What is this crisis in masculinity?

Today’s post began a week ago when I watched the video of actor Emma Thompson talking to the BBC in the wake of the harvey weinstein downfall.

As you listen to the video, you’ll hear Ms. Thompson refer to a “crisis in masculinity,” extreme masculinity she actually called it.  In response to a question, she also ponders (rhetorically) if harassment (assault) “only counts if it’s done to loads and loads of women” or does it matter if it’s only done to one woman, once.

“I think, the latter,” she says. Of course she does. I do too.

Here’s that video. It’s eleven minutes long, but well worth the time.  I’d posted a shorter version to my Facebook page, but I can’t seem to get that one to load here.


I’m quite taken with the idea of this “crisis in masculinity.”  When you first heard it, do you recall what you thought?

Macho?  Braggadocio? Perversion? Power? Control?

The list could go on.  If you had a different take, please add it below in the Comments.

We have lots of adjectives describing “masculinity.” And lots for “femininity” too. But that’s not where I want to go.

And here’s where my focus takes a U-turn.

I’m more curious about the idea of how we treat one another, for that is certainly how this whole conversation began: how the men in our society have gotten away with the way they treat women. Bill Cosby not so long ago; Harvey Weinstein more recently. And the hundreds of thousands involved in the Me Too stories we became privy to, mine included.

I keep coming back to the idea that it’s equality — equality of creeds, ethnicities, genders, income levels and the rest — that is at the core of how we treat one another.

One can’t believe in equality and be a misogynist. One can’t truly embrace equality and see themselves as better than, superior to, and so on. I’m proud that my sons know that — if it’s any measure, they were both stay-at-home dads during their kids’ preschool years —  but flummoxed when I try to come up with what I did, specifically, to bring that about.  I’m assuming it says more about the changes happening more broadly in our culture than it does about my parenting.

The question, it occurred to me, used to be: How do we raise sons to be confident of their masculinity while still in touch with their feminine side?

That’s not a question we need ask anymore. Here’s why.

What does “confident of their masculinity” mean? Too often, it leads to the belief that the “good man” is one that protects his woman, his family, his home, his country. How unfair to the men! My sense has long been that the role of protector is a burden that not every man is up for. It’s fine if you want to be a warrior; some men (and some women) come by that naturally. Good for them. But not everyone (male or female) does. And I’d like to see more of us honor that difference.

I remember writing about this for my memoir.  It’s the scene where my colleagues and I have gone out for a Women’s Day Lunch and while it didn’t make it into the memoir, it is in the Untold Stories (free with a subscription to this blog).  I’ll add the story here, inside this little pull down box.


[learn_more caption=”International Women’s Day”]

My teachers and I settle into our own little room at the Korean restaurant for an early Women’s Day lunch. We sit on mats around a very low table and my legs once again stick straight out under the table; my hips just will not bend to allow me to sit cross-legged and they are graciously tolerant, telling me it doesn’t matter. Though I know it must, I choose to accept them at their word.

I’ve come to calling them my teachers for that is what they have all become. They have taught me much over the past eighteen months. And writing this, I can picture them today as though this was yesterday: Tolganay sits to my right; Zhanara, to my left; Gulzhahan is at the far end, catty-corner from me. Assem and Gulzhan are there, as are Kuralai, Kamshat, and both Miras; I think everyone is here except Rustam, our sole male English teacher. He never socializes with us outside of the teacher’s lounge and I can’t quite grasp if it’s gender or nationality that sets him apart. No one else seems to mind.

Talk turns quickly to Women’s Day, a holiday celebrated on March 8 around the world. I’d never heard of it before I came to Kazakhstan.

“In America,” I tell them, “we have no Women’s Day.” Then I explain about Mothers’ Day. “I like the idea of Women’s Day better,” I continue. “Women need more opportunities to be honored, not just if they have had children.”

The conversation turns, as it probably would anywhere, to the idea of honoring women and whether one day a year is adequate. Our food arrives, I don’t recall what we ate, but I do recall what they said that afternoon.

Tolganay tells of taking care of her brother’s clothes for him as a child. “Did you resent him because of it?” I ask, thinking of the heavy thud that would result as this idea landed in the U.S., even with washing machines.

“Oh, no. It was my duty,” Tolganay proclaims. “My honor.”

And, while I believe she means it, I must look skeptical, for Gulzhahan quickly adds, “Men are considered holy,” which causes me to look even more skeptical. She continues, “Because they protect home, family, the region, and the country.”

“It is a good thing to be of service to them,” Tolganay adds.

I’ve had no brothers or father in my lifetime to protect me, so I’m not about to quibble. Yet, I begin to wonder whether equality itself is simply another Western value and not the universal one I’d long believed. I grew up on the “all created equal” idea; they didn’t. If they grew up with the idea of an inherent inequality, the idea that men are holy and women aren’t isn’t such a leap.

What strikes me the most still today, though, is that no one was resentful of this. They aren’t just being tolerant; they feel honored. And all the women there who had brothers knew just what Tolganay was referring to. They had all done it too. [/learn_more]


Feminism, to me, is about having the freedom to be who and what you want to be: protector or partner, stay-at-home parent or chief breadwinner. (And lucky are those who have the choice.)

Perhaps we need to raise sons — daughters too — to understand that their gender does not define them.  That, instead, it’s a simple matter of learning that every human is inherently equal, deserving of the same respect, opportunity, and chance as anyone else.

How do we do that?

It starts with not using their gender to define them.

What are the stereotypes we hold about boys vs. girls?  Start with identifying those.

  • “Big boys don’t cry,” some parents might say. Yes they do!  Grown men cry and are the better for it.
  • “Good girls don’t do that.” Boy, was that a big one for me growing up (and, by the way, yes we do and it has nothing to do with not wanting to be good).
  • “Boys will be boys.”  That’s been used as the excuse de jour for far too long.

How about you? What does this “crisis in masculinity” mean to you?  What are the stereotypes of boys and girls that you still find yourself holding? And again, I don’t hold to “right or wrong” answers. I welcome differences: in opinions, in viewpoints, and in experiences. 


15 Responses

  1. Susan Jackson
    | Reply

    Crisis of masculinity, one thing I found through my years is that most men I found myself with love independent women until you get very serious or married. The “I am boss”mentality or “I own you” took over, that is such a crazy attitude to have.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      And how smoothly we women once slipped into that expected new role. Thanks Susan

  2. Carolyn
    | Reply

    I read today that 50% of women in a poll in UK said they had suffered some sort of harassment at work. Many years ago, you just adopted avoidance tactics and then the world moved on and we began to think there was some sort of equality. I guess this proves that there are big areas still to be addressed – although I think we sometimes need to be careful not to over-react: a little light flirting should be possible and open to rejection without calling the cops. It’s not easy.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Oh flirting! What a culturally determined phenomenon that is. Or is it? Maybe it’s universal. If I were back in grad school I’d love to tackle that as a research project. Just think, I could get grant money to travel the world experiencing the cultural differences of flirtation. Flirting is fun. And you are right, Carolyn, it can go astray so easily. Methinks there’s an art to it, but still at its core, there must be a genuine appreciation for the value of the person as a person.

  3. Woody Starkweather
    | Reply

    We are at what might turn out to be an important turning point in the long history of male/female relations, but the word “crisis” does not describe it well, because what is needed is not so much immediate action as it is a long-term commitment to change. “Crises” get resolved and then fade away. This is a deep and pervasive cultural problem.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hmmm, good point, Woody. I would add, since we’re looking at the word, that a crisis comes up suddenly. This one’s been around forever. But the attention it’s now getting—that came on suddenly—makes it feel like a crisis.

    • Susan Jackson
      | Reply

      So true and I am afraid it will turn i to a crisis and eventually fade away—sad

  4. Laurie Buchanan
    | Reply

    Janet — Thank you for sharing this post and for including the Emma Thompson interview. I very much appreciated her terms “gender dysfunction” and “gender crisis” (at roughly the 6:50 mark) because that’s precisely and exactly what it is.
    Laurie Buchanan recently posted…AnticipationMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Isn’t it wonderful! I’m glad you appreciated it too.

  5. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    Just above the subject line in the email that linked to your posts was the headline: “Sex scandals are rife in the military” . . . and in entertainment . . . and in the . . . .
    And what’s this with Cosby get a “hung jury” and Weinstein volunteering to go to rehab and then leaving in less than a week. MONEY is the operative word here. Men with money can have their cake and eat it too is the message I’m getting these days. Arghhhh!

    I am thankful to be married to a man to which I don’t feel subjugated. Never once have I been made to feel I am not his equal. Thank God! Right now I am labeling old iPhotos so I can place them on a hard drive and delete them from my working memory. I have seen so many men with aprons I’m inspired to write a blog post about them. Yes, really!

    Great topic with some interesting responses here. Now I’m off to listen to the Emma Thompson clip.
    Marian Beaman recently posted…Roz Chast: Cartoonist and CaregiverMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thanks, Marian. Sex sells. I guess that’s the bottom line. How sad to hear of the hung jury in the Cosby case. I hadn’t heard. It’s still too rare that a rape victim gets justice without needing to be victimized all over again, just for speaking out.

  6. Pamela
    | Reply

    Many good questions here, Janet. I know for me, growing up and being young woman in the 1970s and 80s, I was supposed to expect to be treated as an object many times. However, when I raised my kids, I think they saw the value of me as a woman, a mom, a wife, a friend, and a career person. I think it begins in childhood in a lot of ways and how person is raised. The culture of course also has a lot to do with it. If we can change the way we advertise how women are supposed to look, and how they are treated in commercials, that would be a big step. And if Hollywood and musical female icons what stop dressing as if they’re only to be viewed as an object, that would help a lot too!

  7. Janet Givens
    | Reply

    You add an excellent point here, Pam — the power of advertising. Thank you.

    I’ve read that the reason young girls have been reaching puberty earlier is related to being surrounded from a young age by sexually explicit images, lyrics, etc. I don’t know the research, but it’s always sounded plausible.

    Welcome back.

  8. Merril Smith
    | Reply

    I wrote a long comment on here the other day, but apparently the WordPress gremlins swallowed it.
    I don’t remember what I wrote now. 🙂 There is so much to this post.
    I agree that gender roles can be a burden to men, as well as women; however, in most places, men hold the power. I’m not certain what the “crisis in masculinity” is. Is it men afraid of losing power, or is it the sexual abuse and harassment that many engage in, which is certainly nothing new? I’ve seen the term “toxic masculinity” used. Also, how do views of gender and “appropriate” gender roles affect people who do not conform to them, including people who identify as LGBTQ?
    Merril Smith recently posted…Star Goddess: ShadormaMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thanks for coming back to try again. Those WP gremlins have gotten me a few times, too; I know how frustrating they can be. .

      I’m glad you mentioned power, for it seems, at it’s core, this issue is often about power, with sex just the means. I also think “crisis” isn’t as useful as the word “watershed.” Whichvisvwhere we are and it’s exciting.

      As for your final point, also an important one, aren’t we all striving for a world where “conforming to roles” is no longer the goal, but being free to “be” true to who we are is valued?

      Thanks for adding your voice, Merril. You always raise good, thoughtful points.

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