Today’s post is by Dr. Monika Myers, a sociologist who studies masculinity. I’m grateful for her insights and contributions to this conversation.
In the past few days, a gendered pattern has emerged about social distancing. Women are complaining that their male partners refuse to stay home. Men are complaining that women are overreacting. I believe that in this time of uncertainty, men may be falling into well-worn stereotypes of masculinity: men must be strong, tough, fearless, and daring. In order to prove their masculinity, they may refuse to practice social distancing.
Research shows that masculinity operates differently from femininity. Masculinity must be constantly demonstrated, over and over again, through repeated masculine behavior. Men who do not repeat this masculine behavior risk “losing” their masculinity. I believe that men are trying to prove their masculinity by engaging in risky behavior (continuing to go out even when it is dangerous).
Younger men today often reject these stereotypical views of masculinity. They embrace a new model of masculinity that is more compassionate and less misogynist. However, in a time of uncertainty, even these men may be falling back into old beliefs about masculinity.
If we want men to practice social distancing, we need to immediately masculinize it. There are several very concrete ways to do this:
- We need to immediately see high status, physically powerful men who publicly and proudly show how they are social distancing. I’m talking professional athletes, wrestlers, former Olympians, etc.
- We need to frame social distancing as the way to protect your family. We need to discuss social distancing as the way to defend your loved ones and be a good provider. Military or sports metaphors might be useful here (“Protect your castle,” “prepare for defense”).
- We need to stop talking about social distancing as something that is “playing it safe” or “avoiding risk.” Playing it safe is not part of our traditional definition of masculinity.
- We need to explain to younger, liberal men who would otherwise reject traditional notions of masculinity that they are being sucked into an old model of masculinity. I believe that if these men understand what is happening, they are likely to stop.
- We need to catchy mottos and hashtags that explain why toxic masculinity is getting in the way of social distancing.
Above, a poster available from the CDC shows a man assisting a boy in washing his hands. The man has a beard and mustache and wears a white t-shirt that reveals strong arms, each with a tattoo. The boy looks up at the man with admiration. The post says “Lead by Example: Wash your hands and teach kids to scrub hands for at least 2 seconds.” We need similar messages associating social distancing and masculinity.