Re-thinking the Social Construction of Real Men
|A study of war-time behaviour (Ashworth, 1968) showed what "real men" are like. Only 2% of men in the trenches shot to kill. Or, to put it another way, 98% of men shot to miss. Put a gun in a man's hand, give him total permission to maim and kill without retribution and 49 out of every 50 will turn down the chance even though they risk a court-martial for cowardice, and death by firing squad, if their behaviour is discovered by their own commanders. Seen another way, in all male environments (i.e. when there are no women present) face to face male-on-male violence virtually disappears, even when the context is war. This calls into question the "real man" ideal that is portrayed on cinema and TV screens. It would be more accurate to assert that the media portrays images of "unreal man".
The argument (or culturally held belief) that men are the violent sex is now known to be untrue. Fiebert (2005) discusses over 200 scholarly investigations of studies that include reports of both male and female violence in relationships. In complete contrast to gender stereotypes, women are consistently reported to initiate violence more often (although this should not obscure that most violence is reciprocal, infrequent, and that women are injured slightly more often than men).
Contemporary thinking, however, is gradually shifting focus to understanding the impact of entering the competitive world of wealth creation and courtship in its search for a deeper understanding of what a "real man" is. Success, it is now believed, is needed not just to survive personally, but also to attract a mate (Buss, 1994; Farrell, 1994; Ridley-Duff, 2007). Why, then, do we insist on believing that men are 'naturally' more violent? Why is the idea propagated that men control women (and other men) through their potential for violence? Is it because there is a hidden consensus that men should be responsible for violence?
Cultural Images of Violence During Courtship
The nature and representation of "real men" in films is particularly enlightening. There are legions of films that celebrate violent men who protect women and who berate violent men who harm women. The film Gladiator was a favourite amongst women because the hero (Russell Crowe) was considered "sex on legs" by popular women's magazines. The film, however, consists of him routinely and repeatedly lopping the heads off (and sticking swords into) men in order to get a chance to avenge his wife's death.
Another favourite amongst women was Cold Mountain, where a man (Jude Law) a deserter from the army walking home at the request of his lover during the American civil war - ruthlessly and efficiently kills men in defence of vulnerable women before returning home to impregnate his lover (Nicole Kidman). Male violence, is contemporary entertainment - erotic entertainment even - for women (so long as the violence is directed towards their safety).
How are these modern Hollywood heroes rewarded for their unselfish protection of women at the conclusion of the film? They are killed saving the woman they love the most. Russell Crowe lies dying in the gladiatorial arena having avenged both his wife and saved his earthly sweetheart from a corrupt emperor. Jude Law lies dying after arriving home to shoot dead the men who had been sexually pursuing his lover. Just as in the box-office record setter Titanic, the death of the male hero increases the romantic climax of the film. Modern movies still play heavily on "real men" violently saving women, and in the biggest box-office successes dying for the women they love the most. Male death, in a romantic context, sells. And it sells particularly well to women.
In popular culture, "real men" (i.e. unreal men) are presented as part of a romantic fantasy, but only when the purpose is to protect (beautiful) women or family members from other violent men. While this has been articulated as the preservation of "male dominance", it is actually the women who survive and the men who die as a result of this "dominance". In the most romantic films, the real man dies. So, is it men who are empowered or women? Have we been conned for nearly half a century by a false (or one-sided) argument?
The Impact of Beliefs about Violence
Women who want children are attracted to men that are economically successful and physically strong (Buss, 1994; Molloy, 2003). This is, of course, an entirely understandable (and reasonable) way of thinking when there is an expectation of vulnerability during and after childbirth. It is also a reasonable way of thinking when considering what is needed to raise a family within a society where violence still occurs.
It is unremarkable even if difficult for men and women to accept that the prevalent idea in our society is that men are and also should be more responsible for conflict. This inclines us reflexively to assign responsibility for all conflicts to men (male/male and male/female, sometimes even female/female), even when initiated by women. This bias shows up in academic studies. Over 95% of false allegations about violence and sexual abuse are made by women. Men are the target of false accusations 96% of the time (Wakefield and Underwager, 1990). The relevance here is that a "real man" is never violent to a woman or child. Even an accusation is sufficient (in real life) to shatter a man's world. In Wakefield and Underwager's study, the accusations were believed: the study examined the characteristics of accuser/accused in family court cases. As Kakabadse and Kakabadse (2004) have found, most allegations of sexual harassment and violence occur where both parties freely entered into the relationship but are having problems leading to a relationship break down.
Accusations or revelations that trigger sympathy can be part of a courtship process to induce a new potential lover to show their feelings and start to protect (i.e. find a new "real man"). Watchers of the popular TV series 24 will remember the way that Jack Bauer's daughter, Kim, pretended that her father was dead to induce Rick to feel sympathy for her. Rick responded by putting his arm around her - a "result" from Kim's perspective. Later, Kim goads Rick by taunting him with the question "do you always do what he tells you to do?" to get Rick to defend her (and her girlfriend) against a threatening man. Rick not only responds, but actually starts to have feelings for Kim, rather than recognize that she is manipulating him. Kim, in turn, starts to have feelings for Rick when he protects her. Much of the "real man" storyline is rooted in the sexual tension created by his desire to protect her, and her desire to be protected by him.
Conflicts at work are underpinned by a similar dynamic when a woman decides to switch allegiance and give her attention, and support, to a person better placed to handle her conflicts (i.e. reduce her emotional distress). Handling such conflicts on a woman's behalf can win a man approval - something that may potentially lead to a sexual encounter or closer friendship (or, at least, avoid being criticised as a "loser", "wuss", "wimp" or "weakling"!) Both parties, therefore, have an emotional reason for the "stronger" party to handle the "weaker" party's conflicts if they want a close relationship, thus re-creating the "real man" construct.
The result is a social dynamic that works against some men and in favour of some women but also creates the glass-ceiling culture. Women cannot indefinitely escalate conflicts to men (Ridley-Duff, 2007). Men and women, on the other hand, who have reached top positions by handling others conflicts are unlikely to welcome into their midst anyone whose conflicts they have handled regularly. Thus is created a complex web of male/female behaviour that both creates and resolves gender (sexual) conflicts to the advantage of some pairs of men and women at the expense of others.
It is this interlinked relationship between beliefs about violence and courtship that creates a second obstacle to equitable outcomes in gender conflicts. Let us now see how some women's propensity for testing out a "real" man's conflict handling skills ends up encouraging behaviours that some women welcome as courtship but other women label harassment.
The "Problem" of Courtship
The most productive relationships are equitable and reciprocal (Ridley-Duff, 2007). However, not all people seek this - either for work or romantic purposes. The purpose behind courtship as with other relationship building processes - is to check out and establish the inequities (or symmetries if you prefer) that both parties desire. Farrell (1988) itemises the additional conditions that women apply before they will be drawn into a sexual relationship with a man. Assuming there is sexual attraction and a desire for children, these additional criteria answer a key question: "will this man be able to provide for and protect me?" For men, recent research (Molloy, 2003) has shown that they too have a range of criteria beyond sexual attractiveness and the desire for children: it is captured by the question: "will this woman make me a better person and help my career?"
For men, it might be assumed that they would prefer to find a life partner who does not make them jump through hoops before committing to a sexual relationship, but this generally speaking - is not the case. Molloy's 10-year study established that many men prefer women they have to pursue. Why? Because if a woman puts up barriers to his advances, she is more likely to resist the advances of other men. If he can overcome her resistance then he will have found a partner more likely to be faithful. To a man that wants children, this is important (he will be as sure as possible that the children she bears are his). A woman, however, does not have to do this she knows that any children she has are her own without checking out if a man will resist other women's advances.
So, the rituals of courtship for a man who cares about the fidelity of his partner, and women who care about the capacity of their partner to provide and protect are rooted in behaviours that involve repeated attempts by the man to overcome the resistance of the woman. This behaviour is not about dominance it is about both parties establishing compatible and complimentary values for raising children.
One interpretation is that women who want to stay at home with children are more likely to want caring and protective partners. Women who want to have careers or to have independence within their marriage are less likely to want caring and protective partners. Men who want a committed relationship with children are more likely to seek a partner who resists their advances. But, men who have no strong feelings about a long-term relationship or want independence within their marriage are less likely to seek a partner who resists their advances.
The "real man", therefore, is a conception that each of us creates for ourselves - it has no existence outside our own romantic fantasy. For men, it is the idealised version of themselves that they imagine will be attractive to the women they desire. For women, it is the idealised version of their (would be) lover, the type of man that will help them aspire and achieve their life goals and treat them the way they desire.
If reusing this article, please mention that it is based on:
Ridley-Duff, R. J. (2007) Emotion, Seduction and Intimacy, Bracknell: Men's Hour Books, p.198-203.
Ashworth, A. E. (1968) "The sociology of trench warfare, 1914-1918", The British Journal of Sociology, 1968, pp. 407-423.
Buss, D. (1994) The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating, New York: Basic Books.
Farrell, W. (1988) Why Men Are the Way They Are, Bantam Books.
Fiebert, M. (2005) References Examining Assaults by Women on their Spouses or Male Partners: An Annotated Bibliography, California State University. http://www.csulb.edu/~mfiebert/assault.htm
Kakabadse, A., Kakabadse, N. (2004) Intimacy: International Survey of the Sex Lives of People at Work, Palgrave.
Molloy, J (2003) Why Men Marry Some Women but Not Others, Element, pp. 38-40.
Ridley-Duff, R. J. (2007) Emotion, Seduction and Intimacy, Bracknell: Men's Hour Books.
Wakefield, H., Underwager, R. (1990) "Personality Characteristics of Parents Making False Accusations of Sexual Abuse in Custody Disputes", Issues in Child Abuse Accusations, 2: 121-136.