This is an academic research paper written for my class “Sociology of Gender” at Middlebury College. If you have any feedback, please, use the comments section under the article! Happy reading! M.
From a sociological perspective masculinity is everything but “innate” and “ahistorical”. The definition of “manhood” is socially constructed by culture. In the words of sociologist Michael Kimmel, masculinity is “a constantly changing collection of meanings that we construct through our relationships with ourselves, with each other, and with the world” (Kimmel, 2000, p. 58). “Hegemonic masculinity” characterizes normative masculinity in opposition to sexual and racial minorities and particularly- women (Kimmel, 2000, p. 58). Its construction and enactment are grounded in the patriarchal social order and its resulting mechanisms, ideology and self-perpetuating tools. The acquisition of power, seen as a natural consequence of being perceived as “properly male”, together with the fear of being judged as “insufficiently masculine” and suffering stigma and ridicule, at best, and physical violence and life threat, at worst, prompt male-identifying individuals to constantly seek homosocial approval, attempt to behave in alignment with hegemonic masculinity and continuously reject and differentiate themselves from femininity.
In “Guyland: The Perilous world where boys become men” Michael Kimmel outlines his theory for “guyland” as a stage of life in between childhood and adulthood when “the struggle to prove manhood becomes even more intense, in part because it’s no longer as easy to differentiate between men and women as it was in the past” (Kimmel, 2008, p. 42). Inspired by Kimmel’s book and detailed (even if exaggerated and border-line extreme) depiction of college-aged American males’ problematic relationships with masculinity, I decided to conduct a survey to collect and analyze data about young men’s perceptions of masculinity in my home-country, Bulgaria.
To that end, I created an online survey consisting of demographic measures (for age, location, sexual orientation and level of education), six open-ended questions aiming to cast light on one’s self-identified concepts of masculinity (What does it mean to be a “man’’, according to you? What contributes to your identification as a male? What are 3-5 adjectives that characterize a “real” man?), as well as questions exploring the relationship between masculinity and otherness (What differentiates men and women? Does sexual orientation contribute to being perceived as a “man”?), and a question requesting respondents to identify times when their masculinity has been questioned or challenged (When does your “masculinity” get questioned: in what context? How do you react? Do you need to prove yourself as a man?). Finally, there was a space for comments and feedback.
The survey was disseminated through social media (Facebook) to my social network, as well as through the help of friends and through posting on numerous groups (student groups, interest groups (such as groups for bloggers and entrepreneurs). A friend who is involved with the biggest LGBT organization in Bulgaria posted the link to the survey on their Facebook page which perhaps resulted in the high participation of non-heterosexual individuals.
The survey received a total of 48 individual responses. The target group for my study was young Bulgarian male-identifying individuals, aged 18-25. The median age of participants was 22 (see fig. 1 for age representation). Most study participants came from Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria (35 respondents), the rest indicated that they lived in other major cities (a total of 8), with some living abroad (a total of 5). My sample consisted of 54.2% heterosexuals, 29.2% homosexuals and a total of 16.6% identifying as “Other” (I had initially forgotten to include a separate category for “bisexual”, so it will be more accurate to look at bisexual and other together). In terms of education, 45.8% hold undergraduate degree, 31.3% have only Secondary education (High School), 10.4% hold Master degree and 12.5% indicated “Other”. I coded the collected data paying attention to common themes and word usage and repetition.
|Fig. 1 Age (Color codes represent ages between 18-25)
Fig. 2 Sexual Orientation (Color codes: Blue- homosexual, Red- heterosexual, Yellow- bisexual (this category was created later, so it doesn’t include all individuals identifying as bisexual), Green- other)
Fig. 3 Education (Color Codes: Blue- undergraduate/ bachelor degree, red- master’s degree, yellow- Secondary education (High School), green- other)
A portrait of a Real Man
When requested to write down 3-5 adjectives that characterize a “real” man, the survey participants listed over 75 “male” features which nevertheless could be grouped in several categories, including characteristics of strength and ability; rationality; adherence to principles; stability; respect; care and warmth.
Foremost, perhaps unsurprisingly, a mandatory characteristic for a man is to be “strong”. Yet not just physically strong, as one participant highlighted and several others echoed. In fact, male strength is described in multiple ways: for one, “strength is being able to deal with your problems without violence”, whereby using violence is a weakness, an attempt to prove your masculinity (which in reality you’re lacking)”, for others, strength is associated with diligence and resilience at work (“men should be able to endure more work and pressure, but these days women have become more “masculine” in that sense and men- the opposite”, a survey participant wrote). A man has to be strong physically and “psychologically”: this psychological vigor includes the category of security which also appears by itself (“(To be a man is) to be the pillar of the family, to always have a solution to the emotional problems of the gentle sex…”), as well as motivation and ambition for achievement (“Men act, while women think”), whereby independence is critical to marking the real man (“to be motivated to achieve your goals, without counting on anybody”). As evident some of the statements made explicit gender distinctions between men and women, while others did not include a specified comparison subject. Perhaps the unnamed comparison subjects are boys- the younger males who have the potential to become “real” men, but have not yet proven themselves as such.
“Real” men are honest and direct. A man is one who “keeps his word” and is therefore “reliable” (eight men specifically or solely mentioned their “word” as the most significant factor to their identification as men). Similarly, a man has to be secure and stable, to be responsible, especially in the context of family life. To that end, a number of men highlighted that “a penis does not make you a man”. Evidently, “being a man” is a form of achievement of itself, one that not even all biological men can fulfill.
Interestingly, a number of traditionally-termed as “feminine” characteristics make their way into the list, thereby creating a complex image of the Bulgarian male, as one who needs to both be evidently masculine, therefore, cultivating in himself and acting out of strength, security, responsibility, hard work and initiative, yet in the same time be gentle, empathetic, emotionally mature, caring and supportive of others (especially, beloved women, children, relatives: “(To be a man) is to follow the object of your passion- whether a man or a woman- but specifically with women: to want to create a family and to then take care of it” and “A real man has to be gentle, kind and patient with his other half, to have real feelings for her…”).
Indeed, commitment to family and love partner seems to be crucial to participants’ understanding of what it means to be a man: how one treats women and children is seen as a definite marker of whether or not he deserves the title “A Man” (“For me, the man has to be next to the people he loves until the end, no matter of what, to be ready to do anything for them” and “a man should not hurt women, not make them or their children suffer, he has to be caring and loving as he would like others to be towards him when time comes”).
Fig. 4 Most frequently repeated words in response to prompt to list 3-5 characteristics of a “real” man
|Word||Frequency of appearance in sample’s responses|
|Stable, calm, secure||11|
|Sensitive, emotionally mature||3|
Masculinity as Homophobia
My question “Does sexual orientation impact whether a man is perceived as such? Why/ Why not?” posed some difficulties in coding because at times it was difficult to tell whether respondents were ironic or not, and whether they voiced their own thoughts on the subject or outlined their perception of societal attitudes against gay men.
The majority of respondents agreed that on a societal level sexual orientation is directly linked to how a man is perceived, whereby a man who is gay is directly assumed to be less of a man. While some brought up family to account for why a gay man is not “sufficiently masculine” (“Amongst the main priorities of a man is to create family and have offspring” and “being homosexual, the individual rejects all religious and familial values; the man needs to be the basis of the family”), other claimed that for a man to be gay is “against nature” and so they are not worthy of being called “men”. While some acknowledged the social biases against gay men, noting that “(In society) homosexuality is accepted as lack of ‘masculinity” and “the characteristic to like men is immediately accredited to women”, others expressed various opinions regarding gay males’ masculinity according to their gender performance (“sexual orientation impacts whether a man is seen as such, because homosexuality often is characterized by lady-like manners and thinking”). Arguably, some claimed that they don’t perceive gay men as less “manly” because “to be a man is pure biology”, as one participant put it. Yet, another noted the existence of a prejudice that “a man who doesn’t have an active sexual life is not a man”- a requirement that affects all men regardless of sexual orientation.
Asked whether their masculinity has been questioned or challenged, a majority of the respondents answered with “No” or gave an abstract answer.
A couple of recounted experiences include: being caught in a sexual act with a man (“(My masculinity was questioned) when I was caught giving a blowjob at a party, I was ridiculed and considered suicide”), having homosexual friends or defending homosexuality (“My own mother questioned my sexuality when I shared that I have many homosexual friends at my college in the US and rejected the idea that their homosexuality is a psychological condition… She started wondering if I’m not defending them just because I’m homosexual, too”).
In order to be perceived as a man, one needs to assert gender-appropriate interests:
“There have been times when I’ve felt uncomfortable having to talk solely about women and cars and the related (topics) which are typical for men and that all representatives of the “strong sex” are experts in. In such situations you are just forced to repeat the words of some evident “macho” in the group, so that you don’t look too weird and unmanly”
and act as a “man” in all expected ways:
“People are slaves to their stereotypes about what a man should be like, what he should do, how he should behave, etc. Something I get across often is that being a vegetarian when I’m around strangers, I am always met with the question: “How can you not eat meet, what kind of a man are you? Even my mother has told me: “You are a man, you have to eat meat”, paradoxically, she has been vegetarian for forty years 😀 I try to explain that it has nothing to do with masculinity (…) not eating meat does not make me less of a man then someone who eats 5kg of meat a day :D, but I usually find lack of understanding (…)”.
Still, coming out as gay is perhaps the biggest challenge to being seen as a man (“Since I came out to a close friend of mine, her comments (about how much of a man I am) haven’t stopped with and without reason. Interestingly, she stops when we’re with someone who doesn’t know my sexual orientation, as far as I can tell it’s a defense”). Indeed, the homosexual participants in the survey varied in their approaches and understanding of how “masculinity” interacts with their sexual orientation.
One said that his masculinity is challenged “all the time because I don’t fit the characteristics of a ‘macho’ (I have a small and thin body), I have a different sexuality and I’m not afraid to do things typical for women like dying my hair or painting my nails, sitting with crossed legs and liking things associated with gentleness.” He continued: “I frequently receive comments like ‘What kind of a man are you?’ but I don’t feel the need to prove myself to anybody… I don’t feel it’s offensive to be associated with women and women qualities, so I don’t feel bad if it happens”. Another explained that being gay “liberated” him from having to defend his masculinity: “I haven’t had to (defend my maleness), I’m always saved by the fact I’m gay”. Yet another explicitly stated that despite being homosexual, he is not “feminine”, therefore he doesn’t have to prove himself as a man.
Discussion of findings and limitations
In “Guyland: The Perilous world where boys become men” Michael Kimmel outlines a profile of the American male in his twenties as “emotionally numb” (Kimmel, 2004, p.53) “white, middle-class, college-bound, in college, or recently graduated” (Kimmel, 2004, p. 8) young men, having a “diminished capacity for empathy” (Kimmel, 2004, p. 59). While perhaps this description overstates the impact of hegemonic masculinity over individuals and more closely represents characteristics of groups of young men in all-male environments (sport clubs, fraternities, etc.), I found that it is also strongly influenced by culture.
While the data from my study did yield a tendency to construct masculinity as a “repudiation of the feminine” (Kimmel, 2004, p. 45) and assertion of heterosexuality and reliability, it also defined masculinity in relationship to community, family and love. Aggression did not seem to partake an important role in the construction of maleness.
Before I continue with the analyses (and speculation about) my findings, I must acknowledge the limitations of my study and present a rationale for the limited generability of my data. Certainly, my sample does not represent all young Bulgarian men, since the study participants were predominantly educated males from urban settings. Perhaps youth from rural Bulgaria who have been exposed to less diversity and educational opportunities and who live in areas where patriarchal values are stronger would have more extreme positions than the ones presented here. Yet, I am confident that introducing the thoughts and experiences of my survey participants can be useful to identifying tendencies in constructing and understanding masculinity in Bulgaria.
To that end, making sense of the presented data cannot be achieved without a look at the sociocultural context of Bulgaria. An empiric sociological study on organizational culture in Bulgaria based on the methodology of Geert Hofstede (Davidkov, 2004) contended that the Bulgarian society ranks among the countries with low level of individualism (Davidkov, 2004, p. 14), whereby Bulgaria ranks 21st, France 10th/11th, UK- 3rd and USA- 1st (Davidkov, 2004, p. 13). Within this theoretical frame, a collectivist society is one where “relationships prevail over tasks”, “identity is based in the social network to which one belongs to”, and “people are born into extended families or other in-groups which continue to protect them in exchange for loyalty” (Davidkov, 2004, p. 14). Furthermore, the Hofstede model provides an empirical formula for the calculation of a country’s “masculinity” (through identification of “masculinity index”).
A country is “masculine”, if its dominant values are success and progress, whereby conflicts are fought out and people “work to live”. Women’s and men’s roles are, thereby, clearly defined: men are tough and ambitious, while women are tender and focused on relationship-building and maintenance (Davidkov, 2004, 18). According to these and other criteria, “the definitions of masculine and feminine define us as a nation having rather feminine behavior” (Davidkov, 2004, p. 18). In a “feminine” nation the normative values are caring for others and preservation: people and quality of relationships are seen as more important than money and success and both men and women are allowed to be tender, and both mothers and fathers deal with facts and feeling (while in “masculine” nations mothers attend to feelings and fathers- to facts). In this context, one works to live and resolves conflicts by negotiation and compromise (Davidkov, 2004, p. 18).
Within this sociocultural context, the attitudes towards masculinity found in my survey fit rather well the societal norms of a collectivist, “feminine” society which prioritizes interpersonal relationships and interdependency over an individualistic, materialist and achievement-oriented agenda. Despite moving towards more capitalist, “Western” modes of production, trade and lifestyle, Bulgarians (and highly educated Bulgarians, at that) are still deeply affected by traditional and modernized values, highlighting the importance of community and mutual care. Despite exposure to American (and more broadly- Western) television and music and changes in dating and marriage patterns, the Bulgarian young male still constructs his identity as a man in relation to his upcoming roles of a romantic partner, father and responsible member of society. His less pronounced emphasis on professional and educational growth does not exclude such orientation, yet clearly demonstrates an operating hierarchy, whereby work does not score first.
- Kimmel, M. S. (2000). “Masculinity as Homophobia: Fear, Shame, and Silence in the Construction of Gender Identity”, 213-219. Readings for Diversity and Social Justice: An Anthology on Racism, Antisemitism, Sexism, Heterosexism, Ableism, and Classism. New York, NY: Routldege.
- Kimmel, M. S. (2008). Guyland: The perilous world where boys become men. New York: Harper.
- Davidkov, T. (2004). Where do we stand? Papeles Del Este, 8, 1-22. Retrieved April 8, 2016, from https://revistas.ucm.es/index.php/PAPE/article/download/PAPE0404120001A/25824.