If it is sometimes hard to be a woman, being a man is hardly a walk in the park either. Men die earlier than women, are more likely to be murdered and are increasingly underperforming in education. The percentage of bachelor’s degrees awarded to women in the US, for example, is now higher than that awarded to men in 1972, when the federal government passed the Title IX laws to promote gender equality.
These problems are long-standing—but the situation for men seems to have worsened recently. According to survey data, male unhappiness has increased over the past 50 years: a period that has coincided in the west with a decline in the heavy industries that offered well-paid jobs to men without tertiary education (manufacturing has fallen from 32% to 8% of non-agricultural employment in the US, for example) and an increasing number of men have dropped out of the labour force altogether. Men on low or irregular incomes do not make attractive life partners, so the age of first marriage for men has risen steadily, as has the percentage of those who have never married. Along with fewer jobs and fewer marital prospects, men also have fewer friends. Little wonder so many of us are unhappy.
Some people attribute the increase in male unhappiness not to societal changes but to men’s beliefs about themselves—especially the cluster of values that characterise what they see as toxic masculinity. In this reading, it is not so much what has happened to men that has caused their unhappiness, but how they have reacted to what has happened.
In 2019, the American Psychological Association issued its first ever Guidelines for Working with Men and Boys, in which the writers argue that “traditional masculinity—marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression—is, on the whole, harmful.” According to the authors, this is not due to any innate problem with men: it is a result of the “way many men have been brought up.” If the male of the species has been installed with sub-optimal mental software, to solve the problem we just need to upload another operating system, encoded with values more traditionally associated with women, such as being more emotionally open and more focused on family than on work. Instead of asking, like Henry Higgins, “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?” we should seek to make men more like women. As Idrees Kahloon has recently put it, “Masculinity is fragile; it’s also malleable.”
The problem with this approach is that the values and beliefs that are under scrutiny have been around for far longer than the phenomena they are being used to explain. Stoicism in the formal, philosophical sense dates to c.300 BC, while in its more colloquial, stiff upper lip meaning associated with British public schools, stoicism was already fashionable in the 1800s. If it were truly the source of men’s problems, we should expect to see evidence of widespread male unhappiness earlier in history. The best we can say is that these values might have become maladaptive due to societal changes. This implies that, were society to revert to an earlier form—by, for example, restoring domestic manufacturing industries—they would once again become more desirable.
Every reformation invites a counter-reformation. The men’s rights movement has arisen over the past decades to challenge what it views as a society increasingly biased against men. Citing statistics such as those above, together with other phenomena, such as the preference granted to mothers in child custody cases, the activists argue that the underlying problem is not men or our belief systems, but a world that no longer values our unique attributes. Rather than seeing men as women with faulty programming, to men’s right activists, the sexes are, as Christina Hoff Sommers puts it, “equal but different.”
Like every campaign, the men’s rights movement has attracted its fair share of bad actors, many of whom have veered from championing men to attacking women, but it is not unreasonable to simply ask, as many of their more moderate advocates do, whether male nature may play a part in men’s difficulties in adapting to the modern world, rather than all men’s difficulties being the result of errors in nurture, as their opponents contend.
There are certainly grounds for believing that there are fundamental differences between the two sexes. Much of the current controversy over transwomen athletes is based on the well-evidenced proposition that those born with male bodies perform better than natal females do in most sporting events. There is a consistent 10% gap between men’s and women’s records in track events, for example. Whether or not she was guilty of doping, Florence Griffith Joyner’s world record for the 100 m has been unbeaten by any female rival since 1988. But in 2017 alone, 744 men bettered it.
The hypothesis that men tend to be more interested in things, women in people has been proven to have a large effect size by a recent meta-analysis. It has also been observed in rhesus monkeys so may well be rooted in biology. This difference is thought to explain the gender equality paradox—whereby, as countries become freer, the sexes increasingly sort themselves into stereotypical professions. Typically male occupations such as manufacturing, which are less reliant on face-to-face contact, have been the first casualties of automatization and globalisation.
There are reasonable grounds for believing that there are differences between men and women, then, and that men have been more negatively impacted by the changing structure of western societies. But is traditional masculinity also being actively devalued?
The term toxic masculinity seems to have first appeared in the 1980s, during the New Age movement. Rather than seek to remake men, however, the New Agers sought to return to what they regarded as a more authentic, tribal masculinity, which had been erased by modern industrial society. According to Google trends, it was not until the late 2010s that the term acquired its most recent meaning and attracted a surge of global attention. Since then, there have been many books with titles like The Trouble With Men and The Problem With Men—a phenomenon likely to make some men feel that we are under attack.
While male directors still dominate the global box office, typically masculine films are no longer common in cinemas. According to data compiled by Deepak Mehta, war films and westerns—genres aimed primarily at male audiences—were among the twenty highest grossing movies in every decade up until the 1970s. Since then, the only blockbuster film of this kind has been 1998’s Saving Private Ryan. Films no longer present heroic narratives of recognisably everyday men rising to extraordinary circumstances. Instead, the Marvel and DC universes present tales of fantastic beings with superhuman powers. Male stars are increasingly identical looking—well-groomed and well-built—by contrast to the range of male types in the golden age of Hollywood. Actors such as George Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio may be the modern-day analogues of suave charmers like Cary Grant, but few modern stars embody the rugged, devil-may-care individualism of Humphrey Bogart or Steve McQueen.
It is perhaps not so much masculinity per se that is being devalued, but certain types of masculinity. Both feminists and men’s rights activists still value males—but only if they conform to their respective desired stereotypes. Those in the manosphere argue that only alpha males are real men, while those on the opposite side believe that the ideal man should show his vulnerability. This may suit those who fit perfectly into one or other category, but it does little for those who do not. It is ironic that, at the same time as our conception of femininity has expanded—so that a woman can be considered authentically feminine whether she is a stay-at-home mother or a scientist—our conception of authentic masculinity remains restricted to two diametrically opposed modes.
But men are every bit as complex as women and as we narrow the responses we consider authentically male, those who react differently will increasingly feel left out and devalued and become vulnerable to the rhetoric of misogynistic extremists.
Of course, not all aspects of masculinity are positive, nor are all typically male behaviours socially acceptable—but we need to recognise that a wide range of male attributes are useful: we sleep safely in our beds, after all, only because rough men stand ready to do violence on our behalf, as George Orwell is often (wrongly) thought to have put it. Previous societies attempted to solve the problem of how to harness male aggression for productive ends by introducing codes of behaviour, such as chivalry, which encouraged men to behave well in public, while allowing society to benefit from their unique propensity to violence. In his 1884 book, La Chevalerie, historian Léon Gautier summarises the “10 commandments” of the system as including such prosocial doctrines as “respect all weaknesses and make yourself a protector of them” and “Be generous and give largesse to everyone,” as well as the more martial “Make war against the infidel without cease.”
Unlike modern thinkers, who often praise men solely for characteristics traditionally seen as female, in the Middle Ages, masculine traits were also prized and rewarded. In our far more peaceful modern world, swordsmanship is less in demand, but we might ascribe more value to occupations that skew overwhelmingly male and that cater to the male sex’s preference for things over people and be more appreciative of people like car mechanics and plumbers. During the pandemic, we were encouraged to clap for nurses (84% of whom are female)—but without lorry drivers (97% of whom are male), we would all have starved.
We are all unique individuals with a variety of talents and predispositions. Rather than seeking to narrow our conception of desirable masculinity to a single authentic way of supposedly being a real man, we should recognise that men exist on a spectrum. We do need to set boundaries to male behaviour, but within those boundaries, we should recognise that there are many acceptable types of masculinity.