Man Up, Man Down

The casualties of hyper-masculinity

by Fiachra MacFadden; illustrations by Caroline Li

In April 2007, Seung-Hui Cho, a student at Virginia Tech University, shot and killed 32 people. Prior to the massacre, two women claimed that Cho stalked them. The Associated Press described the manifesto Cho left behind as “a rambling note raging against women.” 

In May 2014, Elliot Rodger murdered six people at UC Santa Barbara, three of whom were killed right in front of a sorority. Prior to the shooting, he uploaded a video to YouTube titled “Elliot Rodger’s Retribution.” In the video he said that he would restore justice by murdering women who rejected him, and that he would punish sexually active men whose lives were more enjoyable than his. 

In November 2015, Robert Dear murdered three people in a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs. In Dear’s past, he had a record of domestic abuse, rape and stalking. He also had gone on a few dating websites stating that he was looking for sadomasochistic sex. 

In June 2016, Omar Mateen murdered 49 people in a gay nightclub in Orlando. Both Mateen’s current and former wife reported that they were repeatedly abused by him. Mateen was also rumored to have been a closeted homosexual.  

There is a common relationship between sex and violence in all of these stories. All of these shooters had a hatred toward women that was interwoven with sexual craving. Most glaringly, each of these shooters were men. It seems there is something at the core of masculine expectations that is causing men to commit these acts at vastly higher rates than women. And it’s not just mass shootings. Masculinity is central to a slew of national issues that we don’t normally associate with men.

In the United States, men have lower grades than women in both high school and college. Men are more likely to drop out or be expelled from school. Gun ownership is three times higher among men. Across the board, men abuse drugs at higher rates than women. The majority of domestic abuse is committed by men. Of the last 84 mass shootings, 81 have been committed by men. Men account for ninety percent of the prison population. And men are almost four times more likely to commit suicide than women. Within some of these statistics like gun ownership, mass shootings, and suicide, there is another staggering statistic—white men account for much higher rates than men of all other races.

Correlation, of course, does not imply causation. But the more we examine these issues, the more central masculinity appears to be. Masculine expectations seem to be affecting men of all races in destructive ways, but white men appear to be internalizing these expectations at especially high rates.

Mateen and Cho are anomalies in that they are men of color. According to data compiled by Mother Jones Magazine, white men commit sixty-four percent of mass shootings. Maybe this is because white men have been historically more likely to hold leadership positions, be the sole breadwinners of the family, go to war and to take care of women sexually and financially. Except for holding the most power, men of other races have been held to similar expectations. But in today’s age, it’s no longer clear what it means to be a man. This is especially true for white men who are seeing an increasing number of demographics gain at least a fraction of the power and privilege that they once enjoyed entirely for themselves. 

Feminism has been incredibly successful in liberating women from some of their age-old stereotypes and expectations, and the movement continues to do so today. But there are old stereotypes and expectations to which men are held, too. To point this out is not to call for a shift away from feminism in any way. In fact, all these issues pertain to feminist discourse. The fact that we are not often talking about the men responsible for that oppression speaks volumes about our society. Men are praised when they do well, but when their image is tainted by something negative, we remain silent. We pretend issues of gender are not men’s responsibility, too.

Following each mass shooting, we often talk about mental health. This was true for Cho, Rodger, Dear and Mateen. Most of these mass shooters have been suspected of having suffered from depression. Though shooters are mostly men, men are not more prone to depression than women. Women actually have much higher rates of depression than men. But according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, men commit suicide almost four times more often than women. In fact, suicide is one of the leading causes of death for men in the United States. What’s to account for the discrepancy? Pehaps because of the masculine expectations of stoicism, men are less likely to report depression than women. And whereas women might internalize mental health and try to seek help in various ways, men might be more inclined to disregard any attempts to think through their issues and instead externalize them through violence—sometimes against others and sometimes against themselves.

As a society, we teach men to be strong and ignore their emotions very early on. In the book, “I Don’t Want to Talk About It,” psychologist Terrence Real cites numerous studies on how parents unwittingly assign clear gender roles and expectations to their kids right from the get-go. Real explains that “little boys and little girls start off […] equally emotional, expressive, and dependent.” However, in the studies Real cites, when a baby boy cries, he is often perceived to be angry, whereas when a baby girl cries, she is perceived to be scared. Usually parents then pick up and coddle the girl while leaving the boy to himself as they wait for his “temper” to settle down. Real says that “from the moment of birth, boys are spoken to less than girls, comforted less, nurtured less.” 

Boys who aren’t acknowledged at this early age come to understand that it’s wrong for them to be emotional. They come to think that it’s good to suppress their emotions. This can create a condition called alexithymia, which is an inability to put one’s emotions into words. Unsurprisingly, this condition is much more common among men than women. Emotions exist at humans’ cores, so when men have a hard time understanding their emotions, they have a hard time understanding themselves. And crucially, when men cannot understand themselves, it becomes difficult to understand others. 

This could be part of why men are so prone to sexual violence. When men lack the capacity to understand others, sex can come to exist solely for self-pleasure. When a man sees sex as his right and his sexual partner as little more than a tool, it becomes easier to beat a woman denying him sex. It is that same inability to understand others that makes it so horrifyingly easy for mass shooters to massacre people.

This tells us that no one, not even a “tough” man, can simply suppress their emotions and expect them to disappear. Emotions will, at some point, escape. So when men are expected to be stoic, their built-up emotions release themselves through some kind of outlet other than words or tears. This outlet could be violent, but most often the outlet is a socially acceptable one like drugs and alcohol. It’s no wonder, then, that men abuse drugs and substances at far higher rates than women. 

In the 1970s, a study was conducted on rats to learn about drug addiction. They were placed alone in cages that had two separate liquid dispensers. One dispenser had water in it, and the other had morphine solution. Each test showed an unsurprising result—the rat almost always preferred the dispenser with morphine solution and would invariably overdose and die. Shortly after the experiment began, psychologist Bruce K. Alexander wanted to try something new. Alexander decided to expand the experiment by creating a large area for 16-20 rats of both sexes to roam around. The area had wheels for play, tunnels, plenty of food and space for mating—and the two dispensers. Though both dispensers were present, rats no longer drank from the morphine solution. None of the rats became addicted and none of them overdosed. 

This experiment indicated that social isolation might be a risk factor in drug addiction. Similarly, though countless cancer patients around the world are treated with morphine for their pain, very few of them ever get addicted to it because these patients almost always return to loving communities with friends and family on whom they can rely. These patients are, on the whole, not socially-isolated. More recent evidence is starting to show that this does not just apply to drug addiction, but to many other diseases, too. According to Dr. James House, professor of Sociology at the University of Michigan, when it comes to risk factors leading to early death, “social isolation is comparable with that of cigarette smoking.” Dr. Dhruv Khullar, a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and contributing writer for The New York Times, said, “isolated individuals are twice as likely to die prematurely as those with more robust social interactions.”

Isolation does not just mean going off and living alone for a year. It’s possible to be in a room full of people and feel intensely lonely. A socially isolated person may seem perfectly content on the surface while neglected emotions bubble up underneath. It’s increasingly clear that we are social creatures, and that isolation can kill us. But it seems to be killing men more than women. When men suppress their emotions and lose touch with part of themselves, they lose touch with parts of society, thereby becoming somewhat socially isolated. 

But why do these socially isolated men so often choose violence as their outlet? Often, it boils down to a kind of overcompensation. As we so often see in movies, hyper-masculine men are expected to physically defend themselves when they’re insulted in some way. Think “Fight Club,” “Rocky,” “Pulp Fiction,” or virtually any superhero movie. The men that burst out into violence are often overcompensating for some loss in their masculine identity. When men, like most mass shooters, lack an ability to attain hyper-masculine expectations, they look for an alternative outlet to overcompensate for the deficiency. Cho and Rodgers never had a relationship with a woman. Mateen might have been scared that he was perceived to be gay—or that the very existence of gay and transgender people was a threat to the masculine image. Each of these men tried to reassert their dominance and twisted sense of manliness through mass shootings. 

In fact, when we look into the histories of mass shooters, we often see a trail of smaller levels of overcompensation. Robert Dear, for example, often found himself in serious debt after gambling most of his savings away, but when he did manage to earn some income, instead of paying off his debt, he would usually go out and buy new motorcycles and expensive guns—extremely masculine objects. 

This overcompensation, however, does not just exist in mass shooters. Countless studies have shown that many men overcompensate, to varying degrees, for their masculinity (or perceived lack thereof). A University of Washington paper titled “Manning Up,” is a perfect example: The study had male college students begin by taking a handgrip strength test. Some of these men were then randomly told that they scored low on the handgrip strength test and others were randomly told that they scored high. After the test, the men were required to fill out a questionnaire that asked them what their height is, how many romantic relationships they have had, how athletic they are, and to rank their interest in various stereotypically feminine consumer products. The men who scored low on the handgrip strength test exaggerated their height by three quarters of an inch on average, claimed to have had more romantic relationships, claimed to play more sports and had less interest in stereotypically feminine products. The men with high “handgrip strength” scores did not exaggerate any of their answers in the questionnaire—they felt no threat to their masculinity. 

Physical power is not the only indicator of masculinity; another could be monetary power. Almost every time large numbers of men are laid off, we see a spike in domestic abuse. Being the main breadwinner is a typically masculine title. Once a hyper-masculine man loses that status, he loses a stronghold of his identity, so he looks for another.

We have long been blind to how hyper-masculinity affects so many of the issues we talk about. When we talk about sexual assault, we often raise awareness and teach bystanders what they can do. We keep men out of these issues by disguising our language with terms like “rape-culture,” which is itself a facet of a hyper-masculine culture. Even the language of “violence against women” makes sure to leave out the word “man.” As a result, this has become a woman’s issue that mostly feminists talk about—but this is mostly a male problem. After every mass shooting, we label the man as a “suspect,” “murderer,” “shooter,” “psychopath.” We avoid the word “man” at all costs. The same goes for sex trafficking and prostitution—everything is focused on women, but we never look at the men funding this industry. 

How many more men have to be expelled from school, commit an egregious crime or commit suicide before we recognize the role hyper-masculinity plays in all of this? We know that men are experiencing a loss in their sense of identity and are reacting in detrimental ways. This identity needs to be redefined by each and every man himself. Men need to free themselves from societal expectations of what a man “should” be. We must not look at people in relation to what we are told to expect of their gender. A fundamental shift needs to take place across the board—in schools, in workplaces, in the media and society as a whole. Masculinity should not be manufactured in contrast to femininity. Men and women alike need to internalize the fact that, regardless of gender, there is nothing wrong with being vulnerable. Vulnerability is not a feminine trait:, it’s a human one.


Part of the Toxic issue