Some people have celebrity obsessions. I get obsessed with academics.
One of them is Dr. Tristan Bridges, a sociologist I interviewed a couple of years ago when I was writing about the masculine performances of Donald Trump and Joe Biden — Trump, the retro macho; Biden, the sensitive new age guy.
I knew there was a newish field on some college campuses called “masculinity studies” by then, but only because I’d done a story about it a few years before. It is, in short, the study of what it means to be a man in today’s world.
I had the chance to visit Bridges' sociology class last month at U.C. Santa Barbara, where he is a professor. I was there to talk about how journalists and academics can better work together, but I ended up asking Bridges a million questions about a concept I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since: “Masculinity threat.”
"Masculinity threat" is used by social scientists to describe the way that some boys and men respond when their masculinity is threatened. Say he's bad at sports and teased for it, or loses a job and income, or he’s romantically rejected. Some men (key word: some) will overcompensate for those threats by trying to prove their masculinity, often with super retrograde things. Think: Weight lifting. Muscle cars. Sexual dominance. And sometimes… violence.
It might sound lofty and theoretical, but understanding masculinity threat is critical to thinking about everything from men’s voting patterns to mass shootings — which seem to just keep happening, and are almost always carried out by men. It’s a lens that, despite more than a decade of covering gender issues through the perspective of women, I’d never really thought much about.
Donald Trump — who is the subject of a congressional hearing about the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, which have so far placed him at the center of the carnage — is perhaps the most public example of masculinity threat in action, both in his own behavior and that of his followers. Trump has bragged about his sexual prowess, released records of his supposedly-high testosterone levels, has been credibly accused of sexual assault, and arguably contributed to the deaths of thousands of Americans by his opposition to mask-wearing — in part because he believed it made Americans look weak.
But there are a ton of other examples of how masculinity threat plays out in the day to day, too — some more benign than others.
In one study, for instance, male college students who were given falsely low results on a strength test were found to exaggerate their height by three-quarters of an inch. (Harmless enough.) Men with baby faces, other research has found, were more likely to have assertive personalities than their more chiseled counterparts. (Overcompensating, I guess.) Men who were not their household’s primary breadwinner were less willing to share in household duties. (Not great.)
Then there are the instances that become worrisome. A vast body of research has found that men who were told they scored low on masculinity tests were more likely to act aggressively. Unemployed men were more likely to instigate violence against women. And, of course, men whose masculinity has been threatened are more likely to buy a gun. It is impossible, Bridges told me, to extricate what we understand about masculinity from what we understand about mass shootings.
None of which is to say that threatened masculinity is the only explanation for mass shootings, violence against women or anything else. And yet it is an important — and often overlooked — factor.
I spoke with Dr. Bridges about his research, and how understanding masculinity can help us better understand the world. Excerpts:
Jessica: Your research on mass shootings has looked both at how we collect data, and at the role that masculinity plays. What are we not understanding when we don’t connect the dots between mass shootings and men?
Dr. Bridges: I get called a lot by journalists when terrible things happen. And [when it comes to mass shootings] often the most common request is: Tell me how mental health is a part of this. It’s frustrating, because we have mountains of evidence to suggest that this is not the explanatory factor. But we do know that almost all mass shootings are committed by men.
So, the question becomes: Why do men commit mass shootings overwhelmingly more than women? And why do American men commit this type of violence more than men anywhere else in the world?
OK, so help us understand that link.
The research shows that when men’s masculinity is threatened, they reach for this awful collection of things: They’re more likely to be supportive of violence as a solution to problems. They’re more likely to support male supremacist statements. They’re more likely to identify as Republican, to buy an SUV, to purchase a gun.
So one explanation for why men commit mass shootings is that most mass shootings involve men whose masculinity has been challenged in some way. When we look at school shooters, for instance, I’m not surprised if I hear that they were bullied for being “gay” (whatever their sexuality is) or that they were teased. Maybe they weren’t good at sports. Maybe they didn’t have a lot of friends who were boys. It’s common to hear that they perceived themselves as lacking respect in their lives from both other boys at school but also from girls and women. So we need to talk about what masculinity is, because when it’s challenged, men can react in dangerous ways.
Part of what I find so interesting about your work is that it provides a lens for understanding things we might never otherwise associate with gender, such as Covid.
Masculinity didn't create Covid. But a massive body of evidence suggests that masculinity was a critical component in helping it move around the world.
Unpack that for us.
Initial data found that while women and men were contracting Covid at similar rates, men were dying more commonly. The best medical explanation seemed to be that men were more likely to suffer from various comorbidities that put them at greater risk — like drinking and smoking. But these comorbidities were not the result of being male; they were the result of the ways men often lead their lives.
Men were also less likely to wear masks. (Editor’s note: As one study found, masks were seen as "shameful, not cool and a sign of weakness.”) Some studies suggested that men justified journeys into public or crowded areas like grocery stores by claiming to be "protecting" their loved ones. Surveys also found that men were less likely to say they felt “afraid” of Covid, and more likely to say they felt “in control” of whether they contracted the disease.
Similarly, political leaders addressed the pandemic in different ways, but the most macho approaches involved men politicians telling their nations, “I'm not scared of Covid, and you shouldn't be either” or “We're too tough for Covid.” This bravado led to early and devastating rates of transmission in places like Italy and the U.S.
I have come to dislike the phrase “toxic masculinity” because it feels like a cheap shot, implying that all masculinity is toxic. But it does seem apt when describing the ways that some men respond to this kind of "threat." So why do some men whose manhood is threatened resort to terrible behavior while the vast majority do not?
We know less about those who don’t respond to masculinity threats than we should. But the research suggests that these are men who are simply less invested in masculinity as an important component of their identities than others. Some research suggests white Republican men are amongst the most heavily invested in their masculinity. Other work ties this directly to guns, showing that white American men in economic distress find more comfort in guns in reestablishing a sense of their individual power.
One way of looking at this might be that we should shift discussions from a focus on “toxic masculinity” to addressing the ways that, sometimes, masculinity is toxic.
This week’s throwback — masculinity edition — is the story of Charles Atlas, who went from skinny teenager to literal bodybuilder in the 1920s because he was bullied and embarrassed by a super-buff dude while he was on a date.
“One day I went to Coney Island and I had a very pretty girl with me. We were sitting on the sand. A big, husky lifeguard, maybe there were two of them, kicked sand in my face. I couldn't do anything and the girl felt funny. I told her that someday, if I meet this guy, I will lick him.” (LOL that’s got to mean beat him up, right!?)
Atlas, whose real name was Angelo Siciliano, would go on to be named the “World's Most Perfectly Developed Man.” He died in 1972.
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