The notion of what it means to be a man is beginning to change

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In his most recent book “Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the end of an Era” Stonybrook University emeritus professor Michael Kimmel addresses how our notions of manhood have been evolving. The era of men being emotionless soldiers, whose job was to provide and protect is long gone. Today, some men are adopting a new set of skills — listening, communication and empathy and the men who embrace this new era are finding themselves happier than those who resist. KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian talks with Michael Kimmel about our changing perceptions of masculinity. 

The following interview excerpts have been abbreviated and edited for clarity. 

Professor, Michael Kimmel. Photo by Aspen.

KCRW: How’s our understanding of manhood and masculinity been transformed over the last 50 years? 

Michael Kimmel: We have learned in the past 50 years that it's hard to speak about masculinity in the singular as there are so many different masculinities. Think of two American men; one is 75, Black, gay and lives in Chicago, and other is 19, white, heterosexual and lives on a farm 250 miles outside of Chicago. Don't you think they would have some different ideas about what it means to be a man? Don't you think they'd have some things in common? 

So to answer ‘what's happening to men’ —- I’d ask ‘which men are we talking about?’ Are we talking about men of color, white men, older men, younger men, gay men, straight men, trans men — the idea of masculinity itself has become so disaggregated, there’s so many multiple masculinities. So here's the next part of my question, not all masculinities are considered equal. Masculinities are also a grade on a hierarchy; by race, by class, by sexuality, etc. So we speak of masculinities, they're not all equally valued. Having said all that, I will at least now offer an answer to your question. Here's what we have seen in surveys about American men, when well sampled for race, class, age, ethnicity, etc., is that what we were witnessing was an increasing gap between what men said it meant to be a man and what men were actually doing.

Men for many years held fast to the idea of masculinity as strong, stoic, never show feelings, always competitive, that model from John Wayne to Vin Diesel, via Arnold Schwarzenegger remained unchanged. There was however an increasing gap between that and what men were actually doing, which was actually far more childcare, far more emotionally rich relationships with their partners, far more expressive friendships, a little bit more housework, but a lot more childcare. 

So what psychologists began to see was a gap between what men were doing and what they saw it meant to be a man. What is interesting is that in the past five or six years, they've begun to see that ideology begin to change. That’s not to say that Ryan Gosling has replaced Vin Diesel, but the ideology has become more situational. ‘“Oh, sure. I'm emotional when I'm with my partner, I can certainly feel a lot of different things and I love my children and I weep with pleasure watching them.’” So what is happening is that we are changing the ideology, not completely, but just situationally, so that we allow ourselves a lot more emotional depth in our friendships and our relationships with our partners and with our children.”

What about the argument that men are biologically more physical, bigger risk takers, more assertive?  

Kimmel: “Y ou are conflating the cultural norms that have existed for millennia, that men are more physical, more active, boys are more rambunctious, roll around on the floor, play aggressively and that girls are more shy, softer and quieter. And all of those things are true but it may be that that's what we have inherited but what we are watching today is that some of those very stereotypes are breaking down right in front of our eyes.

On the one hand, it is true that women and men may have different styles. But if you put people in the same position, they will act relatively similarly, despite their gender difference. We believe men and women are different until we see that in fact  they're not."

Are we responding to this by raising our boys differently? 

Kimmel: “This is a question that we are posing all through our educational system and in parenting literature; have we changed what it means to be a boy, have we changed how we've raised our boys to be boys?  And I think that we have changed somewhat, the way we raise boys and it's all to the good and it's also parallel to the way we've changed the way we raise girls. 

We raise girls now to be strong, assertive and confident. To play sports, to dream big, to go for it. You don't have to look much further than the political mobilization of women over the past several years, to notice that women are in the corporate world, in the professional world, in the political world, in the sports world. The biggest change in our high schools in the past 25 years has been with girls sports. It’s astonishing to me that we don't recognize this and say that girls are far more powerful, more assertive, more confident. Parents of girls want to raise their girls to be strong, assertive, confident and ambitious. All of the things that we used to code as masculine and nobody ever says we're turning our girls into men, absolutely not, we’re turning them into women.  

But what we're also doing, a little bit less, is training boys to be more empathic,  to prepare them to be better fathers. There’s no place to better see this than in high school. I watched my son growing up and the biggest change for young people today is cross sex friendships. Quite often when I walk into a classroom I’d ask how many of you have a good friend of the opposite sex?’   I'd see 10% of hands  And now I can walk into any classroom anywhere in the United States, including West Point where I actually asked this question a couple of years ago and ask is there anybody here who doesn't have a good friend of the opposite sex, and I almost never see a hand. This is the biggest change among young people today.

So who do you make friends with? Do you make friends with your boss, with your subordinates? Typically, the word we use for our friends is our peers, our equals. Young people today, boys and girls are more experienced in day to day relational gender equality than any generation that has ever walked on the face of the earth. This cannot help but be good.” 

Is there a generational pushback to these changing models of masculinity? 

Kimmel: “There is a lot of pushback and young people hold the future on this. They're much more likely to be comfortable with gender equality than previous generations. It is true that in every neighborhood, there are people who cling very tightly to older ideas, and to a world in which those ideas are not well suited. And what we've been witnessing are the politics of white male grievance.  But what we also witness is that men who are engaged in more egalitarian relationships, at work, at home, more emotionally resonant relationships with their friends, more emotionally connecting with their children, are happier. 

The answers don’t come from a psychological transformation. If you look at the countries that are the happiest in the world, they also have a strong safety net. So for example, men who believe as men have always believed throughout American history, that what makes a man a man, is his ability to be a provider and a protector. Those are the two words that men have used since the founding of our country; ‘provider and protector.’ 

And as the ability to be a provider has become more and more unstable, more and more threatened, men have been buying guns to be better protectors. I think they also see that as a way to compensate for their inability to be providers. Those ideas about being providers and protectors are the ideas that we have carried with us for centuries. And now what a relief it is when you look at countries that have strong safety nets, that have greater gender equality than we do, what a relief it is to be able to share that burden.”



  • Michael Kimmel - Professor of Sociology, State University of New York-Stony Brook


Andrea Brody