Have you ever been told to ‘Man Up!’ What is that supposed to mean anyway?
Many men experience difficulties in life – such as exhibiting counter-productive behaviour or attitudes, and many times they do not realize why.
One possible reason behind anti-social, harmful attitudes could be the concept known as Fragile Masculinity.
So what is ‘fragile masculinity?’
And how can becoming aware of the topic help you and the people around you lead better lives?
Table of Contents
What is Fragile Masculinity?
Essentially, fragile masculinity makes men feel that they are not measuring up to society’s standards of what it means to be a man.
You can see why this could become a problem and imagine just how widespread this issue is.
Men are constantly told how to act, what to do, and what success means, and all this is neatly wrapped up in cultural expectations about men.
Men’s Identities have become fragile.
Fearing being seen as weak or worse, ‘feminine’ is a real concern many guys deal with every day.
I faced this attitude from others growing up as I did well in traditional ‘male’ domains at school (STEM subjects) BUT also participated in dance and arts. It caused a problem for others around me.
The definition of fragile masculinity may differ depending on your cultural context and how traditional the gender roles are in your country (or family).
Are you worried about wearing that pink shirt? Would you like to support your partner and be a stay-at-home father but you are worried about what the football club guys or elderly relatives would say? Did your best buddy, your loyal pet, leave the earth, but you can’t shed a tear in public?
You might be starting to see how this could easily creep into almost every guy’s life at some point.
Fragile masculinity can become normalized and then form part of his frame of reference and way of behaving.
What does Fragile Masculinity Look Like? Everyday Examples
Once you understand what fragile masculinity is, you may automatically start to see the signs.
Fragile masculinity can be very evident in the presence of females – It tends to highlight or trigger fragile masculinity.
You may start to see those around you (and yourself?) exhibiting certain behaviours and attitudes that appear to compensate for the feeling of not being a ‘real man.’
Do women in traditional male roles threaten your manhood? Do you find yourself ( or notice in others) being overly concerned if someone enters your ‘domain?’ (It’s okay buddy, your wife can go near the BBQ occasionally… and the car too!).
It’s not just attitudes.
Some actions may attempt to seek dominance over the ‘weaker’ gender. Controlling and dominating behaviour can be a sign of a man feeling ‘fragile’ and in need of asserting his perceived male ‘rights’ or superiority, or simply just behaving as a man in his society ‘should’.
Things like dangerous, risky behaviour or criminal acts could be perpetrated as men with fragile identities try to reassert authority and gain control.
Other signs may include:
- Mocking men who display any variation from their perception of being ‘manly’ (including working in ‘women’s’ jobs, non-manly appearance etc.)
- Mocking women and women’s issues (such as feminism, equality or empowerment)
- Avoidance of shows of emotion, particularly in public (crying, happiness, excitement, disappointment etc.)
- Avoiding activities that appear to be unmanly or the domain of women (crying, nurturing, domestic chores, ‘women’s’ careers, ‘women’s’ sports etc.)
- Dismissing ‘bad behaviour’ in other men as ‘normal’ and providing excuses
- Controlling women’s movement and behaviour and preventing them from becoming independent or capable.
- Discriminating against, exhibiting aggressive behaviour or mocking anyone who is not a heterosexual ‘macho’ man
- Assigning activities to others based on old-fashioned gender roles
- Entitled sexual behaviour (she’s here to serve me, after all!)
Where does it come from?
Fragile masculinity is caused by a complex set of social conditioning and cultural beliefs.
It’s hard to avoid it. For many people, it starts with your first and most prominent role models – your parents.
Then society starts to reinforce the stereotypes.
Before you know it, you might be exhibiting the signs and behaviours and face future problems from something that is not commonly taught or talked about.
Here are a few of the culprits –
In a past article, we discussed the Male Psyche and an interesting topic by a researcher of boys and behaviour. He observed that boys were extremely influenced by their peers at a very early age. They need to fit in and impress, to a much higher level than girls.
So it starts young. You are not aware of it happening, and you’re not to blame.
You may have faced bullying or mocking if you deviated from your peer group.
It’s not fun. It seems ‘easier’ to just go along with the leaders who dictate the terms of the friends group.
However, later in life, these attitudes and behaviours often turn against you, as your maladaptations and socialization become problematic in an adult society.
A very interesting paper in the BMJ (link to the References below) discusses the biological fragility of the male fetus, compared to the female, and considers the impact of this difference, as society pushes boys to become “more resilient” than their female counterparts.
The paper describes this behaviour as ‘adding social insult to biological injury.’
The environment in which a boy is raised (culture, economic status etc.) can make a difference to his health and long-term prospects (women’s lifespans are greater than men’s on average, despite the challenges women face in society).
The biological aspect adds further complexity to the phenomenon of fragile masculinity.
Your Role Models
Parents, teachers and other societal role models are not perfect.
(Unfortunately, many of us do not realize this until it’s too late!).
Sure, we notice the hypocrisy in parental advice and behaviour, but the conditioning that occurs as we model our parent’s interactions is subtle and can be insidious (Why isn’t my girlfriend washing my clothes like my mom?).
Entitlement and sexism can and do show up in the home, by any parent, and it can lead to a lifelong issue for your relationships and life in general, as it starts to impinge on others’ rights.
Societal Norms & Rigid Gender Stereotypes
Ahh, society is always to blame! Well, quite frankly it is for many things, including fragile masculinity.
- Boys are not supposed to cry, so men do not know how to show sadness
- Don’t wear your hair long – it’s feminine.
- Avoid ‘girly’ pursuits and careers (Remember Greg the Nurse from Meet the Fockers and the pressure and mocking he faced for his ‘non-manly’ career choice?).
- What happens if your female partner earns more than you? Would that cause your masculinity to come into question?
And often it’s not you – but those around you that poke fun or niggle away at your masculinity.
In cultures with very strict gender stereotypes, it’s a brave soul who breaks away from the expectations and goes against the norms. Also read- how to deal with peer pressure.
Societal status symbols can also pose a problem for men with fragile male identities. Society applauds the shiny materialistic (expensive) tokens of success so much that some men may attach their manly worth to these items.
Perceived Loss of Control
Men are supposed to be in control at all times. That’s what you were told, wasn’t it?
Do any of the following situations sound familiar? –
- Have you ever had problems with a female boss at work? Did you criticise her far more than any male boss you ever had?
- Lost control of your emotions? Don’t – whatever you do! Men don’t do that! Whatever you have experienced, handle it like a man!
- Divorce is on the cards. There are two of you though. You can’t control someone’s decision, any more than they control yours.
- Your partner has her own life and socialises with her friends. You know where she is, but you don’t know what she’s doing? (So what! When you go out, it’s the same thing! You haven’t ‘lost control’ but you are accepting your partner’s right to autonomy).
I’m not saying you ever have to accept genuinely poor behaviour from anyone. But discerning your fragile manhood issues from the ‘normal’ actions of those around you might be necessary to avoid damaging conflicts.
If you feel any anxiety about ‘losing control’ when women (or anyone) make decisions or are in positions of authority, it may be that fragile masculinity has seeped into your life.
Why Should You Care about Fragile Masculinity
It should be obvious by now to realize that fragile masculinity is not something to strive for but in fact, something to tackle with some urgency.
It hurts the lives of men and those around them.
You don’t have to delve far into real crime television shows to see fragile masculinity at the heart of many extreme and violnet crimes against women and society as a whole.
You should care because:
- It could affect your health, quality of life and relationships
- The health, quality of life and safety of others could be placed in jeopardy
- You might be setting a bad example for children and continuing the toxic cycle
- You may be in conflict with the law
- The rights of others may be impinged
How to Overcome Fragile Masculinity
Now we know what fragile masculinity is, it’s time to help you overcome the problem.
Here are some practical tips for yourself to start today (or to share with others having difficulty) –
- Conduct a Personal Audit for a week – notice how many times you do things (or not do things) for fear of being labelled ‘weak’ or ‘un-manly.’ It means calling yourself and others out and becoming aware of the behaviour.
- Avoid men who mock or disparage other men for not being manly
- Avoid men who treat women as inferior
- Lower your exposure to family members, friends or colleagues who try to push their gender stereotypes onto you
- Make a list of people you can count on who are supportive and do not have issues with fragile masculinity
- When you want to do something that is not traditionally done by your gender – do it anyway! Your bravery will inspire others too.
- Join mixed-gender support groups, sports, hobbies etc. to gain exposure to a wider range of perspectives
There is some good news – You do not need to do the heavy lifting all by yourself.
Fragile masculinity is not your fault however you can be part of the solution.
You can work as a team with others – Batman can’t win by himself, and neither can Superman. Sometimes you need Wonder Woman. Think of it as the Justice League.
- The Fragile Male (BMJ – NCBI )
- When Is Masculinity “Fragile”? An Expectancy-Discrepancy-Threat Model of Masculine Identity (SAGE)
- Research: What Fragile Masculinity Looks Like at Work (Harvard Business Review)
- Be a Man’: Why Some Men Respond Aggressively to Threats to Manhood (Duke University – Neuroscience News)
Harsh is the founder of menPsyche. He enjoys using his extensive research and writing skills to communicate ideas and concepts, with the aim to improve people’s lives.
Harsh trained as a Communication Engineer and published a MSc (Research) thesis, as well as worked in a variety of marketing and consultancy roles.