Academic studies can be fascinating... and totally confusing. So we decided to strip away all of the scientific jargon and break them down for you.
Traditional masculinity -- you know, being tall, athletic and hyper-sexual -- seems to lack a lot of the nuance that make all kinds of men great. Unfortunately, guys receive pretty limiting cues from society telling them to how to act, look and feel (sound familiar, ladies?), which doesn't always bode well for the psyche. Previous studies have even suggested that men react to masculinity threats by exhibiting homophobia and increased aggression. Oy.
On a smaller level, though, how do men handle being told that they're less masculine and -- gasp -- more feminine than their male peers? Let's put it this way: They don't "take it like a man."
Researchers from the University of Washington and Stanford University conducted two studies to see how men dealt with threats to their masculinity. Before diving into the studies, however, they asked men to rate activities (like "Shopping at Home Depot" or "Shopping at Banana Republic") as masculine or feminine and then turned those activities into products (like "a $25 gift certificate to Home Depot" or "a $25 gift certificate to Banana Republic") that would be used as gift options in the two studies.
For the first study, researchers asked 36 college-aged men to fill out a questionnaire that would "measure the level of [their] masculinity compared to those of other men" on a 100-point scale. The questionnaire, however, was completely arbitrary and by no means set up to gauge true masculinity (which really isn't even a thing). In keeping with the ruse, each man was given one of two scores randomly assigned by the researchers and having nothing to do with their actual answers. They were informed that the average score was 72 out of 100 and randomly told that their score was either 26 (masculinity threatened) or 73 (masculinity enforced). After receiving their scores, they were asked to choose from one of the gift options from the pre-test as a reward for their participation in the survey.
In the end, the men who were told they got the lower, masculinity-threatening score bypassed the "feminine" products as compensation, opting instead to choose masculinity-enforcing products to -- ostensibly -- pump up their now-deflated egos.
For the second study, the researchers wanted to see how physical displays of masculinity affected men, so they had 50 men take a handgrip strength test and gave them false feedback intended to either enhance or weaken their sense of masculinity. After taking the test, men were shown the supposed handgrip scores of men and women on a chart which made it clear that the female average was lower than the male average. Some men were told they scored near the other men, while others were told that their strength was closer to the scores of women.
Then the men were given a new questionnaire that asked about their masculine and feminine attributes, including height, sexual history, handiness with tools and personality traits. They were also asked to choose from the products from the the pretest as compensation for their participation.
Both studies found that, when masculinity is threatened, men tend to overcompensate to reassert their manliness. Like the participants in the first study, those in the second study who took the handgrip test distanced themselves from "feminine" products if they received lower scores. The men who thought they had weak handgrips also tended to overstate their masculine attributes on the follow-up questionnaire -- they claimed to be taller, have more relationship experience and possess more masculine personality traits than those who supposedly scored higher on the handgrip test. Very clever, guys.
On the one hand, it's funny to think that a man who's worried he's considered weak would overcompensate by going on a power tool shopping spree at Home Depot, even if he really wants a sweater from Banana Republic that day. On the other hand, it makes you sad for the guys out there who might be feeling pressure to conform to an outdated societal norm of what it means to be a man.
For now, what we do know is that redefining masculinity and making it a more inclusive construct can only be a good thing for the men whose egos get deflated when they don't measure up and the people who have to interact with them when that happens (and Banana Republic, apparently).