Masculinity, a Delicate Flower

Real men are made, not born — so goes the conventional wisdom. In other words, manhood is a social status, something a guy earned historically, through brutal tests of physical endurance or other risky demonstrations of toughness that mark the transition from boyhood to manhood. But while that masculinity is hard-won, it can be easily lost. Once earned, men have to continue proving their worth through manly action. In modern society, that may no longer mean, say, killing the meatiest wooly mammoth, but there are equivalent displays of masculinity: earning a decent living or protecting one’s family. One misstep — losing a job, for instance, or letting someone down — and that gender identity slips away. (More on  “Can a Simple Writing Exercise Close the Gender Gap?”) The phenomenon helps explain why men are so touchy about their masculinity. Women don’t have the same problem, of course. Womanhood is largely seen as something innate, immutable: girls become women through puberty; once achieved, womanhood sticks. In a series of studies, psychologists Jennifer K. Bosson and Joseph A. Vandello at the University of South Florida decided to probe this idea further. Specifically, they wanted to know, do modern men still use physical action and aggression to prove their manhood? In one study, the researchers had asked participants to fill in 25 sentence stems that began either “A real man…” or “A real woman…” The results, as described in a subsequent paper published recently in Current Directions in Psychological Science: [J]udges coded the sentence completions according to whether they contained actions (e.g., momentary behaviors that people do, such as “drives a flashy car”) or adjectives (e.g., enduring qualities that cannot be lost, such as “is honest”). Findings revealed that men, but not women, described “a real man” with more fleeting actions than enduring adjectives, and they described “a real woman” with more enduring adjectives than fleeting actions. Notably, this pattern emerged when we controlled for the gender-stereotypical content of the sentence completions. When men completed “real man” sentences with gender atypical content … Continue reading Masculinity, a Delicate Flower