Western women’s mindsets, actions, and how they are perceived by others (both male and female) are vastly different from what they were just 60 years ago. The differences are so large that it’s almost impossible to understand how limited and boxed in women’s options were just a few decades ago. Feminism undeniably freed millions upon millions of women from strict boundaries of what they can expect to do in life, how they are seen by others, how they see themselves, and their places in the world.
The same cannot be said of men’s options, or how “typical” men or “typically successful” men are seen by others. Western male identity has had to grow in terms of the willingness to accept female equality, but there have been far fewer changes in core ideas about what a “successful” man is, or how he sees himself, or how others see him and his place in the world.
What’s Left For Men?
Indeed, as a rough generalization, male identity has been framed during this time as something to chip away at, rather than to expand.
Where women saw their options expanding, men saw theirs as static at best, and on the whole saw their power and control shrinking in some real ways. Many males (pretty understandably actually) became defensive and tried to cling to previous cultural norms and expectations. They saw their power shrinking and no other options opening up to them. And we still see some men doggedly trying to cling to old notions, rather than embrace new cultural ideals in this one regard.
Not many men think fondly about the good old days with regard to the cultural changes in technological advances. Even those who are intentional old school sexist pigs would not want to be boxed in by land lines, black and white TV, no internet, and having to actually go to banks to get cash to pay for things. While that may sound a bit flippant, the point is valid, and it is certainly understandable that men would want to revert to cultural ideals where their identities as men were assumed to be righteous, or at least neutrally okay.
I am coming to the main point soon, I promise. Ah, here we are:
Gendered Trauma Reactions
Feminism is generally seen as freeing women from oppression. This of course has been its main objective. But by its very success in raising our collective consciousnesses , we missed an important factor that was strikingly evident in the “traditional gender norms”. That is: Traditional gender roles divided up trauma based reactions into very neatly gendered “fight or flight” reactions.
Take a look at some typical reactions to danger, and trauma based reactions. I’ve split the reactions into the traditional notions of “fight or flight”. They line up almost exactly along traditional gender role lines.
“Female” and “Flight” reactions are shown on the left, and “Male” and “Fight” based reactions are shown in the right column:
“Female” Reactions to Danger or Trauma (Flight based reactions)
“Male” Reactions to Danger or Trauma (Fight based reactions)
|Fleeing or shrinking away from any perceived threats||Overpowering any perceived threats|
|Passivity- not seeing other options||Actively creating options (almost always healthy!)|
|Going along with demands in order to feel safe||Needing to exercise power and control in order to feel safe|
|Becoming as small as possible||Looming as large as possible,|
|Hiding-not making waves||Being dominant, insisting on things going your way|
|Losing a sense of self as fully human||Not able to see Others as fully human|
Growing a victim mentality
(more harm is worst possible outcome)
Taking on an aggressor mentality
(being seen as victim is worst possible outcome)
|Loss of confidence||Puffing up, defensive egotism|
|Self blame||Blames exterior elements|
|Believes self to be weak, incapable||Becomes invulnerable|
|Clings to others||Becomes excessively self sufficient|
Trauma, by definition, creates huge disruptions in people’s lives and how they respond to their environments in the aftermath. These are all typical reactions to danger/trauma, and individuals of any gender can experience any or all of these things as knee jerk responses to trauma.
Having said that, it is truly stunning to see how these reactions correspond so neatly to “traditional” gender norms.
Feminism’s Failure to Ask Other Questions
I am a huge, huge fan of feminism, but it did exactly what all the social movements before and since have (understandably and necessarily) done: it focused on oppression as the end problem. And oppression is a problem in itself-I’m not trying to dismiss that issue at all. It was primary, it had to be addressed in order to get to this next step. I am forever thankful that because of all of the previous social movements, such as the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, the LGBTQ movement, we are now at points in time where enough of us are safe enough, privileged enough and awake enough to wonder-why- certain cultures have spent so much time and energy focusing on allotting and expanding power and control for some of their own-at the expense of other people.
So Why Is Power And Control So Important?
Cultural PTSD says we’ve experienced a lot of trauma as humans, and therefore we have unconsciously taken on a lot of trauma based reactions and woven them into our cultural norms. A huge number of these trauma based reactions have to do with notions of power and control.
Freeze for a Moment
Some will note that I neglected to add the category of “freeze” to the chart. And, yes, I lumped those into the “flight” reactions, although many would argue freezing is a separate response in and of itself. I don’t disagree with that assertion, but felt it easier to illuminate the idea of “gendered” trauma reactions by sticking to the basic fight or flight categories.
When properly deconstructed (in ways that would detract from the main point of this article), we see that freezing is actually a startlingly complex and brilliant calculation made in a split second when confronted with certain danger. But it generally is more closely aligned with “flight” reactions, rather than “fight” reactions. Hence there are “freeze” reactions in the “flight” and “female” reactions column.
Feminist Focus on Oppression Disguised the Trauma Based Reactions
Feminism helped women grow beyond the tightly confined boxes they were traditionally socialized to inhabit. That many of these socializations were also closely aligned with trauma based reactions was not recognized as such. But there they are! Just take a look at the trauma-based reactions on the left. In growing out of these reactions as humans, women also (mostly unconsciously) grew out of the chains that trauma-based reactions create for people. They sort of unwittingly recovered from some of the elements of our Cultural PTSD. So thank you very much for that, feminism!
New Male Identities Are Needed
But now we need to do a solid for the guys: Just look at the elements that remain. The expectations for men and the responses they see modeled in real life and in entertainment and stories really haven’t changed much in 60 years, except maybe to grow more hypermasculine. Men have been as boxed in** by their socialization as women were. And it also is clear from the chart, that a good number of the concepts about “what men are supposed to be like” can easily be seen as trauma based reactions.
Many men are very hungry for more options, more ways to be fully human as men. And a great many women would absolutely love for men to be much less boxed in by the “traditional” gender norms that continue to be foisted upon them. But men haven’t “needed” social movements like feminism or the civil rights movement because they are not (even today) at sustained and significant disadvantages in the ways minorities and women have been. So instead of seeing opportunities for growth and change, many saw threats to their identities, and resisted changes. This may be why some very promising changes (such as the mythopoetics and the pro feminists men’s movements) have not had as much impact on men’s gender norms as many would like.
Additionally, it appears to this writer that a great many people (male and female) remain unaware that men have been subject to just as much gender molding as women (who saw their molds as more problematic). In very much the same ways that white people in America didn’t have to think consciously about what their “white identity” means, and straight people didn’t need to think consciously about what it means to be straight, men have not had to think about the gender norms that have been prescribed for them.
I believe this is an important dynamic that is at play in why oppressive beliefs and systems have been so difficult to purge from our cultural norms in general. And in specific for this article, why so much male privilege still remains. Men have reacted to attempts at discussions around male socialization in the same ways many white people don’t understand and resist exploring what it means to be white, and in the same ways many straight people resist exploring the social constructs around their heterosexuality. The origins of this dynamic are complex and beyond the scope of this article, but deserve far more study. some of the dynamic appears to involve 1) the very common (and human) practice mistaking culturally produced beliefs for facts, 2) fear about deconstructing “certainty” about “how the world is” due to knowing that a loss of identity will ensue 3) a (not consciously produced) desire to maintain power and control 4) a lack of importance placed on the issue (due to a culturally induced hubris about certainty of identity and how the world works).
As a result, there is some (fairly sustained) misunderstanding about what the terms “toxic masculinity” and “hyper masculinity” are referring to. Some men feel attacked by these terms, but that is because they understand them to be attacks on men. They are not. They are attacks on the ways men are still socialized to be. That’s a huge and hugely important difference.
With only a quick glance at the “fight” responses, it doesn’t take much time to understand why we still have huge problems as a species. Cultural PTSD’s first antidotes are to start valuing collaboration, compassion and strive to see others as fully human. To do that, people have to be willing to be vulnerable…but men face a double challenge in that regard: Not only are men still actively socialized to not show any vulnerability, but allowing oneself to become vulnerable after trauma is one of the hardest (and important) things necessary for healthy recovery. But if women can break through the chains of pre feminist socialization, so can men.
**I want to note the terminology here. “The Man Box” is a term that apparently goes back to at least 2012. It describes the brutal ways men are expected to conform to dominance based masculinity so that men are trapped in a narrow box of how to behave. While I don’t consciously recall reading about it, I’m a voracious reader, and the term is just so accurate, that it’s likely I did read about it and it rolled around in the back of my head. Here’s an article about its origins by Mark Greene, who both amplifies the theory, and also does a great job of advocating for healthier visions of manhood. Hover over his byline on the article for more links to his work.