As soon as we enter this world, men are socialized about how we should think, feel, and behave as men AND, how we should not think, feel, and behave as men. This gender socialization is so successful that my research participants couldn’t tell me when they first learned it. They couldn’t remember not knowing it. People of other genders learn these rules and help to perpetuate and reinforce them as well.
We are all socialized by the traditional hegemonic definition of masculinity. Critical gender scholars call this hegemonic because it places men above other genders, some men above other men, and limits all men. This is also called dominant or Toxic Masculinity because it is so toxic for everyone.
We are all also socialized into many other cultural masculinities at the intersections of other identities.
These masculinities include working-class, gay, Black, Jewish, able-bodied, Latino, mid-western, and rural masculinities. Each of these masculinities is also plural because there are many different rural masculinities, many different Black masculinities, and so on.
Critically exploring masculinities can help illuminate privilege, address systemic sexism, and begin to create greater liberation for people of all genders. This includes liberation for men from the confines of masculinities that deny our authenticity and humanity.
There is a growing societal awareness of Toxic Masculinity. Many have tried to encourage a different version of masculinity, called Healthy Masculinity. For those just beginning to explore Toxic Masculinity, pursuing Healthy Masculinity, which is more pro-social, can certainly be helpful in guiding them in a different direction. In other words, this might be a good strategy, depending on where others are at in their learning. However, ultimately Healthy Masculinity is just another externally imposed set of guidelines that can also be restricting and limiting. What is Healthy Masculinity for me, might not be healthy for someone else and vice versa.
I’d like to make the case instead for Authentic Masculinity.
This masculinity is individually defined and allows each person who identifies as a man to decide what is authentic and genuine for him about his masculinity. This requires recognizing the gender socialization externally imposed by hegemonic masculinity and various cultural masculinities. Exploring who he is beyond the faking, performances, and masks to live up to these external expectations. This is challenging to do. How does one explore who one really is when he has been taught to live up to others’ expectations for their whole life? To paraphrase how one participant put it:
I really like football. I played football. I like college football, professional football, fantasy football. But how do I know if I really like football or if I’ve just been taught my whole life that I am supposed to like football…and if I don’t know if I like football, how do I know if I really like girls?
So as you can see, once football is up for grabs, everything is up for grabs.
Encouraging Authentic Masculinity means recognizing the external expectations, exploring who one really is, and living in integrity by aligning what one values with what one does consistently. In my research, this evolved from learning external expectations, realizing that they couldn’t live up to those expectations and wearing a mask, to discovering who they really were, to living in integrity as who they really were consistently.
Discovering Authentic Masculinity is likely a life-long task to discover, re-discover, and live out fully. But anything else is simply living one’s life by other people’s rules. Authentic Masculinity means identifying as a man but making your own meaning about what that means for you personally, without needing for that to be shared with other men. It can change and evolve as you do and the world around you. It is liberating.