What does it mean to describe someone as ‘masculine’?
Back in 1984, Franklin identified male-valued traits that were typically linked to being masculine, including aggression, dominance and a lack of emotion. While thankfully much has moved on since then, perceptions of what it means to be masculine are still frequently linked within research to rigid behaviours and traits, most noticeably around sexism and lack of emotion (Levant & Richmond, 2016).
These ideas are particularly concerning given the constant pressure faced by many men and boys to constantly assert, prove and maintain their masculinity (Vandello & Bosson, 2013). The pressure to perform this idea of masculinity can have a significant negative impact on men’s mental health, as well as having serious consequences for the people around them and wider society (Morin, 2020), as some men’s attitudes and behaviours can end up being driven by others’ expectations, rather than their own wishes and values.
An example of this sort of behaviour is if a male athlete shares a sexist meme with their teammates on WhatApp, even if the recipients are uncomfortable with this or recognise is as problematic, the ‘traditional’ definition of what it means to be masculine dictates that the ‘correct’ response is to laugh along, and perhaps continue the ‘joke’ by sharing something even more extreme themselves. Burrell’s (2021) study of male student athletes even found that behaviours which would typically be considered problematic, such as turning up drunk at a partner’s house and demanding to be let in, were actually viewed sympathetically by other males when considered through the lens of expected masculine behaviours.
So, what can be done to address this? There is a growing acceptance among psychologists that identifying and promoting a healthier, more positive definition of masculinity is a valuable tool in tackling problematic behaviour and attitudes, and could even act as a protective factor for many men and boys (Kiselica et al, 2016).
What is positive masculinity?
The Crowther Centre in Australia (2021) suggests that positive masculinity should be defined as:
“The expression of attitudes and behaviours (character strengths and virtues which any gender might have) that have been embodied and enacted by males for the common good, both individually and for the community”
The Crowther Centre
Kiselica et al (2016) noted that positive masculinity should include prosocial behaviours, attitudes and beliefs in boys and men, which result in a noticeable positive consequence for themselves or others. This includes fostering a sense of duty towards others, and recognising the positives that can come from looking out for others. Kinselica et al (2008) suggest that positive masculinity can be taught and socialised into men and boys, thereby changing perceptions of masculinity over time. To that end, they developed the Positive Psychology-Positive Masculinity paradigm (PPPM) to focus on strengths associated with masculinity, adaptive behaviours and the positive aspects of being male. They argued that simply looking at the deficits associated with toxic masculine traits limits peoples’ perspectives of masculinity and fails to recognise the positive potential in boys and men.
The PPPM suggests some key actions that are important in developing and maintaining a culture of positive masculinity, and are things that everyone can reflect on and consider. These include:
- Emphasising the importance of ‘action empathy’ - This is when a person takes action based on how they think someone else might be feeling e.g. “I might not be upset by that meme, but if it looks like someone else is then I’ll respect that and support them”
- Nurturing male-self reliance – this doesn’t mean only listening to our own opinion. Someone with good self-reliance knows their own mind, but also listens to the input of others and acts in a way that fits with their own values, rather than simply going along with the crowd.
- Committing to having respect for women – this includes refraining from engaging in violence against women, making sexist comments or laughing at sexist jokes. It also means being an active bystander and actively challenging those who do engage in sexist behaviour, whether they are family members, friends or teammates. The White Ribbon Campaign noted in 2014 that the promotion of gender equity, healthy relationships and ending violence against women and girls, is essential to a new vision of positive masculinity.
- Use of humour – Vereen et al (2013) found that many men and boys use humour for a variety of reasons, including to have fun, to create positive experiences with friends, to reduce tension and to manage conflicts. Kiselica (2001) noted that positive masculinity aligns with this use of humour , rather than conflicting with it. In fact, they suggested that humour can be an important tool in healing and coping in difficult times, such as stress and illness, and can be a good way for men and boys to show that they care for someone else. What separates positive masculinity from toxic masculinity is what or who is the subject of the joke.
- Recognise that men don’t have to be ‘heroes’ – For a long time, masculinity was linked with traditional ideas of strength, power and not showing weakness. Positive masculinity challenges this, and emphasises the strength and heroism involved in being hard-working, looking out for other people and reaching out to ask for help when needed. If someone feels that it would be seen as ‘weak’ to speak out, then they may be afraid to do so. A culture of positive masculinity creates an environment where men and boys can feel more able to speak up and know that it’s okay not to be okay.
So what can we take from this? In order to embrace healthy, pro-social behaviour and promote good mental health for boys and men, perhaps the answer lies in embracing this new approach to what it means to be masculine, focusing on positive behaviours and leaving toxic masculinity in the past. As suggested by the Crowther Centre, perhaps positive masculinity really does offer a solution to change the conversation and move forwards into a more equitable and inclusive future.
If you’d like to discuss this article further, please contact Dr Gill Harrop, Senior Lecturer in Forensic Psychology via email on: firstname.lastname@example.org
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