In providing standards for men in the same way that it previously has for women, LGBTQ people, and other demographic groups, the APA attempts to right an enduring wrong in a field that has long glossed over how being a man might impact a person’s experiences and well-being. But by making treatment more accepting of men while also critiquing the way many of them see themselves, the group is trying to thread a difficult needle in taking on the nature of masculinity.
Read: Today’s masculinity is stifling
What exactly “traditional masculinity” means depends on who’s talking about it. In science, the term refers to a specific set of traits and behaviors that are considered culturally appropriate for manhood, some of which can become harmful in certain cases. When that happens, it’s “an extreme form of stoicism, dominance, violence, and aggression,” according to McDermott. But he’s quick to note that in many situations, more moderate expressions of those traits, along with other masculine ideals, are totally healthy and advantageous to people of all genders. “Sometimes it’s good to be aggressive. Sometimes it’s good to be dominant,” McDermott says. “But if you operate only on that frame of mind, then what happens when you encounter a situation when you need to be more egalitarian?”
In popular culture, meanwhile, “traditional masculinity” has a fuzzier, broader meaning, which generally encapsulates whatever the person reading or saying it associates with being a man. If McDermott sounds like he’s being careful in his distinctions, it’s because the APA’s efforts to critique masculinity’s most harmful norms have not been universally well received. When an article in the APA’s Monitor magazine characterized traditional masculinity as “on the whole, harmful,” writers for conservative media outlets including National Review and Fox News saw it as an attack on a population that’s suffering exactly the ills the APA hoped to address: elevated levels of depression and anxiety, and higher suicide and overdose rates.
“As we survey a culture that is rapidly attempting to enforce norms hostile to traditional masculinity, are men flourishing?” asks the columnist David French. “And if men are struggling more the farther we move from those traditional norms, is the answer to continue denying and suppressing a boy’s essential nature?”
Joseph Vandello, a social psychologist and professor at the University of South Florida who was not involved in crafting the APA guidelines, can understand why some people aren’t open to the new rules’ point of view. “It’s positioning traditional masculinity as a problem to be solved,” he says. “If you’re a man who holds traditional values, why would you go see a psychologist when the starting point is that traditional masculinity is the problem?” That conflict, he says, might exacerbate an issue the guidelines seek to manage. “Part of the problem among men is that one of the markers of traditional masculinity is independence and rejection of help.”