A Few Skeptical Thoughts about Harry’s Masculinity Study
It was exhilarating to read the conclusions of Harry’s Masculinity Report for 2018, which asked men about their values and did not turn their responses into a tale of masculine failure. In fact, the study found that American men tend to hold strong values of honesty, reliability, and loyalty and feel at their best when they are supporting their families and engaging in meaningful work. Overall, American men experience high life satisfaction and are not “in crisis.”
The lead author of the study, Dr. John Barry of University College London, deserves congratulation for the validating picture of American men his survey made possible.
The analysis of the data took aim at some feminist assumptions about masculinity—that men are selfish, greedy, and competitive—and showed that these are far from accurate. Even in doing so, however, it’s possible the study was unduly influenced by feminist preconceptions of healthy masculinity.
The summary of the report’s findings noted, for example, that men’s participation in sport is a significant contributor to a positive mindset, allowing for socializing and healthy competition. It stated emphatically that “Among the factors which were relatively unimportant to men were: winning; developing an attractive physique or ‘being skillful.’ As the old cliché would have it, it really isn’t the winning, it’s the taking part that counts.” Perhaps many men genuinely do not care much about winning; or at least place the joy of effort and camaraderie above it.
But that certainly hasn’t been my impression of men (or of women, quite frankly). Moreover, without the male drive to win and to be the best, it’s doubtful whether many of our civilization’s greatest advancements would have been made. There is nothing wrong with wanting to win and developing the skills necessary to do so.
Feminist commentators, however, have been telling us for decades that the desire to win is one aspect of “toxic masculinity,” and that a “positive masculinity” would see men unlearn this supposedly damaging attitude. Is it possible that both the survey respondents and their interviewers were consciously or unconsciously framing their conversations about sport with feminist interdictions in mind? If toxic men are those who want to win, respondents may have felt that it was safer to say that winning was less important than enjoying a collective endeavor.
A similar doubt is raised by the “Conclusions and Recommendations” section of the report that claimed that “What’s truly inspiring is that American men understand the importance of their mental health, even above physical health. They are ready to talk, and they want to improve their happiness.”
“They are ready to talk” is a strangely phrased sentence, suggesting that men of the past may not have been so ready. Perhaps not coincidentally, one of the primary criticisms of men by feminists, particularly in the field of psychology, is that they aren’t willing to talk about their feelings in the way women are—and that this is a big problem accounting for such tragedies as male suicide and substance abuse. Harry’s Report seems to accept talk as the gold standard for mental health, assuring readers that men are ready for this crucial guarantor of wellness. “And they want to improve their happiness”—well, who doesn’t? A skeptic like me might hear, “They are ready to do what the feminists have been telling them to do in a bid for peace and approval.”
The report asserts optimistically that “Men get happier as they get older. This is an aspirational message that can provide all men hope. With wisdom and experience comes stability and inner contentment […].” Perhaps so. But do the researchers know for a fact that the older men they spoke to became happier as they aged, or is this conclusion simply an extrapolation from the fact that the older men surveyed reported higher levels of happiness than the younger men, a fact which doesn’t prove the younger men will necessarily get happier later in life. It might mean that older men are happier because their masculine identity was formed at a time when the constant negative barrage young men experience today was far less vehement. As feminist man-blaming and societal discrimination increase, it is quite possible that, far from becoming happier with age, today’s younger men will find themselves more alienated over time.
I am in favor of presenting uplifting accounts of male values and identity so long as problems are not thereby downplayed. But care is needed, even as one pushes back against anti-male assumptions, not to implicitly affirm feminist myths about positive masculinity.
Men are good not only when they’re non-competitive, open, and willing to talk about mental health. They’re also good when they compete to win and deal with problems through stoic self-reflection (and speaking of which, could a disinclination to focus on problems have played a role in the positive answers given? Perhaps some men prefer not to speak of their pain with researchers).
Ultimately, I hope Harry’s is far from the last survey to ask men how they’re doing and to acknowledge the good in their answers. There is much more to be explored outside a feminist framework about the many ways modern men find meaning in their lives.