Are You a “Real Man”? How Men Earn and Prove Manhood Status

Of course, formal manhood rituals are rare in industrialized nations such as the U.S. We therefore wondered whether residents of the U.S. would espouse the belief that manhood, relative to womanhood, is an elusive status that must be achieved. To answer this question, we asked U.S. college students to indicate the extent to which they liked, agreed with, and understood a series of proverbs that contained several statements about the transition from childhood to adulthood, embedded within a number of common proverbs that were irrelevant to our research interests (Vandello, Bosson, Cohen, Burnaford, & Weaver, 2008). For half of the participants in the study, the critical proverbs pertained to elusive manhood (e.g., “A boy must earn his right to be called a man,” “It is a rocky road from boy to man”), and for the other half, they pertained to elusive womanhood (e.g., “A girl must earn her right to be called a woman,” “It is a rocky road from girl to woman”). Regardless of their gender, participants liked, agreed with, and understood the proverbs about elusive manhood more than those about elusive womanhood.

We also examined people’s beliefs about the underlying causes of the transition from childhood to adulthood. If people view manhood as an achieved status, then they should report that social factors play a larger role than biological factors in the transition from boyhood to manhood. U.S. college students rated their agreement with two statements about either manhood or womanhood: “The transition from boyhood [girlhood] to manhood [womanhood] occurs because of something physical (e.g., hormonal changes),” and “The transition from boyhood [girlhood] to manhood [womanhood] occurs because of something social (e.g., passing social milestones).” As expected, participants viewed manhood as caused more by social changes than biological changes. Moreover, they attributed the transition to manhood to more social causes than the transition to womanhood. Together, these findings supported the first component of our precarious manhood hypothesis, that manhood is considered more elusive than womanhood.

Manhood as Tenuous

Next, we turned our attention to the second component of precarious manhood, the belief that manhood can be lost more easily than womanhood. We presented U.S. college students with an ambiguous statement that was ostensibly extracted from a longer, autobiographical account (Vandello et al., 2008). Half of participants read: “My life isn’t what I expected it would be. I used to be a man. Now I’m not a man anymore.” The other half read: “My life isn’t what I expected it would be. I used to be a woman. Now I’m not a woman anymore.” After reading the statements, participants wrote down their interpretation of what the author meant, and they rated how difficult it was to interpret the author’s words. We coded participants’ interpretations for social versus physical content. For example, a statement such as “She is old and can’t do the things she used to” was coded as physical, whereas a statement such as “He failed at something important” was coded as social. Consistent with the idea that manhood can be lost via social shortcomings, almost 50% of people’s interpretations of lost manhood reflected social failures (e.g., job loss, inability to support a family), and only 11% reflected physical themes (e.g., old age, sexual reassignment surgery). The reverse pattern emerged in people’s interpretations of lost womanhood: Whereas almost 50% of their interpretations reflected physical changes, only 30% reflected social themes. Moreover, people indicated that it was much more difficult to interpret statements about lost womanhood than about lost manhood, indicating that themes of lost manhood are relatively more familiar and understandable to most people.

Still, are there at least some domains in which womanhood can be lost? The domain of parenting seems like a viable candidate. According to the motherhood mandate (Russo, 1976), the expectation that women will bear and raise children spans both historical eras and cultural boundaries. Thus, we wondered whether a woman who does not bear children will lose womanhood in other people’s eyes in the same manner that a man can lose manhood.

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