The so-called crisis of masculinity has drawn much attention and concern by politicians, academics, the public, and most dominantly, the media. This crisis is characterised by a widely perceived fear, uncertainty, and hysteria about the alleged decline of traditional Western manhood, threatened by women’s emancipation and other, “new” forms of masculinity. The men’s-rights promoter and sociologist Walter Hollstein describes it as such:

“Men used to be the ruler of the world for centuries, hunted in the wild, protected women and children, and made fields arable. Men were considered the creator of culture. Nowadays everything has changed. Men are stigmatised as oppressors. They are accused of abusing women and children”[1]

To understand where this perceived crisis actually comes from, whom it concerns, and what its risks and implications are, it is necessary to give it greater scrutiny, and dissect some of its main (mis)conceptions. This article will first highlight some examples of the crisis, then trace its structural roots, and look at the way it is used to the advantage of politicians and right-wing movements, and finally it considers some of the crisis’ less examined dimensions, particularly in the field of intersectionality and displacement. The article does not attempt to be exhaustive, but offers a brief overview of different masculinities and the challenges they undergo through historical, economical, and societal changes. These changes require a redefinition and renegotiating of traditional ideals of masculinity, in order to move beyond the so-called crisis.

Failed heroes and shamed abusers

Incidents like the New Year’s Eve attacks in Cologne in 2016, and the #metoo movement stirred new discussion on a heterosexual man’s conflicting role as simultaneous protector and abuser of women. On the one hand, German men were criticised for being unable to protect their women,[2] when many were sexually assaulted on New Year’s Eve by groups of men, reportedly from a North African immigrant background. The media presentation of these incidents revealed a racial dimension of the crisis, in which the non-white, foreign man – the black or oriental “Other” – is portrayed as a savage, dangerous sexual predator, whilst the civilised, white German man has to play the noble hero by saving women from this threat. Protests against the so-called “Rape-fugees” and comments by the publicist Cora Stephan, who said German men all acted as “Weicheier”[3] (cowards) are well known.

On the other hand, #metoo, the Twitter hashtag that made the frequency and ubiquity of sexual harassment visible, unveiled many, often white, powerful men, like Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Matt Lauer as sexual abusers. This caused uneasiness among those who feared to lose their job after intimidation, sexual harassment and misuse of their power position at the workplace. Many men felt shamed, stigmatised, and accused for a certain masculine behaviour that used to be completely acceptable, and even glorified by popular characters like James Bond, or the male protagonists in Alfred Hitchcock movies. Moreover, french female activists like Catherine Deneuve and 99 other prominent women added fuel to the fire by claiming, somewhat clumsily, that men should not lose their “right to pester” women, hinting at a “wave of purification”, where even gentlemanlike behaviour is reprimanded.[4] Also other men, who do not necessarily demonstrate aggressive masculine behaviour, seem unsure about how to talk to or flirt with women, without being accused of intimidation or harassment. Though these fears seem somewhat exaggerated, the lack of insight on the differences between flirtation and intimidation has led many teachers, activists, and academics to call for better sex and consent education at an earlier age.[5] The #metoo movement has been effective in making women feel heard and believed, creating more discussion, and bringing more justice to these issues, but has also caused alienation and a greater opposition by those who feel that their traditional norms and values are under attack. The victimisation of this being a men’s “crisis” is highly problematic, as it shifts attention away from the real victims of sexual assault, and gives certain men, especially from the Alt-Right movement, an incentive to act out their toxic masculine behaviour more determinedly. The agenda of Alt-Right movements will be discussed below in more detail.

The structural roots of the crisis

Male insecurities about being a “real man”, a protective father, a dominant leader, a breadwinner for the family, and, ironically, at the same time sexually attractive to other women are nothing new. In 1994, the psychotherapist Roger Horrocks was one of the first to talk of a “crisis” for men in Western cultures. In many of his male patients he observed insecurity and self-destructive behaviour, as they could not live up to the ideals of masculinity that patriarchal society expected of them.[6] This leads to the simple paradox that men feel broken by their own privileged position of power, which advocates domination, a rejection of the feminine and homosexual, and a denial of all vulnerabilities and weaknesses.[7] But even before the 1990s have conceptions of masculine identity become more challenged and precarious. During the Belle Époque, from the end of the 19th century till the outbreak of the First World War in Europe, the appearance of the New Woman and outspoken homosexuals like Oscar Wilde seemed to pose a threat to the patriarchal order and traditional gender relations.[8] Other scholars argue, that in the 1980s in America, the end of the Vietnam War resulted in a generational conflict between sons and their negatively perceived father figures.[9] These fathers returned home as veterans, traumatised and confused about what it actually meant to be an honourable man, and simultaneously muted and invisible in a society, which looked on them as failures or unaccomplished.[10] This illustrates that not only man’s relation to women can become de- or constructive to his own sense of self, but also their relation to their older brothers, friends, and fathers. Nowadays, scholars like to point at rising suicide rates, educational underachievement, gang membership, alcohol and drug abuse, prison sentence in one’s twenties, and violent extremism[11], to show that men are much more susceptible to this than women, and that these problems may already start in their early childhood. Interestingly, educational underachievement and the lack of male role models at kindergartens and schools, where they are often treated by teachers as if they are girls[12], are the more recent phenomena that seem to aggravate male insecurities, and leads to the feeling of being misunderstood. However, some of the aforementioned problems, like violence and drug abuse, may either be a cause or consequence of the crisis of masculinity, where societal changes, gendered expectations, and biological determinants are all deeply intertwined, and hard to distinguish. This suggests that the crisis on an individual level is not necessarily new, but may be present in all societies that put high expectations on an idolised form of manhood. Of course, not every man experiences these difficulties in his adolescence, and even if they suppress their vulnerabilities, feel emasculated, or insecure this does not always have to result in a crisis. There is not one single masculinity, nor are all masculinities toxic or aggressive. Instead, we should see them as multiple, fluid, complex, and capable of change.

Weaponization of male insecurities

The societal aspects of the crisis nowadays can be traced back to the dramatic changes of the public and domestic sphere in the West. Despite the persisting gender wage gap, sex segregation in certain professions, and a lack of women in leading or managerial positions, women’s educational, economic, and political opportunities have slowly, but decisively improved in most countries. Next to that, there is an active feminist and gender-right movement at universities, in social media, and in the general public, that vehemently aims to dismantle patriarchy and man’s sense of entitlement. Though these thoughts are widely popular in the humanities and social sciences, for instance, it can cause polarisation and resentment elsewhere. However, the widespread unease and panic over the perceived erosion of man’s privileges is, again, not only about women’s emancipation and gender right activists, but also about a new hegemonic model of masculinity that has emerged through globalisation. The sociologist Michael Kimmel argues that this hegemonic masculinity is best exemplified by a cosmopolitan, wealthy businessman with liberal tastes in consumption and sexuality, and conservative political ideas.[13] Those who cannot identify with this model of success, or have been left out and disappointed by global changes, try to redefine their wounded masculinity, by rejecting this elitist, Western ideal. Among these may be the ordinary, white, lower class workers, who supported Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, as their manual labour seemed to have lost its dignity, and they were scorned as uneducated by the elite in the metropoles. Calls to make “America great again!” and to bring back the British empire during the Brexit campaign express a longing to re-establish an old patriarchal order. Yet also in Russia, the Middle East, and Central Asia men have a strong resentment against the feminised politics of the West, its allegedly “softened” men, and its tolerance for homosexuality. Kimmel observes that this is especially the case for right-wing extremists, whether they are neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, or Taliban members in Afghanistan.[14] Although these are quite strong examples, one could argue that there is the desire to reassert one’s masculinity in opposition to the establishment, or any other scapegoat that made them a “loser” of the globalised world.

Vietnam Memorial

With the rise of right-wing populism in Europe and the United States, there is a dangerous trend that masculinity is victimised, and thereby used as an excuse to further discriminate women and certain “others”, who do not fit the category of the dominant, traditionalist male. This allows politicians, group leaders, and opinion-makers to transform and mobilise this so-called crisis into hatred and aggression against liberals, immigrants, homosexuals, and women, in particular. Especially alt-right movements, among which online forums like Man Going Their Own Way and the Red Pill, are notable for this kind of agenda. They claim to advocate a more positive identification model for men, but express misogynist ideas, deny the existence of gender inequalities, and celebrate radicalised young men, like Elliot Rodger, who targeted a sorority house with a gun, in his own frustration over his own virginity.[15] Interestingly, Rodger claimed to be the “true victim”[16] of this crime, which highlights the danger and delusional nature that self-victimisation poses to a perceived identity crisis. Yet this radicalisation and misogyny does not only take place in the hidden corners of the internet, but also in public spaces, most notably, during the presidential elections in America in 2016. Trump’s infamous sexism, his bragging about grabbing women “by the pussy”, his portrayal of Mexicans as “rapists”, and his claim that Senator McCain was a “loser” for being captured in the Vietnam war, all surprisingly did not prevent him from becoming the next President of the United States.[17] In contrast, his rhetoric seemed to resonate with widespread fears about the decline of American manhood, and was either praised for showing real manliness, mocking elitism and political correctness, or apologised as innocent banter. Trump knows about these fears, and is able to weaponize them. Many of his voters were longing for the punishment of those who dared to deprive men of their collectively imagined glory and superiority. The “lock her up” chant, and the multitude of sexist abuse which presidential candidate Hillary Clinton received exemplify perhaps best this aggression and search for revenge. With this, also women who have internalised age-old misogyny, felt that Trump was a suitable leader to punish the elite and heal a degenerated America. Trump’s performance makes him the archetype of toxic masculinity, and further feeds and reaffirms Western men’s insecurities and fears. On a more positive note, it could also encourage people to distance themselves from this toxic behaviour.

 

Masculinities in displacement

Whilst much of scholarly research has been done on white, heterosexual masculinity, it is also interesting to focus on the men from other cultures, now living in Europe or the United States, to see how they experience this so-called crisis, to what extent it is different, and which other factors play a role in shaping their sense of manliness. This could be about the Mexican immigrants in the U.S., or the people from Syria, Afghanistan, Mali or Eritrea who arrived in Europe because of the so-called refugee crisis. As the term suggests, this is where two crises meet, or where one generates another. Complex social identity markers, such as gender, religion, and ethnicity, become intertwined with migration and the trauma of displacement, and are therefore renegotiated again, by one self, and by the perceptions of others. The aforementioned anti-immigrant sentiments in Europe, and its problematic relation to local masculinities, causes the paradox that newly arrived refugees are expected to integrate and redefine their own identity in a culture that is often alien and hostile to them. On top of that, their countries of origin are often marked by much stronger gender divisions in the public and domestic sphere, and higher expectations of masculinity and femininity, relating to family honour, religion, and culture. This is also reflected in their migratory journey, as many young men come to Europe first to build up a life there, so they can bring their families later via a safer route, or send remittances to their home. In addition to these high expectations on their ability to provide for the family, their sexual success is also put into question by Western societies who tend dismiss “other” men (Muslim, Middle Eastern, Central Asian…) as oppressors of women, and are therefore sceptical towards any form of sexual relationship with them. In a study on Iranian men in Sweden, the anthropologist Shahram Khosravi argues how these men become displaced from their power position at home, where they enjoy a controlling gaze on women, into a position, where they become the object of the Swedish majority gaze.[18] This renders them invisible as an individual, but visible as a stereotyped migrant. Their masculinity that was highly regarded in Iran, is now seen as primitive, compared to the “civilised” Swedish masculinity.[19] Many migrants from Muslim-majority countries experience this racism, discrimination, and Islamophobia, and continuously struggle to balance their own cultural learnings with those of the receiving country without giving up too much of their fundamental values.

Conclusion

There is an abundance in masculinity studies, and this text aimed to address a few of the main themes concerning the so-called crisis of masculinity. With all the variations, it is crucial to remember that the crisis concerns multiple masculinities. It is in a close interplay with other identity markers, and is therefore experienced differently by men from diverse cultural, class, sexual, ethnic and educational backgrounds. Nevertheless, as the rate of extremism, violence, suicide, and radicalisation is disproportionately high for men, it is necessary to become more self-aware of the patriarchal forces that shape one’s ideals of manhood. More education and deliberation on this issue could foster the development of a healthy masculinity that embraces certain vulnerabilities and characteristics, but also acts inclusively, without marginalising women and others. Finally, promoting a dialogue between men from different cultural backgrounds, local men, and also women with traditional or strong feminist ideas could pave the way towards more mutual understanding and greater social cohesion.

 

Notes

 

[1] Qtd. in Pohl, R. (2015). „Gibt es eine Krise der Männlichkeit? Weiblichkeitsabwehr und Antifeminismus als Bausteine der hegemonialen Männlichkeit.“ Vortrag zum „Frauenempfang“. Rathaus Nürnberg. 26.03.2015.

[2] Seidl, C. (2016). „Wo sind die echten Männer?“ FAZ Feuilleton. 01.03.2016. Available at: http://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/debatten/krise-der-maskulinitaet-wo-sind-die-echten-maenner-14094469.html

[3] Ibid. 1.

[4] Poirier, A. (2018). “After the #MeToo backlash, an insider’s guide to French feminism”. The Guardian. 14.01.2018. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jan/14/french-feminists-catherine-deneuve-metoo-letter-sexual-harassment

[5] Paiva, L. (2017). „Schools can help prevent more #metoo stories” Education Week. 17.11.2017. Available at: https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2017/11/16/sexual-assault-prevention-needs-to-start-early.html

[6] Horrocks, R. (1994). Masculinity in Crisis: Myths, Fantasies, and Realities. St. Martin’s Press: pp. 1-210.

[7] Ibid, 25.

[8] Mafi, M. (2012). The Crisis of Masculinity and the Outbreak of the First World War. Available at: https://history.sfsu.edu/sites/default/files/documents/ExPostFacto/Malcolm_Mafi_Crisis.pdf

[9] Karner, T. (1996). ‘Fathers, Sons, and Vietnam: Masculinity and Betrayal in the Life Narratives of Vietnam Veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’ American Studies, pp. 63-94.

[10] Ibid. 65-66.

[11] Hopkins, P.E. (2009). ‘Responding to the crisis of masculinity: the perspectives of young Muslim men in Glasgow and Edinburgh, Scotland.’ Gender, Place and Culture, 16.3, pp.299-312; McDowell, L. 2000. The Trouble with Men? Young People, Gender Transformations and the Crisis of Masculinity. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 24.1, pp.201-209.

[12] Winters, B. (2017). ‚De juf wil van elke jongen een meisje maken‘. Algemeen Dagblad. 18.03.2017. Available at: https://www.ad.nl/dossier-nieuws/de-juf-wil-van-elke-jongen-een-meisje-maken~af6cda38/

[13] Kimmel, M. (2010). ‘Globalization and its Mal(e)contents: Masculinity on the Extreme Right.’ In: Misframing Men: The Politics of Contemporary Masculinities: pp. 143-160. Rutgers UP.

[14] Ibid, 148.

[15] BBC, (2018). “Elliot Rodger: How misogynist killer became incel hero” 26. April 2018. Available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-43892189

[16] Ibid, 2.

[17] Johnson, P. E. (2017). ‘The Art of Masculine Victimhood: Donald Trump’s Demagoguery’ In: Women’s Studies in Communication 40.3. pp. 229-250.

[18] Khosravi, S. (2009). ‘Displaced Masculinity: Gender and Ethnicity among Iranian men in Sweden’. In Iranian Studies 42.2 pp. 591-609.

[19] Ibid, 591.