Earlier this summer, several articles appeared in the New York Times about masculinity and how the concept and its expectations are evolving in our social interactions. Some of this interest was prompted by a book (Manhood: The Masculine Virtues America Needs, Regnery Publishing, 2023) by a Republican senator from the state of Missouri, and an opinion piece in the Times of June 1st by Carlos Lozada, titled “Men Have Lost their Way. Josh Hawley Has Thoughts About How to Save Them.”
As evident from the title of Hawley’s book, he advocates a somewhat hard-sell approach to masculinity. Indeed, he seems to want a return to those values of a bygone era when the characteristics of manhood depended on how others were defined in relation to men – that is, women and other men – along with their respective expectations for social roles.
In contrast, another prompt – this one involving a somewhat soft-sell approach – was highlighted in an additional Times piece of June 2nd by Elamin Abdelmahmoud celebrating the final season of a popular TV series and titled, “Ted Lasso, and the Fantasy of Soft Masculinity.” As Abdelmahmoud pointed out, the “Ted Lasso” version of masculinity is not so much soft (as in weak) compared to Hawley’s version, but rather a reworking of what it really means to be manly in a manner better adapted to 21st century society.
Masculinity as it works in men and functions in society is a weighty topic that certainly cannot be adequately considered in the few paragraphs of this blog. However, an aspect worth thinking about is how social constructs, such as masculinity, change and evolve over time. In this case, the history of psychology may be helpful.
Certainly, the value of adaptability jumps out immediately as a vehicle that all of us need as we try to succeed in life and indeed to flourish and seek happiness. The scholars who developed theories of evolution, culminating in Charles Darwin’s 1859 work, Origin of Species, demonstrated the significance of all levels of adaptation as individuals and as collectives. Likewise, William James and his contemporaries of early American Psychology underscored the utilitarian principle in successful adaptation. Consequences of actions either help us or hinder us in our pathways to successes or failures in life.
In 2019, the American Psychological Association took specific issue with the utility of “traditional masculinity,” with many of the characteristics that Hawley advocated, and concluded that they are as a whole harmful to personal growth and adaptation. Perhaps it is beneficial to take a step back and judge the meaning of “masculinity” for what it really is, a construct – a cognitive convenience that supports umbrella terms to identify ideas or actions. As such, constructs are not fixed and unchangeable. They are just convenient ways to express what ideas or actions share. Their use is limited.
A classic treatment* of constructs was offered in an evaluation of theory construction in psychology, and they are part of a process that recognizes the importance of constructs that help us keep open toward the progress of research as we try to know more and understand better. So, are traditional definitions descriptive of another time helpful to adapt to our contemporary social milieu, or have they outlived their utility?
*Marx, M. (ed.) Theories in Contemporary Psychology, 1st, and 2nd eds. Macmillan, 1963, 1976.