For years the definition of what it meant to be a man was someone who hid their emotions, put on a brave face and gutted it out regardless of the circumstances. But new research is beginning to show how far that stereotype is from the truth.
This modern stereotype is just one of many misnomers men have been forced to conform to if they want to be accepted by society, but according to historians, the common ideals associated with masculinity haven’t always been that way. In fact, the traits that are now often considered the sign of being a “real man” are actually quite far removed from those that defined masculinity in ancient cultures.
Today, ask many men if they cry and the kneejerk reaction is often to say “no.” Similarly, if you asked them to describe what masculinity means to them, it wouldn’t be surprising if they offered statements such as: “Being able to handle yourself physically”, “maintaining emotional control”, “It’s about what you do, not what you look like”.
Are tears the ultimate sign of strength?
While these stereotypes will be familiar, they are nonetheless inaccurate for a myriad of reasons. Firstly, from a historical point of view, according to researchers these kinds of assumptions about masculinity only tell a part of the story of men’s behaviour. In fact, in warrior cultures, such as Japanese samurais and medieval knights, tears were the ultimate sign of manliness. Showing emotion towards a fallen comrade or an epic battle showed an appreciation for a code of moral and ethical values that all real men should live by.
In more recent times, western cultures used to value tears in a man as a sign of honesty. Abraham Lincoln famously used tears in his speeches to convey his passion and sincerity, and this strategy has been backed up by research at Penn State University which found a correlation between old cultural values and honesty.
Meanwhile, research by psychology research institute, Mindlab, have revealed that men are actually more emotional than women. Despite denying they have any compassion, empathy or sympathy for pain and sorrow, Dr David Lewis, a neurologist at Mindlab, has found that our views on emotions are mainly prompted by society.
Through a combination of media and social interactions our minds have been told that showing out emotions, such as tears, is something women do and men don’t. Moreover, because of this neuro-linguistic programming, we’re also predisposed to seek out information that reinforces these views.
The changing face of manliness
However, despite these thought patterns, Lewis found that men actually have stronger physiological reactions to certain emotions than women. During a series of experiments, Lewis found that men showed more physiological responses to a “heart-warming” video than female participants did.
Finally, the other piece of evidence which suggests that modern ideas of masculinity are linguistically constructed and socially reinforced distortions of reality, is the number of celebrities now redefining what it means to be a man. Champions of their sports, famous intellectuals and Hollywood stars are all contributing to the changing face of manliness.
Stephen Fry: The English author, TV presenter, commentator and all-round intellectual is an icon for many men across the world, even though he is the complete opposite of a “manly” caricature. Aside from being openly gay, Fry has famously battled with mental health issues for many years. In the past he felt compelled to hide his bipolar disorder, but finally opened up about it in 2006.
— Stephen Fry (@stephenfry) January 8, 2015
Outlining how he has experienced self-loathing and often succumbed to suicidal thoughts, Fry not only shed light on his own problems but on the plights of many millions of men. While it may have been a small step in the grand scheme of things, this movement by people such as Fry have helped change the perception of manliness.
Ben Wilinofsky: Along the same lines as Fry, poker champion Ben Wilinofsky has openly discussed his battles with depression. From the outside, Wilinofsky has the ultimate life of a “player.” Touring the world, playing poker, making millions and having his pick of the women, Wilinofsky is the ultimate alpha male in some people’s eyes, but behind the man who calls himself NeverScaredB online is a person with a lifelong struggle against mental illness.
Although he was initially concerned about going public with his problems, he went spoke out about them back in 2013 not long after winning a PokerStars EPT title. Since then he’s received a lot of support from the poker community and, like Fry, he’s helped change the perception of manliness.
Leonardo DiCaprio: Hollywood used to push actors such as Clint Eastwood, James Coburn and Paul Newman to the fore because of their manliness. Unflinching in the face of danger, stoic when things go wrong and tough as nails, these actors defined a generation of manly movie-goers; however, things are gradually changing. Actors such as Leonardo DiCaprio are able to look cool and suave, but still be true to their emotions. Regardless of the role he’s playing or the award he’s accepting, DiCaprio can cry, love and laugh, all while being “manly.”
Images of masculinity are constantly changing and while it’s clear that recent stereotypes have put “real men” in a room where tears and emotion are forbidden, this wasn’t always the case.
Moreover, it isn’t the case anymore. Thanks to research, public figures and changing perceptions, stereotypes of masculinity are evolving which proves than emotions know no gender.
Photo: Flickr/ Cubmundo