Recently it’s been difficult to avoid the mantra that masculinity is toxic. There’s that viral Gillette advert encouraging men to be nicer (provoking a mix of praise, scorn and outrage); and the claim from the American Psychological Association (APA), in its promotion for its new guidelines on working with men and boys, that “traditional masculinity—marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression—is, on the whole, harmful” – a message welcomed by some, but criticised by many others, including Steven Pinker who dubbed it “ludicrous” and the British clinical neuropsychologist Vaughan Bell, who described the campaign as “an amazing misfire“.
The APA report has been criticised on many grounds, including its oversight of the biological roots of masculinity, but the most frequently mentioned issue is with the overly simplistic, sweeping nature of the “masculinity is toxic” message. Traditional masculinity clearly reflects a host of values, beliefs and behaviours, some of which may indeed be harmful in certain circumstances, but some of which may also be beneficial, at least some of the time. Coincidentally, a paper in the January issue of the APA journal Psychology of Men and Masculinity captures just a little of this complexity.
Responding to the lack of longitudinal research on this topic, and the concerns that potential positive aspects of masculinity have been overlooked, the new study measured nearly 300 young male college students’ endorsement of traditional masculinity at one time point, in the spring of their freshman year, and then measured their wellbeing six months later.
The findings are mixed, but given the recent cultural emphasis on toxic masculinity, one result stands out: young men who, on the “Conformity to Masculine Norms” scale, more strongly endorsed the masculine ideal of “success and winning” (they agreed with statements like “In general, I will do anything to win”), tended to score higher on psychological wellbeing six months later. “Men who adhere to this norm may experience a sense of mastery and achievement through their accomplishments,” said the researchers, led by Aylin Kaya at the University of Maryland, “which can in turn boost their eudaemonic well-being.”
In contrast, and more in keeping with the message emanating from Gillette/the APA and others, the men who endorsed the masculine “Playboy” ideal (they agreed strongly that “If I could, I would frequently change sexual partners”) and/or the “power” ideal (“In general, I control the women in my life”) tended to report lower wellbeing six months later.
At the study start, the men also completed the “Gender Role Conflict” questionnaire (a scale developed in the 1980s ostensibly to explore problems arising from men’s aversion to femininity) and those who scored highly on the Restricted Emotionality sub-scale – for instance, they agreed “I have difficulty expressing my emotional needs to my partner” – also tended to report lower wellbeing six months later.
However, critics might point out that this correlation is almost inevitable as the items related to Restricted Emotionality are phrased in a negative way that assumes emotional control is a problem, such that it would be odd if a high score on this sub-scale was not associated with subsequent reduced wellbeing. A stronger case against traditional masculinity would be made by results showing that men who felt they successfully and deliberately controlled their emotions went on to experience diminished wellbeing, but such a finding seems highly unlikely given the shelves of evidence documenting the positive consequences of having more mental and emotional self-control.
It’s worth noting that the men’s endorsement, or not, of the majority of the norms that were measured by the “Conformity to Masculine Norms” scale did not, on their own, have a statistically significant association with their wellbeing six months on (positive or negative), including: “heterosexual-presentation” (being concerned to be perceived as straight); “self-reliance” (not wanting to seek help); “violence” (endorsing violence as a suitable response in some situations); “risk” (willingness to put oneself in risky situations); and “emotional control”.
Kayla and her colleagues said that the negative associations of the “Playboy” and “power” masculine norms with later wellbeing supported earlier cross-sectional work linking the endorsement of these norms with negative mental health outcomes in men. However, they added that the positive association between endorsing the “winning” norm and later wellbeing “is consistent with our hypothesis and with previous research that has indicated in certain contexts, adherence to dominant masculine norms may contribute to positive mental health.”
Of course, these new results come with their own important caveats – they may not generalise to other groups beyond young American men at college, and they are based entirely on participants’ self-reports of their own values and wellbeing. Clearly more longitudinal research is needed, arguably using scales that are not phrased with an inherent bias against traditional masculine values, and also including outcome measures not only for the men themselves, but also for those people who live and work with them.
However, these results do provide a more nuanced take on the simplistic idea that traditional masculinity is entirely toxic, a point worth considering alongside the weight of research showing the benefit to children of having a father involved in their upbringing (a point that, hidden behind the “toxic masculinity” headlines, is acknowledged fully in the new APA report; pdf).