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Men & Masculinities 101: Masculinities and Intersectionality

Updated: Jan 3


Photo by Armin Rimoldi from Pexels


The eighth installment 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.


As with other identities, experiences related to masculinity often intersect with experiences of other identities, such as sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, age, physical ability, and race and ethnicity. The experience and notion of what it means to be a man or to be “masculine,” for example, may be qualitatively different for individuals from various backgrounds. Furthermore, different gender stereotypes may exist for individuals who belong to different groups. For example, power is an integral component of most Western traditional masculine ideology, which is often quantified in the modern world in terms of financial power. As individuals from lower SES groups may lack this type of power, they may become overly reliant on other expressions of traditional masculinity, such as physical or interpersonal dominance (Kilmartin & Smiler, 2015). Indeed, Gelles (1997) identified a connection between low SES and family violence. However, it is important to note that despite that unemployment and economic hardship are linked to abusive behavior and intimate partner violence (Schneider et al., 2016), IPV is present in all SES groups, and most men in lower SES groups do not engage in interpersonal violence. It is further possible that some men in higher SES groups may overvalue the importance of power and success in their definitions of masculinity, which could also lead to feelings of inadequacy from viewing their successes as not being good enough. It is thus important to understand how SES interacts with individual-level and group-level factors, particularly race and sex, to either promote or inhibit experiences of IPV violence.


The experience and notion of what it means to be a man or to be “masculine” may be qualitatively different for individuals from various backgrounds.

Another key component in Western traditional masculinity is heterosexuality. Indeed, anti-gay attitudes are inherently related to anti-femininity, a core component of traditional masculine ideology, as loving a man is seen as highly socially feminine (Kilmartin & Smiler, 2015). Because of this, men of other sexual orientations may construct their own different definitions of masculinity, which typically demonstrate broader gendered behavior. Indeed, it is speculated that the identification of oneself as different from traditional notions of masculinity can prompt a critical look at other aspects of one’s gender role and masculine identity (Herek, 1985). As such, gay men’s masculine identity can vary greatly in its expression, from more traditionally feminine aesthetics (commonly referred to as “camp”) or with the embracing of traditional masculine features (sometimes referred to as “gay macho” or “bear culture”). Importantly, scholars emphasize that gay lifestyles are shaped by social structures and cultures outside of their communities, and that the creation of these communities themselves are in part a response to heteronormativity and the stigma surrounding gay roles and behavior (Levine, 1991).


The identification of oneself as different from traditional notions of masculinity can prompt a critical look at other aspects of one’s gender role and masculine identity.

Additionally, an individual’s perceived fit to the masculine identity or even their notion of masculinity itself may change as one ages. Gendered behavior is also seen to experience a shift as individuals grow older, and both men and women typically become more flexible in their gender roles as they age (Broderick & Blewitt, 2020). Although research suggests that the infamous “midlife crisis” is more of a myth than reality (Lachman et al., 2015), it is certainly true that most men experience physical declines in their 40s and 50s that may contrast earlier or traditional notions of masculinity, such as decreased muscularity, weight gain, graying hair, and physical pains. Many men can no longer play sports as they used to, and men with physical jobs may have difficulty keeping up with their younger counterparts. Traditional masculine ideology has demonstrated clear negative impacts on older men, such that they are less likely to seek a physician’s help and more likely to downplay symptoms. One result of this is that men in established adulthood (40-65) and older adulthood (75+) are at an increased risk of suicide (Garnett et al., 2020). It is possible that the contrasts between aging, life experiences, and traditional masculine ideology may be responsible for aging adults' growing flexibility in their gender roles, and may work as a protective factor against negative physical and mental health impacts.


References


Broderick, P. C. & Blewitt, P. (2020). The life span: Human development for helping professionals (5th ed.). Pearson.


Garnett, M. F., Curtin, S. C., Stone, D. M. (2020). Suicide mortality in the United States. NCHS Data Breach, 433, 1-8. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db433.pdf


Gelles, R. J. (1997). Intimate violence in families (3rd ed.). Sage Publishing.


Herek, G. M. (1985). On doing, being, and not being: Prejudice and the social construction of sexuality. Journal of Homosexuality, 12, 135-151.


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


Lachman, M. E., Teshale, S., & Agrigoroaei, S. (2015). Midlife as a pivotal period in the life course: Balancing growth and decline at the crossroads of youth and old age. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 39(1), 20–31. https://doi.org/10.1177/0165025414533223


Levine, M. P. (1991). The life and death of the gay clone. In G. Herdt (Ed.), Gay culture in America: Essays from the field (pp. 68-86). Beacon.


Schneider, D., Harknett, K., & McLanahan, S. (2016). Intimate partner violence in the Great Recession. Demography, 53(2), 471–505. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13524-016-0462-1


Note: Much of the information summarized here is elaborated on in Chapter Six of Kilmartin & Smiler's The Masculine Self (5th ed.). If interested in a deeper dive on this topic, we encourage you to check it out!

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