The distinction between masculinity and femininity primarily concerns societal expectations, behaviors, and social roles typically associated with males and females.
The differences relate to social and cultural understandings about the social behaviors and roles of these two genders, whereas the categories of ‘male’ and ‘female’ relate to biological understandings of biological sexes.
For a brief introduction, these are the two binary gender identities:
- Femininity typically embodies traits related to nurturing, emotional expression, and collaboration (Basow, 1992). Women, for example, are often expected to show more emotion, communicate effectively and non-aggressively, and prioritize nurturing relationships over assertive behavior. Think about a typical film character who is nurturing her children (e.g., Mrs. Doubtfire’s character), or a woman leading a team through conflict resolution rather than dominance.
- Masculinity tends to align with traits such as assertiveness, independence, and dominance (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2015). Men are often encouraged to suppress emotion, strive for independence and display assertiveness or even aggressiveness. A real-world example might be a Hollywood action hero, physically strong and emotionally guarded (e.g., James Bond).
As these descriptors are cultural descriptions of expected behaviors, they are not strictly connected to the genders. For example, many women can, and do, exhibit masculine traits to a greater or lesser extent. As such, these traits are seen as socially constructed, and extensive research underscores the spectrum of masculine and feminine behaviors rather than rigidly dichotomous categories.
Masculinity vs Femininity
Masculinity refers to the qualities, characteristics or roles conventionally associated with men (Kimmel & Aronson, 2011).
Traditionally, many societies value traits such as strength, aggression, and independence in men. These are often internalized by children through media and parental expectations in a process called gender socialization.
Masculinity is not limited to men, as women can, and often do, exhibit masculine traits.
Gender theorists have also explored the concept of “hegemonic masculinity” (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2015), which refers to a particular configuration of practice that legitimizes men’s dominant position in society and justifies the subordination of women, and other marginalized ways of being male.
An instance demonstrating this can be seen in most superhero movies like “Superman” where the male lead character is depicted as physically dominant, emotionally detached and rescues those in trouble.
However, it is vital not to oversimplify or stereotype these traits.
Modern perspectives of masculinity emphasize plurality, intersectionality and fluid dynamics (Bridges & Pascoe, 2014). Plurality suggests that there are many ways to express masculinity, not just a rigid stereotype.
For example, consider the trend of stay-at-home dads, which reflects a valid expression of masculinity contrary to the societal norm. Intersectionality discusses how different factors such as race, class, age or sexual orientation interact with masculinity, which results in varied experiences of it.
The fluid nature of masculinity underscores that it can change within an individual over time due to numerous factors including personal growth or cultural shifts.
The following are traits traditionally associated with hegemonic masculinity. Please note that these are generalized, traditional, and often outdated stereotypes, and do not necessarily apply to every individual.
- Physical Strength: Men are often judged by their physical capabilities, such as their strength, endurance, and athletic prowess (Bridges & Pascoe, 2014). An example would be professional athletes like Usain Bolt who are renowned for their physical abilities.
- Emotional Control: Men are typically encouraged to suppress their emotions as a sign of strength (Kimmel & Aronson, 2011). Consider the phrase “real men don’t cry,” which discourages emotional vulnerability.
- Sexual Prowess: Successfully attracting sexual partners can be seen as a measure of masculinity (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2015). For example, fictional characters like James Bond are portrayed as overwhelmingly attractive to women.
- Competitiveness: Often, masculinity is associated with the need to compete and win (Bridges & Pascoe, 2014). Corporate leaders like Elon Musk and his competition with other billionaires in the space industry exemplify this.
- Dominance: Exerting control in social situations is often seen as a masculine trait (Kimmel & Aronson, 2011). This can be seen in team leaders, such as football captains, who direct and guide their team.
- Stoicism: Preserving composure in the face of adversity is considered a masculine virtue (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2015). For example, firefighters remaining calm in dangerous situations.
- Financial Independence: Masculinity is often associated with earning power and economic independence (Bridges & Pascoe, 2014). Successful businessmen like Warren Buffett exemplify this trait.
- Authority: Men who wield authority, either at home or at work, are often seen as embodying masculinity (Kimmel & Aronson, 2011). Historic world leaders, such as Winston Churchill, can serve as examples.
- Autonomy: Emphasizing self-reliance and independence is a commonly upheld masculine trait (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2015). Backpackers traveling alone through challenging terrains embody this characteristic.
- Risk-Taking: Men are often expected to be adventurous and willing to confront danger (Bridges & Pascoe, 2014). This trait can be seen in adrenaline pursuits such as skydiving or bungee jumping.
Femininity, fundamentally, characterizes traits, roles, and behaviors typically associated with women in a given society (Brown & Gilligan, 2013).
Traits associated with femininity often include nurturing, empathy, sensitivity, and non-aggressive communication.
As with masculinity, the construct of femininity extends beyond women, as men can, and often do, embody these traits.
Examining femininity critically, it is often linked to the private sphere and associated with the nurturing and caring roles (Lemon, 2016).
These expectations are often structured around homemaking, child-rearing, and other forms of emotional labor.
An example of this expectation might be a character like Marmee March in “Little Women,” who embodies the loving, nurturing, and domestic qualities associated with traditional ideas of femininity.
Contrary to past stereotypical portrayals, modern understandings of femininity acknowledge its complex and diverse nature (Brown & Gilligan, 2013). Femininity is not monolithic; instead, it intersects with other identity aspects such as race, socioeconomic status, and sexual orientation, leading to varying expressions and experiences.
A contemporary portrayal of femininity may include a Fortune 500 CEO who leads with compassion and empathy, effectively blending traits typically associated with both femininity and masculinity.
This underscores the emergence of a more fluid understanding of femininity that resists binary categorizations.
The following are traits traditionally associated with femininity. Please note that these are generalized, traditional, and often outdated stereotypes, and do not necessarily apply to every individual:
- Emotional Openness: Women are typically expected to be more open with their emotions (Brown & Gilligan, 2013). A well-known movie character who embodies this would be Julia Roberts’ character in ‘Steel Magnolias’, who readily shares her feelings with those around her.
- Nurturing Behavior: Femininity is often associated with nurturing and caring for others (Lemon, 2016). An example can be seen in the role of Florence Nightingale, historically known for her caring nature and dedication to nursing.
- Empathy: Empathy, or the understanding and sharing of others’ feelings, is traditionally seen as a feminine trait. A famous example could be Mother Teresa and her profound empathy for the less fortunate.
- Verbal Communication: Women are often associated with verbal skills and are often expected to be conversationally engaging (Brown & Gilligan, 2013). Oprah Winfrey, a noted television host and interviewer, is an example who uses these skills masterfully.
- Cooperation: Societal expectations often associate femininity with cooperative and collaborative work. An example could be seen in team projects in any professional setting where female team members work constructively to reach a common goal.
- Modesty: Cultural norms often link modesty, or humility, with femininity. For instance, Aung San Suu Kyi is often praised for her modest approach in leading her political movement.
- Concern for Appearance: Attention to personal grooming and appearance is often associated with femininity. One real-world example is the flourishing beauty and fashion industry largely catering to women.
- Flexibility: Adaptability and flexibility, especially emotional, are commonly viewed as feminine traits (Lemon, 2016). An example is evident in many working mothers who juggle multiplicity of roles and adapt to changing circumstances.
- Patience: Historically, patience has often been hailed as a feminine virtue. An example could be a teacher like Maria Montessori, who demonstrated patience in her innovative approach to education.
- Gracefulness: Gracefulness, such as in movement, manners, or style, is often ascribed to femininity. Many female dancers, like Misty Copeland, embody this trait through their performances.
Table of Differences Between Femininity and Masculinity
|Typical Gender Stereotypes||Strong, assertive, independent, competitive, emotionally reserved.||Gentle, nurturing, cooperative, sensitive, emotionally expressive.|
|Roles in Society (traditional view)||Expected to be providers, protectors, leaders, decision-makers.||Expected to be caregivers, supporters, followers, empathetic listeners.|
|Emotional Expression||Traditionally discouraged from showing emotions (except anger). Often told to “man up”.||Encouraged to express emotions freely. Associated with empathy and compassion.|
|Communication||Direct, assertive. Prefers to solve problems independently.||Indirect, cooperative. Prefers collaboration and discussion.|
|Occupations (traditional view)||Careers in politics, science, engineering, military, business.||Careers in nursing, teaching, social work, fashion, beauty.|
|Relationship to Power||More likely to seek power, assert dominance, and take up space.||Traditionally less likely to seek power, often adopting supportive or subordinate roles.|
|Physical Appearance (traditional view)||Muscular, tall, short hair, less emphasis on clothing and accessories.||Soft, petite, long hair, more emphasis on clothing, makeup, and accessories.|
This table reflects traditional views on masculinity and femininity. It is important to understand that individuals may identify with traits from both columns or none at all, and that’s perfectly okay.
It’s also crucial to recognize that societal views on gender are changing, with many societies moving towards more fluid understandings of gender roles and characteristics.
Cultural Variations in Masculine and Feminine Stereotypes
Cultural differences in gender norms play a significant role in shaping perceptions of masculinity and femininity (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2015). In fact, some cultures even have multiple different types of genders.
Essentially, what is considered masculine or feminine can vary greatly from one culture to another. Such cultural ideals are deeply embedded and shape individual behavior, identities, and societal norms at large.
In some societies, the concept of masculinity is strictly tied to physical strength, stoicism, and economic prowess (Maass et al., 2016). For instance, in many traditional societies, manual labor and physical strength define a man’s masculinity.
On the contrary, in other societies, mental strength, emotional intelligence, and the ability to provide for the family define masculinity. An example might be the difference in expression of masculinity between the Maasai warriors of Kenya, whose rites of passage include lion hunting, and men in Scandinavian cultures, where gender equality and shared household work is emphasized.
Femininity, as well, can exhibit significant cultural variation.
In some cultures, femininity is tied to domesticity, gentleness, and passivity (Maass et al., 2016). For instance, in many fundamentalist and deeply conservative societies, women’s roles are traditionally restricted to the private sphere: homemaking, child-rearing, etc.
However, in other cultures, femininity can also be associated with strength, leadership, and independence. The Mosuo culture in China, for instance, is a matrilineal society where women are heads of households, and their economic and social status are more prominent, challenging traditional notions of femininity.
See Also: 10 Types of Masculinity
Masculinity and femininity are fluid constructs, molded by cultural norms, values, and historical contexts. Therefore, they are subject to continuous change and redefinition.
Basow, S. A. (1992). Gender: Stereotypes and roles. Thomson Brooks/Cole Publishing Co.
Bridges, T., & Pascoe, C. J. (2014). Exploring masculinities: Identity, inequality, continuity, and change. Oxford University Press.
Brown, L. M., & Gilligan, C. (2013). Meeting at the Crossroads: Women’s Psychology and Girls’ Development. Harvard University Press. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1176/ajp.151.2.281
Connell, R., & Messerschmidt, J. (2015). Hegemonic masculinity: Rethinking the concept. Gender & Society, 19(6), 829-859. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/0891243205278639
Kimmel, M., & Aronson, A. (2011). The gendered society. Oxford University Press.
Lemon, R. (2016). “Femininity” as a Barrier to Positive Sexual Health for Adolescent Girls. Journal of Adolescent Health, 59(2), 154-159.
Maass, V. S., Cadinu, M., Guarnieri, G., & Grasselli, A. (2016). Sexual harassment under social identity threat: The computer harassment paradigm. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 75(5), 1245–1261. Doi: https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.523
O’Neil, M. (2013). Men’s and Women’s Gender Role Journeys: Metaphor for Healing, Transition, and Transformation. Springer Publishing Company.
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]