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From the new book "Outdated," a look at our very dated ideas of masculinity and how they hurt our relationships and sex lives.

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While Rosin is right to question evolutionary psychology and its sweeping generalizations about “natural” characteristics in men and women that have worked to establish the foundation for men’s and women’s roles in society, she still gets caught in the gender essentialism trap. The assumption that certain skills are for women and others are for men ignores how men and women are socialized to excel in certain roles. We are taught from a very young age that certain skills and characteristics are masculine while others are feminine, and then we are pummeled with constant messaging based on our sex as to which of these roles we should be fulfilling.

The problem with the “masculinity crisis” is not that women have excelled too much and therefore created a crisis for men, but that we have such a strong inability to let go of what it has traditionally meant to be a man. In response to Rosin’s piece, Ann Friedman at The American Prospect writes, “She thinks the problem is men; really, it’s traditional gender stereotypes. The narrow, toxic definition of masculinity perpetuated by Rosin and others—that men are brawn not brains, doers not feelers, earners not nurturers—is actually to blame for the crisis.” As long as we perpetuate the myth that men have inherent qualities that make them more suitable than women for certain types of work, the shifting nature of the economy (and women’s attainment of better and better jobs) is going to continue to be interpreted as a crisis of masculinity.

Lest you think this crisis in masculinity is new, think again. In her newest book, A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, Stephanie Coontz finds multiple points in history where a masculinity crisis arose. In an interview, she told Salon’s Tracy Clark-Flory, “People have been proclaiming a ‘masculinity crisis’ since the 1890s and, actually, it’s very interesting that when you go back to the 1940s and ’50s, a lot of the vitriol directed at women was because they thought there was a ‘masculinity crisis’ at that time. The idea was that domineering women in the home were expecting too much of their husbands and were driving them to work too many hours.” What Coontz describes is not so different from what we’re seeing today, in that it’s women’s emancipation and supposed lack of reliance on or need for men’s support that have called into question the very definition of masculinity.

The truth is that masculinity has been in crisis for a long time, but it has nothing to do with women being threatening. It has to do with the fact that masculinity is a constructed fallacy to begin with. Men and women have always worked together in multiple, creative, and diverse ways for survival and convenience. Gender roles have shifted throughout history depending on political, economic, and social circumstances, and despite this the push for traditional gender roles has prevailed.

What it means to be a man also varies across race and class. Historically, working-class women have always had to work, and men from disenfranchised backgrounds (gay, immigrant, men of color, incarcerated populations, differently abled, trans) have never benefited from the privileges of being a conventional man. Yes, masculinity has been in crisis for a long time, but it’s only now starting to be paid attention to because it’s impacting middle-class white men.

And what are the subliminal messages we’re sending out when we propagate the message that female success is ruining traditional ideas of masculinity? It suggests that women should stay in “their place.” It suggests that women should have not been given access to jobs and education, as this disrupts normal ideals of masculinity. And it suggests that the only way men can feel comfortable is when women are inferior to them. The rhetoric also assumes that in order to be a man you must be better than a woman, echoing traditional ideas of masculinity that are predicated on the belief that men are superior to women.

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