Loyola University Maryland

Graduate Program in Liberal Studies

Liberal Studies Blog

Precious, Fragile, Delicate Masculinity

by: Carrie Creegan

American men are in crisis. Gone are the “Waynes” of the World—John and Bruce—and all of the coveted, unrelenting manliness they embody. Instead, the modern man is dangling in a delicate, fearful balance; he is desperately trying to live up to the masculine standards of these “Real Men,” while anxiously avoiding the moment his masculinity could be revealed as nothing but a ruse.

American heterosexual men constantly find themselves trying to prove that they are, in fact, men. The goal here is not just to be proven as a man, but to be the manliest man in all of manhood.  The competition men impose on each other and themselves—a never ending one-uppery of he-man masculinity—often creates the opposite intended effect, leaving these men feeling fragile and insecure in their identity. A consequence of such is a man’s hyper-consciousness of any perceived impending threat to his manhood. The smallest mishap could tip the scales; the tiniest prick could burst through his sphere of masculinity.

In his cultural history of American masculinity, Manhood in America, Michael Kimmel states that masculinity is something that must be “constantly demonstrated,” and that a man may become simply “undone by a perception of being too feminine.”[1] Take for example this commercial for Summer’s Eve Cleansing Wash. After the man discovers he is washing himself with a product designed for women, he immediately goes on a manic binge of all things he perceives to be masculine: he chops wood, drinks raw eggs, pulls a car by a rope with his teeth, and chugs a beer, all while some rough-and-tough man music plays in the background.

After his ritual is complete, the woman in the commercial proclaims, “That was close!” recognizing the man’s insecurity in just how fine of a line there is between retaining a masculine identity and falling into full-on feminization. The activities the man in the commercial performs are, to him, symbols of masculinity. Creating and revisiting symbols, Kimmel describes, is something humans do to secure and reestablish identity:

Part of the normal, garden-variety neurosis that is the human condition is the creation of a stockpile of symbols that remind us of those lost objects, a secret symbolic treasure chest we can occasionally raid to re-create those earlier moments of fulfillment. As individuals struggling to find meaning in the world, we create those symbols to help us return to those earlier experiences so that we can again feel secure and without anxiety. [2]

Symbols of masculinity exist today in a variety of products men use, helping to reinforce and secure their own sense of manhood. Deodorant products branded exclusively for men tout names such as “Anarchy,” “Phoenix,” “Bearglove” and “Swagger,” all names that connote masculinity, but fail to communicate the actual scent of the product to the consumer. Even brands that sell to both men and women seem to design their male-gendered products the same way. For example, Speed Stick deodorant currently markets the scent “Shower Fresh” to women and the scent “Fresh Force” to men.

The difference is subtle, but sends a strong message: The word “Force” exudes power, strength, and dominance. The seemingly gender-neutral “Shower Fresh” scent does not reinforce these ideals, and is therefore not masculine enough, especially in the case that the scent name is also used for women. Even a loofah, a simple mesh lathering sponge, has been deemed too feminine for the masculine man. Instead, Axe has created the “Detailer 2-Sided Tool” for men to lather themselves up in swagger and security of their manhood.

Axe shower tool

Kimmel notes that in the early 1900’s, even “the very act of purchasing these toiletries created some uneasiness” for men, as buying or using grooming products was perceived as feminine behavior.[3] However, men had become very much concerned with their appearance, and “would do whatever they could to appear manly.”[4] In order to cater to these contradictory needs, stores created not only separate departments for men and women, but separate entrances and elevators as well, “partly to ease the psychological threat to men entering such spheres there to engage in such feminizing activities as shopping.”[5] It seems that something as simple as walking through the same entrance that women did could invoke a fear in a man that his entire manhood may unravel.

Weight Watchers advertisementEnter: the “Real Man.” The Real Man lives by invisible, yet set in stone standards that both affirm and contradict his ideal masculine identity. The Real Man eats meat. The Real Man loves sports. The Real Man never cries. It’s an easy and trite tool advertisers use to sell their products, while also creating a sort of omniscient checklist for men, insecure in their masculine identity, to measure themselves by. This also provides a way for men to evaluate other men and their perceived masculinity. The appearance a man projects to the world helps to shape his own personal identity as well.

However, for a man’s sense of masculinity, it is not that appearance is as important as personal identity, instead, it is that appearance defines identity. In order for a man to believe he has achieved and secured manhood, he must accurately display his masculinity at all times. “To be considered a real man, one had better make sure to always be walking around and acting ‘real masculine.’”[6] This mentality creates a society of masculine performativity, behaviors that are reinforced in men by other men also intent on overtly displaying their manhood.

This idea of masculine performativity certainly explains a lot to someone who grew up in a household with six brothers. At the very least, it provides reasoning for why my family’s dinner conversations were punctuated with WWE impersonations, or why seemingly everything from games in the backyard to flatulence was turned into a cutthroat competition.

This performativity and constant competition only serves to reinforce the need for many men to perform and display their masculinity. The fragility of it all—the idea that the slightest misstep could disprove someone’s manhood—completely contradicts itself and the so-called “Real Man” tenets of masculinity. However, despite this, many men still fervently protect and defend their perceived manhood, much like the way my boyfriend responds anytime I ask him to get a pedicure with, “Would John Wayne do that?”


[1] Kimmel, Michael. Manhood in America (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1998), 89.
[2] Kimmel, 88.
[3] Kimmel, 91.
[4] Kimmel, 91.
[5] Kimmel, 91.
[6] Kimmel, 75.

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