Do You Know What Makes a Man?
There are countless examples of men defying stereotypes on the red carpet and in magazines, from Harry Styles's appearance as the boy with the pearl earring at the 2019 Met Gala to Pharrell Williams's Moncler gown by Valentino on the cover of GQ. In view of these trends, can we assume that men have conquered their pressure to appear as "real men" and are free to behave as they want?
Our research tackles this question. How do cisgender men—that is, men who are assigned as male at birth and continue to identify as such—feel when they behave in ways that disregard stereotypes about gender?
Unlike femininity, masculinity has been portrayed as risky: something difficult to win and easy to lose. In turn, that reasoning supports the core norms of traditional masculinity, according to which men need to resist traditional, stereotypically feminine qualities, roles, and behaviors in order to demonstrate their masculinity. By the same token, they should behave like "real men" by performing daring, dangerous acts and even distance themselves from gay men and others in the LGBTQ community.
Researchers have indeed shown that men who act in "feminine" ways are easily perceived and classified as neither masculine nor straight and, as a consequence, are called homophobic epithets such as "faggot," and experience the withdrawal of their parents’ attention and sometimes are even rejected by them. Those reactions from family and peers appear to challenge men’s cognitive functioning and their well-being.
Thus, men are pressured to conform with traditional norms of masculinity and thus feel compelled to display hyper-masculine behavior in order to demonstrate that they are so-called "real men." However, as the world experiences social change, we wanted to investigate whether that pressure has changed and not only for celebrities.
To do that, we first assessed how much cisgender men support traditional masculinity, namely by asking them to rate their associations to "being a man"—for example, by being physically strong and aggressive. Afterwards, we exposed the men to different kinds of information. One kind, which we called social change, said that gender norms are changing and that men are becoming more "feminine" in their actions (for example, being more emotional, focusing more on their physical appearance, staying at home, doing housework, and caring for their children). In contrast, the "traditional masculinity" information said that gender norms are not changing and that men are the same as they have always been, which means that they are neither emotional nor concerned about their physical appearance, nor do they deal with housework or children. Lastly, some were in a control condition where they were not exposed to any gender-related information. The goal was to examine whether the "social change" information made the men feel more comfortable envisioning themselves performing traditionally feminine behaviors such as taking a ballet class or doing women friends' hair, and whether the men's stereotypes about masculinity made a difference.
We discovered that men who held less stereotyped views about what it meant to "be a man" were less uncomfortable with performing feminine behaviors in the social change condition than in the traditional masculinity condition or control condition. The reason why was that the social change condition freed them from social pressure and potential sexual orientation misclassification, so they were comfortable performing feminine behaviors. However, such was not the case for men who held more stereotyped views about what it meant to "be a man" regardless of the information they read.
These findings suggest that having less stereotyped views about masculinity and believing that gender norms are changing may be beneficial. After all, the belief may motivate men (at least those with fewer gender stereotypes) to feel less intimidated by society's judgment and thus more capable of dismissing or ignoring it. The findings also highlight the work that remains to be done in contexts where norms of traditional masculinity prevail and where social change is limited.
For Further Reading
Borinca, I., Iacoviello, V., & Valsecchi, G. (2020). Men’s discomfort and anticipated sexual misclassification due to counter-stereotypical behaviors: The interplay between traditional masculinity norms and perceived men’s femininization. Sex Roles. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-020-01210-5
Islam Borinca is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Limerick in Ireland. His research focuses on intergroup relations, gender norms, behaviors, diversity, and health.