Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Jul 29, 2019

Masculinity: Toxic or Tenuous?

by Joseph Vandello and Jennifer Bosson
Photo of a depressed man sitting in a tunnel

During the run-up to the U.S. Presidential election of 2016, candidate Marco Rubio joked that Donald Trump had small hands: “[H]e’s like 6’ 2”, which is why I don’t understand why his hands are the size of someone who is 5’ 2”….And you know what they say about men with small hands…” Later at a campaign rally, Trump help up his hands and responded, “Look at those hands. Are they small hands? And he referred to my hands if they’re small, something else must be small. I guarantee you there’s no problem. I guarantee you.”

To many, this exchange was merely a silly display of immaturity with no real significance. But to those of us who study the male gender role, it reveals a deep-rooted concern that many men—even those with success and prestige—experience about their status as “a real man.” In all human cultures, men as a group hold more power and status than women. And yet, manhood itself is widely conceptualized as a fragile, tenuous status.

In our work on precarious manhood, we find that people view manhood status as something that is difficult to earn and, once earned, easy to lose. In contrast, people see womanhood as a more natural, permanent status. Whereas girls become women by passing through puberty, boys become men by meeting certain social and behavioral standards. Manhood is something that must be proven, repeatedly, through public demonstrations of strength or power. And questioning a man’s masculinity in public—by calling his hands “small,” for instance—can trigger anxiety and a need to prove oneself. From this perspective, Rubio and Trump can be seen as players following a cultural script, one that is well-rehearsed since childhood, and upon whose performance their “real man” status depends.

But masculine insecurity is not limited to politicians. Much research (usually conducted on college men) shows how easy it is to heighten men’s insecurities about their manhood. Researchers do this by giving men false feedback that they score low on tests of masculinity, telling them that their testosterone levels are below average, or having them perform stereotypically feminine tasks (such as braiding a mannequin’s hair). Our research, spanning more than a decade, shows that having one’s masculinity threatened produces all types of compensatory behaviors – from displays of aggression to financial risk-taking to expressions of prejudice toward women and gay men.

More disturbingly, real-world violence can often be traced back to men’s sense of challenged manhood. One typical scenario is what criminologist David Luckenbill calls a character contest. These contests, in which the participants are overwhelmingly men, often begin with trivial altercations over slight affronts—a romantic triangle, a spilled beer, a dumb joke—and then escalate into violence. To those involved, the real fight is not about the affront that triggered it; the real fight is about one’s reputation as a man.

For some men, feelings of not being “man enough” are so shameful that those feelings can motivate extreme cruelty. Consider Elliot Rodger, a self-proclaimed incel (“involuntary celibate”), who murdered six college students and then killed himself in 2014. Incels judge male worth by the ability to attract women and therefore see themselves as unmanly. In Rodgers’ own words, his murder spree was, in part, an act of retribution against women who would not have sex with him. We cannot help but wonder if it was also a desperate attempt to establish an elusive sense of manhood.

There is a debate within psychology and the culture at large about whether male gender role socialization is on the whole good or bad. Those seeking to dismantle “toxic masculinity” argue that boys and men are socialized to enact unhealthy behaviors such as aggression, sexual harassment, avoidance of help-seeking, and emotional detachment. The counterargument is that many masculine traits are virtuous, including leadership, ambition, heroism, and persistence.

While we acknowledge both sides of this debate, our own interests lead us to ask a different question altogether: What if the most harmful aspect of the male gender role is its tenuousness? How might men’s behavior and mental health change if they did not view their gender status as elusive and fragile, as something for which they must continually fight? This is the question that inspires us the most.

For Further Reading

Vandello, J. A., Bosson, J. K., Cohen, D., Burnaford, R. M., & Weaver, J. R. (2008). Precarious manhood. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(6), 1325-1339.


Joseph Vandello, Ph.D., and Jennifer Bosson, Ph.D., are social psychologists and professors at the University of South Florida. They have been collaborating on gender and masculinity research since 2006.

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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