What does it take to be a man? An introduction to masculinity studies.

For the past year I have been promising some posts on masculinity. Masculinity is in its most basic sense the “possession of the qualities traditionally associated with men” (OED) or “the approved way of being an adult male in any given society” (Gilmore, 1990). While these definitions may seem simple at first, there is a lot to unpack.

As you may guess, the first issue arises with the two phrases: “traditionally associated” and “approved way.” Note that both phrases are preceded by the definite article: “The.” This implies that there is only 1 way to be a man. But is that true? I talk more about this below, but in reality, there are several different masculinities in any given society. We also need to ask who does the approving and who makes the associations referred to in these definitions?

The second issue arises with the phrase “in any given society.” This means that not only are there various masculinities within any given society, but also that the number of masculinities increases when one crosses cultures. For example, when I was a child in Canada I often heard it said that the husband was responsible for taking care of the finances of the family. I remember one new widow who had absolutely no idea about the family’s finances when her husband died — it was quite a learning curve for her to figure it all out. On the other hand, I would challenge you to find a family in the Philippines where this is the case! Rather, the husband brings his salary home to his wife who is responsible for budgeting and spending. I will talk a little about some cross-cultural features of masculinity in a subsequent post on Philippine masculinities.

Finally, we need to realise that when making definitions is that there are often 2 levels of rules, one Formal and the other non-formal. In her 1985 study of air traffic controllers in Los Angeles, Normita G. Recto noted that even a field as precise as air traffic control exhibited this two-level formal vs non-formal system. The same can be said of subjects such as masculinity.

How do these questions help shape our understanding of what it means to be a man? What follows is an attempt to introduce us to the complexities surrounding masculinities.

According to Mackie (2019), the field of gender studies is more complex than simply talking about men and women. There are layers of meanings encompassed in different pairs of words. On the simplest level, society has both men and women. Sometimes these people are categorized based upon their sex, which is either male or female, although those in the medical field also recognize that there are other types of biological sex identity such as hermaphroditism (F. D. M. Caube, personal communication, 15 November 2016). Sometimes these people are categorized by their gender, which moves into the realm of social and cultural construction and is characterized by words like masculinity and femininity. Gender can be expressed culturally, such as through “desirable models of dress, deportment, language, behavior, occupations” (Mackie, 2019). It can be expressed structurally, such as through gender relations order. It can also be expressed metaphorically, such as “a primary means of signifying relationships of power” (Mackie, 2019).

The fields of men’s studies and masculinity studies are subsets of gender studies (Mackie, 2019). In line with the constructed nature of gender, masculinity and femininity are also cultural constructs. This means that they are not natural but are acquired (Tylor, 1871). It also means that there are completing models of masculinity and femininity. Connell (2005) is a major contributor to the idea of plural masculinities as opposed to the traditional singular masculinity as a field of study (see also Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005). The model was developed in opposition to the concepts of gender traits and gender roles. She uses the term hegemonic to indicate the form of masculinity that is the norm in the cultural psyche, even if this norm is not actually the normal masculinity when it comes to practice (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005).

Several have written about the intersection of religion and masculinities. The gender debate is not restricted to the world outside of the church. Gallagher & Wood (2005) talk about the variety of understandings of masculinity that came out in the 1990s among protestant evangelical Christians in the USA. Even a group that is known for seeing the Bible as the central authority has a variety of different ways of understanding gender in general and masculinity in particular. Gallagher and Wood discuss different approaches to masculinity in two movements in the Protestant Evangelical church in the United States, namely Promise Keepers, and John Eldredge’s bestselling Wild at Heart.

Promise Keepers was a men’s movement in the 1990s that focused on getting men to make and keep seven promises that would help them to be better men. The promises exhibit a “breadth of gender perspectives,” that include helping men have better communication and connection with their families, more vulnerability, participate in racial reconciliation, and be responsible in providing, loving, teaching, and protecting their families. Eldredge’s 2001 book emphasized a different approach that emphasizes the themes of “desire, passion, and following one’s heart” (Gallagher & Wood, 2005).

The authors draw several conclusions, including that there is a much broader range of both beliefs and ideas regarding gender – and understandings about those beliefs – in evangelical churches than one would assume. Additionally, it seems that evangelicals have two basic components to their epistemological system, “personal experience and the bible” (Gallagher & Wood, 2005). I was involved in the Promise Keepers movement when it first came out. I have also read and enjoyed several of John Eldredge’s books, including Wild at Heart. My experience supports Gallagher and Wood’s conclusions that there are a variety of perspectives on gender and masculinity within the evangelical church and that authority is practically measured both through the Bible and through one’s own evaluative efforts. I think it’s also important to point out that, while Promise Keepers and Wild at Heart might represent opposing perspectives, neither of these perspectives is monolithic. Areas of belief and practice like this are often eclectic in the evangelical church.

Gerber (2015) also talks about masculinity in the Evangelical Christian church, particularly among groups that belong to the so-called ex-gay movement. This movement seeks to change “sexual orientation through a mixture of therapeutic and devotional techniques.”

Gerber discusses godly masculinity rather than hegemonic masculinity as the key ideological factor among Evangelical Christians. Godly masculinity is defined as “idealized forms of masculinity that evangelicals use to articulate subculturally specific gender ideals, criticize hegemonic forms of masculinity, and vie for their own hegemonic positioning in the culture at large” (Gerber, 2015). It is similar to hegemonic masculinity in that it is both binary in orientation and sees masculinity as dominant. It differs in that “it operates by a different set of cultural rules and expectations, generating traits that can differ from those of hegemonic masculinity” including traits that fall into what Gerber calls “gender queerness.” Gerber identifies the specific differences between this new godly masculinity and hegemonic masculinity as “de-emphasizing heterosexual conquest, inclusive masculinity, and homo-intimacy.”

The result is a more fluid understanding of what it means to be a man. Rather than emphasizing the characteristics that make up hegemonic masculinity as the definitive maleness, this godly masculinity that is created from ex-gay ministries allows for men to express their maleness using both masculine and feminine traits.

Lomas et al (2016) talk about the “positive hegemonic norms” associated with hegemonic masculinity, rather than simply focusing on possible negative aspects. Their study describes the impact of a different form of religious activity, namely meditation as practiced in Communities of Practice, on hegemonic masculinity in Southern England. While meditation is a part of many religions, meditation in this case refers primarily to Buddhist-style meditation. The study showed that involvement in these Communities of Practice impacted the masculinity options that men felt they had, including “interpersonal intimacy, abstinence, and a sense of connectedness through spirituality.” The men in the study also felt, however, that hegemonic masculinity influenced both practices inside and outside of the Communities of Practice they were involved in. there seemed to be something to the fact that the meditation was conducted in community and not just alone in helping the men embrace some of these new definitions of masculinity. The reality that the men faced about conflicts between their old and new Communities is illustrative of the fact that theory and practice don’t exist in discrete realms but that these realms are constantly interacting with each other.

The discussion of hegemonic masculinities seems centred on masculinity as defined in the West. Certainly, on the surface, some of the issues that these religious takes on masculinity seek to redefine don’t need redefinition in the Philippine context. For example, the subject of men and touch is much different in the Philippines than Canada where I grew up. While men touching each other may be strange in Canada, certainly in the Philippines touch between men is an accepted form of interaction. I wonder, too, if the term “hegemonic” in and of itself creates difficulties in communicating the theory because it automatically leads one toward the negative? Lomas et al do present a good overview of the potential positives of hegemonic masculinity, but of greater use for our study will be what kinds of hegemonic structures men in Pingkian construct when looking at masculinity and what aspects, if any, of other hegemonies they redefine?

I am curious about your thoughts on the topic of masculinities. Is it true that there is more than one way to be a man? What impact does this have on how we work at shaping a better world? Please leave your thoughts in the comment box below.

Remember, sharing is what friends do.


Connell, R. W. (2005). Masculinities. 2nd Ed. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Connell, R. W., & Messerschmidt, J. W. (2005). Hegemonic masculinity: Rethinking the concept. Gender & society, 19(6), 829-859. doi: 10.1177/0891243205278639

Gallagher, S. K., & Wood, S. L. (2005). Godly manhood going wild?: Transformations in conservative Protestant masculinity. Sociology of religion, 66(2), 135-159. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/4153083

Gerber, L. (2015). Grit, guts, and vanilla beans: Godly masculinity in the ex-gay movement. Gender & Society, 29(1), 26-50. doi:10.1177/0891243214545682

Gilmore, 1990, Manhood in the making: cultural concepts of masculinity, Yale University Press.

Lomas, T., Cartwright, T., Edginton, T., & Ridge, D. (2016). New Ways of Being a Man: “Positive” Hegemonic Masculinity in Meditation-based Communities of Practice. Men and Masculinities, 19(3), 289-310. doi:10.1177/1097184X15578531

Mackie, V. (2019, February 13). Gender and sexuality studies: Asia-Pacific perspectives. Lecture presented at University of the Philippines Asian Center, Quezon City, Philippines.

Recto, N.G. (1985). Cultural analysis from a native-view perspective: An ethnographic study of air traffic controllers. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation. University of Southern California.

Tylor, E. B. (1871). Primitive culture: Researches into the development of mythology, philosophy, religion, art, and custom, Vol 1. London: John Murray.

Image by Stefano Pollio on Unsplash.

12 thoughts on “What does it take to be a man? An introduction to masculinity studies.

  1. Pingback: My thoughts on Kristin Du Mez’ “Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation.” | Michael J. Fast

  2. Pingback: What does it take to be a man, Part 3: How many masculinities is too many? | Michael J. Fast

  3. Pingback: What does it mean to be a man, part 2? Masculinities in the Philippines | Michael J. Fast

  4. What a beautiful minefield we step into here, Michael. I’ve long been concerned that the overriding adjective for masculinity is “toxic” but that few are proffering more helpful models. Are you seeing any helpful models for navigating basic definitions of masculinity apart from (or adding to) gender-role identification? The shifting cultural milieu and biblical examples (that don’t adhere closely to our categories) make this such a thorny issue!


    • Thanks for your comment, Mike.

      It is indeed a minefield isn’t it? Part of the reason why I write on masculinities is to provide alternatives to the “toxic masculinity is the only masculinity” narrative.

      I am not sure that gender role identification is as important as we may think it is because gender roles are themselves culturally determined.

      The model that I am promoting is talking with men directly (and women, too because they are also culture-bearers) brings their voices into the conversation and allows us to see the nuances that they bring to how they identify and act as men. A key part of the process is asking men themselves some of these questions rather than merely relying on what I may think about what their answers might be.

      One key voice is that of the scriptures. The key is trying to listen to it’s voice apart from the theological systems that sometimes take control of the narrative 🙂


      • I love the move of working from the specific to the general here, Mike. How, in your opinion, do we avoid the trap we see in so much of modern gender studies, that there end up being as many versions of masculinity as there are men? Maybe4 that’s what you mean by bringing voices into conversation, but how do you see that conversation moving us beyond either culturally entrenched gender forms without devolving into emotive expressivism?


      • Thanks for the response, Mike.

        While the possibility that there are “as many versions of masculinity as there are men” exists, in practice it doesn’t really work out that way. According to my research, factors such as age, life experience, family status, and culture all work together to set limits on the process. Of course there are variations within a community of men but the variations are limited to a few options.


      • I had some more thoughts on this when I woke up this morning, Mike. I got to wondering whether it’s a big deal or not if there are “as many versions of masculinity as there are men?” We do want to avoid generalisations that gloss over people’s identity.

        What do you think? What do you see as the issues associated with having an infinite number of masculinities?


      • “What do you see as the issues associated with having an infinite number of masculinities?” That’s a good question, Michael. I suppose my concern is that in avoiding glossing over individual identity (a good impulse, by the way), we move toward negation of corporate meaning. Why even talk about masculinity if it has such malleable and infinite meaning? Doesn’t that remove the very nature of the concept as something that is definable as a category, giving us no real ability to say it is “this” and not “that”? If we want to argue for individual identity and lived experience that’s great, but I worry we won’t be able to have meaningful conversations about what masculinity is! The whole purpose of what you said before seemed to be to bring these different experiences into conversation and allow something to emerge that would give us a sense of the masculine in a contextual way…or am I reading it wrong?


      • You are reading it right, Mike. I guess at this point, particularly in the evangelical world, I don’t see the issue as being too many masculinities but rather too few masculinities. It’s a multi step process. Part of the reason for my post was to illustrate that the world of masculinity studies has nuance — it’s not simply right or wrong views. Once the pendulum swings more in that direction then the next step is to work at defining the other end of the spectrum.


  5. A stimulating article, Mike! I can only speak from the North American/Canadian context, but I find that much of the discussion about masculinity is centered around male sexuality and sexual expression. Many men will struggle to see (at least some aspects of) the different views of the hegemonic masculinity as valid because the cultural filter here, especially for evangelical males, is the sexual aspect. It’s a sticking point for many.
    I also was involved in PK in the 1990s and have read and appreciated Eldredge’s book.

    How do we navigate the North American minefield?


    • Thanks for your comment, John. I remember those days attending PK with you at the King Dome. It is unfortunate that masculinity has come to mean merely sex and sexual expression. I wonder when that changed? I wonder what we can add to make it a more rounded idea that maybe has something more to do with Jesus?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.