Strict Gender Roles Hurt Men, Too
Don't accept a narrow definition of masculinity.
Posted Mar 21, 2018
In a recent interview, a colleague of mine, Dr. Amy Rogers, spoke with me about her research on the psychology of gender. The focus of that interview was on the expectations and limitations that gender roles place on women. In this article, I’d like to discuss how gender roles hurt men, too.
Many psychologists who study gender advocate for parents to try to be more gender-free when they teach their children how to be good people. In particular, they emphasize how girls are more likely to be socialized to be submissive and dependent, while boys are taught to be tough, courageous and “their own man.”
Further, girls are given a license to express their emotions and be vulnerable with their friends in a way that may be ridiculed for a boy. A boy who is upset and cries may be told to “suck it up” or “be a man.” A man who expresses anxieties or depression may be ridiculed.
Further, some professionals who counsel fathers have discovered that many fathers who have sons have very particular issues with the emotional side of parenting. They may agree that their sons should be allowed to express their feelings, but those feelings make them uncomfortable. They may realize that it doesn’t matter if their son doesn’t show any interest in sports, or is creative and artistic, but still worry floods over them that their son might be gay. Many fathers have anxiety that having a son who doesn’t have typically masculine interests means that they haven’t done their job properly. When pressed, they may say “I worry that it’s my fault. If I was a better father, my son wouldn’t be so effeminate.”
These concerns are real and deserve to be honored. However, the approach that many counselors take with men is to help them reflect on the norms of masculinity underlying their concerns, and to take a hard look at how rigid adherence to those norms can damage men.
In a recent study in the American Journal of Men’s Health, four researchers examined the relationship between rigid adherence to the norms of masculinity (which broadly include “dominance, violence, anti-femininity, emotional control, and self reliance”) and undesirable outcomes like “negative emotionality, including depression, aggression and hostility, and poorer overall psychological well-being.”
The researchers wanted to answer the following question: How do these norms produce these negative outcomes, exactly? I wish to rely on the master of the unconscious, Sigmund Freud (1960). In Freud’s opinion, human beings have inherent drives and impulses which must be tamed in order to avoid chaos. If we are feeling depressed, we need to figure out a way to avoid letting the depression get the best of us so that we can move forward and live our lives. If we are anxious, we must learn ways to control and combat anxiety.
As we mature, a host of sources, such as our parents, civilization and higher education train us to censor these impulses. In this article, I wish to suggest that these sources also train us to censor any impulse that is contrary to our gender role.
Repression is the main method that we develop for defending ourselves from judgment for having an unacceptable thought or desire. The repression of these thoughts and desires that we have is developed into an inner censor that judges them as shameful or impolite. If we have internalized a need to be masculine, any thought, desire, or feeling contrary to what “masculine” has come to mean must be censored. However, Freud says, “to the human psyche, all renunciation is exceedingly difficult,” and so we must “find a means of undoing the renunciation and retrieving what was lost.” [p.101]
Freud conceptualized the process of repression like a relief valve on a hydraulic machine. If we let the machine operate for too long, the air pressure in the machine builds up so much that it must be released or the machine will blow up. A valve on the machine allows for this pressure to be released so that the machine can continue to operate. In a similar fashion, if we repress our feelings and desires for too long, the pressure from the pent-up energy gets to be too much. Those feelings and desires need to come out somehow.
According to the authors of the aforementioned study, “Theoretical work on masculine norms suggests that these norms are learned through policing and fear-based learning which can, in turn, bring about increased risk-taking behaviors (Addis, Mansfield, & Syzdek, 2010). Researchers and clinicians have argued that additional aspects of masculine gender socialization may predispose some men to engage in suicidal and self-damaging behaviors, including the desire for emotional control and self-reliance (Green & Jakupcak, 2015).”
In other words, men who are overly constricted by their gender, whose fear of being ridiculed for behaviors that are not “masculine enough” have an increased likelihood to release the tension from their repression in negative ways. “Studies examining sex differences in self-harm report that men are more likely to burn, self-hit, bang one’s head against objects, punch walls or other objects, and engage in generally risky behaviors (e.g., driving dangerously).”
The authors continue: “Adherence to masculine norms seems to be associated not only with various forms of negative emotionality (Good & Wood, 1995; Magovcevic & Addis, 2008), but also the ways in which men experience, express, and respond to these emotions. Adherence to masculine norms is linked to features of emotional dysregulation in men, including alexithymia (Cusack, Deane, Wilson, & Ciarrochi, 2006; Jakupcak, Osborne, Michael, Cook, & McFall, 2006; Levant et al., 2003; Levant et al., 2006) as well as fear and purposeful avoidance or suppression of vulnerable emotions such as sadness and depression, anxiety, or fear (Jakupcak, Salters, Gratz, & Roemer, 2003; Wide, Mok, McKenna, & Ogrodniczuk, 2011), and avoidance of negative affect (Green & Addis, 2012). This literature suggests that some men, as a function of masculine norms, may struggle to experience and express a wide array of negative emotions.”
The threat to men who have accepted a narrow definition of what it means to be a man is very real. Self-harm, depression, anxiety, and aggressive attacks on others may be the consequence of having to hold in any thought or feeling that could expose a man to ridicule or judgment.
Men who are fathers of young boys may also transmit those narrow gender definitions – and along with them, a narrow set of destructive mechanisms for releasing their repressed emotions – to the next generation. It is high time that all people are relieved of the burden of the made-up construct of gender. Your genitals do not define you! You are a person, who is allowed to act authentically, as your feelings and desires manifest themselves.
Let’s teach our children to value and express the best characteristics of both genders, as they are appropriate to the situations in which they find themselves. Let’s all strive to be human beings, and give each other a break!
Freud, S. (1960). Jokes and their relation to the unconscious. New York: Norton and Company.
Green, J. D., Kearns, J. C., Ledoux, A. M., Addis, M. E., & Marx, B. P. (2018). The association between masculinity and nonsuicidal self-injury. American journal of men's health, 12(1), 30-40.