Don’t blame feminism for the Man-Child archetype: an analysis of masculinity

Sexual Health 8 years ago (2012) Barbara
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I am sick of sensationalist media pinning the perceived emasculation of men on women. I’m sick of reading articles that pin the blame on successful women, as if life is a zero-sum game in which one group winning means another group is losing. We see many pop-psychology articles about the man-child archetype, which blame women for making too much money and taking all the jobs. As a die-hard feminist, for the longest time I didn’t believe there was any emasculation going on to begin with. Even if men were being babies about women succeeding, it sure as hell isn’t my fault, or the fault of other women. But a recent literature review led me to a new hypothesis: there is very real emasculation going on in our society, but it stems from insidious cultural attitudes about the role of masculinity.

To be sure, there has been excellent discussion about new ideas about masculinity. I’m looking at you, No Seriously, What About Teh Menz. But I think that somewhere along the line of liberating women, society got the idea that masculinity is bad. All of it. Even the things that men prided themselves on—like responsibility, respect, kindness and dignity. I want to take this opportunity to draw a distinction between positive masculinity and negative masculinity.

Take, for example, research on the culture of machismo in Mexican and Mexican-American relationships. Historically, it has been believed that endorsement of machismo is pathological and detrimental to marital satisfaction; however, those who believe in traditional gender roles have also been found to have high marital satisfaction (Pardo et al., 2012). Research has shown that endorsement of machismo by husbands and wives is more nuanced than previously thought. While endorsement of positive machismo (traits such as loyalty, responsibility, respect, and dignity) has been found to be a predictor of marital satisfaction for both husbands and wives, the same is not true of negative machismo (masculine traits associated with dominance, control, manipulation and self-centeredness) (Pardo et al., 2012). Though men that endorse positive machismo positively predict high marital satisfaction for both themselves and their wives (and vice versa), male endorsers of negative machismo are not as highly correlated with marital satisfaction. Furthermore, when wives endorse negative machismo qualities, it is predicted that their partners will be less satisfied with their relationship (Pardo et al., 2012).

It seems as though the positive aspects of masculinity provide communal support to relationships, while the more excessive dominance and paternalism of the negative aspects of masculinity contribute to stress on the relationship and perhaps may even be more psychologically demanding on the male. Specifically, when a female partner has expectations for the male to be more domineering, protective, and stoic, it particularly affects the relationship satisfaction of the male. Overall, Sibley and Tan (2011) found that as men endorse patriarchal attitudes, there is increased resistance by both members to sharing power and decision-making within a relationship. This is a clear indicator that traditional masculinity can lead to increased friction and be detrimental to relationships.

Indeed, research indicates that men who endorse positive machismo beliefs such as gentleness and kindness were more in touch with their feelings, were better able to empathize, and had higher life satisfaction than men who endorsed traditional machismo beliefs (Pardo et al., 2012). Though these specific findings were from Mexican-American culture, there is evidence that this distinction between positive and negative masculinity is apparent in American men as well.

The extensive research on video games and violence provides an indicator that there is a clear distinction in the effects of beliefs in positive and negative masculinity in the United States. It has been widely shown that video games can increase aggression responses in players (Anderson et al., 2010). However, Thomas and Levanson (2012) found that exposure to violent video games only predicted increases in aggression for males that endorsed traditional masculine ideology; for males that did not endorse traditional masculinity, there was no relationship between violent video game exposure and aggression. Though this example does not directly relate to personal relationships, the connection between dimensions of masculinity and the positive and negative outcomes that relate from them are clear. Thomas and Levanson’s results, indicate that—in contrast to negative masculinity—the key to mental well-being and resiliency in men is emphasis on the positive aspects of masculinity; responsibility, respect, dignity (Kiselica and Englar-Carlson, 2010).

It becomes clear then, how negative masculinity is bad. No one wants a partner who is domineering, controlling, and self-absorbed. Still, it’s as if we’ve decided that masculinity is wholly bad, and decided to chuck everything about it. So now, instead of embracing positive masculinity (which are qualities anyone should try to cultivate—male or female) we’re struggling through a time where men don’t know what it is to be men anymore, and have lost touch with their more positive qualities.  Enter the archetype of the Man-Child that we hear so much about in sensationalist media;  it is my belief (and I’ll be looking out for this in future research) that the Man-Child is the incarnation of a guy who has abdicated all responsibility and chooses instead to lead a self-absorbed existence devoid of the values one must develop in order to become a well-adjusted man, and adult. As I mentioned earlier, positive psychology has highlighted the increases in well-being that men develop when presented with a set of positive masculinity values to cultivate within themselves. Responsibility, respect, and dignity are the core values observed here. Instead of ditching everything about masculinity, let’s all as a culture take some time to think about all the good and bad that comes with it—and choose for ourselves which aspects benefit us as a group, and as individuals.

For Further Reading:

  •   Addis, M. E., & Schwab, J. R. (2012). Theory and Research on Gender Are Always Precarious. Psychology of Men & Masculinity. doi:10.1037/a0030960
  • Anderson, C. A., Shibuya, A., Ihori, N., Swing, E. L., Bushman, B. J., Sakamoto, A., … Saleem, M. (2010). Violent video game effects on aggression, empathy, and prosocial behavior in Eastern and Western countries: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin136(2), 151–173. doi:10.1037/a0018251
  • Arciniega, G. M., Anderson, T. C., Tovar-Blank, Z. G., & Tracey, T. J. G. (2008). Toward a fuller conception of Machismo: Development of a traditional Machismo and Caballerismo Scale. Journal of Counseling Psychology55(1), 19–33. doi:10.1037/0022-0167.55.1.19
  •   Kiselica, M. S., & Englar-Carlson, M. (2010). Identifying, affirming, and building upon male strengths: The positive psychology/positive masculinity model of psychotherapy with boys and men. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training47(3), 276–287. doi:10.1037/a0021159
  •   Pardo, Y., Weisfeld, C., Hill, E., & Slatcher, R. B. (2012). Machismo and Marital Satisfaction in Mexican American Couples. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology. doi:10.1177/0022022112443854
  •   Thomas, K. D., & Levant, R. F. (2012). Does the Endorsement of Traditional Masculinity Ideology Moderate the Relationship Between Exposure to Violent Video Games and Aggression? The Journal of Men’s Studies20(1), 47–56. doi:10.3149/jms.2001.47
  • Vandello, J. A., & Bosson, J. K. (2012). Hard Won and Easily Lost: A Review and Synthesis of Theory and Research on Precarious Manhood. Psychology of Men & Masculinity. doi:10.1037/a0029826
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