women experience male resistance to an expansion of women’s roles; one of the
assumptions of traditional masculinity is the belief that women should be subordinate to men.
The consequence is that men are often not willing to accept females as equal, competent partners
in personal and professional settings. Whether the setting is a sexual relationship, the family, the
streets, or the battlefield, men are continuously engaged in efforts to dominate. Statistics on child
abuse consistently indicate that the vast majority of abusers are men, and that there is no “typical”
abuser. Rape may be the fastest growing crime in the United States. And it is men, regardless of
nationality, who provoke and sustain war. In short, traditional masculinity is life threatening.
New Socialization for Boys
Masculinity, like many other human traits, is determined by both biological and environmental
factors. While some believe that biological factors are significant in shaping some masculine
behavior, there is undeniable evidence that cultural and environmental factors are strong enough
to override biological impulses. What is it, then, that we should be teaching boys about being a
man in a modern world?
Boys need to learn to accept their vulnerability, learn to express a range of emotions such
as fear and sadness, and learn to ask for help and support in appropriate situations.
Boys need to learn to be gentle, nurturing, cooperative and communicative, and in
particular, learn nonviolent means of resolving conflicts.
Boys need to learn to accept those attitudes and behaviors which have traditionally been
labeled feminine as necessary for full human development. This is tantamount to teaching
boys to love other boys and girls.
Qualities like courage, physical strength, and independence, which are traditionally associated
with masculinity, are indeed positive qualities for males, provided that they are not manifested in
obsessive ways nor used to exploit or dominate others. It is not necessary to completely disregard
or unlearn what is traditionally called masculine. I believe, however, that the three areas above
are crucial for developing a broader view of masculinity, one which is healthier for all life.
These three areas are equally crucial for reducing aggressive, violent behavior among boys and
men. Males must learn to cherish life for the sake of their own wholeness as human beings not
just for their children, friends, and lovers. If males were more nurturing, they would be less likely
to hurt those they love.
Leonard Eron, writing in The American Psychologist, puts the issue of unlearning aggression and
learning nurturance in clear-cut terms:
Socialization is crucial in determining levels of aggression. No matter how
aggression is measured or observed, as group males always score higher than
females. But this is not true for all girls. There are some girls who seem to have
been socialized like boys who are just as aggressive as boys. Just as some females
can learn to be aggressive, males can learn not to be aggressive. If we want to
reduce the level of aggression in society, we should also discourage boys from
aggression very early on in life and reward them for other behaviors; in other
words, we should socialize boys more like girls, and boys should be encouraged to
develop socially positive qualities such as tenderness, cooperation, and aesthetic
appreciation. The level of individual aggression in society will be reduced only
when male adolescents and young adults, as a result of socialization, subscribe to
the same standards of behavior as have been traditionally encouraged for women.
Where will this change in socialization occur? In his first few years, most of a boy’s learning
about masculinity comes from the influences of parents, siblings and images of masculinity such
as those found on television. Massive efforts will be needed to make changes here. But at older
ages, school curriculum and the school environment provide powerful reinforcing images of
traditional masculinity. This reinforcement occurs through a variety of channels, including
curriculum content, role modeling, and extracurricular activities, especially competitive sports.
School athletics are a microcosm of the socialization of male values. While participation in
competitive activities can be enjoyable and healthy, it too easily becomes a lesson in the need for
toughness, invulnerability, and dominance. Athletes learn to ignore their own injuries and pain
and instead try to injure and inflict pain on others in their attempts to win, regardless of the cost
to themselves or their opponents, Yet the lessons learned in athletics are believed to be vital for
full and complete masculine development, and as a model for problem solving in other areas of
In addition to encouraging traditional male values, schools provide too few experiences in
nurturance, cooperation, negotiation, nonviolent conflict resolution, and strategies for
empathizing with and empowering others. Schools should become places where boys have the
opportunity to learn these skills; clearly, they won’t learn them on the street, frorn peers, or on
Setting New Examples
Despite the pressures on men to display their masculinity in traditional ways, there are examples
of men and boys who are changing. “Fathering” is one example of positive change. In recent
years, some men have become more involved in providing care to children, professionally and as
fathers. This is a clear shift from the more traditional view that child rearing should be delegated
to women and is not an appropriate activity for men.
For all of the male resistance it has generated, the Women’s Liberation Movement has at least
provided a stimulus for some men to accept women as equal partners in most areas of life. These
men have chosen to learn and grow from women’s experiences, and together with women, are
creating new norms for relationships. Popular literature and research on male sex roles is expanding,
reflecting a wider interest in masculinity. Weekly news magazines such as Time and
Newsweek have run major stories on the “new masculinity,” suggesting that positive changes are
taking place in the home and in the workplace. Small groups of men scattered around the country
have organized against pornography, battering, and sexual assault. Finally there is the National
Organization for Changing Men which has a pro-feminist, pro-gay, pro-“new man” agenda, and
its ranks are slowly growing.
In schools where I have worked with teachers, they report that years of efforts to enhance
educational opportunities for girls have also had some positive effects on boys. The boys seem
more tolerant of girls’ participation in coed sports activities and in traditionally male courses like
woodworking and auto mechanics. Some boys seem to have a greater respect for the
accomplishments of women through women’s contributions to literature and history. Among
elementary school aged males, the expression of vulnerable feelings is gaining acceptance. In
general, however, there has been far too little attention paid to redirecting male role development.
Boys Will Be Boys
I think back to the four wrestlers and the stifling culture of masculinity in which they live. If
schools were to radically alter this culture and substitute for it a new vision of masculinity, what
would that look like?
In this environment, boys would express a full range of behaviors and emotions without fear of
being chastised. They would be permitted and encouraged to cry, to be afraid, to show joy, and to
express love in a gentle fashion. Extreme concern for career goals would be replaced by a
consideration of one’s need for recreation, health, and meaningful work. Older boys would be
encouraged to tutor and play with younger students. Moreover, boys would receive as much
recognition for artistic talents as they do for athletics, and, in general, they would value
leisure-time, recreational activities as highly as competitive sports.
In a system where maleness and femaleness were equally valued, boys might no longer feel that
they have to prove themselves to other boys; they would simply accept the worth of each person
and value those differences. Boys would realize that it is permissible to admit failure. In addition,
they would seek out opportunities to learn from girls and women. Emotional support would be
commonplace, and it would no longer be seen as just the role of the female to provide the
support. Relationships between boys and girls would no longer be based on limited roles, but
instead would become expressions of two individuals learning from and supporting one another.
Relationships between boys would reflect their care for one another rather then their mutual fear
Aggressive styles of resolving conflicts would be the exception rather than the norm. Girls would
feel welcome in activities dominated by boys, knowing that they were safe from the threat of
being sexually harassed. Boys would no longer boast of beating up another boy or of how much
they “got off ” of a girl the night before. In fact, the boys would be as outraged as the girls at rape
or other violent crimes in the community. Finally, boys would become active in efforts to stop
nuclear proliferation and all other forms of military violence, following the examples set by
The development of a new conception of masculinity based on this vision is an ambitious task,
but one which is essential for the health and safety of both men and women. The survival of our
society may rest on the degree to which we are able to teach men to cherish life.