The Masculine Mystique Still at Large in America

“This is a generation that is living increasingly without purpose or place, without meaning, without direction….It is the calamity of our age that so few men feel a sense of purpose anymore!”

Josh Hawley, Conservative Blowhard  

While I usually write about the pernicious effects of sexism and racism, it’s clear that American men are facing their own crisis—and we’re all suffering for it. 

Before I begin, please note that this does not detract from the real oppression of women, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community. The scourges of the patriarchy, white supremacy, and homophobia still run rampant in this country. I’ve just usually overlooked the related difficulties modern men face.

Seen in New Orleans (2015)

I recently finished a book called Of Boys and Men by Richard V. Reeves, a senior fellow of the Brookings Institution and president of the American Institute for Boys and Men. He examined how men are falling behind academically, professionally, and socially in our country. 

The bottom line was this: women’s opportunities, expected roles, and accomplishments have expanded in the past few decades while many men have been left feeling redundant, rudderless, and lonely. In a world where women are assuming leadership not only in the traditional domestic sphere but also in higher education and breadwinning, many straight men are left wondering where these changes leave them.

Men still hold the vast majority of the world’s wealth and power—in 2020, there were more male CEOs in the S&P 500 named Michael or James than there were total female CEOs—but there are some foreboding signs for history’s dominant sex:

  • Men in the U.S. are roughly four times as likely to commit suicide as women
  • The life expectancy gap between men and women ballooned from 4.8 years in 2010 to 5.8 years in 2021—this has been attributed to higher rates of Covid and drug overdose fatalities
  • Forty-six percent of women ages 25 to 34 hold bachelor’s degrees, while only 36 percent of men do
  • Young men are more likely to live with their parents than young women
  • Fifteen percent of men say they have “no close friends”

Let’s step into a young man’s shoes: it can’t be easy to feel that you’re blamed for all of society’s ills. Sure, straight white men have made the world go tits up, burying us in wars, colonialism, predatory capitalism, religious fundamentalism, mass shootings, and other absolute fuckwittage. 

But we aren’t getting anywhere by finger-wagging at one generalized group—the backlash to our anti-sexist (and anti-racist) backlash is only deepening the divides. I believe white men are misled in referring to “reverse racism” or “reverse sexism,” but we should examine the kernels of injustice in our treatment of historical oppressors.

Censuring white men and boys for everything pushes many of them into extremism—the success of men like pseudo-academic lobster-lover Jordan Peterson and arrogant douche-nozzle Andrew Tate isn’t a coincidence. They appeal to young men who have been shoved to the fringes by our collective blame, not to mention the enchanting algorithms of profit-hungry tech companies that ignite our baser instincts and grievances.

If I’m casting aspersions at men and blaming everything on them, what about the loving, nurturing blokes just trying to get by? Or the boys who are still learning what it means to be man? 

Many lost men reflexively blame women or people of color for losing their assumed status as leaders and providers. They feel demonized for “being men,” and although many wouldn’t admit it, they’re lonely as fuck.

Reeves admonishes the Left and the Right for their misguided assessments of this situation: the Left hasn’t been sensitive to the unique challenges men and boys face amidst so much rapid social change, and the Right simply wants to return to traditional patriarchy. I agree with Reeves on this: men and women are different, and our institutions and culture need to learn to support the unique needs of folks no matter who they are. We can recognize differences without pathologizing them.

Think about how Americans frame masculinity and femininity. Even in my equity-minded gut, I’d find it absurd to seek out role models for “femininity.” Being feminine isn’t fundamental to my identity—in fact, the term “femininity” has overtones of submissiveness, sexualization, and self-objectification. It feels like an agenda pushed by conservatives who want to maintain traditional gender roles. To be feminine in this country is to be gawked at, belittled, ignored, gaslighted, or disparaged. Just ask a “feminine” man.

But there’s another side of femininity that should be more widely respected and emulated: vulnerability, empathy, collaboration, compassion, and nurturing are fundamental to humanity and ideals to which I aspire. 

That said, compared to women’s mixed relationship with feminine ideals, masculinity still feels central to the way most cis-gendered American men perceive themselves. Further, men are more inclined to listen to other men (rather than women) and to care about their opinions. Denying that men feel this way isn’t helpful. 

One of the problems is that women have fought hard for their novel opportunities in school and work, while men haven’t been as eager to assume a greater share of traditionally feminine responsibilities: childrearing, house chores, emotional self-work, or employment in growing HEAL occupations (healthcare, education, administration, literacy). 

Men might be reluctant to become teachers, nurses, home health aides, physician assistants, or vet techs due to the more “feminine nature” of caretaking, but they will miss out on work opportunities as a result. 

Men might be reluctant to be stay-at-home dads, but with evermore women becoming primary breadwinners, this is a missed opportunity to raise their own children. 

Men might be reluctant to share their emotional truths, cry, or go to therapy, but modern women want to date mature men who aren’t stuck in 20th-century ideals of stoic masculinity. 

Overall, men are the gatekeepers for their own growth and need to adapt to the changing society and economy. 

Women have created larger, more meaningful lives for themselves—and men can do this, too. Since masculinity still seems essential to the identities of so many straight men, it’s worth examining what it means to be a man in this country. For example, who do American men look up to? Who are their role models? 

The twisted binary that championed men over women for so long is collapsing under a long-needed correction, a rebalancing—and I believe that is why so many American men feel lost. It was up to women to finally excel at work and school, and it’s up to men to be accountable for their own evolution with the times.

One Reply to “The Masculine Mystique Still at Large in America”

  1. When I started teaching in the 90s, everyone was worried about the girls. When I retired in 2015, there was a 180-degree shift and unexpected growing concern regarding boys. Along with this change has come much opportunity for everyone, and as you said, “it’s up to men to be accountable for their own evolution with the times.” Thanks for your clarity in a hazy world, J.J.!

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