We must expand definition of masculinity for white, cisgender men

by Kevin Roy

There is no shortage of concern about the opioid abuse and mass shootings and toxic anger perpetrated by men. And there is no shortage of politicians and podcasters who jump onto the virtual stage to tell us that American manhood is under siege. They cite statistics and interview therapists. They promote magical testosterone supplements or bootstrap training to fix the problem and to fix the men. 

But we usually do not acknowledge that they are white men, speaking primarily to the 30% of our nation’s population who are also white men. Many of these men are anxious, confused or even angry about losing status or power. Civil rights activist Ruby Sales has described this historical moment as a crisis of whiteness, and to a large degree, a crisis of white masculinity. 

I am not a podcaster or cultural critic or politician. I am a researcher and educator, and I’ve studied masculinity, fatherhood and families for almost three decades. Here’s what I’ve learned. 

Those who claim that masculinity is under siege often argue that men are radically different from women. Or that men need to change to relieve their sense of being aggrieved but not enough to lose their authority. It’s a way to tinker with traditional masculinity for an audience of (mostly) white men, by offering more tired principles, rules or laws that will give men purpose. Some of the podcasters and politicians provide simplistic strategies to “buck up” or “toughen up, you weasel.”  

The fixes suggested by podcasters and politicians often fall flat for those whose manhood has been marginalized and abused for decades in the U.S. They are not useful for men who have lived with a version of masculinity that feels like intolerance, who have seldom been afforded resources that other men have had. And we are moving toward a more expansive notion of masculinity that speaks to white men, as well as the 19% of our nation’s population who are men of color and the almost 8% of individuals who identify as LGBTQ+.  

Instead of confining it to a narrow set of behaviors, why not grow what masculinity can be? What if we recognize there are many ways to be a good person who is a man?  

Look at how men stumble and thrive in their relationships in the popular series “Ted Lasso.” In the traditionally hypermasculine environment of professional sports, Lasso’s players succeed by learning to trust each other with their weaknesses and ultimately improvising a style of play that de-emphasizes singular super star athletes. 

I have taught a course on masculinity at the University of Maryland to over 1,000 undergraduates since 2017. The class attracts students of all genders (but relatively few white men) and from across the political spectrum. Almost every student says what attracted them to the course was a chance to figure out “what’s going on with guys.” They feel that men don’t have a sense of purpose, that men are isolated, stuck, and sometimes violent — and they see this every day in their families, with their friends and partners, and in themselves. 

I ask my students to interview their biological or social fathers about how the men grew into an understanding of themselves over time. I consistently read about fathers who feel pride in their fatherhood, despite regrets about not spending time with their kids. They feel weighed down by their own family’s narrow expectations of being providers. And many become depressed while proving their strength in not relying on friends and family. In short, my students see their fathers desperate to create alternatives to traditional masculinity, which sets them up for disappointment. 

When white, cisgender men perceive that women and other men (especially men of color and queer folks) threaten their worth, they will continue to double down on proving their manhood in risky or violent ways. These actions damage the health of everyone in our communities — and ultimately of men themselves. 

My father struggled with the legacy of his abusive father, and he died without talking with me about the toll that it took on him. With my own sons, and with my students, I’m hearing an eagerness to “get out of your own way, man” (as Rebecca Welton says to Roy Kent in “Ted Lasso”) and do masculinity differently. Let’s move beyond the defenders of a traditional masculinity that promotes intolerance and harm — and challenge ourselves to create and support a more expansive masculinity.  

Kevin Roy is a professor in the Department of Family Science at the University of Maryland College Park School of Public Health.