Men & Masculinities 101: How Culture Shapes Masculinity
The seventh installation in our 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.
Culture undoubtedly plays a role in shaping our own behaviors as well as our thoughts and feelings about others’ behaviors. For example, in the U.S., it is often considered rude not to make eye contact during a conversation, whereas in many Asian cultures, such eye contact may be interpreted as aggressive or disrespectful. Culture also plays a role in how we conceptualize gender as well as what is considered “masculine” and “feminine.” Cultural values are commonly communicated at an early age, and children learn cultural concepts of gender and gender roles through witnessing social practices (e.g., dressing children in “gender-appropriate” clothing, gifting them gendered toys, etc.).
As gender roles are socially constructed, it follows that some non-Western societies have different expectations for men and for women. Margaret Mead, a 20th century anthropologist, identified that different tribes in New Guinea had varying expectations for men and women. She found that one tribe valued aggression in both men and women, another tribe valued non-aggression in men and women, and a third expected women to be aggressive and men to be more passive (Mead, 1935). Likewise, a select number of cultures feature a third gender role, which represent distinct, but still culturally embraced ways of asserting one’s gender role (Doyle & Paludi, 1998).
Despite these differences, many cultures in the world conceptualize masculinity similarly. Gilmore (1990) found that in most cultures around the world, concepts of masculinity included “strength, risk taking, avoidance of femininity, aggression, and sexual initiative” (Kilmartin & Smiler, 2005). Gilmore also identified that in many cultures, manhood was an achievement to be earned through various socialization processes, rather than something that men inherently have or are born with. This precarious aspect of masculinity has been further supported by Vandello & Bosson (2013), who have found evidence that in the U.S., masculinity is more so defined by socialization processes than by biology or gender identity.
These cultural similarities likely are the result of broad sociocultural forces that affect many cultures in similar ways. Perhaps most universal is the shift from nomadic to sedentary societies with the Agricultural Revolution. This shift has been hypothesized to have led to the development of patriarchal, rather than egalitarian, societies, as women became a coveted and valuable resource for their reproductive capacities (Lerner, 1986).
Masculinity in the U.S. has also evolved over time with culture. In colonial America, masculinity was largely defined by how well one could provide for one’s own family or community (Rotundo, 1993). Men were largely seen as virtuous, with more logic and emotional control than women. While some of these ideas of masculinity still persist today, over time, aspects of this conceptualization gave way to independence and competition, antifemininity and aggression. Whereas men’s ideals used to include connection to home, they slowly evolved into distancing from domesticity and so-called “women’s work.”
Doyle, J. A. & Paludi, M. A. (1998). Sex and gender: The human experience (4th ed.). McGraw-Hill.
Gilmore, D. D. (1990). Manhood in the making: Cultural concepts of masculinity. Yale University Press.
Kilmartin, C. & Smiler, A. P. (2015). The masculine self (5th ed.). Sloan Publishing.
Lerner, G. (1986). The creation of patriarchy. Oxford University Press.
Mead, M. (1935). Sex and temperament in three primitive societies. William Morrow & Co.
Rotundo, E. A. (1993). American manhood: Transformations in masculinity from the Revolution to the modern era. Basic Books.
Vandello, J. A., & Bosson, J. K. (2013). Hard won and easily lost: A review and synthesis of theory and research on precarious manhood. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 14(2), 101–113. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0029826