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Traditional Ideas of Masculinity

In this series, we are exploring different facets of men’s mental health. In this opening entry, we will discuss the reemerging popularity of traditional ideas of masculinity and the impact of those ideas on the well-being of men.

“The truth we don’t tell is that men are longing for love.”
bell hooks, The Will to Change, p. 4

Over the past few years, clips and soundbites of popular influencers talking about masculinity have been going viral at an increasing rate. Some of these clips get shared because they generate controversy. Others get shared because they offer advice or guidance that resonates with people. Most get shared for both reasons. Given the immense popularity of this content (ask any middle or high school teacher how many male students like Andrew Tate) it’s clear that young men are hungry for guidance and help forming their identities. And though the male-identity influencers of today don’t look anything like their grandparent’s generation (I don’t know how many of our grandfathers had a six-pack, well-fitted designer clothes, and a bitcoin portfolio), they are selling a repackaged version of something old: traditional masculinity.

Traditional masculinity is not an intentionally-designed philosophy, but it is, partially, an assortment of “shoulds” passed down through culture – men should be strong, men should not show weakness, men should be the breadwinner, etc. Surely historians and other academics can figure out how and why these shoulds got bundled together, but any man on the street can tell you that they have felt the impact of these shoulds throughout their entire lives. Of all the men I’ve worked with as a counselor, almost all of them have expressed shame for failing to live up to what a man should be.

Underneath all these shoulds, there is one central thesis that defines traditional masculinity: If a man is not masculine, he is not a real man, and there is something wrong with him. In other words, shame is the fuel that powers traditional masculinity. Almost any man who grew up in the United States remembers the shame they felt as a child when they did something that wasn’t manly, only to be chastised, ridiculed, or even abused. I believe that most men still experience that shame, more often than they realize.

In my time as a counselor, I have found few emotions as ubiquitous, tenacious, and damaging as shame. In the following articles in this series, I would like to unpack some of the ways that traditional notions of masculinity lead to shame for men. My goal is not to criticize men, attack historical ideas of masculinity, or defend a newer, better version of masculinity; it is merely to loosen the tight grip that shame has on so many of us who were belittled, humiliated, and broken into submission, merely because we did not fit someone’s idea of what a man should be.

If this investigation resonates with you, and you would like to continue it on your own, I recommend taking some time to journal and reflect on how notions of traditional masculinity showed up in your life. Here are some prompts to get you started:

  1. What do I think a man should be?
  2. How was I taught these ideas? By who?
  3. Do I live up to these beliefs? If not, do I feel ashamed?
  4. Do these beliefs help or hinder me?
  5. Do I need to rethink my beliefs about what a man should be?

Learn more about Andrew Bryson here.