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Men & Masculinities 101: A History and Overview of Men's Studies

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The first inclusion of our new monthly series: Men & Masculinities 101. These brief posts are designed to provide an overview of a variety of entry-level topics in the field of men and masculinities.

The field of Men’s Studies developed out of the field of Women’s Studies in the 1970s. Women’s Studies emphasized the impact of gender on the human experience. With the growth of this field, researchers and scholars thus began to question how being a man impacts the experiences of men. The empirical study of men’s gendered experiences, however, has been faced with criticism; some argue that since men are the historically dominant gender, there is less of a need to study their experiences. In face of these claims, Kilmartin and Smiler (2015) emphasize four important reasons to study men: 1) while “men-as-a-group” have great social power, there are many men who have been harmed by traditional and harsh masculine socialization, 2) Men’s Studies addresses how men react to women’s advancement in society and can be used to gain understanding about male pushback to feminist ideals of gender equity, 3) Men’s Studies allows us to address quality of life issues that impact both men and women, such as gender-based violence, and 4) men experience a variety of unique issues rooted in their experience of their gender and masculinity that impact their health and well-being. They conclude, simply and precisely, “all is not well with men” (p. 4).

Men’s Studies is innately tied to masculinity, the set of attributes viewed as characteristic of men. Perceived threats to men’s masculinity and violations of masculinity, when men fail to behave in ways that are considered masculine, are socially punished, and because of how ingrained concepts of gender roles are in Western culture, greatly contribute to the key issues Men’s Studies seeks to address (Heilman & Wallen, 2010; Moss-Racusin et al., 2010). Due to the various repercussions that accompany violating gender roles in the U.S., masculinity can also be conceptualized as a set of “rules” men adhere to to avoid unpleasant social or emotional outcomes (Kilmartin & Smiler, 2015). Robert Brannon (1985) famously described four tenets of traditional masculinity in the U.S.: 1) antifemininity, 2) status and achievement, 3) inexpressiveness and independence, and 4) adventurousness and aggressiveness. Several scholars have noted that tenets 2-4 are extensions of the first tenet, antifemininity, as they describe characteristics or traits that juxtapose those traditionally associated with femininity or womanhood (Kilmartin & Smiler, 2015).

Masculinity and Men’s Studies is situated in the context of patriarchy, or a system where societal power is retained by men-as-a-group. However, it is important to note that not all men hold this power equally. In fact, men-as-a-group tend to be less equitable within their gender group than women; for example, while most billionaires are men, it is also true that most people without housing and people in prison are men. The life expectancy gap between men in the highest and lowest SES groups is greater than the gap between women in the highest and lowest SES groups as well as the gap between men and women in general (APPG Men&Boys, 2021). The privileges of masculinity are further divided between racial groups and sexual identities, with racism and heterosexism intersectionally impacting how men experience their gender as well as its social and emotional implications.


APPG Men&Boys. (2021, July 7). Martin Tod: The case for a Men’s Health Strategy. [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZD7pU7pZNZk

Heilman, M. E., & Wallen, A. S. (2010). Wimpy and undeserving of respect: Penalties for men’s gender-inconsistent success. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46(4), 664–667. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2010.01.008

Kilmartin, C. & Smiler, A. P. (2015). The masculine self (5th ed.). Sloan Publishing.

Moss-Racusin, C. A., Phelan, J. E., & Rudman, L. A. (2010). When men break the gender rules: Status incongruity and backlash against modest men. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 11(2), 140–151. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0018093

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