Opinion: What is a man?

In an era of social change, perceptions of American masculinity may be surprisingly static

America has experienced a wave of profound social movements in recent years. Marriage equality, #MeToo and the growing prominence of the transgender rights movement have propelled discussions of traditional gender norms into the mainstream. What it means to be a man in modern America is now a hotly debated topic, becoming the latest rallying cry for ‘woke capitalism’ in Gillette’s recent viral ad.

A survey by FiveThirtyEight and WNYC Studios, in partnership with SurveyMonkey, asked more than 1,600 men from across the U.S. what they think it means to be a man. While the results suggest that gender norms may be shifting, masculinity experts say that many of these changes may be more superficial than they appear.

Approximately half of men 35 and older said that they always offer to pay on a date, while less than a third of those aged 18 to 34 said the same. When asked why they pay, the most common reason men gave was a sense of obligation since they had initiated the date.

“To me, it just seems respectful,” said Scott Hochman, a 27-year-old software engineer at Amazon. “You asked someone to take a shot and invest their time. If it doesn’t turn out well then at least they didn’t have to pay for it.”

Nearly 70 percent of survey respondents aged 18 to 34 said they felt they were expected to make the first move in a relationship. If initiating a date makes men feel obligated to pay, the data suggests that interdependent social expectations may help entrench existing norms.

Dr. William Ming Liu, prominent masculinity scholar and editor of the “Psychology of Men and Masculinity” academic quarterly, agreed that it is important not to overestimate the implications of specific behavioral changes.

“They are open to some new practices, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have changed ideologically,” said Liu. He suggested that investigating how these men plan to manage their finances after marriage might reveal a disconnect in expectations. “I think you might find that many have very traditional ideas about how the relationship will progress,” said Liu.

Dr. Bryce Traister, dean of creative and critical studies at the University of British Colombia and author of “Academic Viagra: The rise of American Masculinity Studies,” said that he has observed some of these contradictory expectations in his own home.

“I’ve had conversations on this with both of my children,” said Traister. “My daughter, who is a 24-year-old young professional, insists on not letting the guy pay on the first date … [while] my son, who is a 20-year-old student, says he feels like he has to pay.”

Traister said that he is also skeptical about the deeper effects of these “token” changes in gender roles.

“You look at some of the normative expectations around relationships and you can see that a lot is pretty much unchanged,” said Traister. “Men are still expected to give women diamond engagement rings, women are still expected to take their husband’s surname … For a long time, this [expectation to take the man’s surname] was on the decline, but now we’re seeing it go up again.”

One area where Traister said there has been significant change is where men are learning about masculinity. More than 40 percent of the 18- to 34-year-old group in the survey said they got their ideas about what it means to be a man from pop culture. Only about one fifth of the 35- to 64-year-old group said the same. This is was even lower among respondents 65 and older, only about one tenth of whom reported being influenced by pop.

“It’s unquestionably the case that a big part of young men’s understanding of masculinity is being influenced by pop culture,” said Traister.  Two of the most significant factors, according to Traister, are the proliferation of commercials that appeal to men’s sexuality, and readily available free internet pornography.

“You see the Gillette ads, the alcohol ads … so many of these are explicitly or implicitly aimed at men’s physicality, their sexual appeal and their sexual performance,” said Traister. “There is an expectation that your fulfillment of your masculinity is reflected in your ability to have sex with women.”

Traister also said that free online pornography is creating a set of unrealistic expectations in the minds of young men about what sex should be.

“By the time they embark on their first sexual experiences, they have a whole script in their heads and it [reality] is just not like that,” said Traister.

Survey data also suggested that relationship status may play a significant role in how men perceive modern masculinity. About 70 percent of unmarried men said that they thought that society placed unhealthy pressures on men, compared to just over half of married men.

Dr. James Messerschmidt, chair of the criminology department at the University of Southern Maine and author of numerous books and articles on masculinity, said that fulfillment of societal expectations may partially explain this gap.

“Married men feel successful in society because it’s still something that a man is expected to do,” said Messerschmidt. “Married men are conforming to these societal expectations, so they would naturally feel better about them.”

Scott Hochman said that he has encountered these subtle pressures to get married and have children, but noted that their source is different than that experienced by past generations.

“They don’t necessarily come from your family anymore,” said Hochman. “Now they come from your peers through social media … You look at that person with a happy family and a baby on the way and say, ‘why don’t I have those things?'”

Hochman said he is happily single and doesn’t necessarily want children in the future. Some young men, however, are less content being long-term bachelors.

Messerschmidt raised the case of the involuntary celibates, or “incels,” as an extreme example of how men unable to find a partner can become disenfranchised with society. Incels, who are classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, define themselves as men unable to find romantic or sexual partners despite greatly desiring one. They are known for their violent, misogynistic and self-loathing tendencies and have either perpetrated or inspired several mass killings. Two of the most well-known  killings directly attributed to incels are the 2014 Santa Barbra shooting and the 2018 Toronto van attack.

Despite the worrying cases of some extremist groups, Messerschmidt is cautiously optimistic about the future. He described a growing “diversity of masculinities,” which could allow men greater choice in how they define themselves as a man.

“There’s a much broader range now — from incels and white supremacists, to men that are very respectful and don’t want subordinate other men, and everything in between,” said Messerschmidt. “We’re in a period of transition. I just hope society will move towards that latter type.”

James Cutchin is an ex-management consultant with a journalistic focus on global affairs. Currently back in the U.S. after a three-and-a-half year stint in China, he is an avid traveler and is fluent in Mandarin. James is currently pursuing a graduate degree in journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.