Socialization Essay, Research Paper
Masculinity is a topic that has been debated
in our society extensively, through research as well as in informal settings.
Many wonder what it means to be masculine, and if we can really assign
a definition to such a subjective term. After all, shouldn’t one’s own
perception be the determinant of what constitutes masculinity? This self-construction
would be the ideal in our society, but unfortunately, it represents a false
belief. Masculinity has certain characteristics assigned to it by our culture.
In this paper I will explore the many facets of masculinity and demonstrate
how certain beliefs pertaining to it are perpetuated in our society. I
will also uncover many of the contradictions between society’s assigned
definition of masculinity and the expectation that males will somehow learn
how to act contrary to that assigned and learned meaning.
Definition of Masculinity
Men are primarily and secondarily socialized
into believing certain characteristics are definitive in determining their
manliness and masculinity. These characteristics range from not crying
when they get hurt to being and playing violently. The socialization of
masculinity in our society begins as early as the first stages of infancy.
A child’s burgeoning sense of self or self-concept is a result of the multitude
of ideas, attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs to which he is exposed (Witt
1997). Later in this paper the question of whether there are genetic factors
will be discussed. However, to further my argument at this point, I will
discuss masculinity as it is socially defined. From the outset of a boy’s
life he is socialized into the belief that he should be ‘tough’. Often
when boys get hurt, ’scrape their knee’, or come whimpering to their mother
or father, the fated words, “Little boys don’t cry”, issue forth. Children
internalize parental messages regarding gender at an early age, with awareness
of adult sex role differences being found in two-year-old children. One
study found that children at two and a half years of age use gender stereotypes
in negotiating their world and are likely to generalize gender stereotypes
to a variety of activities, objects, and occupations (Witt 1997). This
legitimization teaches males that boys and men are not allowed to cry.
There also exists the belief that boys are often required to do ‘men’s
work’ outside of the home such as mowing the lawn, cleaning the garage,
etc., and not ’sissy women’s work’ such as cooking and cleaning, etc. Other
factors help to perpetuate certain standards expected of men and boys (Stearns
The violence boy’s witness on television
further legitimates this belief. Katz explains that advertising imagery
equates masculinity with violence. For boys this means aggression is instrumental
in that it enables them to establish their masculinity (Katz 1995). Lee
Bowker researched the influence advertisements have on youth. He asserts
that toy advertisements featuring only boys depict aggressive behavior.
Strangely, the aggressive behavior generally results in positive consequences
more often than negative. Bowker also looked at commercials with boys that
contain references to domination. The results of all the commercials indicate
that 68.6% of the commercials positioned toward boys contain incidents
of verbal and physical aggression. There was no cross?gender display of
aggressive behavior. Interestingly, not one single-sex commercial featuring
girls shows any act of aggression (Bowker 1998). This research helps explain
that it is not just the reinforcement of close caretakers to the child
that legitimate masculinity but society as a whole (using the television
as a symbol of society and it’s desires).
Another example of how this can be reinforced
even by women who may or may not be trying to promulgate such a belief
is with an experience I had growing up:
When I would get a cut or a bruise, I
would muster up all the strength I had to not cry. I feared that if I cried
I wouldn’t be worthy of being a tough kid. On one occasion I had a severe
cut in my knee that required several stitches. When I took a look at the
wound after rolling up my pant leg, my first inclination was to break out
crying. However, at that moment my teacher told me what a brave boy I was
and how amazed she was that I was not crying. She probably did not realize
that she was sending a message to me that if I cried I would not be tough
enough, and therefore I would not become a real man.
Athletics is another type of legitimation
that reinforces society’s definition of masculinity. Boys watch how their
fathers dote and fawn over ‘the game’, whether it is football, basketball,
or any other sport that epitomizes masculinity. Children notice that the
‘men’ on TV impress dad and they want to be like that. This initial reinforcer
is a major impetus for boys wanting to learn athletics (Thompson 1995).
It may not be just that dad watches athletics on TV, but also in speaking
with his son, he may encourage him to develop his athletic prowess. He
can do this in ways such as buying him a baseball glove so they can spend
time playing catch, or buying him other ‘masculine’ athletic equipment
such as guns. All of these factors serve as primary socializers in instilling
within boys the desire to excel physically. Similarly, how often are young
boys seen competing with each other in bike races, acts of physical strength
or even in something as simple as “My dad can beat up your dad?” Little
boys are taught to see physical prowess as the ideal. An interesting aspect
of masculinity is that we are not taught so much to be “manly” but rather
to not be feminine. Most of what a young boy learns about what it means
to be masculine is presented to him at such an early stage that he accepts
it as an inevitable truth. Often young boys can be found taunting and even
motivating each other with phrases like “Don’t be a (sissy) girl” or “Only
girls do that.” It seems that there is a pervasive fear among all males
that the worst possible insult is to be labeled a female. William Betcher
reports that some societies take this concept to an extreme. He talks of
the initiation rites of the Sambia of New Guinea saying, “Initiation rites
begin when boys are seven to ten years old and include oral ingestion of
older boys’ semen and painful bleeding by sticking grass reeds up the nose.
The bleeding is a counterpart of menstruation and semen is ingested instead
of mother’s milk” (Betcher 1993). Although these actions seek to mark the
boy as “not a woman”, ironically they incorporate basic feminine biologic
functions that men lack.
Secondary socialization then acts in the
later stages of a boy’s life to reaffirm society’s beliefs about masculinity.
As boys grow older, their bodies develop and they enter junior high and
high school. At this point they begin to really understand that physical
prowess and largess are the ideal. To see how this is done, we can simply
look at the emphasis given to athletics versus the emphasis given to academics
in public schools. Understandably, how schools emphasize athletics over
academics is going to have some influence over the way young men think
and visualize the importance of physical prowess, but the true legitimator
is how athletes are seen by the student?body of the school. Pep rallies
are thrown to support the ‘athletes’, the ’stars’ of the school. Girls
swoon over the masculine ‘hunks’.
As young boys move into adulthood they
are told to “be men” when confronted with a formidable challenge or when
they face some sort of agony. The implication in this phrase is that men
should be immune to pain and not show any emotion. To show emotion would
be a sign of weakness and society would view them as abnormal or inferior
I have covered the socialization process
showing how physical prowess is objectified and legitimated in males. This
process, however, does not end in high school. As men move into their twenties
and thirties, health and fitness become issues of concern. To see how health
and fitness are socially defined as overly muscular men, one need only
pick up a copy of Men’s Health. Invariably you will find on the cover,
men flaunting their toned, muscular bodies, and often you will find them
with a seductively beautiful and toned woman by their side. These toned
and muscled men are seen and depicted by society as the ideal. They may
not be the healthiest individuals and probably are not. Nevertheless, they
are deemed as the ‘ideal men’ of our society. Along with the emphasis on
health and fitness comes the continued advent of athletic prowess. How
often are men asked “Did you see the game last night?” or “How about them
Jazz?” In the work place and social groupings, men often turn the topic
of conversation to athletic events, enthralled and enraptured by the topic.
From the beginning of male life to the very end, society has determined
that men must be strong, tough, aloof, and powerful to be considered masculine
and not weak or effeminate.
Is this all that society (and women) want
in men? Do they want simple-minded ‘hunks’ of musculature that are ‘tough’.
It is no longer sufficient for men to just be ‘tough’ physically. They
must also demonstrate competence intellectually, spiritually and emotionally.
This argument is not to say that being physically fit and healthy is a
negative characteristic, but rather it is only trying to point out that
what society is defining as the ideal is later revoked by that same society,
or at the very least discarded and seen as secondary to the truly important
mental prowess, sensitivity and intelligence.
This is where the double standard becomes
evident. William Pollack, a Harvard clinical psychologist, talks about
how males have been put in a “gender straightjacket” that leads to anger,
despair and often violence. Pollack states, “We ask them (men) to take
a whole range of feelings and emotions and put those behind a mask . .
. We tell them they have to stand on their own two feet and we shame them
if they show any emotion.” Pollack says that boys are shame phobics and
“some will [even] kill to avoid shame”(Gwartney 1998). It appears that
the standard defined by society allows men to express their emotion only
through anger. With such strict conflicting expectations, a male often
doesn’t know how to act. Rigid stereotypes have been emphasized to them
from an early age of what it means to really be a man. However, men are
often criticized for being one dimensional in their behavior and emotions.
They are expected by society to be sensitive
and show their emotions. “Men are so insensitive!”‘ Are they? Why do women
think men are so insensitive? Do they realize that insensitivity is what
men have been taught their whole lives? Realistically, men are in a no?win
situation. If they don’t show their emotions, they are berated for being
detached from the essence of what really constitutes a human being. On
the other hand, if a male decides to expose his emotions, he is labeled
as a “sissy” and not viewed as equal to other males who demonstrate more
valor and bravery.
Genetics vs. Socialization
Why do we choose blue for boys and pink
for girls? Why do we have girls take dance and boys play baseball? There
is no genetic difference as to why women would do laundry and a man would
mow the lawn. This is a result of externalization (Bowker 1998). But are
males more prone to ‘toughness’ and masculinity than women? Could it be
said that genetics play a factor in what is so often considered to be a
socially defined aspect of male masculinity?
In general, males are much more aggressive
than females. Biologists and anthropologists would propose that this is
because humans have evolved from a polygamous society. In that society
males competed hard to procreate, and females worked to raise and support
the young. These roles demanded aggression in males, and promoted rules
such as hierarchy, competition and dominance.
A theory promulgated by David Buss takes
into consideration the social side of aggression while maintaining that
biological instincts are the underlying cause. He suggests in his book
The Evolution of Desire that the existence of large numbers of men who
cannot attract a mate may increase sexual aggression and rape. He states
that “violence is often the recourse of people who lack resources that
would otherwise elicit voluntary compliance with their wishes.” Rape occurs
more often by men who lack the status and resources that women want in
mates (Buss 1994).
Richard Wrangham and Dale Petersen take
another perspective with their insightful article about primates. From
their research they conclude that a high percentage of matings were forced
copulations. These findings were mostly with the orangutan species, but
there is also evidence that chimpanzees and ducks participate in what appears
to be rape. The theories suggest that natural selection has favored rape
as a way for smaller males to impregnate females. This theory has also
been argued with humans. Thus it could be said that males are genetically
prone to violence and aggression (Wrangham 1997).
Is there a double standard in masculinity?
It is apparent through my arguments that society expects men to be both
‘tough’ and ‘gentle’ while some might argue that genetics, instincts and
their animalistic nature for men to act more tough than gentle. The paradox
is evident, the source ambiguous. Regardless, masculinity is an unrealistic
expectation of men. Who or what are they supposed to be?
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Buss, David. (1994) The Evolution of Desire.
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Gwartney, Debra. (October 17, 1998) “Double
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