Masculinity refers to cultural ideas about the physical and behavioral attributes of idealized men. Men learn to embody masculine traits through gender socialization at a young age.
Most social scientists believe masculinity is a social construct, meaning these ideals are imposed by society and culture. As a result, different cultures have different ideas about what idealized hegemonic masculinity looks like (for a seminal text, see Butler (2002) Gender Trouble).
Increasingly, we also hear talk of “toxic masculinity”, which is a critique of how certain forms of masculinity are anti-social and misogynistic.
Below are some of the best examples of masculinity.
Stereotypical Feminine vs Masculine Traits
|Traditional Patriarcal Masculinity||Traditional Patriarchal Femininity|
|1. Stoicism||1. Empathy|
|2. Provider||2. Nurturer|
|3. Logic||3. Emotionality|
|4. Strength||4. Kindness|
|5. Active||5. Passive|
|6. Domineering||6. Submissive|
|7. Preoccupied with power||7. Preoccupied with looks|
|8. Independent||8. Dependent|
|9. Public sphere||9. Domestic sphere|
|10. Quiet||10. Talkative|
|11. Analytical||11. Creative|
|12. Blunt||12. Tactful|
|13. Bold||13. Shy|
|14. Leader||14. Follower|
|15. Rugged||15. Refined|
Traditional Masculinity Examples
1. You must be muscular
The idealized masculine man is believed to be very muscular. The leaner, the better, and ripped muscles are the best. Muscle means strength, and strength is an expectation for idealized men.
This comes from the idea that men are the hunters and gatherers as well as the tribe’s defenders. The more muscular you are, the more likely you will succeed in the hunt and the fight to defend the women.
Women were relegated to stay in the community or village, as they had to care for their young.
Today, it has remained in the deep psyche of human beings that the best men are muscular – even though we live in a more civilized world now where intelligence is just as valued as brute force.
This muscular ideal is why many men go to the gym to develop their muscles—it increases the likelihood of attracting a mate (Connell, 2020).
2. You must be a fighter
A man is expected to be ready to fight. Again, this harks back to the days when men were seen as the people who would protect the women of the village from invaders.
A man who does not want to fight is viewed as someone who is emasculated or powerless. Sadly, men who try to de-escalate situations or are pacifists are often seen as ‘less than’ ideal because of their peaceful mindsets (Cranny-Francis et al., 2017).
In ancient times, two men were expected to fight to settle a dispute. A man who backed out was called a coward. You must fight, even if it means losing or dying, as fighting represents your honor. Today, though, much of the world has moved beyond this outdated view. Nevertheless, the idealized fighting male still persists in mythology about masculinity.
3. You must be assertive and firm
Men are expected to be assertive – even to the point of aggression. They must insist on what they want, not be easily swayed like the weather.
Assertiveness is a behavior of a leader. Historically, cultures have placed men in leadership roles and dismissed women’s intelligence and skill.
A man who fails to be assertive leaders may be seen as feminine. Here, like with the previous examples, we can see a narrative forming where the strong, powerful, aggressive, and active traits are assigned to men, while the weak and feble traits are assigned to women. Of course, this gender stereotype isn’t quite as accurate as mythology makes it out to be!
4. You must be financially well-off
Men are expected to be financially successful or at least in a position of stability in terms of money.
This is likely because for thousands of years, it is the man who is expected to provide for this family. Men toiled the fields or explored the wilds. The men were expected to bring home food.
Today, a jobless man is not an ideal dating candidate. Many women get turned off if the man has no job or cannot get a job. In modern society, even a “stay at home dad” is looked upon with suspicion.
The same expectations are not as regularly ascribed to the feminine. In fact, it’s often the case in traditionalist societies that a woman is expected to spend her time attracting a successful man rather than achieving her own success.
5. You must not be a gossiper
Men who talk or gossip too much are viewed as weak and conniving. Gossip is relegated to the realm of women, while stoicism is expected of the idealized male.
Historically, there is also supporting evidence of why men behave this way. In the ancient Code of Hammurabi, it says that a man who brings forth an accusation and cannot prove it shall be put to death. During that time, gossiping was a capital offense.
Today, men who gossip are seen as effeminate. The ideal man is seen as a “man of few words”, but when he speaks, he is supposed to be respected. If a man is too talkative or too much of a gossip, people may frown upon him and consider him to be a “beta male” (Connell, 2020).
6. You must be willing to make sacrifices
Men are expected to be heroes. They must be willing to make sacrifices for the good of their society, even if this sacrifice means death.
This expectation of masculinity is one of the reasons why most men are soldiers, not women (although there are other reasons, of course).
It is also why in an emergency situation, the women and children often get evacuated first. Men are also expected to do risky jobs that can cause death, like working the power lines, cleaning sewers, working on a high-rise construction site, etc.
7. Men don’t cry
The famous saying “men don’t cry” comes from an old trope where men are seen as logical and women as emotional.
Thus, men are taught from a young age not to show any emotions and accept pain (physical or psychological) without so much as a wince.
If at all, it seems as if the only emotion society accepts from men is aggression. Take, for instance, Hollywood films, where the men run into the fires to rescue the crying woman – society’s “damsel in distress” (Pilcher & Whelehan, 2016).
Of course, this is toxic masculinity. A man should be able to show weakness. Otherwise, pent-up emotions inside may lead to mental health breakdowns.
8. You must be honorable
A man is expected to stay true to his word. A man is also expected to be decisive, not reluctant or unsure.
This masculine behavior has its roots in the expectation that a man must have leadership qualities.
At the end of the spectrum, women who are ‘damsels in distress’ are almost expected to change their minds – after all, men are supposedly logical and women are supposedly emotional (Kimmel et al., 2004).
If a man displays this behavior, he is considered unmanly—so unsure about the things he wants in life.
9. You must be self-reliant, not dependent
Another example of masculinity is self-reliance. The man is the “breadwinner” whose primary job is to provide resources for the family.
This stereotype harks back to a time when women were not even allowed jobs. They would stay at home to raise the children while the man went to work (Cranny-Francis et al., 2017).
Today, we have increasingly come to accept equality between the sexes and the idea that women are perfectly able to pursue a career and succeed. Nevertheless, a cultural narrative persists that says men are the people who should go out and gather resources while women are expected to be dependent on men.
We can even see this narrative playing out in small interactions, such as when a man will attempt to carry a heavy object on his own, and not ask for help unless it is extremely necessary; or, when men are notoriously bad at asking for directions!
10. You must not show weakness
Lastly, masculine behavior dictates that you must never show weakness or cowardice. You must stand your ground. Men are expected to take action in an emergency, not hide among women.
A weak man is unreliable, which is why men are expected to help in times of crisis, not receive help. From an evolutionary standpoint, a physically, mentally, and emotionally weak man is also not an ideal partner, as he cannot protect his family from danger.
Read Next: How Many Genders are There?
Today, in a time when gender is seen as a social construct, social scientists question the value of outdated tropes about masculinity and femininity. We live in a world where we acknowledge that women can be leaders, men can be emotional, and (ideally) society shouldn’t judge a person by their assigned gender at birth.
Nevertheless, these old narratives will continue for generations to come because they’re so engrained in culture. From Hollywood films to everyday playground interactions, cultural ideals about masculinity and femininity will be passed down through the generations.
Butler, J. (2002). Gender trouble. Cambridge: Routledge.
Connell, R. W. (2020). Masculinities. Melbourne: Routledge.
Cranny-Francis, A., Waring, W., Stavropoulos, P., & Kirkby, J. (2017). Gender studies: Terms and debates. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Kimmel, M. S., Hearn, J., & Connell, R. W. (Eds.). (2004). Handbook of studies on men and masculinities. London: Sage.
Pilcher, J., & Whelehan, I. (2016). Key concepts in gender studies. London: Sage.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]