Step right up, sir… let’s see if you’re a REAL man!

I was at our local general store the other day, standing on the porch, wearing my face mask and waiting for Kathye to hand my bag through the take-out window. I could hear from up the road a motorcycle with a loud radio on. (Between the wind noise, the engine noise, and the helmet, motorcycle music systems are kind of a dumb idea. But other people get to hear it, which seems to be the point.) Sure enough, ten seconds or so later, two guys coasted past the shop up to the four corners. I was just about to turn away from the window when they blasted off from their stop, pipes wide open as they accelerated up and over the hill.

There’s a common trope having to do with sports cars and loud bikes and big trucks and lots of guns all having to do with threatened masculinity. But it’s not just folk wisdom; there’s a significant body of social science behind it as well. Researchers Joseph Vandello and Jennifer Bosson of the University of South Florida have developed the concept of precarious manhood, that being seen as a man requires “continuous social proof and validation.” A woman can be seen as a “good” woman or a “bad” woman or somewhere along that gradient, but a man is more likely to be seen as either a “real” man or “a pussy” or “a faggot” or “a wimp” or “a boy” or some status other than a virile, heterosexual male. It’s a simple, binary, yes/no condition: are you a real man, or something else?

To quote the title of their most important theoretical paper—pulling together 130 prior works across psychology, sociology, and anthropology—manhood is “hard won and easily lost.” And along with three other colleagues (Rochelle Burnaford, Jonathan Weaver, and Dov Cohen), they set out to propose a few tests. In their article “Precarious Masculinity,” they discussed the outcome of several experiments:

  • Male and female participants were asked to agree or disagree with statements like “Manhood (Womanhood) is hard won and easily lost,” or “Manhood (Womanhood) is not a permanent state, because a man (woman) might do something that suggests that he (she) is really just a ‘boy’ (‘girl’).” Both men and women participants agreed in significant majority that manhood was precarious, disagreed that womanhood was. Men were even more likely than women to believe that manhood could be lost.
  • Participants were asked to read a somewhat ambiguous life story, concluding with the statement “My life isn’t what I expected it would be. I used to be a man (woman). Now, I’m not a man (woman) anymore.” For the stories about men, the favored interpretation was that the loss of man-status was a social condition: that he felt shamed, felt like a failure. For the stories about women, the favored interpretation was that the loss of woman-status was a physical condition, the result of an operation or menopause or aging.
  • Participants were given a set of “psychological portraits,” generic drawings intended to express some larger condition rather than to be a verbatim image. For a story having to do with men, the portraits were of an attractive man, an unattractive man, and a boy; for stories having to do with women, it was attractive woman, unattractive woman, girl. The story went that the person involved was emotionally troubled, conflicted by spiritual doubts, and had recently discovered that they were infertile. For the story about a woman, the most common image chosen to represent the story was of the unattractive woman; for the same story about a man, the most common image chosen was of the boy.
  • Participants were given a set of questions about stereotypically gendered tasks and roles: sports and mechanical and automotive questions for male participants, cooking and children and fashion questions for female participants. They were told that they were going to be scored on how far toward the “masculine” or “feminine ” ends of the scale they performed. The results were fake: both half the women and half the guys were told that they’d scored normal for their gender, the other half told they’d scored normal for the opposite gender. Then they were given a second test, a series of words with missing letters, and told to complete the word. Guys who’d just been told that they’d scored low on masculinity were more likely to complete _IGHT as fight than night or right or sight, more likely to complete SHA_E as shame than shade or shale or share. Male participants were far more likely to complete the words in an anxious or violent form if they’d just been told they weren’t very manly. For female participants, there was no meaningful difference.
  • As a follow-on to that last study, participants were asked a) if they’d be comfortable if their friends and family members knew their results of the gendered-knowledge test, and b) if they thought the results would be different if they could take another shot at it. For male participants, guys with “masculine” results were fine with the results being known, and figured that the outcomes would be the same if they did it a second time; guys with “feminine” results didn’t want the results known, and believed strongly that they’d score better if given a second chance. For women, there was no difference between the participants who’d been given “feminine” or “masculine” results.

The upshot of all of these studies suggests that people believe that “manhood” is an absolute status rather than a gradient, that it’s a fragile condition that can be easily lost, and that threats to one’s manliness are shameful and needed to be repaired, by force if necessary.

More tomorrow.

The papers referred to today are (1) Vandello, Joseph A. and Bosson, Jennifer K., “Hard Won and Easily Lost: A Review and Synthesis of Theory and Research on Precarious Manhood.” Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 2013, Vol. 14, No. 2, 101–113. (2) Vandello, Joseph A. Bosson, Jennifer K., Cohen, Dov, Burnaford, Rochelle M., and Weaver, Jonathan R., “Precarious Manhood,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2008, Vol. 95, No. 6, 1325–1339.

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