The Crisis in Masculinity

David Morgan. Handbook of Gender and Women’s Studies. Editor: Kathy Davis, Mary Evans, Judith Lorber. 2006. Sage Publication.

Discussions about a ‘crisis in masculinity’ are widespread. This idea of a crisis can be formulated as a relationship between some immediate experiences and responses on the part of men (young men in particular) which are linked to changes in employment, the family, and the gender order and which together are constituted as a more general crisis. Focusing mainly on issues of health and education, this chapter argues that it is possible to talk about a crisis in relation to specific groups of men. Whether these specific issues can be taken as a sign of a more generalized crisis is less clear.


It is likely that the word ‘crisis’ is one of the most frequently used words in contemporary discourse, with an increasingly wide range of application. We may talk of personal crises, or crises in particular institutions such as those to do with education or health care, or at a more global level. Thus, we may talk of a ‘crisis in Western civilization’ or a widespread ‘legitimation crisis’ (Habermas, 1976). Notions of a crisis in masculinity clearly belong at this more global level, although it might also be expected to have repercussions at an individual or an institutional level.

Dictionary definitions of crisis tend to distinguish between two distinct but overlapping sets of meanings. The more specific meanings refer to vitally important or decisive turning points which could result in recovery (as in the case of a serious illness) or rapid decline and collapse. Logically, whether a crisis is of this kind can only be determined at some time after the event, when the collapse or recovery has taken place. The other set of meanings refers, more generally, to ‘times of difficulty, insecurity and suspense in politics or commerce’ (Oxford English Dictionary, 1989), although this meaning could undoubtedly be extended to other areas of social life. Most discussions of ‘the crisis in masculinity’ tend to be of this kind of generality, although not without suggestions of the former meanings of some kind of turning point, a sense that things cannot continue as they are for much longer. It is possible, therefore, to distinguish between a crisis in masculinity (something more specific and focused and presumably capable of resolution) and a crisis of masculinity, where the whole sets of practices and discourses implied by this term are in question. Perhaps another way of expressing these differences is in terms of a contrast between a crisis and a contradiction, where the latter cannot be changed without some fundamental alteration in the wider system as a whole.

More generally, the notion of crisis conveys a sense of widespread serious concern, located within an identifiable time period and representing some kind of convergence of different forces, events, changes, and anxieties. In this chapter, I intend to provide a critical interrogation of the idea of a ‘crisis in masculinity.’ I begin with an outline of some provisional models of this crisis as a way of exploring the supposed links between sets of indicators of a crisis, changes in particular social institutions together with wider societal changes, including changes in the idea of masculinity and of what it means to be a man. I then go on to explore some of the hypothesized symptoms of the crisis in more detail, focusing on issues to do with education, health (including suicide), and anti-social behaviour. I then outline some critical issues associated with this crisis model. Here I look at some overlaps in the experiences of young men and women, consider questions of ‘whose crisis?’ explore some issues of timing and historical change and general questions to do with the interpretation of the evidence of crisis.

The Crisis in Masculinity: Some Provisional Models

The idea of a crisis in masculinity usually consists of three causally related elements. At the more immediate or individual level there is a set of symptoms or indicators. These might include health-related indicators, including suicide rates, educational under-performance, and criminal or anti-social behaviour. I shall consider these in more detail in the next section. At the most general, societal, level there are a range of changes which are seen as having far-reaching implications. These are chiefly changes in the economy and the gender order but may also include changes in the family and patterns of intimate living. The notion of a crisis in masculinity provides a link between these wider structural changes and the more individualized effects. One of many examples of this kind of model is provided by Stephen Frosh, Ann Phoenix, and Rob Pattman when they write of:

an apparent ‘crisis’ in contemporary forms of masculinity, marked by uncertainties over social roles and identity, sexuality, work and personal relationships—and often manifested in violent or abusive behaviours towards self and others. (2002: 1)

Possible roots of this crisis are to be seen in the collapse of ‘traditional’ men’s work, the growth of a technological culture that cannot be passed on from generation to generation, the rise of feminism, and challenges to dominant forms of rationality.

It is important to remember the difference between the idea of a ‘crisis in masculinity’ and a ‘crisis in patriarchy,’ although very often the structure of the argument is quite similar. Thus, Manuel Castells writes about the erosion of patriarchalism citing ‘the inseparably related processes of the transformations of women’s work and the transformation of women’s consciousness’ as key elements which themselves arise out of the growth of the informational global economy, technological changes in reproduction, and the struggles of women themselves (1997: 135). Within this process, Castells lays considerable stress on the ‘undoing of the patriarchal family’ (p. 136). He notes male anger (including violence and abuse) as one set of responses to these transformations. R. W. Connell (1995) writes of a crisis within the gender order as a whole, one aspect of which might be seen as an erosion of what he calls the patriarchal dividend. This is a dividend from being a man in a patriarchal society ‘in terms of honour, prestige and the right to command’ together with a more material set of benefits. The patriarchal dividend has not, by any means, been eroded completely, but it has been adversely affected by wider shifts in the labour market and the division of labour and the impact of feminism.

Hence, it is argued that the ‘crisis’ of masculinity is something to do with wider social and economic changes. While there are some variations in the changes noted as being of significance and the relative weighting to be accorded to these factors, there would seem to be a broad agreement that the following are of significance:

  • Changes in the labour market and the patterns of work, which would include the decline of heavy industries and, hence, strong physical labour and the development of the service economy. Linda McDowell, for example, notes that two-thirds of British workers are now employed in the service sector, a sector which itself embraces a variety of different working conditions (2003: 27). We may also include here the growth of flexible working practices and the erosion, at least in some areas, of the idea of a working career or a job for life, both of which having been associated with masculine identities. Other writers might add globalization as a factor underlining many of these economic changes or as an influence in its own right.
  • Changes in the family and in patterns of intimate life, which would include the rise in divorce rates (more frequently initiated by women), challenges to a dominant heterosexual model, and the rise of single-parent households, again more often than not headed by women. All these changes, as Castells (1997) argues, represent a challenge to the patriarchal family. One particular aspect of this challenge, partially associated to these changes in family and household and partially to the economic changes indicated above, is the loss or a weakening of links to fathers (Frosh, Phoenix, and Pattman, 2002: 225).
  • Changes in the positions of women in the labour market, politics, education, and all other spheres of social and economic life. These changes, in part the result of struggles by women themselves, are clearly linked, in a variety of ways, to the other changes listed above.

As has already been indicated, there is a time dimension to this model. In a simple causal model, of course, the structural changes take place prior to the individual responses. One variation is some kind of generational model. Perhaps the most influential version of this model is Susan Faludi’s Stiffed, which is subtitled The Betrayal of the Modern Man (1999). Faludi notes many of the factors cited by other writers: the collapse of relatively secure employment in work that had strong identifications with notions of masculinity and the erosion of the heroic models of masculinity that might have been present during the Second World War and the immediate post-war years. For new generations of men, the kinds of promise held out to their fathers and grandfathers of a relatively straightforward confirmation of a masculine identity no longer obtained. Faludi’s account goes beyond most of the other arguments, including the commercialization of sport, which undermines the intimate and gendered relationship between a man and the team he supports, and the development of an ‘ornamental culture,’ which pervades work as well as leisure. The generational model, therefore, is roughly one of a cohort of men socialized within one framework of assumptions but encountering social situations based on quite different assumptions in later life. Faludi, noting the painful accounts which many men give of their relationships to their fathers, sees links between the public betrayals and the more individualized ‘paternal betrayals.’ While it is possible to argue against many of Faludi’s specific arguments, the idea of a generational effect is quite persuasive and seems to be an integral part of the overall model, whether it is made explicit or not.

The argument, therefore, would be that these changes (some of which have taken place over a long period of time) have had an impact on the lives, experiences, and responses of individual men. Mediating between the changes and the experiences are notions of masculinity and of what it means to be a man. In short, it is argued, these constructions are becoming less clear, less positively valued, and less dominant.

Some Key ‘Symptoms’ of the Crisis

Discussions of the crisis in masculinity frequently begin with a range of ‘symptoms’ or indicators which are read as signs of a deeper, gendered crisis. Frequently the focus is on the lives and experiences of young men and boys:

On the face of it there certainly seems to be a ‘boys problem.’ Boys are now under-performing compared to girls in nearly all subjects at GCSE; the less well qualified can be difficult to employ and as a result often struggle to construct stable and fulfilling lives; boys commit about three times as much crime as girls; and they are generally perceived as far more anti-social in their general conduct than girls. Much of the damage they do is to themselves. Boys are far more likely to attack each other than to attack girls, and the suicide rate for young men between the ages of 15 and 24 has almost doubled since 1976 and is far higher than the corresponding figure for young women. The image of young men is now so poor that they are often presented in the popular media as a dubious risk as partners for young women. (O’Donnell and Sharpe, 2000: 1)

Similar lists may be found in other studies. The implication is that these apparently different indicators are signs of an underlying crisis. The fact that the focus is on young men suggests that we are dealing with a cohort or a generational issue and that, without some outside interventions, these effects are likely to reproduce themselves through subsequent generations.

The key points of concern are issues of health and education. There has been a growing set of issues about men’s health focusing not simply on specifically male conditions such as prostate cancer but, rather, on a wider range of concerns which are said to reflect both men’s life styles and the overall relationships between men, health, and their bodies (Sabo and Gordon, 1995). Life style issues include questions of risk-taking (accidents, sexually transmitted diseases, alcohol and drug abuse) while the more general issues concern men’s apparent unwillingness to seek medical advice. Much of this concern might be said to reflect long-standing practices of men which have only come to the fore as a consequence of this recent focus on men’s health. If these ‘symptoms’ represent a crisis, it is a crisis of long duration.

However, there are more specific health issues which might be more directly related to a sense of crisis. One example might be a recorded fivefold increase in liver failure among men in the last thirty years (Laurance, 2003), an increase that can be associated with heavy drinking. Concerns about ‘binge drinking’ among the young have grown in recent years, although the extent to which it can be attributed to a crisis in masculinity rather than a continuation of masculine practices in times of relative affluence is still an open question.

A more serious area of concern is rising suicide rates among young men. One recent article states: ‘Suicide is one of the principal causes of premature mortality in young adults in industrialised countries’ (Gunnell, Middleton, Whitley, Dorling, and Frankel, 2003). It notes a doubling in the rates for males aged 45 or under over the last fifty years, compared with declines recorded for women and older men. The concern is particularly with men in the younger age groups, especially those between 25 and 34. The authors note that these increases parallel increases in other well-documented risk factors, such as ‘unemployment, divorce, alcohol and drug abuse, and declines in marriage’ (p. 606). Several of these adverse trends are also highly correlated with each other. Concerns with suicide rates are not confined to Britain but may also be found in other parts of Europe and the United States (McDowell, 2003: 60).

The other main area of concern is education, more specifically the relative under-performance of boys at school as compared with girls. As with suicide and other health issues, these concerns are not confined to Britain but are manifested in many parts of Europe, Australia, and North America (Arnot, David, and Weiner, 1999; Connell, 2000; Epstein, Ellwood, Hey, and Maw, 1998; McDowell, 2003; Yates, 1997). In relation to the debate in Britain, the Guardian of 14 August, 2003 had the headline ‘Girls continue to outstrip boys in exams—and the gap is widening.’ Variations on this story (associated with the publication of A level results, the examinations which determine university entry to a large extent) have appeared regularly over the past few years (Arnot et al., 1999). Lower down the school years, we find boys continuing to under-perform in English, although the differences are less marked in maths and science. Looking at behaviour, boys are almost five times more likely than girls to be permanently excluded from school (Office for National Statistics, 2003: 58 and 59).

The apparent failure of boys, in relation to girls, at all levels of schooling is usually attributed to a rejection of academic or school-based values and a greater tendency to play around, have a laugh, or engage in various forms of anti-social behaviour with other boys. In terms of the overall model, the ultimate causes might be seen in terms of changes in the labour market, especially as they affect young working-class men. Reduced opportunities here contribute to an increasing sense of alienation from school, seen as having little relevance to life beyond school. Intervening between the wider economic structural changes and the individual responses on the part of boys are peer group pressures which stress that there is something uncool, unmasculine, or possibly homosexual about showing an interest in schoolwork. Some recent British research suggests that these attitudes and trends are now beginning to carry over into universities (Times Higher Education Supplement, 2003: 8).

In Britain, the popular term for the factors leading to educational failure and other symptoms has been ‘the new laddism.’ The phenomenon has been presented in magazines and television programmes as a positive endorsement of some of the practices of young men, including alcohol consumption, rejections of school or work-based values, sexism, and general ‘loutish behaviour. To some, this new laddism’ is part of an overall male backlash against the rising presence of women in many areas of social life and against feminism in particular.

In general, therefore, an exploration of these particular ‘symptoms’ (and of the various explanations given for them) fleshes out the tentative model presented in the previous section. We have some widespread and far-reaching structural changes in the areas of work and the family leading to a perceived, and possibly actual, loss of male power, especially for young men, who experience a loss of continuity over the generations. Alternatively, as some have suggested, the ‘male breadwinner’ ideology persists in times where it is of little relevance (Arnot et al., 1999: 125). The opportunities apparently open to previous generations in terms of steady employment and family building seem to be much more in question. A smooth transition to adulthood is no longer guaranteed. This loss of power, position, and identity leads to various forms of retreatism or aggression. Actual manifestations are under-performance at school, engagement in life-threatening activities, and, in some cases, suicide.

Some Critical Issues

There is a certain plausibility about the idea of a ‘crisis in masculinity.’ The focus on young men rather than men in general suggests that there is something about this specific point in time which brings about a particular dislocation between expectations and reality. What we appear to be witnessing is an over-determined phenomenon whereby a variety of trends and processes converge to produce a crisis or, at the very least, a sense of crisis. To slightly reformulate the argument, these points of convergence include:

  • Structural changes in work and employment which bear especially upon young men and their expectations. We may also point to changes in the family which equally appear to undermine previous expectations to do with fatherhood and the idea of the provider.
  • A series of responses and practices on the part of men, especially young men, which, while they have been part of men’s culture for some generations, seem less and less in tune with modern times. These would include peer groups and group solidarities most obviously manifested in the cultures of ‘the lads.’
  • Features associated with men and masculinity for some generations which seem to inhibit more positive responses on the part of men to the difficulties of late modernity. These would include an unwillingness to share or to articulate personal or emotional problems.

However, while the outline of the argument for the crisis of masculinity has a degree of plausibility there are also some reasons for scepticism. Without detracting from the seriousness of some of the elements in the argument, youthful suicides for example, the overall framework of understanding and interpretation can be questioned. The most obvious point of question is the one raised at the beginning of the chapter, namely, that despite all the public talk about such a crisis, men still maintain a dominant position in key political, military, economic, and religious institutions as well as in many areas of sport, media, and entertainment. Moreover, whatever questions might be made about the particular performances of such men, they are rarely assessed in terms of problems to do with their gendered identities.

Some of the limitations of the simple crisis model are instructive and require treatment in some more detail. The first is that the evidence is not always as straightforward or clear cut as it might seem. In the case of studies of young men, the individuals who might be supposed to be most ‘at risk’ are not necessarily so. For example, data from the British Household Panel Study of over 1,000 young people found lower levels of self-esteem and higher levels of ‘negative self-efficacy’ for girls as compared with boys (ESRC, 2002). Girls tended to report greater unhappiness and were more likely to get into ‘negative spirals’ in their adolescent years. Furthermore, there were no gender differences discovered for truancy and drinking, although boys were more likely to be involved in risky behaviour. A more qualitative study of boys in two different ‘deprived areas’ (where one might expect the ‘crisis’ thesis to be especially relevant) certainly found signs of opposition to school and uncertainties about the world of work, but also found a sense of masculinity combined with aspirations for domestic security (McDowell, 2003). Put another way, whatever problems these boys and young men encountered in the move from school to work (and these were often real and immediate), they could not be directly attributed to something called ‘the crisis of masculinity.’

In any event, there were often considerable overlaps between the experiences of young men and young women, the differences representing tendencies rather than clear-cut oppositions. For example, while attention has been focused on the suicide rates of young men, some countries, other than England and Wales, have also experienced rising rates for young women (Gunnell et al., 2003: 595). Within England and Wales, young women aged 15-24 years old have not experienced the overall decline in female suicide rates. At the very least, such counterindicators should advise a measure of caution in moving from suicide rates to some relatively global crisis of masculinity. Another area of overlap between boys and girls is in the area of ‘binge drinking’; indeed, the concern has recently been focused on the practices of young women, which may reflect the persistence of some more ‘traditional’ ideas about gender and alcohol.

There is also reason to have some reservations about some of the key points in the model to do with changes in work and working practices. One study called into question some of the more sweeping assumptions about the feminization of work (Bradley, Erickson, Stephenson, and Williams, 2000). The authors argue that it is possible to talk of feminization of the labour market (in that there are more women taking up jobs and more jobs open to women) but that occupations are becoming feminized only to a limited degree and work itself not at all. In other words, the labour market is still highly gendered and unequal, and there is still a close, if weakening, association between work and masculine identity. They conclude: ‘Structures of male power are remarkably resilient and the feminisation of the labour market does not amount to a female takeover’ (p. 91) For the school-leavers in McDowell’s study, the experience of work in itself (rather than the gendered character of any particular job) and the structure that it gave to the week often provided a basis for the construction of a sense of identity. Further, these young men still found themselves working with other men and to have male friends; few, if any, expressed any anxiety about their masculinity (McDowell, 2003).

I have argued that the idea of ‘crisis’ conveys, in part at least, a ‘sense of widespread social concern.’ However, we need to ask ‘whose concern?’ It cannot be automatically assumed that this sense of concern about the current state of masculinity is widely or evenly distributed throughout Western society. A glance at the newspapers or television news broadcasts would seem to suggest that many men, as they go about their daily business at international conferences, in corporate meetings, or on the sports field, are relatively secure in their position, as men, in the world. What we are talking about is a set of claims about a current crisis, claims which may or may not be justifiable but which do not necessarily reflect obvious and widespread concerns on a more day-to-day basis. To some extent, sociological analysis of ‘moral panics’ (Thompson, 1998), a social construction of areas of moral or political concern made by definable groups or individuals, may be more relevant here.

Turning away from more generalized notions of crisis to the crisis in or of masculinity, we need to ask to whom or to what does the word ‘crisis’ apply? In the first place, it could refer to individual men. Individual men may feel some sense of unease or uncertainty which is in some ways bound up with their sense of themselves as men. There may be increasing doubts as to what it means to be a man, how to behave as a man in particular situations, or whether particular gendered identities (such as being a father or a breadwinner) continue to have any significance or value. The idea of a crisis would seem to suggest that this sense of unease applies to individual men in sufficient numbers to justify the use of such a strong descriptive term. We have seen that there are some signs of individual unhappiness, although there is less evidence to suggest that the sum total of these individual experiences and practices constitutes a crisis, or that there is a more general, diffuse sense of gender panic on the part of men.

Second, the sense of crisis may be said to apply to ‘masculinity.’ This is itself a troublesome term and these troubles are only partially resolved by using the term in its plural form. We still need to ask whether this crisis applies to all the masculinities that are on offer or whether it is particularly associated with what Connell and others have identified as ‘hegemonic masculinities’ (Connell, 1987; 1995). Further, are we simply dealing with discourses about or representations of masculinity or, as McDowell suggests, ‘collective social practices’ (2003: 12)? While it can be argued that there is an increasing area of debate and contestation about the public representations of masculinities, there would seem to be less evidence of a crisis in terms of ‘collective social practices.’

Finally, we may be referring to a crisis of (or in) ‘patriarchy.’ Again, this is a problematic and much debated term but refers to what Bethan Benwell calls ‘masculinity as a power project,’ as distinct from masculinity as an ‘identity project’ (2003a). We are referring to sexual politics and gendered practices on the part of men (see Walby, 1990). Patriarchy is linked to masculinity, but there is also some degree of individual variation:

If there is a crisis or crises in masculinities, then patriarchy too must be under stress, and very likely severe stress…Once men begin to lose belief in their masculinity, then it is a sure sign that patriarchy itself is losing credibility. (O’Donnell and Sharpe, 2000: 89)

A crisis in patriarchy is something at a more institutional, possibly global, level and refers to the supposed erosion of the power of men across a wide range of institutions (Castells, 1997). In somewhat similar terms, Connell rejects the terminology of a ‘crisis of masculinity’ and refers to a crisis of the gender order as a whole (1995). Patriarchy is certainly under challenge; simply to use the word is to indicate that the sets of practices denoted by the term are no longer taken for granted. But it is by no means certain that this sense of debate and challenge has yet been transformed into a global crisis. Further, what evidence we have of a ‘crisis of masculinity’ does not necessarily signify a crisis in patriarchy; at least, not yet.

A further set of problems arises when the more complex relationships among gender, class, ethnicity, and nationality are considered. David Jackson writes of ‘gender absolutism,’ by which he means that gender is seen as a single or overwhelming influence on behaviour and attitudes (1998: 82). All the discussions of educational under-performance on the part of boys also emphasize that the issues are confounded by class and ethnicity, and these qualifications also apply when health issues are considered. Thus, the problem is rarely simply one of boys or young men; the focus is increasingly on young working-class men and, within this category in Britain, men from an Afro-Caribbean background. There is less evidence of a crisis among middle-class White boys who do not usually have to confront racism on a daily basis and who frequently have enough social and cultural capital to cope with changes in work and economic life. Similarly, there are national variations. Despite the concerns about British men and their health, they, in common with Swedish men, have experienced a rise in life expectancy which puts them near the top in terms of this index for most of Europe. However, these advantages seem to be concentrated amongst men in the higher socioeconomic groups (Laurance, 2003).

There are two conclusions that emerge from these particular findings. One is that if we are to continue to talk of a crisis of masculinity, we must recognize that the effects of this crisis are mediated by other social divisions, underlining the importance of talking about ‘masculinities’ rather than ‘masculinity.’ Men in different classes and racial ethnic groups may have quite different sets of life experiences and life chances, and so the crisis might be less evident among hegemonic men than among men who are more marginalized or subordinated. The other conclusion is that while there are some similarities in experiences across different countries, it would be difficult to talk about a ‘global’ crisis of masculinity. For perhaps the majority of men globally, issues of masculinity are probably even less likely to be seen as problematic than they are in parts of the more developed world. Put simply, they have more urgent matters to worry about than their masculine identity. There may be localized crises in other countries, about particular codes of honour or patterns of machismo in Latin American or Mediterranean cultures, for example. Constructions of masculinity do vary in different cultures, and while there is an increasing range of forces and pressures that have a global impact, the ways in which these interact with masculinities is likely to be very complex. Some of the simpler claims of a ‘crisis of masculinity’ might be guilty of adopting a somewhat over-gendered and probably ethnocentric view of the world.

A farther critical issue is the supposed novelty of the current ‘crisis.’ Michael Kimmel, in an influential article (1987), argued that masculinity has been constructed as being in crisis on at least two previous occasions, in Restoration England (1688-1714) and in the United States just prior to the First World War (1880-1914). In both historical contexts, there were concerns expressed about the attempts on the part of women to renegotiate their positions within marriage and within the wider society. In both periods, there were concerns about the alleged effeminacy of the nation’s manhood, and both were times of considerable economic and political upheaval. Prior to the First World War, Kimmel argues, there were three responses on the part of men to this sense of crisis: an anti-feminist backlash, an assertion of masculinity, and the development of a pro-feminist movement on the part of men.

Perhaps this argument cannot be taken too far. For one thing, these earlier concerns are about the supposed decline of masculinity and manliness and the need for the development of more moral fibre. More recent concerns, on the other hand, are in part about the dysfunctions inherent in the idea of masculinity itself or, at least, in more exaggerated versions of hyper-masculinity which emerge in response to social and economic changes. Further, these earlier ‘moral panics’ (if that is what they were) were even more confined to a limited section of society than the men who arouse the more recent anxieties. However, Kimmel’s argument serves as a reminder to question the claimed novelty of the crisis in masculinity.

Linked to this question about the supposed novelty of the crisis of masculinity is a wider one about the uses of history in social analysis. In talking about a crisis, some kind of comparison with the past is being implied. To talk of a crisis now or impending implies some relatively stable or steady state in the past. In much of the literature some distinction is usually made between ‘now’ and something called ‘traditional’ masculinity. For example, McDowell writes:

For young men in particular it is a difficult time to negotiate the transitions to adulthood and pathways to employment when traditional ways of becoming a man are increasingly less available. (2003: 4)

Similarly, Jonathan Rutherford writes:

In the age of the informational and service economy, certain traditional ways of being male, rooted in the industrial revolution, and its domestic division of labour, are becoming obsolete. (2003: 1)

The word ‘obsolete,’ frequently used in discussions of this kind, is significant, implying as it does some previous functional linkage between modes of masculinity and the wider economic, political, and social order. But there is also, frequently, a moral dimension as well. Stephen Whitehead and Frank Barrett, for example, refer to the ‘social and cultural disapproval of traditional masculinity’ (2001: 6).

Temporally, the comparison of the present with the past may refer to a long drawn-out crisis, usually beginning with the Industrial Revolution and continuing up to the present day. Confusingly, here, the word ‘traditional’ is used to refer to what others might call ‘modern.’ Alternatively, the crisis may refer to a somewhat shorter period, one usually associated with late modernity and beginning roughly somewhere in the period following the Second World War. At a more individual level, men may be making some kind of contrast with their parents’ or grandparents’ generations. Whatever the contrast, the notion of crisis clearly implies that ‘traditional’ or ‘conventional’ masculinity is increasingly coming into conflict with other changes in society, especially within the gender order. Such assumptions and usages of history are not necessarily wrong, but they are frequently, from a historical perspective, unexamined.

A final problem with the talk of the crisis of masculinity is that it is a construction from the outside, from an external observer or analyst. This problem has two aspects. First, it tends to present men as simply reacting to certain external stimuli, changes in the economy or in the family or in the gender order as a whole. Thus, while suicide may be one possible response to a set of interlinked changes in employment and family relationships, it is clear that it is only one response among several. There was one suicide in McDowell’s small sample of twenty-four boys, which means that the other twenty-three, with varying degrees of success, attempted to do the best with the limited resources available to them. In terms of gender politics, the development of hyper-masculinity or the expression of an anti-feminist backlash are only two of a range of possible responses, as Kimmel suggests in relation to his historical evidence.

Second, a model is drawn up as, among other things, an interpretative framework for certain trends in education and health, which takes little account of the actual perceptions or understandings of men or boys themselves. There is little evidence of men themselves talking about a crisis in terms of their identities as men. Expressed anxieties are to be found in terms of work and employment or possibly in men’s relationships with women or their futures as family men. There are expressions (say comparing present generations with earlier generations) which recognize that things are changing, but it is difficult to find any clear articulations of a sense of crisis on the part of men themselves. This might not conclusively discredit the whole idea. Part of the crisis, it may be argued, is that men often find it difficult to give expression to their deepest feelings, and these inabilities are themselves part of the crisis. Or, again, some understandings of masculinity inhibiting shared emotions may militate against any expression of apparent weakness. However, any deep exploration of the crisis of masculinity (rather than the difficulties faced by particular sets of individual men) must at some stage come to grips with men’s own understandings and constructions of the problem.


So, is there a crisis of masculinity? It might be useful to turn to some of the suggested distinctions at the beginning of this chapter that suggest ways of breaking down this question. In the first place, therefore, we are asking whether there is a crisis in masculinity, that is within particular groups of men or individual men. The evidence suggests that it is possible to talk about some sense of crisis here, one largely generated by changes within work and employment and, possibly, within the wider gender order, but one which is always mediated by class and ethnicity. The extent to which these problems reflect a wider crisis is open to question, however.

If we are talking about a crisis of masculinity, that is a crisis in the representations of and discourses around dominant or hegemonic masculinity, then the matter is less clear cut. Certain understandings of masculinity seem to have a long history and do not show clear signs of erosion; the idea of the man as ‘provider,’ for example. However, these continuities are less apparent in some countries (Norway, for example) and it would appear that certain constructions of masculinity to do with violence and aggression are increasingly under challenge. There would seem some sense that these manifestations are less acceptable and possibly even represent dysfunctional or obsolete forms of masculinity. Elsewhere, it is possible to see some beginnings of a critique of rationality and its association with a masculine construction of the world. At the very least, it could be argued that issues of masculinity are increasingly open to critical scrutiny. Further, it can be argued that there is an increasing sense of uncertainty about what it means to be a man. Older, more hegemonic constructions (of manliness, for example) no longer have the apparent certainty that they once did.

Whether all this amounts to a crisis in patriarchy is even more complex. Castells was probably correct in identifying certain more or less global changes that are having or will have an effect on the apparent solidity of patriarchal institutions, especially the family. More generally, a sense of crisis in and of masculinity must have some kind of effect on patriarchal structures themselves. However, it might also be argued that patriarchy is showing considerable resilience in responding to these trends and that new constructions of masculinity (global male elites, for example) might be taking place to redefine and rework patriarchal power. The patriarchal dividend may be smaller, less secure, and less widely available, but there is little doubt that it still exists. Indeed, it is possible that focus on some aspects of the crisis in masculinity may reinforce patriarchal institutions through an over-emphasis on the theme of ‘men as victims.’

There is little doubt that there is considerable talk about a crisis for men, at least some men, and within some versions of masculinity. But there is also a need to be much more precise and definite about the nature and character of the crisis and the links between its various manifestations. There is also a need to look beyond the concerns of North America or Europe and develop a more complex comparative analysis, sensitive to local meanings and experiences. Further, there is a continuing need to focus on the actions and perceptions of men and women themselves and the ways in which they seek to respond to and change the conditions of their own lives.