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The Distorted Idea That the So-Called "Masculinity Crisis" Is Caused by Successful Women

From the new book "Outdated," a look at our very dated ideas of masculinity and how they hurt our relationships and sex lives.

From the book  Outdated: Why Dating is Ruining Your Love Life  by Samhita Mukhopadhyay.  Excerpted by arrangement with Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group.  Copyright (c) 2011.

When we buy into the idea that female and male are “opposites,” it becomes impossible for us to empower women without either ridiculing men or pulling the rug out from under ourselves.

—Julia Serano, Whipping Girl

In the summer of 2010, Cee-Lo’s hit song “Fuck You!” hit the airwaves. The song is a bitter testimonial from Cee-Lo about a girl who broke his heart by leaving him for another man because he wasn’t rich enough. The “fuck you” is mainly directed at the new boyfriend, but also to his ex. This song became a sort of national anthem for young men who were bitter about not being “man enough” to be with the women they wanted to be with. It became intensely popular, and with it came commentary (well, at least on Facebook) about how it was about time men speak out on their feelings of inadequacy about women, money, and romance. This declaration seemed justified given how much pressure men feel to provide in relationships (and given the state of the economy in 2010). It appeared more than ever that men were bitter about the pressure they’re under to be a “man” today.

According to the mainstream media, masculinity is in a state of crisis. Men are not “men” anymore, because women are not “women” anymore. Women today go to college, have their own apartments, jobs, and their own money; they are no longer reliant on men for their financial needs (hypothetically). Meanwhile, the expectation for men to be the primary breadwinner, while unrealistic, is still encoded in our culture. These two competing stories, one of women’s empowerment and the other of men being chivalrous manly men, have been characterized as a crisis, not of gender essentialism, but of manliness itself. The shift in actual gender disparity is quite slim, but the media circus that makes much ado about the whole thing would have you believing that men are the ultimate underdogs. As a result, men are receiving competing messages about what it means to be a man today, and the side effects include everything from anger and resentment to alienation and disaffectedness.

According to The American Heritage Dictionary, masculinity describes someone or something that possesses characteristics normally associated with males and can be “used to describe any human, animal, or object that has the quality of being masculine.” Note that the dictionary definition asserts that there is a normal way to be male, but it does not make the mistake of connecting being male with being masculine.

We’re all familiar with the standard understanding of masculinity. When we tell someone to “man up,” we are drawing from conventional ideas of what it means to be a man—to be strong, unwavering, chivalrous, independent, together, and courageous. While none of these are bad characteristics, they suggest that masculinity is based on strength while femininity is based on weakness, ultimately limiting the way men and women are allowed to act and implying that those who act outside these norms are misfits, freaks, or, at the very best, outliers.

Only when we understand that masculinity, like femininity, is something we are taught, can we come to terms with the ways in which masculinity is socially constructed. Male-identified folks are hurt by unfair expectations to “be a man,” and this form of gender essentialism is harmful across the board. The insistence to be a “man” and act in ways that are propagated by conventional ideas of manhood is implicated with violence (think bullying, prisons, sports, the military), repression (chastising little boys for liking “girly” things), and unfair expectations (men always have to pay, etc.) and often results in violence (intimate partner violence, sexual assault, etc.).

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