Behavior caused by a combination of pessimism and self confidence,

I was standing in line at a popular bagel shop, people watching, and I noticed a lot of different groups waiting with me. Couples old and young, college kids, construction workers, and people heading off to work. Something about that diversity struck me, because it seemed that a lot of those people would be considered masculine by society, and yet most of them didn’t share any obvious traits. What kind of masculine-seeming characteristics tied these people together? They all looked different and had different jobs and wore very different styles of clothes, and interacted with their friends differently.

Not everyone would agree 100% of the time on which people or traits are considered masculine, but even in the hustle and bustle of that bagel shop, I bet a lot of people would come to the same conclusions about what was and wasn’t masculine. What is it that makes these kinds of traits so seemingly easy to spot but also so hard to describe?

The dictionary defines “masculine” as “the possession of the qualities traditionally associated with men.” And at first glance we might have assumed that the group of construction workers was the most masculine, but after standing there awhile (it was a long line), I began to think that it’s not that simple or obvious; if we ignored their clothes, they were acting just like anyone else. Is just choosing to work in construction enough to make someone seem masculine, even if they don’t act differently than any random person? If so, does the current definition of masculine explain why?

My first issue with the typical definition is that I don’t believe people actually use the term in such a broad way. It would be much more accurate to say “qualities traditionally associated with men and not women.” It’s technically true that “eating” and “breathing” are usually associated with men, just because they’re associated with everyone and men are a subset of that group. This definition, like so many others, is circular.

We often think that masculine characteristics are easily observable, and therefore they’re just physical characteristics. We might assume that a big guy with a beard and a motorcycle is very masculine. But what if he also had a little fluffy dog in his side car? Do these different physical traits cancel each other out? Or are we using them as a stand-in for more important characteristics that can’t easily be observed. Also, simple physical facts include a lot of characteristics that don’t seem to matter at all. For example, having both X and Y chromosomes is “traditionally associated with men,” but no one considers that to be masculine. So, apparently, masculine traits are things that are associated with men—but not all men.

How society makes this distinction seems arbitrary until we realize that, once we rule out qualities present in all men, whatever is left will be characteristics that are the result of choices or behaviors—these are the deeper traits that can’t easily be observed. For example, choosing not to shave results in growing a full beard, and choosing a labor-intensive profession will lead to a developed physique, and potentially even scars. The physical attributes that are considered masculine are indicators that the person has made certain choices. It’s not the characteristics we see or the characteristics all men have that matter; it’s the choices some men tend to make, and those choices lead to observable differences. Therefore, it makes the most sense to say masculinity is a kind of behavior or set of preferences and that people associate certain physical characteristics with that behavior.

Relying on ideas like, “traditionally associated with…,” doesn’t attempt to dig into the evolutionary reasons of why some behaviors are considered masculine. It’s easy to say, “Masculine is just whatever people have said it is, whenever and wherever it is,” but that misses an opportunity for exploration and introspection.

Let’s look at the archetypal male heroes from stories and movies. They’re often portrayed as very masculine, and something that’s incredibly common among them is that they’re placed in similar circumstances. Whether we’re watching a movie about the astronauts on Apollo 13, the soldiers or victims of World War 2, or the heroes from Armageddon or Iron Man, what do they all share in common? Everyone would agree these characters show many masculine traits, but they’re in very different situations, they look different, and they have very different personalities. The heroes of these stories are masculine not so much because of some obvious quality but because of how they react to their situation. They face a challenge that seems overwhelmingly difficult or even insurmountable, but they feel that they have to tackle it even though do not have a good chance of success. These kinds of stories are very popular and often have men in the lead roles, so maybe that says something about the kind of perspective and beliefs society has come to expect from masculine characters.

Let’s now take the ideas that masculine characteristics are a result of choices and the stereotypical view of a masculine hero and propose a definition. What kinds of choices would someone make if the situation looked tough and the outcomes were unlikely to be good, but they felt compelled to try their best anyway? If we make a definition like, “behavior caused by a combination of pessimism and self confidence,” does that describe the stereotypical male-hero role? It would capture these kinds of stereotypical masculine behavior in these kinds of ‘hero’ scenarios, things looks bad and so pessimism is certainly warranted, and yet the masculine character still shows confidence in themselves. And more importantly, would this combination of perspectives fit with what we observe in our society today?

Pairing confidence and pessimism might seem somewhat contradictory, and it fits the classic stereotype, but what if we look at different times and places? Is it possible to explain diverse masculine traits by seeing similar motivations of expecting bad things but being self-reliant or self-confident across times and cultures? Even ones that are seemingly completely opposite? For example:

  • Machismo comes from Spain and Portugal but is used to describe a certain kind of masculine behavior in many places around the world. It represents many common ideas that are traditionally masculine, like chivalry or the protection of family, but it also often includes aspects like sexism and womanizing. But there does seem to be an underlying theme that things are going to go wrong, either in life or in our relationships. And that the best we can do is to face those problems head on or even attack them proactively, even if the outcome isn’t necessarily what we want for ourselves.
  • The idea of a Dandy is quite far from many current views of masculinity, but at the time, it was definitely a stereotypically masculine set of behaviors. We associate it with style and fashion today, but originally it grew out of a struggle of class and status: “Dandyism is a form of Romanticism. Contrary to what many thoughtless people seem to believe, dandyism is not even an excessive delight in clothes and material elegance. For the perfect dandy, these things are no more than the symbol of the aristocratic superiority of mind.” 1)Wikipedia Other descriptions show the conflict between the pessimism or the acceptance of being stuck in a certain class or status while also cultivating an idea of self-worth or self-confidence: “Dandyism in certain respects comes close to spirituality and to stoicism.” “These beings have no other status, but that of cultivating the idea of beauty in their own persons.”

Why should there be common themes and ideas behind masculinity throughout history and around the world? There haven’t been the same styles of fashion or occupation everywhere, but if there’s an underlying logic to what is considered masculine, that may explain a common thread in societies everywhere. We should look at early humans or even human evolution. Given the biological differences due to pregnancy and child rearing, it shouldn’t be surprising that historically people all around the world have faced similar choices and similar sharing of roles in a family or group. If pregnant women and infants in the family faced more dangers, then it would makes sense for men would to take on tasks that were potentially riskier or would require being away from the group. Especially for early humans who faced a world dramatically more dangerous, being pessimistic would often be an accurate view of the world. It could be that, for men throughout most of history, having a view of the world as dangerous and difficult and having to rely on yourself in difficult situations was a useful perspective.

Whether there are biological differences or whether we’ve just had a strong tradition of forming stereotypical expectations of the sexes, it makes sense to focus on the underlying motivations instead of the easily observable characteristics. What do construction workers and gunslingers from TV westerns and the heroes of ancient Greek myths all have in common, and why do we want to call them all masculine? People have looked and acted very differently across human history and from society to society, so a definition of masculinity should be based on the similar underlying perspective that drives the behaviors for all these different people. The idea that “things aren’t going to go well, but I’ll be OK if I believe in myself” is something in common we can recognize. It’s an enticing hook for stories, from a summer blockbuster movie to the little tales we tell ourselves to make sense of our world. Maybe it’s something genetic, or maybe it’s just an appealing idea that’s survived through all the changes in human society. Whatever the cause, it seems like this combination of two seemingly contradictory perspectives leads to the kinds of choices and behaviors that we call masculine, wherever we see it.

The obvious next step here would be to define feminine as the opposite of being masculine—an optimistic view of the world but without the same kind of self-confidence. I’m not sure that entirely rings true. There might be something to the idea of it being stereotypically feminine to put group success over individual success, but that’s not the same thing as lacking self-confidence. I don’t think that masculine and feminine necessarily have to be complete opposites in every way, as long as they don’t have completely overlapping definitions.

Ultimately, I argue that the ideal of masculinity is something of a contradiction, that a masculine trait or masculine seeming person is the result of believing that things are going to get bad, but that self-confidence is necessary or even critical. To me, statistically, that can’t make sense—it’s like everyone believing they’re above average. If things are going to be bad for most people, then being confident in myself to succeed isn’t the most accurate belief. But I’m OK with accepting that we don’t have rational ideas of what’s masculine, or feminine. Maybe these ideas have been with us so long and are so baked into our culture that we can’t help but see them in the world, even if they aren’t rational. Or maybe a better understanding of how we use these terms will let us see them in a new light, or see masculine and feminine traits in unexpected places. Men certainly don’t have a monopoly on holding contradictory opinions, and it can be useful for anyone to believe in themselves even when the outlook isn’t good. Maybe if we have a better understanding of why we want to call certain things masculine, we can see it more as a characteristic of the human condition.

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