by Tony Wyman
There is a young man I know named Jack who lives in a small town in Ohio. He’s the longtime boyfriend of one of my favorite kids, Morgan, a tiny, perpetually-tanned, explosion of smiles and energy who seems to be one of the happiest people on the planet. And Jack is a large reason why.
Beyond the fact that he’s movie star good-looking, Jack is pretty much everything a young women should look for in a man. He’s considerate, gentlemanly, protective without being overbearing or controlling, and, as far as he’s concerned, the reason the birds sing in the morning is to join him in showing love for Morgan.
Once, when Morgan injured her ankle in a soccer match, Jack carried her a quarter mile to her family’s car, even though he was only 140 pounds then and other, larger men were there able to help. When I saw them coming, I knew better than to try to take Morgan off his hands. It was his job and no one was going to finish it for him.
And, a couple years later, when Jack and Morgan were out to dinner with the rest of the team I coached, my assistant kept pointing out other girls in the restaurant to Jack, finally saying, “You know, Jack, there are other girls in the world other than Morgan,” to which Jack, staring straight in my assistant’s eyes as if to say he had enough, said, “Not in my world, there aren’t.”
In my view, Jack is what a real man is like. He’s humble, respectful, dedicated, loyal, willing to do the hard work that has to be done, expecting no praise in return. He doesn’t feel a need to brag about himself; he’s too secure in his manhood for that and, frankly, the way he conducts himself says all that anyone needs to know about Jack. He doesn’t require the smoke and mirrors of a marketing campaign to make you feel like he’s something special. His character does that without any help.
So, how does a country like ours produce a man like Jack at the same time it produces one like Donald J. Trump?
Male Identity Crisis
The reality is the American male is going through an identity crisis right now. Some men, those like Jack, are perfectly fine with the changes taking place in the relationship between men and women in this country. They don’t see the emergence of women as leaders, both in government and the workplace, as a threat to their masculinity or status, but as an opportunity for the country to finally fully capture the talents of all her citizens.
But, other men, ones who believe the male role in society is underappreciated and under attack, are very concerned that the future is bleak for men in American society. They see the rise of someone like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as both a threat to the tradition of male dominance in politics and as a warning that the future will have in it more leaders like her and fewer like them. As Medium writer Jessica Valenti put it, “The Republican, mostly male obsession with the 30-year-old Bronx native is more than run-of-the-mill misogyny; it’s existential panic. Because in addition to the young Democratic Socialist standing for (reasonable) policies that conservatives find terrifying, Ocasio-Cortez represents a vision of the future of the United States — a future that’s no longer centered around old white men.”
For those “terrified” of AOC and women like her, Trump was seen as the candidate who could restore traditional American gender roles where the male was dominant over the female. They believed this, not solely because Trump is a male, but because he is a hyper-masculine male, an exaggeration of masculinity unashamed of his locker room, frat boy misogyny. He said the things on the campaign trail that many men said only in private to other men. And he reveled in the attention his crudities brought him.
These were the sort of men supporting Trump in 2016 who overlooked his inability to debate his opponents without resorting to infantile insults or to enunciate a policy position in such a way that one could, with a straight face, credibly claim the New Yorker understood even the basics of what he was saying. These were the sort of men who decided what the country needed was something other than a president with a vast and deep understanding of the great political, economic and military issues of the day. What the country needed, they thought, was a president who would put things back in their rightful place. By “things,” of course, I mean women.
Fragile Masculinity and Precarious Manhood
Fear of feminism, of the increase in status of American women, was a major driving force in the 2016 election. This is true not just because the Democratic Party selected Hillary Clinton, the first woman to run as the candidate of a major political party, but because many men across the country were suffering from a lack of confidence in their own masculinity.
That was the conclusion of a study done in 2018 by Stanford University by researchers Emily K. Carian and Tagart Cain Sobotka. They determined that men who felt their masculinity was threatened were “significantly more likely to support Trump over Clinton.” The study went on to show that “masculine overcompensation,” the hyper-masculine behavior of men who felt their masculinity was in question, was a key characteristic of a male Trump supporter, a characteristic mirroring the behavior of the Republican candidate, himself.
Their study drew upon work done by the American Psychological Association that determined that men feel a sometimes overwhelming pressure to look and act in ways that are stereotypically masculine. This sense of masculine identity is bred into males at a very early age and reinforced by social norms throughout a male’s life, especially during his critical formative years.
“Research shows that many men feel pressure to look and behave in stereotypically masculine ways — or risk losing their status as ‘real men,’” said the Washington Post. “Masculine expectations are socialized from early childhood and can motivate men to embrace traditional male behaviors while avoiding even the hint of femininity. This unforgiving standard of maleness makes some men worry that they’re falling short. These men are said to experience ‘fragile masculinity.'”
Dealing with issues associated with fragile masculinity is a serious social issue. Researchers at NYU, Prof. Eric Knowles and doctoral student Sarah DiMuccio studied 300 men to determine if they would search online for things like “erectile dysfunction,” “how to get girls,” “penile enlargement,” “testosterone” and “Viagra.” They then determine that men who did search for those items had a high level of concern about masculinity.
Next, they correlated the numbers of searches for those terms with voting patterns and found “that support for Trump in the 2016 election was higher in areas that had more searches for topics such as ‘erectile dysfunction.'” Finally, to test their theory against results in the 2012 and 2016 elections and found “that the correlation of fragile masculinity and voting in presidential elections was distinctively stronger in 2016” than it was when the GOP presidential candidates were Mitt Romney and John McCain.
Voting and identifying with “tough” politicians like Donald Trump is one way men experiencing fragile masculinity can reassert themselves, can make themselves feel like they are part of the macho male tribe again.
The problem with men with fragile masculinity identifying with Trump is the president himself is suffering from the same thing. His over-the-top claims of bravery and toughness are belied by his history of dodging the draft and caving in to dictators like Turkey’s Erdogan and North Korea’s Kim. His waistline being twice the size of his chest and the fact that, despite worldwide fame and allegedly great wealth, he had to resort to paying for sex with a porn actress makes it impossible for neutral observers to see him as a man in the mold of Teddy Roosevelt or Dwight Eisenhower.
“Trump’s ostentatious displays of manhood and ‘toughness’ are themselves products of his own fragile masculinity,” said Patheos writer Ed Brayton. “Only someone deeply insecure about their masculinity feels the need to continuously assert machismo and convince others that they’re a Real Man. Trump isn’t using this in some sort of strategic way, he’s just doing what his own damaged psychology prompts him to do and that’s convincing to others who have the same problem.”
The Man Box
And that’s the problem. Men with fragile masculinity reinforce the stereotypes and social norms that perpetuate a standard of masculine behavior that leads to more boorish, toxic masculinity, to more Donald Trumps and fewer real men like Jack.
This standard of masculine behavior is called the Man Box by Promundo, a global research agency dedicated to gender studies. They identified “seven pillars” or behaviors that “real men” are supposed to exhibit, according to society. These pillars came from surveys they conducted of men who were “in the man box,.” Some are positive while others are not. In almost each case, more men in the United States agreed with each pillar to a higher degree did other men asked the same questions in the U.K. and in Mexico.
Being in the box meant these men “are those who most internalize and agree with society’s rigid messages about how men should behave. In this sense, “in the box” refers to falling in line with normative masculine expectations, or ‘boxing oneself in.’”
The Seven Pillars
- Self-sufficiency – men should not share their worries and concerns with others. That shows weakness. Instead, they should solve their own problems and rely on themselves, not others, if they want respect.
- Acting tough – a man who doesn’t hit back when he’s struck isn’t a real man. Even if he’s scared or outnumbered, a real man puffs up his chest and curls his fists. A man must be willing to defend his reputation with violence, if necessary
- Physical attractiveness – a man has to look good to succeed. But, if he spends too much time primping, he isn’t a real man. Women don’t go for men who spend too much time on their clothes and hair.
- Rigid masculine gender roles – real men don’t know how to cook, sew, clean the house or change a diaper. Those jobs belong to women. A man should make the money and defend the home, not vacuum the carpets.
- Heterosexuality and Homosexuality – a gay man can never be a real man. But it is okay for a straight man to be friends with a gay man.
- Hypersexuality – no real man would ever turn down sex. In fact, real men have as many sexual conquests as they can. Paradise by the dashboard lights.
- Aggression and control – If necessary, a real man should never hesitate to use violence to get respect. If he is married, he should always have the final word in anything concerning his home and family. And if he has a girlfriend or wife, he should always know where they are.
What we can learn from these results is we are turning young men into adults who internalize their emotions and have a hard time dealing with the pressures put upon them by society as they grow older. They become men lacking in friendships needed to sustain themselves through difficult times, especially during the middle and older years. This explains why suicide rates among teen girls and boys are nearly identical, but, after the age of 65, males, particularly white ones, are 8-times more likely to commit suicide than are women of the same age.
But it also explains why men perpetuate the Man Box, why they reinforce the stereotypes of exaggerated masculinity and why they are willing to support a man like Donald Trump to be president, a man they would never leave alone with their mother, sister or daughter.
Just a month before the presidential election of Donald Trump, a man who had publicly bragged about sexually assaulting women, about kissing and groping them against their will, who boasted to Howard Stern that he could get away with walking into the dressing room of the Miss USA Pageant to inspect the half-naked girls, some under-aged, because he owned the show, First Lady Michelle Obama gave a passionate speech to New Hampshire Democrats about what electing Hillary Clinton’s opponent would mean for America. She said:
In our hearts, we all know that if we let Hillary’s opponent win this election, then we are sending a clear message to our kids that everything they’re seeing and hearing is perfectly OK. We are validating it. We are endorsing it. We’re telling our sons that it’s OK to humiliate women. We’re telling our daughters that this is how they deserve to be treated. We’re telling all our kids that bigotry and bullying are perfectly acceptable in the leader of their country. Is that what we want for our children?
Considering that most men choose to stay in the Man Box their whole lives and condition their sons to join them inside, the answer to Mrs. Obama question might well be “yes.”