How Problematic Is Masculinity?

Masculinity | The Flounce


Last month, The Huffington Post and ran an article by John McCarroll, “The Language of Dude Feminism,” which criticized popular women’s rights movements like the “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls” campaign, spearheaded and endorsed by Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore, for not doing more to challenge the idea of masculinity and gender roles.

The article was met with some backlash in comments, mainly from men who felt attacked or alienated by the article, and from men who disagreed with the article’s suggestion that using the idea of masculinity to promote feminism is problematic. Criticism primarily took the form of: “What’s wrong with the idea of masculinity?”, “Men just can’t do right by women, can we?” and “What’s wrong with the Real Men campaign, anyway? It seeks to help women, after all.”



Here’s the thing, guys. You need to be able to accept criticism where it’s due and try to do better where you can. In turn, we, as feminists, need to be careful not to alienate our allies by insulting them and their good (if misguided) intentions. And I think McCarroll’s article is mindful of those points, while still noting where the “dude feminism” movements can improve. It even goes so far as to point out that while masculinity-driven campaigns such as “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls” have issues, they have done a fair amount of good for women’s rights. I don’t see that as alienation of allies by any means, unless constructive criticism is intolerable.

McCarroll’s article discusses how it is precarious to use masculinity and male-associated values to defend women, because they glorify sexist notions of male dominance and patriarchy; he further criticizes the movements as “various incarnations of ‘how would you feel if someone said that to your mother/sister/girlfriend.’”

There is also the problem, which I think “The Language of Dude Feminism” did not directly address, with the inherently fallacious idea that there are “real” men and (as a logical conclusion to that reasoning) “false” men. Men who rape women are no less “real” than men who respect the autonomy of women; they’re just significantly less morally upright.

But back to “dude feminism” and manliness: Just how problematic is masculinity?

It’s only problematic insofar as it’s associated with men and maleness, which it undeniably and frequently is. That is to say, masculinity is a problem, but it becomes so the moment that traits such as enjoying football, being rash and the capability to lift heavy things are tied to and related to men. There is nothing wrong at all with a man who is traditionally “masculine” (and I do so hate the word for its troublesome association with maleness), as long as he understands that there is nothing inherently manly about what he is.

It goes vice-versa for women; to be traditionally feminine is nothing to be ashamed of, but it becomes an issue when women decide that they are that way “because they’re girls.” Such a determination gives birth to the same “no true Scotsman” fallacy of which the “Real Men” campaign falls afoul; it suggests that women who do not conform to traditional gender roles are invalid, which couldn’t be further from reality.

The idea of masculinity as an umbrella term for “all things man” (and femininity as the opposite) is an issue because it appropriates traits such as strength as belonging chiefly to men merely because men have enforced an unnatural monopoly on those traits for thousands of years. Men who refer to themselves as “masculine” are not merely stating that they like football and bench-pressing; they’re also often claiming by exclusion that they are not such things as sensitive, vain, or delicate.

To do right by feminism and women’s rights, a man needs to acknowledge his traditionally “masculine” traits, and take pride in them, while recognizing that there is nothing actually “masculine” about them. He also needs to be comfortable with owning any traditionally “feminine” traits about himself without dismissing them as “girly” (as if that should be negative). Further, we need to stop using gender-tied terms such as “masculine” and “feminine” or qualify them with words such as “traditionally” when we describe attributes that have historically (and sexistly) been associated with the sexes.

What McCarroll fails to acknowledge in his article is that, while the campaign to define “real men” as men who do not contribute to sex trafficking is trite and rife with issues, the movement does attempt to redefine what it means to be a better man, and this is a positive thing. Furthermore, the movement has been considerably popular over the past couple years, which has done a lot for the prevalence of feminist ideas, such as that women are not property to be sold. Again, it is a clumsy attempt at changing the way men view themselves in relation to each other, but it has been somewhat effective at achieving its goal, which is to curtail the trafficking of underage girls by reducing demand. Any attempt to redefine “masculinity” to include a respect for the rights of women should be viewed as a step in the right direction, albeit just a step.

I cannot stress enough how important it is not to make a social justice ally feel as though their efforts are worthless because they’re imperfect. As a primarily heterosexual gay and transgender ally, I’m certain I make mistakes all the time in supporting my queer friends, and likely at times make problematic suggestions out of ignorance. That we are confronted with some criticism of our support is no reason to stop being supportive of a cause; we need to graciously accept criticism and redouble our efforts. Men who are involved with the “Real Men” movement and movements like it need to recognize that their efforts are greatly appreciated, but that they can and should attempt to do even better.


Duni Arnold
Duni Arnold is the Junior Editor of Issues for The Flounce and lives in Fairbanks, Alaska. Her subjects of specialty include women’s issues, race, social justice and policy. On a typical day she can be found oil painting, scribbling music, studying economics and browsing the interwebs on her laptop with her dog Star at her feet.
  • Alaskanwerewolf

    “It’s only problematic insofar as it’s associated with men and maleness, which it undeniably and frequently is. That is to say, masculinity is a problem,” did you mean “isn’t a problem , but it becomes so the moment that traits such as enjoying football, “

    • Duni Arnold

      Well, I intended it to say “masculinity IS a problem”, as it currently says, but what I mean by that is similar to what you are saying, depending on whether we have the same definition of masculinity or not.

      I am referring to masculinity as traits (such as enjoying football) associated with men and males, with the intention that they are associated with men and males. So masculinity is, in a sense, inherently problematic if we define it as being associated with maleness — if we’re just defining it as “things that men tend to or stereotypically like”, though, there’s nothing wrong with it. It is when and only when it becomes tied to the idea of sex and when it is served in a package with other stereotypically “masculine” traits that it becomes a problem.

      I apologize if my intent was not clear in that paragraph; post-publishing, I have received critique from someone I trust that the meaning of it not be as clear to everyone else as it was to myself and the editors. I hope it made some sense to you.

  • Joe Raypen

    Do you have a father? Is he a problem?

    Just sayin’

  • Crayven

    Since when women define what real MEN are?

  • kbrigsby61 .

    Wowww.. I, hav now read 3 of this females’ many articles & I, just havta wonder, WHAT the heck happend to her to cawz her to HATE(!!!) men so much…. Wowww

  • Kiya Sinewave

    Daring to question and think about gender, gender stereotypes, and behavior is hardly “man-hating.” One is missing quite a bit if that’s all one takes from this article. And, hello, men do contribute disproportionately to a lot of society’s problems.