Masculinity Under Siege

Elaine Dalton’s recent comments about the meaning of pink in a recent edition of the Church News (currently being discussed on BCC), express a concern that girls will want to be like boys. “We want them to understand that they are soft, they are unique, they are feminine and that they don’t have to be like the boys,” says President Dalton. This is hardly a sentiment unique to her; one can find a number of General Conference talks which warn against the temptation for women to set aside their femininity and be like men. Femininity, it seems, is under siege.

But I would like to pose this question: generally speaking, which sex exhibits more of a need to “prove” and defend their gender identification? Which sex expresses more anxiety about engaging in behavior which is culturally coded as being of the opposite sex? We live in a culture in which androgyny is much more acceptable for girls than for boys; girls can engage in traditionally “masculine” activities with less social censure than boys who engage in “feminine” ones. And as women move more and more into spheres which have traditionally been considered male, or act in ways traditionally seen as masculine, I would argue that it is not femininity, but rather masculinity, which is threatened. Men are left with fewer ways of asserting their uniquely male identity. If the girls start to act like boys, in other words, what will be left for the boys? I suspect that at least to some extent, this fuels the continuation of a male-only priesthood–evidenced by the commonly expressed concern that if women were ordained, there would be nothing left for the men to do.

It is also striking that when the importance of maintaining gender boundaries is asserted, it is almost always aimed at women. It is evidently a female responsibility to maintain appropriate gender roles; rarely do we hear conference talks warning men to resist the temptation to act like women and thereby lose their masculinity. This is not to say that men are not frequently exhorted to embrace a particular version of masculinity, one involving commitment and responsibility. However, it is notable that this is not discussed within the framework of the need to maintain gender differences. Men are warned not against the temptation of aspiring to be like women, but rather of living out a worldly version of what it means to be a man, rather than a gospel-oriented one. Women are given parallel advice, in terms of the contrast between the church and the world, but one of the dangers of the latter is that it entices women to be like men.

As a result of this framework, girls are asked to circumscribe their activities and personality traits in order to maintain clear gender boundaries–boundaries which, I would argue, are more important for maintaining masculinity than femininity. But do we have other options? Is it possible to promote a vision of masculinity which does not need to impose limits on women in order to maintain itself? To be fair, I think the church actually describes an ideal of masculinity which embraces a number of traditionally female virtues. But when I hear the concern that femininity is being somehow undermined by behavior which is not, so to speak, pink, I think it would be worthwhile to consider whether it is in fact femininity that is being threatened by expanded roles for women.


  1. Very interesting point, Lynnette. I have heard the argument that men need a clearly-defined male role, perhaps more than women need a clearly-defined female role, and without one they will not feel particularly invested in whatever institution it is–be it the church, family life, the community, etc. That is to say, for example, if men are not needed to provide for and protect women and children, fewer men will be interested in fulfilling that responsibility, and some males will rather assert their masculinity through aggression. It’s not a pretty picture of men, of course, and one does wonder how a large number of men manage to become decent, contributing members of society without personally having rigid conceptions about gender roles.

    I personally think that gender identity is equally important to men and women but that gender roles don’t need to be rigidly defined in order for people to feel secure in their masculinity or femininity. I have noticed that the Church doesn’t have much to say about the female role except to say that women should not do/do not need to do as the men do. Every time they try to get more specific than that, they usually end up saying something dumb.

  2. Us unrefined males have been getting quite a bit of counsel in recent priesthood sessions (and in conference in general) that boils down to “stop being so macho/stupid”. I hope that continues.

    (Anyone who has attended the average EQ will understand that we have a long way to go. Masculinity needs to lose the machismo.)

  3. When I returned from my mission in Denmark, I had come to the conclusion that Danish men had ceased to be “real men”, and had mostly become seekers of pleasures. I had several single moms as investigators, some of whom had thrown their boyfriends out because (as they said) they didn’t consider them to be good role models for their children.

    Years (many) later the country’s reported to be one of the best places to live, so what do I know.

    Do men have a role to aspire to, shoes to fill? If they’re not needed to be providers, protectors, leaders, etc. (as has been proven to be the case), then what should they aspire to be? I guess companions, advocates, nurturers, …

  4. This is a very interesting perspective, Lynnette.

    Immediately after the Proclamation was issued, most of the talks focused on the separation of roles of men and women. But there has now been a shift where men are encouraged, even more than they were before, to help with household tasks and the work of caring for children. If a man wants to make dinner, do the laundry, and get the kids ready for bed every day of the week, he’d be encouraged and applauded. These are the tasks traditionally associated with femininity. So the question arises: If a man did more than 51% of the nurturing work, does his spouse feel marginalized?

    Every time they try to get more specific than that, they usually end up saying something dumb.

    Very true, except we can change _usually_ to _always_. When you take the shotgun approach as we often do, you can expect to hit something at least now and then. But we never hit anything at all, which I think is a pretty good clue as to the quality of thought which lies in that direction.

  5. Nicely done, Lynnette. This is, of course, related to long-standing discussions regarding the cultural value of masculinity and femininity. It’s funny, right, when men dress as women? Well, maybe it isn’t, really; Mrs. Doubtfire and Big Momma aren’t really my idea of a romp in the park. But society treats it as funny. When women dress as men, though? Not nearly as common a comedic trope.

    It’s also somehow socially acceptable for girls to play with boy toys. Nobody scoops a toy bulldozer away from Artemis. But I’ve seen parents rush to scoop Barbie-type dolls away from their male children.

    One way of reading all this is that our society treats what’s coded as masculine as value-neutral but what’s coded as feminine as inherently a bit degrading. It would be neat if the church could work to change that, presumably by encouraging males to regard traditional femininity as non-contaminating.

  6. I think it’s in part about fear of homosexuality. Femininity is associated with a non-dominant role during sexual intercourse, and therefore all things feminine are, when men do them, associated with being gay.

    I’d love to hear the authorities fill in this sentence: Men are, or should be, _________, and women are not. But they can’t, because they don’t have a clue what they’re actually trying to say. That’s why it seems like such a muddle– there’s no clear underlying idea being expressed.

    One wonders why being a good person isn’t enough.

  7. Great post, Lynnette.

    I think an interesting trend along these lines can be found in English naming conventions. Did you know that the name Evelyn was a predominantly male name back in the 1800s? How often do you hear it as a boy’s name now? (Probably never.) When boy’s names start getting used as girl’s names, people stop wanting to use them as boy’s names and they become exclusively girl names. Morgan, Leslie, Kelly, and Lynn are four recent examples that have become mostly-girl names, even though they were unisex or boy names just a few decades ago.

    (I go by Jack and I named my daughter Harley, so I guess I’m a part of this “problem.”)

    But back to the heart of this issue. Is masculinity in danger? And is the solution to this problem to encourage men to become priests, patriarchs and providers while discouraging or barring women from “acting like men” by assuming those roles?

    I definitely think that gender identity is troubled on both sides right now, but my solution is a different one. I think that attempts to force men into one set of roles and women into another set have caused just as many problems as gender obliteration philosophy.

    Earlier this year, The Washington Post ran an article on how Wall Street businesses which included women in their top management positions were doing better than all-male businesses. Their conclusion:

    It’s time to admit the obvious. Men and women are different, and our management styles are different. Research by the University of Pittsburgh and Cambridge University, among others, finds that some of those differences are intrinsic, thanks to hormones.

    Gender stereotypes aren’t politically correct, but the research broadly finds that testosterone can make men more prone to competition and risk-taking. Women, on the other hand, seem to be wired for collaboration, caution and long-term results.

    According to a 30-year study of fund managers released last month by the National Council for Research on Women, female investors and professional money managers used more measured strategies. They didn’t take huge risks, but they also didn’t lose big. Their returns were consistent. Men took larger risks and wound up with results that varied more widely. A study by the French Fund association found that funds managed by women had more consistent results over one-year, three-year and five-year measurements. Female-managed funds weren’t usually top performers, but they were never at the bottom.

    I think this provides a useful model to the question of gender identity in roles such as providing, nurturing, leading church, etc. The way men provide and nurture and lead church is going to be different because they’re men. Women can provide and nurture and lead church in a way that’s feminine because they’re women. If gender differences are truly intrinsic, why do they need to be guarded at all? Put men and women together in these roles and you are definitely going to get better results than if you try to force all men to lead, preside and provide while all women follow, nurture and sustain. And in this way, men who make better nurturers won’t have to feel like they’re “feminine” while women who make better providers won’t have to feel like they’re “masculine.”

  8. Lynnette: great post. In regards to your question,

    which sex exhibits more of a need to “prove” and defend their gender identification?

    you point out that men ‘need’ to defend themselves when they ‘act feminine.’ I agree, but I would extend that to say that in many settings men also must defend themselves when they engage in traditionally masculine activities—because those are immature, irresponsible, etc. (e.g., video games, sports). In other words, a man must not be too manly nor too womanly. The same is, of course, true for women, but I think the range of acceptability is much narrower for men.

    Jack, 9: In a fantastic set of lectures, Dr Michael Drout details “The History of the English Language.” Therein he discusses linguistic degradation—where a word changes from something with positive to more negative connotations; e.g., “stench” used to mean any kind of smell, but now only refers to bad ones; it was replaced by “odor” which, due to degradation, now also is only used for offensive smells (and this process continues with the word “fragrant,” which I often hear in reference to diapers). He observes, “Processes of degradation are very frequently seen in words that reference women and members of minority groups.” “Hussy” used to mean “female head of household,” “gossips” used to mean “good kinsmen,” “colored” has been replaced by “African American” as the politically correct term (and even the term “politically correct” is now used derisively).

    Anyway, that’s a lengthy tangent to support your observation about baby names. It also relates to JNS’s observation about acceptable toys and why we find men-dressed-as-women funny but not women-dressed-as-men.

  9. Wow. Lots of thought-provoking comments here; thanks everyone. I’ve been thinking more about the point made by both queuno and Mark Brown that men are encouraged to act in non-macho ways, and to adopt so-called “feminine’ virtues and engage in traditionally feminine work, such as child-rearing. What’s fascinating there is that in that way, the church has to some degree adopted changing social norms for men, while at the same time being wary of changing social norms for women. And I’m wondering whether the fact that men are being encouraged in that direction is related to the need to maintain a circumscribed notion of femininity, as a way to hold on to gender boundaries. What options are available to Mark’s hypothetical woman whose husband does 51 percent of the nurturing? She’s warned that she shouldn’t attempt to be more like a man. So does she now have to become ultra-feminine in order to maintain her divine gender role?

    And z asks an intriguing question–what exact qualities do men have that make them masculine? (I’m reminded of the much-discussed vagueness of just what it means to preside.) It would be terribly un-PC to propose that men have particular virtues that women lack, but assertions going in the other direction are not uncommon. Which is more than a little condescending to men.

    I think Jack nails it:

    If gender differences are truly intrinsic, why do they need to be guarded at all?

    If we believe in some kind of gender essentialism, some natural gender differences, surely they’ll emerge regardless; we don’t have to exhaust ourselves policing the boundaries. I really like that idea of coming at this from the angle of, have roles open to both men and women and let them bring whatever (possibly gendered) strengths they have to those roles, rather than trying to neatly separate roles by sex.

  10. BrianJ, thanks for your perspective on the balance required of men, as far as not being too manly or too womanly; that’s a good point. I agree that the range of acceptable behavior seems much narrower for men. That’s one way in which I think women really do have it better; I suspect that narrow conceptions of gender are at least as harmful to boys as to girls.

    I’ve been fascinated as well by the way in which male names get feminized–which notably doesn’t happen in other direction. Jack, I’m probably also part of the problem, since for about ten years I went by the nickname “Fred.”

    JNS said,

    One way of reading all this is that our society treats what’s coded as masculine as value-neutral but what’s coded as feminine as inherently a bit degrading. It would be neat if the church could work to change that, presumably by encouraging males to regard traditional femininity as non-contaminating.

    Now there’s a good place to bring in our much-beloved framework of the church vs. the world. 😉

  11. Like Rebecca J (#3), I’ve also wondered “how a large number of men manage to become decent, contributing members of society without personally having rigid conceptions about gender roles.” I also have some questions about the idea that men won’t be involved in their families without the lure of the presiding carrot; if that’s the case, I don’t know what to make of the many men I know who somehow still manage to be involved in their families even without getting to be the presider.

  12. Whatever the difference between men and women is, it better be something important enough to justify the church’s obsession with gender. They’re probably having a hard time thinking of something that a) seems significant enough and b) won’t make people mad.

  13. Lynnette: If the girls start to act like boys, in other words, what will be left for the boys?

    Well there is always butt kicking. Males have historically (and genetically) been better at that than females.

  14. Keen observations, Lynnette. One does not need to go far in the cultural discussion to know that many feel masculinity is under siege, and I think that you are absolutely correct, the admonitions in the Church on femininity are really a reflection of that. And I think it is absolutely true that there is very little tolerance culturally for men who do not fit the rather narrowly prescribed gender expectations. Personally, I’m very much in favor of breaking down those barriers. While the definition of masculinity within the Church is more positive than elsewhere, I think that the positive aspects associated with masculinity are just as applicable and valid for women, and our culture is still too tolerant of the negative aspects of stereotypical masculinity (aggression, competitiveness).

  15. Derek,

    I don’t think aggression or competitiveness are negative aspects of masculinity. I think they are some of the best parts of maleness.

  16. That’s such a male thing to say Geoff. But the real question is whether you would feel your masculinity was threatened if a woman said it.

  17. If we believe in some kind of gender essentialism, some natural gender differences, surely they’ll emerge regardless;

    I’m not 100% sure that talking about gender being eternal and essential is the same thing as saying that it’s intrinsic. I think choices do come into play. If choice didn’t come into play, I would see not nearly as much value in talking about it all. At least that has been true in my life. I’m more naturally ‘male’ in a large portion of my interests, talents, and abilities. The guidance about gender roles has made a big difference in my growth and development.

  18. Hi m&m. I think I can see what you’re saying, but that leads me to wonder–what about a woman who is naturally “feminine” in her interests and talents? It seems like in such a situation, it might be helpful for her growth and development to develop more “masculine” attributes as well. It would make more sense to me to encourage women and men alike to seek to expand their capacities, rather than to prescribe particular gender norms


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