The Many Possible Meanings of the ‘Masculinity Crisis’

A lot of people contend that American men are in crisis. But which men? And what is the nature of that crisis?

Zoran Milich / Reuters

American men are in crisis, the conventional wisdom goes. And, according to some experts, they have been for a while. For a few decades, perhaps. Maybe for more than a century.

But in a discussion about this “crisis” on Tuesday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, panelists had varying notions of what that crisis entails, if it exists at all. For Michael Kimmel, an author and professor at SUNY Stony Brook, where he founded the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities, the crisis involves one type of man—heterosexual, white ones—who feel like their power “is slipping.” Tristan Bridges, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, agreed with Kimmel, adding that the crisis affects men who are now contending with “unchallenged entitlement.” For the writer Thomas Page McBee, the crisis involves men who are hurting in the face of society’s stereotyped expectations that they should be more inhumane than humane, more violent than empathic. For Joseph Derrick Nelson, a senior research fellow with the Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives, the crisis is hitting black boys who need support and the kind of unconditional love necessary to help them break free of certain damaging norms.

What the panelists did agree on is that the crisis is damaging American society—harming men’s educational outcomes, women’s well-being, and the public’s safety. Bridges pointed to research showing that when men feel like their masculinity is challenged, they are more likely to advocate for war, discriminate against homosexuals, express an interest in buying an SUV, and believe in the inherent superiority of men. They are also more likely to express attitudes supportive of sexual assault and coercion. Nelson contended that stereotypes about black boys as inclined to violence and disinterested in academics can lead to prejudicial treatment from teachers and parents who have internalized those stereotypes and then expect bad behavior.

The experts also agreed that acknowledging the existence of a crisis doesn’t mean giving special treatment to or forgiving men who are inclined toward spite and hatred, aggression, and abuse. “It’s unbelievable the amount of privilege men have,” said McBee, whose book, a memoir of his life as a trans man, is coming out later this summer. Many men, he stressed, are hurting, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be held accountable for the pain they cause others because they’re hurting; what they lack is emotional resilience and, perhaps, “feminine social skills.”

“Lots of men feel like they want to be on the right side of history here, but when they’re asking, ‘What can I do to be a good man?’ what they’re asking for is a recipe that will give them immunity from critique,” echoed Bridges.

Rather, acknowledging the existence of a crisis simply entails raising public awareness about the contradictions society imposes on them and the consequences of those contradictions. Kimmel described this paradox as “the tensions in men’s heads between what it means to be a good man and what it means to be a real man.” Once, when he asked cadets at West Point what it means to be a “good man,” their responses included things like honor, duty, sacrifice, responsibility, standing up for the little guy—i.e., being a good person. When he asked them to “man the f up”—to be a real man—their responses shifted: being strong and stoic, never showing your feelings, playing through pain, getting rich and getting laid

“That gender policing, which starts so young,” Kimmel concluded, “is what keeps us from acting in the ways that we in fact want to act.”