Being born into a conservative culture with strict gender roles, I used to hear: “Girls don’t do that!”, “Don’t be a boy!”, “This is not a fitting occupation for a girl!”. As you can guess, I was a tomboy. I enjoyed being loud, running around, getting dirty, and doing other “boys” stuff. My teachers complained that I did not get along with girls.
I was lucky my parents were egalitarian. They did not mind my behaviour. My father was actively involved in housework. He would cook, clean, wash, and help with home-made preserves. The only “male” and “female” tasks were repairs (Dad) and ironing (Mum). But I suspect those were personal preferences. Dad never had a problem getting my uniform ready when Mum was on a business trip. Likewise, my mother was quite adept with a screwdriver.
My extended family was drastically different. Both grandmothers had to juggle full-time jobs with housekeeping. They were also the primary childcarers. My grandfathers would not help much apart from repairs. “Kitchen is not a man’s place,” my dad’s mum would say. “A man in a kitchen is such a disaster,” my mum’s mum would agree. The grandads would nod in agreement.
These differences in attitudes within my own family puzzled me. Soon I realised that my parents were rare. The majority of neighbours and friends’ families were similar to my grandparents’. There was a strict division between “male” and “female” spheres. And both genders enforced it. Men and women had their own destinies they had to stick with.
While not fitting the gender roles prescribed by my culture, I never questioned them much. Even my speciality — psychology — and interest in gender studies did not change much. “Men are men, women are women,” I thought.
In 2005, I moved to France. There I discovered that my stereotypes of masculinity and femininity do not match the French. Every other country I lived in after that showed the same pattern. Each of them had its own definition of masculinity and femininity. Moreover, these definitions varied among different regions of the same country.
This discovery heightened my interest in gender studies. I started to research existing literature. One thing I noticed right away was the focus on women. I found articles exploring gender inequality, effects of patriarchy on women, female body objectification, etc. The topics related to women seemed to be endless. And only a few scientists would mention men.
American media also focus on women’s studies. They are trying to promote a noble goal — gender equality. However, in doing so they often demonise men and depict them as an embodiment of patriarchy and, ultimately, oppressors of women.
In the past several years, these media picked up the notion of “toxic masculinity”. The term itself refers to just one of many masculinities, albeit a harmful one. Unfortunately, popular articles frequently create an impression that this toxic version is the only one or, at least, the most prominent. This toxic masculinity became a scapegoat for many problems of American society. The media blame everything on it: From mass-shootings to the recent election of Donald J. Trump to the Oval office.
The image of the ideals of masculinity in general being destructive also propagated into popular science. Several recently released documentaries, for example, The Mask You Live In (2015), imply that contemporary American masculinity is destructive for all American men. This message was endorsed by several influential people, e.g. former NFL defensive lineman (and now motivational speaker) Joe Ehrmann, sociologist Michael Kimmel, and political scientist Caroline Heldman.
Contemporary media and popular science distort Raewyn Connell’s theory of hegemonic masculinity. Indeed, the Australian sociologist theorised that hegemonic masculinity is the cultural ideal of manhood. It relates to many practices and norms. But, at the same time, only a small minority of men enact it. At any given time, throughout the world, many different masculinities co-exist simultaneously. Moreover, they transform over time to reflect changes in environments and societies, be it new people, new technologies, or new ideas.
Some of these masculinities are, indeed, toxic. Men identifying with them tend to be destructive to themselves and people around them. But how common are they? How many men engage in harmful activities specifically to affirm their manhood? These questions are vital for the well-being of our societies.
Unfortunately, toxic masculinities attract most of the attention of academia and the general public alike. Positive, productive masculinities are often overlooked. However, if our goal is to promote a healthy society where men and women can thrive, positive examples should be at the centre of the research. In order to help boys to develop constructive ideals of manhood we must understand what those ideals are. We need to raise men who live happy lives, self-actualise, and contribute to society.
Another topic that did not receive much attention is female influence on development of masculinities. While studies often mention that masculinities define themselves as the opposition of femininities, the role of women in shaping men’s ideals is often understated. How is that possible if women are the main carers? Of course, men represent important role models in a boy’s life. Still, mothers spend more time with children than fathers. In 2011, on average, American mothers tend to their offsprings for 14 hours a week, while American fathers only 7 (Pew Research Center). It is hard to imagine that boys completely ignore female perspectives on manhood.
Other women in society also project their ideals of masculinity on men. Female teachers and schoolmates, sisters and girlfriends, and even bystanders pressure boys and men into certain roles. They expect specific attitudes and behaviours. Women police masculinity no less than men. To which extent their opinions matter and in which situations still remains to be seen.
My own research pertains to migrant masculinities, another less-studied topic. My thesis focuses on white men in Japan. I am interested in changes in men’s ideals of masculinity:
- under the influence of a foreign culture with a distinctly different hegemonic masculinity;
- due to a transition from a cultural and ethnic majority to a visible minority.
Previous research chiefly concentrated on visible minorities, such as Latino and Asians in the USA. White migrants are rarely studied despite a long history of European immigration, especially in Americas. Globalisation and technical progress intensified population migrations all over the world. The number of white expatriates steadily grows in all regions, including Asia. With this trend showing no signs of decline, studies of white migrant masculinities gain in importance.
My working hypothesis suggests that white men in Japan face a challenge of creating a subordinate, highly personalised masculinity combining the traits of hegemonic masculinities of the native and host societies.
Unlike Western countries, Japan upholds traditional patriarchal values and has the greatest gender gap among developed nations. According to the World Economic Forum data for 2016, the Land of the Rising Sun ranks 111 among 145 studied countries. In Japanese society, men have higher status and greater opportunities than women.
However, Japan also prides herself on having a homogenous society and does not welcome foreigners. White migrants in Japan become a visible minority. Despite the fact that whiteness gives them a higher status among minorities, they cannot assimilate. A perpetual foreigner is their destiny. This conflicts with their position in their native country — the privileged majority.
A combination of these two factors — male privilege and visible minority disadvantage — forces white men in Japan to renegotiate and reconstruct their masculinities. My research aims to discover particular ways and outcomes of this process. Adopted qualitative approach will also shed light on opinions and motivations of participants.
Interviews with white American and European men in Japan will be a starting point for detailed research of migrant masculinities and white masculinities in particular. It will add to our understanding of mechanisms behind the ideals of manhood. The results can also be used for developing educational and therapeutic programmes for boys and young men.
In the future, I plan to expand my studies to other countries and ethnic groups. For example, one of the possible topics is Asian men in Asian societies. Another exciting research direction is an analysis of the influence of local women on migrant masculinities. Japan is an especially interesting case due to existing in the West stereotypes of Japanese women as submissive and exotic. However, the reality rarely matches stereotypes. Does this discrepancy create a cognitive dissonance? And if so, how does it affect masculinities?