The cult of masculinity

439197_man_and_muscles_1A few months ago, I said the following in a comment:

For example, I like Fight Club because as *I* read the story, it breaks down the myth that the cult of masculinity is where a man finds his identity and value. Doesn’t say a damn thing about women or our journey, but the obsession with manhood (and lack of corresponding value put on “womanhood”) is definitely part of why we need feminism…

A few days later, I used the phrase “cult of masculinity” in my post The myth of the woman who craves abuse:

Unfortunately, men are less likely than women to fully recover from childhood abuse, mostly because the cult of masculinity insists they can overcome anything simply by “being a man”, which apparently does not include the very emotional work required for full recovery.

I should explain what I mean by “cult of masculinity.”

No one ever says “You need to grow up and be a woman.” Or “Time to separate the women from the girls.” Or “Are you a woman or a mouse?” That’s because a woman is not a construct in the patriarchy’s eyes; it is viewed as simply the inevitable outcome of a human being born female, as opposed to something to strive for.

What our culture means by “a man”, however, is a construct. It is something that does not occur in nature. It is a supernatural creature of extraordinary emotional, physical and mental resilience. It can withstand enemy torture for years on end without ever giving out the codes; it can somehow magically love its family, God and country without actually being distracted by normal human feelings (though if it must let down one of these things, it had better be family, who is supposed to be willing to “take one for God and country” so to speak); it has no moods and is always perfectly even-tempered, except when roused to fight for good. It can get over abuses and wrongs done against it, even in its most vulnerable formative years, without sorting or processing its feelings and experiences.

No one can be all these things. No one should try. Manhood is a pretense to be acted, a mask to be donned, not a potential to be realized. The cult of masculinity wants men to be superhuman, and to that end, it places women beneath men (and various men beneath other men) to act as support units in this ridiculous struggle to create Supermen. Superman hasn’t got time to do his own household chores or menial tasks or parent his kids – women must do that for him. Even with all that off his plate, not even Superman can really run a country/run a huge corporation/find the cure for a disease all on his lonesome – he needs women (and “lesser” men) doing 90% of the work for him without expecting shared credit. Superman hasn’t got time to sort through his emotional baggage from his abusive mom/dad/grade school bullies – he needs a wife who accepts that sometimes being a punching bag is a woman’s job so he can work out all that frustration and appear to be a Good Man to the outside world… where it counts.

To get everyone else to accept this ridiculous imbalance, we have to be brainwashed into the cult of masculinity. We all have to believe that just being a Man is such a glorious achievement that we should all be honored to help build Men. We must forgive fathers and husbands for lashing out at us occasionally: they work so hard! We must forgive our male religious leaders for occasionally committing the very sins they damn us to hell for – their path is so difficult! We must know our place and stay in it, for if we venture forth into Man’s world and Man’s work and prove that we’re just as good at the pretense of manhood as men are, what’s the point of being a man?

What’s the point, indeed? This, not women’s quest for equality, is what men need to unshackle themselves from. Men and women alike should strive to be good people who take personal responsibility for their happiness, but refuse to harm others in the pursuit of it. Our phrases should be “Time to grow up and be an adult.” “Time to separate the grown-ups from the kiddies.” That would be equality.

Fight Club demonstrates how “being a man” doesn’t solve anything. Jack (Edward Norton) is a struggling human being, trying to figure out who he is. His job – helping an auto manufacturer determine if a car’s lethal flaw will lose them enough money in court to merit a recall before people die – effectively makes him a button-down serial killer (this, I believe, is the real trigger for his mental illness). He’s done everything his culture told him to do and it’s led him to this. So he tries some new-fangled solutions – the support groups – and that doesn’t work either, because they don’t address the fundamental problem. He meets Tyler, who acts independently of the system, living by his own rules. This quickly becomes the ideal of manhood Jack wants to emulate. But that doesn’t work for him either, because Tyler’s not only independent – he’s disconnected. At the end of the day, what Jack really wants to be is a human being who has meaningful connections with other human beings. He needs passion.

That’s not a “man.” That’s… a woman! At least according to our warped culture. But really, it’s just plain human.

So many men are realizing they don’t want to be the distant, uninvolved, but successful fathers and husbands past generations idealized. They don’t want to be measured by their incomes, their sexual prowess or their conformity to arbitrary social ideals. They’re realizing they can’t live without love or passion for someone or something – for their families, for a cause, for art, for a job they love whether or not it’s the most lucrative career they could have chosen. They should never have been asked to become superhuman; it is enough just to be a good human. That’s the lesson I get from Fight Club, and that’s why I love the film.

I must caution casual readers: this article is not a “Men’s Rights Activist” platform. The form of feminism I grew up taking seriously was the kind that believed the current patriarchal system was hurting both women and men, and wanted to replace it with something that would establish equal opportunity and equal responsibility for all adults (and legal protection for children and for adults unable to care for themselves). Men’s Rights Activism has a fatal flaw of interpreting natural consequences for male behavior – so long suppressed and suffered by innocents instead – as infringements of their rights, and this makes most MRA arguments illogical to the point of hilarity, if they weren’t so frightening in their blindness. Therefore, comments spewing bile about how Womenz Is Ruining Menz (which I always get on Fight Club posts) will not make it through moderation. This article is not about women hurting men; it’s about how something that’s sold by men to other men as a boon for them is actually a ticking timebomb that destroys everyone in its path, regardless of gender. You need to learn the difference.


  1. says

    The irony, though, is that all the men I know who’ve seen and liked the movie have used it to reinforce the cult of masculinity. They idolize Tyler to a frightening extent and glorify his cynical anti-heroness.

  2. says

    @Tim, :)

    @Tekanji, that’s why I wrote this. I gathered from the amount of comments my other FC articles have gotten from men who think I’m saying feminism has destroyed manhood, I thought that was a common response. I wanted to (a) clarify my position and (b) argue that the story’s point is the exact opposite of this rather shallow reading some men have of it.

  3. Ryan says

    [quote]So many men are realizing they don’t want to be the distant, uninvolved, but successful fathers and husbands past generations idealized.[/quote]

    I’m one of these. Thank you for not thinking I’m weird. :)

  4. says

    @SBG, don’t get me started on Prop 8. It looks bound to pass, and I’m so angry. :(

    @ D. Edward Sauve, :)

    @Ryan, you’re very welcome… but I hope someday we have a world where you feel so entitled to connect with your loved ones that it would never occur to you to thank me just for not thinking it weird.

  5. says

    great post, thanks. this idea — “That’s because a woman is not a construct in the patriarchy’s eyes; it is viewed as simply the inevitable outcome of a human being born female, as opposed to something to strive for.” — is a profound one.

  6. Genevieve says

    You mean all of those stupid “what would Tyler Durden do” shirts and stuff?
    Yeah. I hate those.
    Possibly because I saw Fight Club with my high school boyfriend who emulated the ‘masculine ideal’ and hated himself for not being able to live up to it…and therefore emulated Tyler Durden…didn’t end well.

  7. says

    The angstiness about “am I gay? am I acting ‘gay’? am I a ‘Real Man’–?” that I saw in my house and among our friends all those years – all goes into it. And there’s plenty of active as well as passive resentmet of the macho paradigm on the right – laments that men aren’t allowed to show their emotions nowdays, when medieval knights had no shame about crying, etc etc. But no willingness to *DO* a damn thing about it in the form of standing up and *denouncing* the patriarchy – they’d just rather curse the darkness – and then go out and turn out more lights.

    (This is also typical: the conservative “crunchy-con” academics I knew constantly griped about the lack of trains like in Europe and pedestrian shopping areas like in Europe and recycling like in Europe – but did they ever go out and organize the community to try to get public transit back, or walkable districts, or recycling stations? Don’t be silly! Actually *doing* anything besides complaining is for sissy liberals!)

  8. says

    this post echoes how i feel very strongly. the ideal of masculinity is a chain used to tie men into patriarchy and teach us to shut down all the most human parts of ourselves. the fact that feminists are the only ones who seem able to see this is, I think, a powerful indication of why men need feminism. Feminism is not anti-male, to the contrary it’s a movement to deconstruct and oppose gender-based oppression, period. and that’s something men have every bit as much a stake in as women do.

    I see a strong parallel to institutionalized racism which on one hand privileges white people and on the other oppresses them by erasing their ethnicities and cultures in favor of false racial unity and undermines the struggle of working class people (including the vast majority of white folks) for freedom by creating unnecessary divisions. In the same way, Patriarchy simultaneously privileges and oppresses men. A small minority of men gain tremendous power and the majority gains a few token privilege, but that privilege comes at the cost of sacrificing our humanity to a false ideal, the cult of masculinity as you so rightly call it.

    I wish the right wingers hadn’t already laid claim to the term “men’s movement” because I think there needs to be a new name for a pro-feminist movement of men who oppose gender-based oppriession and the cult of masculinity. calling ourselves feminists doesn’t really work well, not only because many female feminists believe that it’s impossible to be a male and a feminist, but because “Feminism” sounds like a movement for females and that’s a barrier for a lot of men who haven’t yet let go of their fear of being declared un-manly. I don’t have an answer for what that name of that movement might be, but articles like this are helping to put the groundwork in place for it.

    thank you for that.

  9. says

    Lynx, I like your parallel with racism. It seems to me economically disadvantaged whites are encouraged to think in racist ways – blame the immigrant, blame other races for “taking” your opportunities – when, if all the people who are getting economically shafted by low-paying and often dangerous jobs would get together and take action, they could probably turn things around. These divisions that keep large groups of people with legit grievances against the govt or the rigged marketplace benefit politicians who prefer to coast on rhetoric rather than take action.

    Maybe we need a term like “gender equality.” Or just “the equality movement.”

  10. says

    Thank you for this. I’m breaking down the men’s masculinity movement in evangelical Christianity over in my happy little corner of the interweb. One of my visitors posted a link.

    This actually helped me figure out how to approach the next couple bits that I’m doing, so I may well have to borrow.

    Full credit will be given where due, of course…

  11. DragonLadyK says

    I think it’s ironic that the “cult of masculinity” has become tied in with Conservative Christianity since Christ — who is held up as a perfect man and the model for all men to emulate in the Bible — gave way to weeping when Lazarus died, spoke to women as equals in a society that demeaned them, spoke to Genitles and Samaritans in a society that would have nothing to do with them, treated lepers and the poor with dignity, and rebuked his disciples for trying to keep small children from coming to him. He felt compassion and pity, he needed rest, he withdrew to be alone and recouperate, he collapsed after torture carrying his own stake and someone else had to carry it for him, and he sweat blood worrying about the trials that were to come.

    Jesus was tender, gentle, and mild as well as zealous, courageous, and physically powerful. All of it was the expression of the same great strength.


  12. Ikkin says

    DragonLady, there’s one simple reason why no one realizes the contradiction – people have a very strong tendency to be blind to character traits that don’t fit into their preconception of what someone “should” be. Since there’s an expectation that people should fit into a binary category – either masculine or feminine – and masculine is seen as good, it’s not all that hard for the feminine traits of a man whom someone respects to be lost.

    Of course, this has the really annoying consequence that it’s difficult to create a character that subverts the traditional masculine ideal and expect him to actually be understood as such by the audience, considering that significant portions of that audience are likely to either overlook the relevant feminine traits or completely emasculate the character, overlooking the remaining masculine traits.

    Creating even more problems is the idea that, at least as far as men are concerned, “all passion is romantic.” While it seems to me that it’s often acceptable for a “man” to have a strong emotional connection to a girlfriend or a wife – consider how often women are used to motivate heroes, either as Damsel in Distress or Woman in Refrigerator – it’s also generally accepted that this is the only kind of relationship with that kind of power. Not only are meaningful connections unmanly, they also imply sexual relationships even when the intention is purely platonic.

    Getting rid of that tendency might be the best place to start from the guys’ end. Unfortunately, it’s probably even more ingrained than “guys shouldn’t be emotional,” since even girls who like emotional guys are prone to it.

  13. MercuryRetro says

    I consider myself a dreaded ‘men’s rights activist'(insofar as I consider myself an egalitarian with an interest in addressing the legal and social disparities that more negatively affect men) although I would agree with some of the criticism of the movement. I really am hesitant labeling myself as such for the very same reason, the strong taint of conservative christian social values in the movement.

    To be honest, I think a lot of conservative women teach their sons the ‘super-human’ man-ideal in order to manipulate them into preserving their ‘ladies first’ benefits–which basically amounts to first stab at emotional bonding. It comes at the expense of being seen as responsible human beings. At the expense of their personhood rather then their womanhood but it has its benefits. (Some of which other ethnicities and races have been on the blunt and bloody receiving end of.)

    I see it like this. If we can imagine men as horses(hopefully no one is insulted at this thought experiment!)… some horses will win the Kentucky Derby and be hailed ‘heros’. But the unseen expense of that is all the other horses who’ve had to give up their natural instincts in order to be part of a competition that reduces individual horses to an utterly artificial and one-dimensional entity.

    The question then becomes… what is the motivation for this? Why do men distort themselves and sacrifice to become competitors in this race?

    The other thing is… if we allow men to be vulnerable, we allow men to be vulnerable to women. Which means we have to be prepared to allow that women are capable of hurting men! Talk about a paradigm buster. (And, perhaps, recognize and take charge of the influence we have as women to maintain the status quo.)

  14. E Doyle says

    I would agree with your enitre analysis, think it well-out, and applaud it, but I must disagree with one point: That the cult of masculinity (which I reiterate, I as a man loathe) is pressed onto men by other men, exclusively. I disagree. I believe it is pressed onto men by men and by women. Gender roles as a whole are pressed onto us by all sorts of people in our society. Many mothers encourage their sons to take on the cult of ‘masculinity’ because this is what they have been brought up to believe is proper for a man- just as the men reinforce such beliefs among themselves for fear of failing to meet the same standard.

    The cult of masculinity is pressed upon us by both sexes as clearly as the cult of femininity that afflicts our sisters.

    But again, I know many people read comments like the one I have posted and assume I am an anti-feminist (I wouldn’t call myself a feminist, I would classify my views as being ‘gender equality’, and thus embracing all the ‘masculinist’ cries as well). I am, of course, not. But I skip out on commenting on the vast majority of this article I am in complete and joyous agreement with, because that would be preaching to the choir, so to speak.

  15. says

    I never made the point you’re “disagreeing” with. I just re-read to see if anything I said could be misinterpreted as a claim that only MEN push the cult of masculinity, and I’m not seeing it.

    Of course both genders participate in pushing the cult of masculinity, just as both genders push certain expectations onto girls and women. It would be offensively short-sighted to suggest otherwise.

  16. Nate Thompson says

    For the most part I agree with this analysis. But I think it lacks balance. I think there are some instances where detachment is a good quality. For instance, it is important that a scientist detach herself from the subject matter she’s studying. detachment is also good for judges, and I’m sure various other profession. That said, I completely agree the ideal of detaching from everything is very bad. Maybe somewhere in between what is stereotypically male and female is best.

    • says

      It’s pointless to mention the dominant paradigm when you’re writing about an alternative viewpoint. I mean, being even-tempered and able to withstand torture are also good things, but I figured everyone already knew that.

  17. MisterJT says

    Dear Jennifer,

    I just want to say this is a FABULOUS post. I enjoyed every second of it. Although I am a little confused at a semi random part in it. In the Paragraph you talk about FC you mention the Main Character in FC as “Jack”. I have read the book several times and seen the movie and he is never given a official name. I know this is extremely irrelevant but I was just wondering if you just gave him a common name so that people wouldn’t get confused or if you know something I don’t.

    Still an extremely eye opening read and I will be spreading this around some.

    Much support,

    • says

      He was given that name by some fans who wanted to discuss the movie, because it gets old saying “the narrator” every time he gets mentioned. I don’t know where it comes from, but I borrowed it for the same reason. Sorry for any confusion.

  18. Keith says

    Jennifer Kesler,

    It comes from the “I am Jack’s…” lines, which he gets from an magazine with articles written from the point of view of internal organs: “I Am Jack’s Medulla Oblongata,” “I Am Jill’s Nipple,” “I Am Jack’s Colon.” It then gets extrapolated to the narrator’s emotional state: “I Am Jack’s Cold Sweat,” “I Am Jack’s Complete Lack of Surprise,” “I Am Jack’s Inflamed Sense of Rejection.”

  19. says


    Which then becomes a meta example of sexism because “Jack” is used for all the neutral body parts while “Jill” is only used for the explicitly female body parts. Not sure if that was intentional on the director’s part, though…

  20. Keith says

    Sylvia Sybil,

    Men don’t have nipples?

    I say that, but I actually agree, since men’s nipples are much less fascinating than women’s, from a Hollywood point of view.

    And mine, truth to tell, but that’s beside the point.

  21. says

    Jennifer Kesler,

    It comes from the “I am Jack’s…” lines, which he gets from an magazine with articles written from the point of view of internal organs: “I Am Jack’s Medulla Oblongata,” “I Am Jill’s Nipple,” “I Am Jack’s Colon.” It then gets extrapolated to the narrator’s emotional state: “I Am Jack’s Cold Sweat,” “I Am Jack’s Complete Lack of Surprise,” “I Am Jack’s Inflamed Sense of Rejection.”

    There are also rumors that early script drafts called him “Jack” too. In any case, it probably all goes back to that scene, so you’re right.

    Sylvia Sybil: Not sure if that was intentional on the director’s part, though…

    Even if it wasn’t intentional, it completely went over my head until you pointed it out just now, so it’s probably one of those ways of looking at things that are so ingrained, a lot of people might have made the same choice without even thinking it had implications.

    By human, what we really mean is male, except of course when it’s not. 😉

  22. Keith says

    Sylvia Sybil,

    Not really. Give me the right hormones and I could breast feed.

    Or give me the right fetish and a willing, lactating partner. But that’s another thread entirely.

  23. says


    uuuuuhhhhh… ಠ_ಠ

    Actually, you do have a point about the hormones. And this cis woman (me) was unable to lactate after the birth of my son. So there you go!

  24. Karl says

    This reminds me of Karl Marx’s writing, where he said that capitalism not only dehumanizes the working class, but also the bourgeouis owners as well. Slavery destroys the soul of the owner as well as the slave. Though its still worse for the slave than the owner, as it’s worse for the worker than the capitalist, and worse for the woman than the man. Except when men have to fight in wars. Then its equally bad. But these are all systems of oppression we have to throw off.

  25. says

    Karl: Except when men have to fight in wars. Then its equally bad.

    I’m not sure I’d agree with that. When early psychologists first encountered women who showed signs of PTSD, they immediately concluded that women were psychologically frail because we had it so easy and still managed to exhibit symptoms associated with war veterans. It took feminism to point out that rape is an act of war, and just by existing women have a pretty good chance of experiencing sexual assault and other acts of frightening male domination, so the PTSD symptoms showed no particular weakness on the part of women.

    So maybe it’s temporarily equal for some individual men who go to war, but I’m not sure I’d issue that as a general statement.

    • Maria says

      Or that women (military wives and other women normally dismissed as “just” camp followers) provided unpaid support services to militaries/armies (sometimes taking over their male partner’s position if necessary). Women also raise future soldiers, have served (both openly and not) AS soldiers, and women-as-nurses-and-caretakers take care of vets suffering psychological and physical injuries.

  26. Casey says


    So basically, even when men go off to fight in wars, women still have it worse than them. 😀
    (I’m not being condescending, this is how I feel, even though it’s jerk-ish. I don’t mean to diminish the experiences of men who suffer/have suffered from PTSD, I’m just sayin’, ya know?)

  27. says

    The general point of the article is that oppression is ultimate a really bad condition even for oppressors who benefit in some ways. For the most part, that’s what Karl was agreeing with. I just wanted to highlight that the assumption that being sent to war is even a temporary equalizer has some flaws most people don’t think about.

  28. The Other Anne says

    Jennifer Kesler,

    One thing many USians are privileged to not have to think about or have as a reality is the war being fought on US soil. The exceptions are that many indigenous peoples are pretty much always having to protect their lands, historically with bloodshed (that typically ended with their own displacement and slaughter), and currently through more “subtle” ways. I say subtle in scare quotes because of the very real act of war that is the high amount of rape and sexual assault.

    For many people in places of privilege in the US, for example people like my stepdad and myself as well, war is something that happens far away, not on our own front doors. So the idea that men “go away” to war and leave women in safety is just not a reality for many people across the globe.


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