Bushmaster and the Cult of Masculinity

A few people have asked me whether I, as a dad of a seven-year old, was going to write anything about the tragedy in Connecticut.  I replied that I had no expertise or anything unique or helpful to say- I’m just as pissed and sad as everyone else, and who wants to read a story about how I embarrassed Nick by hugging him for too long as he got off the school bus.

So, I’m not writing about Newtown. But I did come across this advertisement for the gun used in the mass murder, and it got me thinking about the signals our society still gives men about who they are expected to be.

What do messages like this demonstrate about how we view “men” in our society?

Over the past generation or so, we’ve seen a huge shift in expectations and opportunities for women. While they still face stereotypes and discrimination, for the large part women have been freed from the shackles of having to conform to traditional role expectations. The majority of women work outside the home and many are now in positions of leadership, and women represent the majority (55% last I checked) of incoming college students, medical students and law students (see here). Women don’t need to be trapped as caretakers and housewives dependent on their husbands for income.  Girls who play sports, are good at math, and are “tomboys” are now lauded for these achievements. These are most welcome developments, and we are all better off for it.

Progress for men has not come as quickly. Men who do not conform to traditional masculine roles still face stigma and invisible barriers. Men are still far more likely to choose careers that require long hours, intense stress, dangerous work, frequent travel, and long commutes in return for being a better provider- no matter that these jobs take a physical and psychic toll, are less satisfying, and crowd out time for prioritizing family (see here and here). Men who don’t earn a good living or work in “women’s professions” have a harder time attracting female attention, getting married or staying married (to say nothing about men who are short, weak or overweight). Divorce often comes on the heels of a man’s unemployment (see here for the 2012 work-family research study of the year that found that while social pressure discouraging women from working outside the home has weakened, pressure on husbands to be breadwinners largely remains).

“Real men” don’t need work-life balance, or so they say. Men fear huge career consequences for even broaching the subject of flexible work or work-family balance, so they need to be strategic about negotiating for it (see here), and will often only avail themselves of informal or hidden ways to address family concerns (see here). To put one’s family on par with one’s career is somehow still too progressive for many organizations and for society as a whole. Often, media portrayal of men could not be more patronizing or relentless in showing men as crude, thoughtless and tough (see here).

Men who take on parenting and household responsibilities also face subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle) discrimination.  See this excellent blog post from a friend of mine who recently transitioned from a corporate career to being a stay at home dad.

Unlike girls who are now encouraged and rewarded by society for athletic achievement, taking on leadership and progressing towards “men’s” professions in the STEM fields, boys who show an interest in girls toys, activities or “women’s careers” are generally not accepted, and the reaction they get from peers and adults can be cruel and harsh. As a result, many boys learn to repress or discard parts of their personality, and choose paths that lead to less satisfying lives.

I’m not sure any of this has anything to do with Newtown, but it is a big problem.

Luckily, the past decade has seen some progress in this area. Many workplaces are far more open to informal, part-time telecommuting. Stay-at-home dads are mobilizing as a group to provide help and social support. As more men demand to take a more equal rile in the home, workplaces and society will slowly shift. There is now media outcry when men are portrayed as unable or unwilling to take care of their own kids. Part of why I write this blog is to help dads struggling with work and family to share ideas, advice and support. And, boy, am I not alone in blogging about fatherhood.

… And, maybe, we as a society are slowly realizing real men don’t need to be tough, violent, or own semi-automatic rifles to get their “man cards”.

What do you think? Let’s discuss in the comments section.

This article was republished at the Good Men Project online men’s magazine.  Follow this link to the article.

24 thoughts on “Bushmaster and the Cult of Masculinity

  1. Well-done commentary, Scott. I’ve thought a lot about work-home balance this year. It’s tempting to do what your blogger friend did and choose the (tougher, I believe) stay at home track. If not for our mortgage, I probably would go back to freelancing and taking care of our boys at home. Thanks for sharing this.

    • Thank you, Carter, for the comment. I see work and family balance is critical- it is the two most important parts of our lives. I think most of us trade off satisfaction for taking care of our families- in a way, that’s what really being a man is about. However, it would be nice if society supported a wider range of options. (and if you are interested in wfb, check out the other articles on my blog- I’d love to get your thoughts on them)

  2. You raise an excellent point about women’s roles evolving (at least in the western world) but not mens. Definitely food for thought.

  3. Great post, Scott. I agree with just about every point you make in here. Women’s Lib has come a long way. There’s still a real long way to go, but they’ve made huge strides. Men have just dabbled their toes into the pool of change I feel. But with more and more dads being out of work and taking on the role of caregiver, I think we are starting to see a slight shift.

  4. Men in the US are just so used to media stereotypes, that they stopped fighting it. I remember, a few years ago, when gas went over $4 for the first time, tons of people started buying Priuses. American car makers, meanwhile, were trying to sell bigger, more powerful, more “masculine” cars. I think GM had Toby Keith in front of a fake brick wall on an auto-show the day gas price was the top news item of the day. He was surrounded by red white and blue balloons.

    They still try to sell us the idea that we’re cowboys, and that if we deviate from a norm that never really existed other than in the minds of marketers, then there’s something wrong with us.

    Well, now American automakers sell their own hybrids. The stereotype doesn’t fit the real world, and the more people learn how fake it is, the better. Which is why I’m such a loud mouth on my blog…

  5. This is my weapon, this is my gun. My weapon’s for killin, my gun is for fun.
    TSS Walker US Army Reg December 1970 Ft. Dix NJ

  6. Nice writing Scott – You have many valid points. My husband is one of the men who was out of work for 6 months last year. It was very hard on us as a family and not just because of the loss of income (he received no unemployment insurance). My husband had a very hard time dealing with the truth that he was no longer the breadwinner of the family. He has returned to work in a job he always wanted to be in (law enforcement) but at a significantly lower income than he had been earning. I’ve never seen him happier. He loves the family time! I find that his supervisors are much more respectful to his family and sick time. I don’t know if the new job environment compared to the high pressure sales environment that he had been in or a combination of many other possible factors. All I know is my “man card” carrying husband, NRA member, concealed carry card holder, and literally former cowboy has also struggled with the work/family balance. I will let him know of your blog.

    • From a very early agfe, boys are socialized into a relatively narrow definition of masculinity- central to this is the provider role. I can see how losing one’s job could lead to a huge loss in self-identity. You also make a great point that the employer and type of job/industry has a huge effect on stress levels and the ability to balance work and family. Thank you, cousin, for your comments and for reading the blog. I’d love to hear from your husband about his experiences- it would make an interesting blog post.

  7. I never had much issue with those stereotypes or feeling i needed to be something i wasn’t. I’m the skinny creative kid. Dad tried to get me into sports, and I was good enough, just didn’t care. Then we got into sking, rock climbing and camping and are still doing it all, 30 years later.

    So, we are all our boys need to overcome the problems. At least, that’s my story.


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