Editor’s Note: Noah Berlatsky is the author of “Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics.” The views expressed here are solely the author’s. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Feminists have long argued that traditional gender roles harm women. In part because of longstanding societal assumptions that men are breadwinners, women are paid less than men. When it comes to leadership, women who try to advance are often perceived as pushy or unpleasant. Our society largely views men as more important than women, and so the default is too often to sympathize with the perpetrators of sexual assault rather than with the victims. Received expectations of women hurt women.
It’s also possible, though, that received expectations of men hurt men. That’s the conclusion of new guidelines for treating men and boys published by the American Psychological Association. According to the APA, “Traditional masculinity is psychologically harmful.” They are right; forcing men to behave in accordance with the worst stereotypes of manliness harms them – and it harms others.
The APA identifies the hallmarks of traditional masculinity as “anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence.” These are characteristics readily recognizable in just about any male action hero, from Superman to James Bond. Men onscreen often put their lives at risk for noble causes. They inflict massive amounts of violence on their enemies. They are beaten and shot and tortured, but they don’t flinch or complain. They endure and triumph.
The problem is that most men are not Superman or James Bond, and for normal mortals, trying to behave like you’re Superman or James Bond can have serious negative consequences. In trying to live up to those ideals of manliness, men are often reluctant to ask for help when they are in distress. This can make it difficult for psychologists to identify depression in men, which is part of the reason why men are less often diagnosed with depression, and why they have suicide rates as much as three times that of women. Brands like Gillette are also picking up on the need to challenge toxic masculinity – the company’s “We Believe” ad showing scenes of bullies, sexual harassment and masculinity debuted this week to strong response.
Suicide isn’t the only threat to men; they are in general more at risk of early mortality than women. “In every age group, boys and men have higher death rates than girls and women,” according to the APA. Male risk-taking is culturally validated and encouraged; men are supposed to prove themselves as men by engaging in reckless behavior. This can manifest in many ways – from having unprotected sex to going to war. Traditional masculinity tends to celebrate male violence, which is partially responsible for the fact that men commit 90% of violent crimes, according to the APA. The combination of risk-taking and aggressiveness means that men are also disproportionately victims of violence. A 2014 study, for example, found that men were the victims in 85% of gun deaths in the United States.
Ideas about traditional masculinity especially harm people from marginalized groups who don’t conform to ideal or stereotype. These men may be bullied or attacked by other men and boys. The APA points out that queer men, trans men and Asian men are stereotypically considered to be unmasculine, which can lead to psychological distress.
The APA isn’t saying all traditionally masculine traits are bad. An article on the APA website summarizing the guidelines points out that context matters. Anyone, of any gender, may benefit from competitiveness on the sports field, or on the corporate ladder or from stoicism in a crisis. Feminists encourage girls and women to embrace supposedly masculine traits like self-confidence, assertiveness, physical confidence, and a willingness to stand up for oneself and others. Those traits can be valuable for men too, just as everyone can benefit from traditionally feminine traits like being emotionally open and caring.
But, the APA points out, the same tough demeanor that might save a soldier’s life in a war zone can destroy it at home with a romantic partner or child.
You would think that advocates for men would be pleased that the APA is trying to understand and address the difficulties which men in particular face and that corporations like P&G, which owns Gillette, are doing the same. But instead, some have threatened to boycott Gillette, while some conservatives who claim to speak for men have reacted to the APA guidelines with outrage.
At National Review, David French penned a vigorous defense of traditional masculinity, concluding that, “We do our sons no favors when we tell them that they don’t have to answer that voice inside them that tells them to be strong, to be brave, and to lead.” Tucker Carlson on his Fox News show worried that criticizing toxic masculinity would lead to depression, and wondered “What would happen if you told girls the qualities that make you feel female are poison and you must suppress them. What would that do for their mental health?” Nicole Russell at the Washington Examiner argued that men are “innately wired” to be “aggressive, competitive, or stoic” and that “The cure for masculinity isn’t less, but more.”
The striking thing about these responses is how they assume that traditional masculinity and men are one and the same. To attack traditional masculinity is from this perspective to attack men. But French, Carlson and Russell all talk about the glory of all men embracing manliness, and being strong, stoic, fearless, and competitive. They suggest that this is biological, that men just are this way.
But what if you’re not that way? What if you’re a boy who would rather play with dolls than guns? What if you’re queer or trans? What if, as a man, you’re sometimes depressed, or scared, as all human beings are? Superman and James Bond are fictions. Real human men are more vulnerable and more various. Conservatives want to put all men in a single, small box. The APA guidelines suggest we let them out – for the good of men, of women, and of people of every gender.