Updated: Jan 15
The ideal man paradigm, or model, has dominated our discourse around masculinity. There is a specified collection of attributes that a man must embody to pass society’s microscopic view. The spectrum of masculine characteristics surpasses the mere sense of maleness. This is a framework that considers gender to be binary, shaping how people project their sense of self. It also demands how women, and other genders that it fails to recognize, are integrated into this system. Masculinity, thus, is a practice pattern. It is not confined to your physiology or your interaction with your body. It is a social activity⎼a mindset.
Masculinity can be seen as a collection of standards that a social system is continuously enforcing and policing. Such systems were implemented, at their heart, to sustain the power imbalance in society. Men saw themselves as superior to continue their dominance over those they saw as inferior, such as women. Those who would not abide by these standards were scorned and forced to carve out their own niches in society. This led to the establishment of different types of masculinities, including the rise of homosexual masculinity.
The male's culturally dominant epitome focuses on physical strength and endurance, authority, heterosexuality, and the ability to earn money. This definition refers to “hegemonic masculinity,” or the socially accepted and idealized aspect of masculinity.
Historically, masculinity was characterized through physical labor and brute power. Since wars were a way of life in ancient society, bravery and adherence to religion were used as standards to gauge excellence. Examples of this are found in the culture of the ancient Greek Spartans, where bravery took priority over all other virtues. If Spartans were found to be guilty of behaving weakly in battle, they would lose their standing as civilians and be ridiculed to the point where banishment or even death seemed like the preferable punishment. Young boys started training to become soldiers at the age of seven and were extensively disciplined to place their troop above all else; obedience and loyalty to their platoon was the most supreme expression of their duty. In his series of essays, Moralia, the Greek philosopher Plutarch wrote, "Mothers are going to tell their young children to come back with their shield or on it," referring to how soldiers hauled dead bodies on their shields. Plutarch states that strength was so highly honored that parents preferred their children to die rather than be called cowards.
Apart from battles, masculinity was reinforced through the oppression of women. Before modern civilization, the state had no say in how people treated their wives, children, or slaves. People aspired to gain power over all others, and eventually, this superiority concept formed the basis of hegemonic masculinity. This discourse would create the stereotype of the “tough guy,” which is still seen today.
The idea of a “macho man” can be traced back to the medieval period. Although knights were indeed brave men who battled enemies and returned home triumphant, they tended to not show violence towards women. Instead, the ideal masculinity was established by the role of the courtly, knightly warrior. Knighthood was perceived to be a lower nobility, and on the basis of their merit, men could climb up the ladder to obtain this title. This was thus a perfect blend of military, Christian, and aristocratic ideals. Although violence was still applauded, societal preferences changed from using strength to defend property to using strength to preserve Christian values. In order to maintain their relationship with Christ, warriors were expected to defend oppressed groups such as women, widows, orphans, and the poor.
Victorian representations of attractive men were those of well-mannered and cultured people: gentlemen. Unlike its precursors, however, the Victorian era stressed that not all boys grow up to be men. Since they were no longer being sent to train at a very young age, young boys instead had to learn masculine attributes and skills. As a result, the emphasis on gender roles, which are now commonly viewed in contemporary culture, were deeply ingrained into society. From the 1830s, young women started to wear the crinoline, a giant bell-shaped skirt that heavily limited their mobility and made it nearly impossible for them to comfortably walk or run. Furthermore, men were expected to be educated and willing to earn for a family. Their average marrying age was the early 30s, while for women it was the early 20s. For men, this was largely due to a tradition where until they turned 30, they were required to maintain their financial status and support the family to gain permission from the bride's father to marry. This system, however, only served to further strengthen the gender hierarchy.
The definition of masculinity is malleable; it is the product of negotiations between gender, race, sexual orientation, and the emancipation of the oppressed. It is not a single concept but rather a set of cultural and historical philosophies. In order to create an emotionally stable, inclusive, and co-dependent community, the burden of the norm must be removed from all genders. Neither masculinity nor femininity are physiological constructs--they are human creations. Thus, if society deciphers the meaninglessness of the roles dictated by binary gender, then it can finally abolish the inequality associated with men and women.