The Performance of Masculinity

I’ve been teaching workshops on male gender socialization for about 15 years or so. The foundation of my presentation is the Act Like a Man Box, which I learned about from Paul Kivel’s book, Men’s Work: How to Stop the Violence That Tears Our Lives Apart. I like calling it the “Act Like a Man Box,” rather than “The Man Box” (which is a title I’ve also seen used for the basic idea)  because it highlights how masculinity is a performance.

When I do this exercise, I ask the group to brainstorm words that describe “real men.” And while I influence the responses by asking leading questions like “what does he do for a living?” or “what does he do for fun?”, the responses have been pretty consistent, regardless of the age, gender mix, sexual orientation, or racial makeup of the group. As long as the participants grew up in or have spent significant time in the US, they know what this guy looks like:

Tall Strong Muscular
25-45 years old Able-bodied Heterosexual
Cisgender Competitive Dominant
Cop Firefighter Mechanic
Lawyer Business Man CEO
Caretaker Competent Leader
Drinks Watches & plays sports Play poker with his buddies
Doesn’t show emotions other than anger, excitement Stoic Violent
Always wants sex Has lots of sexual partners Sex is about scoring
Has a big penis Gets hard when he wants Stays hard
Gives his partner an orgasm (or multiple orgasms) Ejaculates when he wants to Sex is focused on intercourse, blow jobs (receiving), possible anal (giving)

After we come up with this list, I ask the group to name the things that men are called if we’re not all of these things. Here are some of the more common responses:

gay fag
girl weak
sissy punk
bitch loser
pussy wimp


One of the primary reasons that boys and men gay bash and bully queers is that they need to perform masculinity in order to show the world that they’re in the Box. And since very few guys can always be in the Box for their entire lives, the trick is to act like you are in order to cover for any lapses. In effect, the performance of masculinity requires constant vigilance to make sure that nobody sees any missteps. Since the logic of the box is an either/or, you’re either all the way in or you’re all the way out.

On the other hand, all of the words on the outside fit into one of three groups: gay, female, loser. I think that says pretty interesting things about homophobia and sexism. The way I think of it, those are the bricks that make up the Box and shame is the mortar that holds it together.

The Box is one of main reasons why men harass women on the street and why catcalling and violence tends to escalate when men are in groups. Since the Box is hierarchical as well as performative, the guy at the bottom of the heap is at risk of being cast out. So each guy has to compete with the others in order to not be the one who’s outside the Box. And as each one’s performance becomes more vigorous, it forces the others to do the same.

As a sex educator, I often see how the Box affects sexuality. The guy in the Box has lots of partners, a really big penis, and always gets it up, gets it in, and gets it off. So it’s no wonder that lots of guys look for a quick fix for their erection difficulties like Viagra or cockrings. Just to be clear, I don’t think that there’s any inherent problem with either meds or toys. But when you’d rather use them than deal with whatever the source of your erection challenges might be, that’s a problem. And when it leads you to buy non-prescription erection pills, that can also be dangerous.

For example, I once had a guy ask me if cock rings would help his erection. With a little inquiry, I found that he had lost his job, his house was in foreclosure, and he & his wife were talking about divorcing. With all of that stress, the fact that he wasn’t getting erections wasn’t a dysfunction, it was how his body was supposed to work. Adrenaline (which is one result of stress) keeps the blood vessels in the penis from relaxing, so you don’t get erections. There’s a difference between a dysfunction and your body not doing what you want it to do. But he wanted a quick fix so that he could get back into the Box and “perform”. And isn’t it telling that when we talk about “sexual performance,” we’re always talking about men? Shouldn’t a “sexual performance” be what strippers do?

So the notion that masculinity is fleeting and requires vigilant reinforcement isn’t new to me, but there’s some new research to back it up. Time Magazine has an article about a new paper, Precarious Manhood and Its Links to Action and Aggression, in which the researchers looked at the ways that men deal with the fleeting nature of manhood. Men have to constantly prove and re-prove their status, as they showed in three experiments.

In the first, participants finished 25 sentences that began “A real man…” or “A real woman…” and they reported that:

Findings revealed that men, but not women, described “a real man” with more fleeting actions than enduring adjectives, and they described “a real woman” with more enduring adjectives than fleeting actions. Notably, this pattern emerged when we controlled for the gender-stereotypical content of the sentence completions. When men completed “real man” sentences with gender atypical content (e.g., “A real man cooks dinner”), they still used action language to do so. Thus, men define their own gender status in terms of the active things that men do rather than the ways that men are.

In another project, researchers asked people to read a mock police report about either a man or a woman who punched a person of the same gender in front of a potential romantic partner.  When they were asked to evaluate the motivations of the hitter, there was a difference in responses. Women attributed their actions to intrinsic factors like “his/her own immaturity” or “the kind of person he/she is typically, ” while men mentioned extrinsic factors like being provoked by the stranger” or “being publicly humiliated.” I’m assuming that the “potential romantic partner” was not of the same gender as the recipient of the punch, and I’d love to see how this plays out when the characters are queer.

As a follow-up, they asked men to braid hair (the control group braided rope) and tested their actions afterward by giving them the choice of solving a puzzle or punching a bag, and they were more likely to punch. In a similar experiment where both the hair-braiders and the rope-braiders were given a pad to punch, the hair-braiders punched harder. And in another version of the braiding experiment, all of the participants braided hair and were either allowed to punch a bag or not. The ones who punched it felt less anxiety.

What does all of this tell us? Well, it helps explain why so many men resort to violence when they think that their masculinity is threatened- it’s an easy way to demonstrate that they’re in the Box. And it also shows how delicate masculinity can be. If all it takes to hurt it is braiding someone’s hair, it has to be pretty fragile.

Unfortunately, while masculinity is pretty delicate, the construct of Box is quite resilient. When I get up in front of a group and start talking about it, I immediately put myself outside of the Box because the guy in the Box doesn’t talk about it. The difference, of course, is that I reject the entire notion of the Box. I’ve learned to pick and choose what aspects of masculinity work for me and which ones don’t, since some of the things in the box are positive or at least dependent on one’s relationship to them. In effect, I’ve queered the Box but to the guy who’s stuck in it, the only place he can imagine me being is outside the Box. And he’s so used to not listening to those men that it’s hard for my message to get across. That makes the task of helping get rid of the Box really difficult.

It’s also pretty telling that the Time article ends with this:

The authors said this research also begins to illuminate the negative effects of gender on men — depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and violence. And, at the very least, it may persuade ladies to cut their guys a little slack. “When I was younger I felt annoyed by my male friends who would refuse to hold a pocketbook or say whether they thought another man was attractive. I thought it was a personal shortcoming that they were so anxious about their manhood. Now I feel much more sympathy for men,” Bosson [one of the researchers] said in a statement.

There’s a difference between having understanding and compassion for the men who are trapped in the Box and cutting them slack. After all, it isn’t as if the dude in the Box is giving any slack to women, queers, transgender or genderqueer folks, or for that matter, heterosexual cisgender men who refuse to pretend to be Real Men. And cutting men slack is another way of coddling them instead of helping them learn to let go of the Box and discover the freedom that comes from being who you are. Having compassion without coddling people is fierce. It’s powerful. And it requires the ability to hold onto both the fact that the Box hurts us all and that it gives heterosexual cisgender men privilege.

It’s also worth noting that this isn’t the effect of gender. It’s the effect of a limited and limiting ideas of what gender means. It’s the result of rigid rules of masculinity, of fag bashing, of homophobia and sexism and gender-based violence. It’s the result of kyriarchy. And yes, it’s the result of how we’ve created gender, but it isn’t the effect of gender.

As this blogger said,

I don’t have slack to offer men. What I have is the alternative to a life spent swallowing one’s emotions and feeling a constant anxious insecurity where one’s contended self-esteem should be—and that seems a lot more valuable to me than “slack.”

For real.

Update: In response to some of the comments below, I wrote a follow-up piece: Picking and Choosing from the “Act Like a Man Box”

Also, I recently found this amazing video, so I added it to the post.

Note: This sentence originally read: “When I get up in front of a group and start talking about it, I immediately demonstrate that I’m not in the Box because the guy in the Box doesn’t talk about it.” After I read a thread on Reddit about this sentence, I realized that the way I wrote it wasn’t what I had intended to say, so I edited it.

53 Responses so far.

  1. Laurel says:

    So. Wonderful.

  2. Allison Moon says:

    Great post, Charlie. The more men I know, the more sympathy I have for them. The box is indeed a rigid place to be. Whereas women have had the privilege to chip away at our outmoded ideas of gender normativity (entering male-dominated fields, acceptance of bisexuality, clothing, etc), men certainly have not be allowed that leeway. For women, it’s seen as aspirational to want to achieve a more androgynous social status.
    But for men to want to “give up” their power by identifying as queer or take on more traditionally female jobs, etc, seems inexplicable to the hegemony.
    Strange as it is to say, we have a lot of work to do to allow men the same freedom with their gender roles and signifiers that women have achieved.

  3. Deborah Addington says:

    Awesome, Charlie. As the partner to a “man” who doesn’t fit int the Box bus still hasta deal with the boxiness of enculturation, I thank you.

  4. Allison says:

    Found via Greta Christina’s link on FB, and glad I did. This makes me have compassion for the “guys’ guys” in my life and really appreciate the man I married who is decidedly *not* a guys’ guy. Heck, I’m learning more about standing up for the non-majority guy (atheist/color/sexual orientation/gender) more with each day from watching him. I’m a lucky girl, I guess. 🙂

  5. Monica C. says:

    I really enjoyed this article, Charlie. I read and attempt to learn a lot (and in many situations, speak) about the effects that gender stereotypes have on women, and as I research, I find more and more information on the negative effects that gender stereotypes have on men. I dream, always, of a world where people can be free to be themselves in all ways possible, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, religious belief, etc. Thank you for your well-thought out post!

  6. Jiz Lee says:


    Charlie, as someone who has participated in your box brainstorms, I find your language and perspective in discussing gender performance so valuable and refreshingly open. I feel it also further demonstrates how constructed gender really is, which is a complex and beautiful thing. Thank you for sharing yoir “Act Like a Man” box, such a great visual example, in this article.

  7. I feel Charlie as if you are saying, in effect, ‘Real Men reject the Man Box’ which kind of defeats the object of your thesis.

    I will blog about this as my response probably needs unpicking more. But I really don’t accept your ‘Man Box’ theory!

  8. Charlie says:

    That’s very much not what I’m suggesting or saying because, as you point out, that would defeat my entire point. I’m suggesting that it’s possible to stop getting caught up in the idea of some guys being “Real Men” and others being gay/women/losers. When I walk about queering the box, I’m talking about letting go of that false dichotomy and simply being who you are without worrying about whether you fit into the Box.

    Also, it’s isn’t my “theory”. It’s an analogy that captures some of the nuances of how masculinity is constructed and enforced.

  9. You are still presenting a ‘dichotomy’ between living within ‘the box’ and outside of it! Life doesn’t work like that in my view. I think this version of masculinity relies on a belief that ‘patriarchy’ exists, which I do not subscribe to.

    Also writing about ‘gender and performance’ without crediting Butler seems a bit lame. I guess it is now taken for granted but her work as long ago as the 1980s was seminal in this area. I don’t think what is being written today about masculinity actually adds very much to Butler’s ideas at all.

  10. Charlie says:

    No, I’m saying that the model of masculinity that most people subscribe to presents that dichotomy and I’m with you- life doesn’t work like that. That’s exactly what makes the Box so insidious. Almost no men fit within the rules of masculinity all the time, but the costs of being seen outside it are so high that most of them (us?) try to act like they are in order to hide the fact that they aren’t.

    Personally, I don’t have a lot of patience for Butler. I know that she said some really amazing things about gender, but she wrote in a language that was and continues to be inaccessible to most people. I agree with what Orwell said: “Never use a long word where a short one will do.” and “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.” But then, I think much the same about Foucault. I admire them both, I’m grateful that I’ve read their work, and I think that their writing gets in the way of their messages.

  11. I think Foucault and Butler used the words they needed, to say what they had to say.

    I also think their analysis is different from yours, whichever words one uses.

    And I prefer theirs – it is MUCH ‘queerer’ for a start! But I will try and write a post about it.
    I am struggling with my own words, here.

  12. I think too it is worth flagging up that the Blogger you quote at the end is Melissa McEwan, a writer whose misandry is so apparent I tend to feel nauseous when I read her work.

    She won’t cut men slack? I don’t cut her any.

  13. Agreed with you about Melissa McEwan, QRG.

    And more generally, and this is a critique I’ve thrown out before to Clarisse Thorn and others: why is it that so many sex-positive feminists reject the kind of nonsense John Stoltenberg and Robert Jesnsen say about pornography, sex work, and transgender, and yet uncritically embrace what Jackson Katz, Paul Kivel, and the rest of the “NOMAS “pro-feminist” men have to say about men and masculinity? Especially given that what they have to say about men and masculinity is just another manifestation of the same damn thing. Demonization of men and male sexuality is never far from the surface with these authors.

    One would think that sex-positive feminism (and third-wave feminism) might actually have something original to contribute on men and masculinity rather than rehashing the same tired old second-wave dogmas on the subject. In fact, that’s a challenge I throw out to the sex-positive movement more generally. Any takers?

  14. I am a taker iamcuriousblue but in taking up the challenge of coming up with and learning from more original approaches to masculinity, I have ended up rejecting feminism and even ‘sex-positivity’ altogether.

    But here is my response ( a bit rushed) to Charlie’s post:

  15. I will just add and then get back in my box (!) that the ‘feminist’ ‘sex positive’ views as espoused by Charlie here, often present themselves as going against the ‘norm’ but they form their own normative ways of thinking and being.

    Today, simply for challenging this post I have been called ‘mad’ and ‘not nice’. So I think it is important to be aware how these kinds of ideas fit into their own ‘discourses of power’ as someone I am influenced by may say.

  16. Charlie says:

    Instead of complaining that other people aren’t creating what you want to see in the world, why don’t you do it and show everyone else the way?

    What does your vision of masculinity look like? How would straight men act if they treated each other and treated women with respect? How would they act if they treated queers and transgender people with respect? How can we teach boys how to be strong without being violent? How can we teach them to stop gay bashing and slut shaming? And what would it take to get there from here? What are you doing to make that happen?

    I see you comment on various sites around the internet, saying that those people aren’t doing what you want them to do. So how about you do it? And if you’re not out there trying to make it happen, then stop complaining that nobody else is doing what you want them to.

  17. I don’t think your comment is very fair, Charlie. I don’t know @iamcuriousblue personally, but he shares his knowledge openly about issues around sexuality/gender/pornography etc.

    There is a need for *critique* of dominant discourses, as you are critiquing here. I think IACB adds valid critique and has alerted me to various useful sources of information.

    For example in his comment he linked to NOMAS which I had never heard of before.

    It is not all about telling men how to change!

    Some of us like men quite a lot, just how they are.

  18. Well, its quite a tall order, isn’t it? It was never my intention to be a men and masculinities writer, but I see no shortage of people doing it and most of them are giving terrible advice. There’s certainly a huge space in between the MRAs, on one hand, who seem to want no change to traditional hegemonic masculinity, and, on the other, these NOMAS feminists who see masculinity itself as pure evil, or at least a “problem” that needs to be “solved”. Given that, one would think there would be far more people addressing alternatives than there are, even in places where I would most expect to see it.

    I think the lack of much in the way of worthwhile discourse about men and masculinity is a big part of the problem. And you’re right that so far, I’m mainly complaining about it. Which, you’re right, isn’t doing much in itself, but then pointing out that there’s *a problem* is step one to working toward a solution.

  19. Steel Mesh Hippo says:

    Thank you Charlie for the post. I have been asking the question if I can be “a man” by showing compassion and reason, not violence and an immature mind. You’re right to say that men don’t fit into “the box” all the time, but feel compelled to put themselves into it when they come under gender scrutiny. I’ve felt its pull many times and I hate it.

  20. Azkyroth says:

    these NOMAS feminists who see masculinity itself as pure evil, or at least a “problem” that needs to be “solved”.

    What the HELL are you talking about?

    Did you even READ the piece?

  21. Charlie says:

    @IACB- I don’t think that NOMAS sees masculinity as “pure evil.” From their website:

    Men can live as happier and more fulfilled human beings by challenging the old-fashioned rules of masculinity that embody the assumption of male superiority. Traditional masculinity includes many positive characteristics in which we take pride and find strength, but it also contains qualities that have limited and harmed us. We are deeply supportive of men who are struggling with the issues of traditional masculinity.

    What you’re calling “traditional hegemonic masculinity”, they’re calling “the old-fashioned rules of masculinity that embody the assumption of male superiority”, but they sound like the same thing to me, which I called the Act Like a Man Box”, at least in this post. Now, if there are examples of NOMAS acting in ways that are not in alignment with their stated principle, that’s certainly something to call them out on, but I don’t think it’s accurate to say that they see “masculinity as pure evil.”

    For that matter, I don’t see masculinity as pure evil. I have at least one follow up post on that part of the puzzle, as well as one on QRG’s post about homosociality.

  22. Have you ever even read anything by John Stoltenberg, the founder and leading inspiration of this group? Have you ever read anything by Robert Jensen, which is essentially a contemporary rehash of Stoltenberg.

    Considering the NOMAS party line on sex work and pornography, and considering that view is based on a view that male sexuality is basically dangerous and predatory (at least until “reconstructed” in some far-off feminist utopia), I really don’t think I see much good coming from any analysis this group has to offer. (And I do mean “party line”, back in the early 1990s there was an internal conflict in that organization that resulted in their expressly rejecting any kind of sex-positive perspective. Documentation of which is found in some obscure hard-copy publications which I don’t have at hand, unfortunately.)

    I am absolutely disgusted that most sex-positive feminists doing men and masculinity work have basically taken their feminist analysis of masculinity “off the shelf” from authors in this group. From some of the very people who they recognize as sending incredibly damaging messages about sex workers and trans people. In fact, men and masculinity questions are an area that I would say “sex-positive feminism” largely fails at, because of this lack of original analysis. (Which is quite at odds with their strong work on female sexuality.)

    Now as for the question of “traditional hegemonic masculinity”, I see it as a problem where society has given cis hetero men relative power over others and socialized them to assume that role. I do not think masculinity per se is the problem (contra Stoltenberg and Jensen) and I certainly don’t see male sexuality per se as the problem (the demonization of which inevitably comes up not very far from the surface with most of these authors). I don’t think you do either, but you’re certainly lending your stamp of approval to a way of viewing men and masculinity that is very much based on that view.

    Other than the extremely negative view of male sexuality put forth by NOMAS pro-feminists, I also find many of their views about masculinity in general to be limited by their backgrounds and the era they grew up in. It seems to me that men like Robert Jensen, Paul Kivel, and Michael Kimel are basically second-wave men who were trying to be unlike their “Greatest Generation” fathers. They have a simplistic view of masculinity and a simplistic view of alternative kinds of masculinity. Read through Jensen’s “Getting Off”, and you’d never know that there’s anything in between either the most base kind of machismo on one hand, and his guilt-ridden rejection of it on the other. When in fact the majority of men do not fall into this caricature.

  23. Keeley says:

    Quiet Riot Grrl said: “Some of us like men quite a lot, just how they are.”

    Umm, regardless of how one happens to feel aboutt he current watys in which men are socialized (i.e. that they create men you like, in this case), if, as current recent studies are beginning to show, this socialization produces “depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and violence” I think we should possibly look at it as a potential problem.

    The point, I should stress, is not to change all men, but to make it clear that they have a wide variety of options for self-expression, and to be accepting of however a man chooses to express himself, and to communicate that acceptance clearly. There’s no right or wrong way for one to be, but there are unhealthy attitudes that can be held about how one is (if that makes sense).

  24. Charlie says:

    I saw Stoltenberg speak years ago and was so annoyed by his take on masculinity that I haven’t been able to stomach anything else about him. And I find that the analysis coming out of this group of men to be limited, inadequate, and biased. But I also think that they’re misguided rather than ill-intentioned.

    I agree with you that “sex-positive feminism” hasn’t really addressed issues of men and masculinity. I think that’s because there aren’t many men engaging with this work. Many of the ones who do make the mistake of rejecting masculinity rather than the Box (see my follow up post on that part of the topic coming soon). And until other men who are genuinely investing in this work, who truly respect women, queers, transgender folks, and who can acknowledge how their privilege shapes their perspectives, nothing better is going to happen.

    I don’t agree with everything (or even most things) that these men are saying. And I do find the model of the Box to be a useful metaphor for how many men experience masculinity. I’ve spoken about it with hundreds, if not thousands, of people and it resonates for a lot of folks. So I use it in my own ways. I’m not lending a stamp of approval to them. I’m just acknowledging where I got this idea from and I’ve taken it quite a bit further.

  25. I’m glad to see that’s not where you’re coming from. For my part, I really do want to see more sex-positive men offer some original analysis in this area. (And you’re right that I should do my part in that.) There’s are many possibilities apart from the Stoltenberg/Jensen/NOMAS radical-feminist derived view of men and the Warren Farrell/MRA one, and it amazes me that when the subject of men and masculinity comes up, much of the work seems to come out of these two camps, both of which have some very extreme views. It seems like there needs to be much more work on the subject coming from beyond these limited perspectives. (One other possible active area is queer perspectives on the subject as well, but those don’t seem to take on the larger subject of masculinity apart from gay men’s issues, though I could be wrong about this.)

  26. windquestor says:

    Well first of all I’m out of the box because I’m over 50 so the battle for permanent inclusion is over. I am currently enjoying a different box which is reflection.

    Now when I look at the contents of “the box” and I look at the cultural gender role of males back through time and across the continents I find a high degree of overlap.

    (Virility, aspiration for power, strength, bravery, bravdo, promiscuity, physical endowment, social status, stoicism, stamina) this list of could be applied to many prehistoric cultures. Indigineous Americans ( N and S), Africans, Slavic and Noridc Cultures, many of the differnt asian cultures, and of course the fertile crescent all valued most of these attriubtes. ( I don’t know about aboriginal Australians )

    The contiunity of the contents box over time, and accross space, combined with the fact that I am a bio/chemist makes me wonder the degree to which the basic structure of gender is a fucntion of chemistry and modified secondarily by cultural rules. Please consider the position by many transgender and homosexual persons that their needs are not of their own choosing but in someway a fact of their existence…

    Obviosuly the chemistry of human behavior is highly plastic in its range of expression, ( and I don’t mean to suggest that a chemcial starting point offers an excuse for anti-social behavior it does not.) It seems to me though that if we were looking at a different species, instead of ourselves we would assign a more significnat role to the underlying biology of gender.

    I think because we don’t care to imagine ourselves as products of anythnig other than our own creation, we start by blaming society for things we don’t like rather than exmaining the biological starting point more closely.

    Our modern social constructs, some of which are the subject of this debate, are perhaps a generation old. (They may not even be all that original) Our biological construction on the other hand has been many millions of years in the making and the result of a great deal of selective pressure. The social order may be new but our biology is very old. The fact that our new social norms butt up against our biological heritage does not come as a suprise to me.

    Let me close by saying I have no tolerance for violence and hatred, and the goals of equality and tolerance for all is the birth right of all people. I do think that this thread is a bit lopsided on the nature vs nurture debate and I wish to give nature her due

  27. Valois says:

    Funny,- I was contemplating a message in another group entitled ‘Boyznoyz’ because there’s been a take-away opposite me for the last few months and teenage boys congregate outside with a fair impression of the monkey house under siege. Girls screech and laugh too but there seems more fun and spontaneity about it. I decided that it establishes status through *indirect* aggressive display. Instead of jumping up and down hooting at your mate that results in somebody having to back down or start a fight openly, it’s aimed at the world in general, let all present see who would be the biggest threat if anything happened between them. Thus knowing, it won’t. It gets dangerous when it gets violent and nobody wants to feel the humiliation of backing off, even when everybody thinks it’s gone too far.

    There are historical precedents. Supposedly, the Persians kept attacking at Thermopylai because they had men at the back whipping them on. Every one would rather risk dying on a Spartan spear than be the first coward to turn round and kill the men with the whips. The secret of right-wing politics since time began! Yet is it more cowardly to go to your death for fear of appearing a coward and being left on your own, or to break ranks?

    Hippies and 1960s feminists generally rejected that image of masculinity. So where has it crept back from? For one thing, it is how later feminists have consistently defined men to be, so that that is how girls hearing them expect men to be and accordingly, boys grow up conforming to give themselves a chance of being accepted. If they do not, they must accept exclusion as gay, whether they like females or not. In fact it is obviously the man only capable of sex but not relationship with females who is the ‘true homosexual’ and there is even a name for his condition: Don Juan Syndrome.

    One of the commentors says how women have freed themselves up from their ‘box’ while men have not. This is true enough (though men have in fact become more ‘feminized’ than they were, just not to the same extent as women have become ‘masculinized’) but it only confirms the superiority of this masculine image that post-80s feminism has constantly preached must be inflicted on women to prevent them from being inferior to men. The older idea that both sexes are equal and need to learn from each other has been suppressed because economic structures are enmeshed with that aggressive masculine image (‘aggressive’ is even used as a positive sales pitch!) and to liberate men to equality with women would threaten economic values. To fit women into the box simply brings them into line with prevailing values and eliminates alternatives that women might have to offer to society for men to learn.

    With the possible exception of ‘heterosexual’, most of his ‘box values’ are those promoted for women to ‘assert themselves’, while the disparaging list echoes very much the contemptuous terms feminists use for women who put personal emotional values first, particularly heterosexual since feminists by definition believe women socially inferior to men and particularly so in a relationship: they call promiscuous women sex ‘objects’, never considered active equals of promiscuous men. This in turn implies women too feeble and ineffectual to influence or choose men in any way.

    So the problem is not just a box created by men for men, but the same box feminists insist is how all men behave and to be forced upon women to make them equal. The key is less characteristics for men in particular but glorification of attitudes suited to aggressive industrial culture contemptuous of whatever it considers ‘feminine’, extending now from men to include women and exclude from both sexes – from society altogether – the more personal values and priorities traditional to women. Women may of course emulate the superior values of men: that confirms that those values are superior. Women equally, must shun as inferior the same values that men have been conditioned to. We can not look to feminists for any solution since feminism is a kind of ‘colonial project’ intent on teaching women to give their ‘inferior primitive’ ways up for superior masculine ones. If they must lapse into old habits like having children, they can park them in a creche and get back to work like men.

  28. Caitlin says:

    I don’t *quite* agree on not cutting people slack, but this post and you are both awesome 🙂

  29. Tory Clark says:

    This was an EXCELLENT article. I can’t wait to have my college students read it and discuss and class 🙂
    Thank you!

  30. […] many ways, masculinity wasn’t something I felt or identified with. It was more of a performance that I felt I needed to act out out of fear for being shunned by other men (and […]

  31. Reynaldo says:

    Poignant and interesting article. As a man this has raised some very valid views about the pressures we are submitted to (gender wise) specially during the early childhood and teen years.

    Without aiming a polemic, I believe that women figures do have an active part in reinforcing these traits upon men – as the idealization of a “real man” enforces features that are attractive to women and generally define a successful, sexy male: aggressive assertiveness, leadership, athletic build and so forth.

  32. Adam Black says:

    An interesting article. I would like to suggest “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” by Dr. Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan.

    This book addresses the human condition (including the societal effects of testosterone) better than any book I’ve ever read. If you read one book this year, this should be it.

    I would also like to suggest “The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark”, because of its Baloney Detection Kit.

    The reasoning in this article, while interesting, does not hold up to Sagan’s kit. According to this article, all men are either in The Box or out of The Box, which reduces the reader’s choices to two states, when there really are many more. Not to mention the straw man (the man fully in The Box) who is presented throughout. He is portrayed as somehow less desirable than the man out of The Box. He is an object of scorn and pity, and the people commenting on your article are indeed giving this straw man much pity (and a little scorn).

    Sagan calls this the “excluded middle”: the practice of presenting only two extremes (often opposites) in a wide range of possibilities. It will indeed help you make your case, but it’s not very scientific, or accurate.

    Thanks for reading all that. No go read some Sagan!

  33. Heathir says:

    As a mother of two sons (one 8, one 17), I thank you for posting this article.
    I witnessed the results of a situation that occurred between the two of them a few days ago that could best be described as the older one trying to ‘teach’ the younger one how to ‘live in the Box.’ Unfortunately, the ‘teaching’ seemed to require a bit of humiliation for the younger one, and it escalated until the younger one was sobbing openly in front of the older one’s girlfriend, and group of older one’s(male) friends. Both of them felt some embarrassment and shame afterwards.
    The interesting thing for me is that this article totally bears up both their responses, and the fallout had me as the parent trying to comfort/counsel the 8 year old, followed, oddly, by the 17 year old apologizing to me later (in private, of course) for his behavior.

    I asked the 17 year old why he felt the need to ‘teach’ his younger brother a way to behave that he didn’t seem to entirely agree with, unless he was in front of his peers.

    Thank you for giving me insight into the struggle and pressure that both my sons seem to be going through, as well as a handy way to refer to the unfortunate ‘culture of behavior.’

  34. Synesthesia says:

    “There are two kinds of men in the world : those who believe they’re men and those who are bothered by the ones believing they’re men.”
    charlie glickman, great scientist (xD)

  35. […] Masculinity is conflated entirely with maleness for a lot of people, so that failure to be sufficiently masculine equals loss of one’s entire gender identity, and of course performative masculinity is extremely fragile and precarious. […]

  36. […] really thought-provoking for me, both intellectually and personally. Starting with his post on the performance of masculinity and proceeding to his post about selectively performing masculinity by choosing attributes from the […]

  37. […] all, the “male side” of gender essentialism, i.e. topics like emasculation and the “act like a man” box hurt them, […]

  38. […] article originally appeared on Republished here with […]

  39. Shenpen says:


    I think you understand the problem only halfway through.
    The point is that the kind of intellectually-mainstream-liberal-modern-feminist ethic you probably subscribes to rests on the forbiddance of dominance-seeking.
    Traditional male ethics (conservative ethics) is more like finding ethical rules within the framework of dominance-seeking and the crucial term is honor. Honor means dominating in a morally acceptable way.
    I think males whose dominance-seeking instinct was suppressed (because modern school upbringing tends to suppress it) may break out in uncontrollable, violent, dishonorable ways. But the problem is with the people like the author, the liberals, the feminist – they try to suppress is instead of working with it.
    I will give you an example. The normal, read, honorable relationship between a strong and weak male is that their areof course unequal, the strong one is mentoring the weak one, helping, guiding, protecting, but also expecting submission, obedience, respect, deferral. This is not necessarily a bad, oppressive, evil thing at all. He does not bully and torture the weak guy because fighting someone weaker is not honorable in this ethical framework, because it does not prove your strength. Of course if the weak guy fails to submit or at least to be respectful he gets some, but this is punishment, not torture, not bullying. (Respect and politeness are general tools for avoiding asking the question who is dominant. Respect means behaving almost quite as if the other was dominant, but not quite, so it lets both parties avoid the dominance problem.) Generally speaking the weak guy normally has no problem submitting or at least behaving respectfully, and not only because of fear, but also because the strong guy is a useful mentor and protector (parallel: “My dad can beat up your dad!”) and also because he feels some genuine respect for the stronger.
    This is a perfectly normal biological behavior which etologist like Konrad Lorenz described long ago with for example wolves.
    Now of course we cannot derive an “ought” from an “is”: just because it is biologically normal it does not mean it is actually ethically right.
    Still every sane ethicist should rather work within the framework of our natural instincts, trying to cut with the grain, not against, to tie it here and loose it there, to make small changes, but not to override the whole thing. For example, we invite respect and politeness, which means we behave almost as if the other was dominant, but not quite, and that leaves the dominance question open. (Consider the term “Sir”.) We set up a honor code that women are to be protected and not to be hurt and so on.
    And this is what traditional, male, honor-oriented, dominance-positive ethics do. They try to make men behave ethically within the framework of dominance-seeking.
    But our modern, liberal education system suppresses it. So men don’t learn to behave honorably. So what happens? Well often they manage to behave like a good egalitarian liberal, but also often – if the testosterone is strong – they will just shake that off. And then? And then the problem is nobody taught them proper dominance-positive, honor-oriented maled ethics. So they go on and behave dishonorably like torturing and bullying the weak.

  40. […] of maleness and what it means… Men remained locked in what Dr Charlie Glickman calls the Masculinity Box. Guys are expected to act and think in very rigid ways and conform to very distinct ideas of […]

  41. […] the rest. But these men still feel as if they are expected to conform to the rigid standards of the man box. Which, inevitably they don’t fit into because, who the hell does? They’re afraid that their […]

  42. Taysam says:

    Wow! Excellent article. What a predicament men are under in this society. I think you’re right on.

  43. Interesting.

    The thing I thought was intriguing particularly is the competitive nature of “the Box,” such that there’s always a competition to not be at the bottom.

    It is my sincerest hope that as more men shift and change to places where they (to paraphrase you) recognize that they can be strong without being violent, etc., that they will modify those boxes such that what is “in” and what is “out” shifts to something a little more human and a little less animal.

  44. […] The Performance of Masculinity […]

  45. udi says:

    I’m a man and have no desire to get into that box. It sounds like prison to me. Even the concept of a real man as opposed to ???, is funny. Most of my male friends share my thinking to some degree and I would like to think that what you are describing is ancient history but I’m sad to say, it has the ring of truth. I don’t feel superior to men in the box, just lucky not to be stuck in there with them. An article and conclusion worth reading – thanks.

  46. James Hare says:

     I’m curious on your perspective that as much as the idea of performed roles of masculinity male imposed and regulated, that women and certain queer communities also reinforce these ideas as well thorough expectation and opposition?
    Without the standard performance of maleness doesn’t the performance or opposition of other gender roles, as they are often are or were constructed as opposition these norms also face crisis? How much of this is male on male regulation and how much of this is female regulation through expectation?
    I know the studies show certain forms of information but has there been any testing of oppositional gender influence?

  47. James Hare, I don’t know about research on it, but I do agree that there are often ways in which women reinforce the Act Like a Man Box, both through expectation and through opposition that relies on and reinforces the gender binary. I also see that among some queers- the book Faeries, Bears, and Leathermen looks at some of the tensions between queer men and masculinity.


  48. johnny purple says:

     I think this is an important point.  When I think back on the pressures to behave within “the box” as a younger man, it was not so much for fear of being labeled as gay or otherwise rejected by other males, as it was fear of being rejected by females.  

  49. […] targets. It is a bit of a house of cards, when you think about it: being worried about being judged not “man enough” by other boys and men who are also worried about being judged not “man enough” with the […]

  50. women deserve nothing from men – certainly not intimacy – until Maybelline is out of business and Playgirl magazine is raking in 20 billion a year. when women show that they see sexual beauty in men then women will have the intimacy they want from men.

  51. ethan says:

    I’m very thankful for the thoughtful work you are doing on these issues.
    That said, I’m not quite sure what your intention was with this comment:
    “Shouldn’t a “sexual performance” be what strippers do?”
    I think it’s a loaded question that distracts from the intent of your focus on men.  Most strippers (and providers of sexual services and victims of sex trafficking) are women and children, most of whom (~90% according to the DOJ) are engaged in such activities for reasons beyond their control, ie., victimization and slavery.
    In thinking about your intent, are you talking about how stressful it is that we are so focused on “sexual performance” like it’s a theatrical production or some sort of competition, vs just learning how to enjoy the consensual process and experience with (an)other consenting adult(s)?

  52. Jack Hill says:

    Interesting article, Charlie.

    I really appreciate Adam Blacks comments (above, May 2011) and even more so, Shenpen’s comments on “honorable dominance seeking” (Apr 2013).

    Following on their comments… I would agree w/ Adam that it’s not an either/or choice.

    More so… and Shenpen says this very well, without lessons on “traditional” masculinity (“And then the problem is nobody taught them proper dominance-positive, honor-oriented maled ethics. So they go on and behave dishonorably like torturing and bullying the weak.”), men are faced w/ a lot of “no” with little “yes” to grow toward. “Just be yourself” is classically ineffective guidance for a man looking for leadership or answers.

    I would call myself mixed-gender. That has been positive/negative at different times, but overall, a net positive (for it’s diversity). However, it was traditional “in the box” lessons that really helped me arrive as a man. I’ve never been happier… and the women in my life have never liked me more. Again, these were “in the box” lessons that include/transcend what you outline above.

    Many of the “in the box” lessons of what masculinity looks like, function as “rules to the dance.” With some “suggested” rules, the dance can begin, there’s structure. Until then, all but the most naturally confident are left as “gender wall flowers,” and there’s no dancing at all.

  53. rawr says:

    nice story but no one really cares at the end of the day, nobody gives a damn about men, not unless those men are valuable. we live in the man box because without the performance of masculinity the world and the people in it treat us like we’re nothing.

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