Are We Witnessing a Crisis in White Male Masculinity?

This article first appeared on the Chatham House site.

Many commentators have identified a ‘crisis in masculinity”, especially but not exclusively in North America, Europe and the Middle East.

But this “crisis” is really just a form of journalistic shorthand that describes what happens to some men − and groups of men − when technological, geopolitical, religious and other systemic and historical changes disrupt old gender hierarchies and social structures, establishing new gender norms and forging new identities.

In these fluid circumstances, some men adapt and evolve to the changing times.

For them there is no crisis, only opportunities for growth and for pioneering new ways of being men.

In recent decades, this category of men includes gay, bisexual and transgender men, who have been forging new professional identities and relational arrangements in societies around the world where historical oppression and constraints have eased against non-traditional gender and sexual expression.

It includes men who are not threatened by women’s growing economic, social and political equality, but instead welcome it as a fulfilment of the Enlightenment project of democracy, equal rights and human dignity. These men see women’s gains as a positive development to be cheered rather than feared.

GettyImages-488230366 Supporters listen to Donald Trump at a rally at the American Airlines Center in Dallas on September 14, 2015. LAURA BUCKMAN/AFP/Getty I

This category includes stay-at-home dads, but it also covers men with jobs and careers outside the home who want to invest more in their relationships with their children than they might have experienced with their own fathers. It includes men who are drawn to non-traditional careers and work that has been known as “women’s” work, such as nursing and care-giving.

But just as some men see opportunity for growth and fulfilment as the gender order shifts in the 21st century, other groups of men can feel adrift and “left out” of a changing social landscape.

This feeling of being left out or left behind is often exacerbated for men in Global North economies whose jobs have been shipped overseas to low-wage countries, or who have been displaced by automation, leaving them downwardly mobile and unable to sustain the standard of living achieved by their parents’ generation.

For these men, who are typically white and middle or working class, there truly is an existential crisis, a personal and sometimes political struggle to hold on to old definitions of manhood and the structures that sustained them. Michael Kimmel’s piece about the “aggrieved entitlement” of angry white men in the United States outlines some of the dynamics at play with this group.

What makes it especially challenging to address these and other men’s anxieties in these fraught times is that since so many people continue to see “gender” as synonymous with women, media coverage of social problems and political struggles characteristically fails to acknowledge the role of gender when it comes to issues that affect men.

Consider the following examples. On Polish Independence Day in November, 60,000 people marched in what media reports described as the largest far-right demonstration in Europe since the Second World War. Journalists reported seeing white supremacist and fascist marchers carrying signs with slogans such as “White Europe” and “Pure Blood”, and hearing chants of “Sieg heil” shouted by the boisterous crowd.

What few commentators deemed especially notable about the sea of white faces on the march was that they were the faces overwhelmingly of white men. And that the political programme being pushed by the white supremacist right is not just focused on matters of tribalism or the pursuit of ethnic purity, but is also fiercely committed to rolling back recent advances in women’s and LGBT rights.

A similar blind spot can found in US media commentary about the political ascendance and election of Donald Trump as president of the United States.

Trump’s appeal is typically attributed to his channelling of nativist and racist resentments among millions of white Americans, especially coming after two terms of the first African-American president.

What is less often highlighted is that Trumpism is a white male identity movement. Despite or perhaps because of his bullying persona and open misogyny, Trump attracted the support of tens of millions of white men.

These included many men in the nation’s heartland who had been battered by economic dislocation, and had seen themselves or family members succumb to opioid addiction or other substance abuse problems.

Trump won the presidency with the largest gender gap in presidential history, with Hillary Clinton winning women’s votes by 12 percentage points and Trump winning men’s by 12. Among white men, Trump won by an astonishing 32 percentage points.

A similar myopia has afflicted mainstream US media coverage of the epidemic of gun violence. The leading media are finally getting around to noticing that mass shootings − which happen in the US with a numbing regularity − are almost always carried out by men.

The New York Times even ran a prominent story recently that reported what domestic violence campaigners and feminist scholars have known for many years − that in the majority of cases, mass killings have links to domestic violence. The private sphere of the family and the public sphere of the community are inextricably connected: in nine out of ten of the deadliest shootings in US history over the past 50 years, the perpetrator had a history of domestic violence.

What this tells us is that in order to improve men’s lives and simultaneously address a wide array of problems that afflict modern societies, we need to pay more attention to the ways in which men have and have not adjusted to the tectonic shifts in the gender order that have largely been sparked by global women’s movements over the past couple of generations.

As Shereen El Feki puts it in an eye-opening piece about Arab masculinity in this volume: “There will be no transformation without information.”

Jackson Katz is the author of Man Enough? Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and the Politics of Presidential Masculinity.