LIFT the Mind

"His speech had overtones not of thought, but of understanding beyond thought.” - Of Mice & Men

The Clutch Things to know from Gillette, Masculinity, and Science

What we know and how we can move forward

In the last post, we posed an argument that is happening in the world right now with two sides: basically, “Guys suck” vs. “Nuh uh.” Then Gillette comes out with their “The Best Men Can Be” commercial and the media world has a field day about men and masculinity. Some called the ad too radical, some called it too conservative, others have called it an opportunity or an opportunity missed. All these sides seem to substantiate the “Guys suck” vs. “Nuh uh” dichotomy.

I’m not going to take a side in that debate because it’s a false dichotomy. I’ll use myself as an example. In some ways, I probably suck. In other ways, I probably don’t. Great. That’s settled. It’s our job, as men, to look ourselves in the mirror and ask what we can do to make ourselves better. It’s less helpful to have a debate about whether men are in “crisis” or how masculinity is “toxic.” We need to quit talking about whether men are either broken or perfect, because, spoiler alert … we’re neither. But Gillette has primed us to at least have the conversation so let’s have it: what is the “third path” between broken and perfect for men?

Now, I know the numbers don’t lie – a lot of guys perpetrate a lot of terrible stuff. I am not denying or minimizing that in any way. However, there is some instinctual defensiveness that comes out for many men (including me) when people claim that what it means to “be a man” is the sole cause of men doing terrible things. I mean, I feel like I’m a good enough guy, and I know a lot of other guys who are decent too. I even know a few guys who aren’t even serial killers, rapists, or mass shooters.

What the Gillette commercial did for manhood is highlight an important science lesson that is crucial to the mainstream discussion on masculinity. When people feel like an important part of their identity is being threatened – like when people say, “Men are in crisis and masculinity is toxic!” and millions of men get defensive about it – what’s happening is a primal part of the brain (mainly the amygdala) is primed for a fight or flight response. So what happens is that when guys get defensive about “threats” to their masculinity (e.g., the Gillette commercial for some), they “fight” back by doubling down on outdated stereotypes of masculinity. (More about anger and fight-or-flight here). This phenomenon – that men’s masculinity being threatened can be detrimental and affirming their gender identity can give a psychological “boost” – is called “masculinity contingency” (Joel Wong and colleagues at Indiana University who’ve studied it).

What this means, and what Gillette has highlighted, is that we need to transcend the false dichotomy between guys being either broken men in toxic crises or patriarchal gods of Mad Men stereotypes. There is a middle path for us to get the “boost” of feeling masculine without conforming to stereotypes that aren’t helping us be better men.

To be sure, men are not all broken and “masculinity” is not inherently toxic. At the same time, there are a lot of concerning stat lines out there that are real. Let’s review the highlights. In the U.S., men are about four times more likely than women to die by suicide. We are less likely to seek help when we need it and more likely to cope with substance abuse. We account for over 75% of violent crimes in this country and over 90% of sexual assault perpetrations. Men have higher unemployment and worse academic performance than women. Social science research (details here and here) suggests many issues in which men are disproportionately represented (such as violence-perpetration or death by suicide) might be made worse by rigidly over-conforming to particular “masculine norms,” including self-reliance to the point of isolation, emotional restriction, risk-taking behavior, help-avoidance, and others.

I’m not saying all men are affected by all the things. What research does suggest is that however people stereotype what it means to “be a man” can be helpful or not depending on context and situation. Thus, in order to improve as men, we must be open to growing and evolving what it means to be a man in ways that help us and those we care about within particular situations and contexts. Being aggressive and taking risks might be great for a Wall Street stock broker on the job but less helpful in the bedroom if the other person isn’t into it. If a guy is active duty military in a war-zone, it might be very helpful to be stoic and emotionally restrictive until the mission is over. When he gets out of a life or death scenario, it might be more helpful to be more emotionally aware and intelligent to prevent PTSD and ultimately be a better husband, father, and man. If I’m doing home improvement, it might feel good for me to get in there independently and get my hands dirty if I know how to do something. But if I needed heart surgery, the “manly” thing shouldn’t be to read up on how to do double-bypass heart surgery on myself. What should be considered masculine is having the strength and intelligence to utilize the tools and resources at my disposal (like a heart surgeon and decent health insurance). Again, masculinity that is both healthy and authentic is contextual. More strategies for bridging healthy and masculine here.

I refuse to abolish my gender identity because some psychologists did some correlational research with college students about how stereotypes from my grandfather’s generation might relate to various health outcomes. At the same time, I refuse to ignore the stats that clearly show we need to step up as men to be better, for ourselves, each other, and everyone we care about. Gillette has suggested the latter which has admittedly primed some fight-or-flight amygdalar responses. Now that we’ve acknowledged that, it’s time for us, as men, to be strong enough to override that initial defensiveness and be real with ourselves. We don’t have to be broken in order to be better.

As men, if we take a defensive approach akin to, “it ain’t broke, so I won’t fix it,” then we will never become better men. I might not be broken, but I’m not perfect either. Being a better man does not require throwing out my gender with the proverbial baby and bathwater. But it does require us to be real with the gaps between who we are as men and who we can ultimately strive to be as better men. It’s time to step up and machete our way through a middle path between abolishing gender and being blind to our imperfections. The mirror is a good place to start.

*Why: Men are taught a lot about what it means to be a man. Psychological research provides a bunch of evidence for what aspects of “masculinity” can be harmful and helpful. Here we aim to shed light on some of these findings and provide ways for men to become better men (without being intellectual pricks about it).

©2017: Zachary Gerdes