The proper man

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2019-11-19 Ilona Mikkonen

In recent years, gender, especially gender stereotypes and the narrowness of the roles they offer for people, have entered the public discourse in Finland. This discussion has, of course, been very welcome, and will hopefully continue. Unfortunately, though, this discourse often focuses solely on the gender-related expectations placed on women, overlooking the fact that gender stereotypes and role models concern us all, regardless whether we identify as men, women and non-binary. However, it could be reasonably argued that, in the contemporary Finnish culture, the “rules” and models for proper "masculine" behavior that men have to adhere to, are in many ways narrower than those available for women.

Hence, this blog, written to celebrate the national Men’s Day, specifically explores the expectations in our culture for men and boys, first by disucussing their content, and then moving on to describe the ways in which they are created and re-created in our daily behavior and speech. We also highlight the ways in which the tight limits of the “real-masculinity” stereotype can negatively affect the life of an ordinary individual Finnish boy or a man. Finally, we suggest way in which we could start doing things differently, so that none of us, regardless our sex or gender, would have to limit ourselves to the rigid gendered expectations concerning, for instance, our physical appearances, our hobbies and careers, or expression of feelings.
 
Simply put, the traditional, binary gender-system is based on the assumption that men and women are fundamentally different, to the extent of diving us into distinct “sub-species”. Of course, biology does determine many physical differences between sexes, such as height and physical strength, but even these differences are not as blatant as we often led to believe; for instance, while men are, on average, taller than women, it does not mean that every single man is taller than every single woman. All of us can confirm this based on our personal, daily observations.
 
Despite this, we have a strong tendency to assume that in addition to physical differences, men and women differ, biologically, also in many mental and psychological features, such as social or cognitive abilities. Compared to women, the argument goes, men naturally have poor social capabilities, but are far superior in mental abilities, such as mathematic aptitude or logic. There is ample research evidence to indicate this is a crude simplification [i], and that the differences we perceive in adult men and women often have more to do with nurture that nature. To paraphrase the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, one is not born, but rather becomes, a man [ii].
 
Regardless, the consequences of these incorrect beliefs on people's lives are very real. We treat all men, whether baby or a grandpa, according to our erronous beliefs. If a man does not, in fact, live in the way we think he is supposed to, we punish him; through this negative enforcement, we teach him to follow the rules and behave in a “correct” manner. In doing so, we actually create the reality that we assume.
 
According to Michael Kimmell, an American masculinity scholar, there are four basic rules to the blueprit of manhood, i.e. socially acceptable masculinity, in the Western culture [iii]:

No sissy stuff. A man should never do anything that even remotely hints of femininity or, even worse, homosexuality.

Be a big wheel. As a culture, we measure masculinity by the size of a man’s paycheck, wealth, power and status.

Be a sturdy oak. This quality of manhood is demonstrated by never showing one’s emotions.

Give ‘em hell. “Always go forward, exude an aura of daring and aggression in everything that you do”. In other words, one can, and should, express one emotion, aggression, in every context, including home and work. 

As a society, we typically start teaching the rules to a boys as soon as they are born. As soon as we determine the kind of genital the baby has, we start raising boys and girls differently. Academic research has found that even as infants, boys are talked to differently form girls, both in quality and quantity; a baby boy’s cries are not responded to as quickly, and parents simply do not talk to them as much. Thus, from the very beginning of their lives, boys are being taught that it is pointless to express their emotional needs or feelings, and that they have to be responsible for themselves.
 
Of course, this coaching toward professedly gender-appropriate behavior continues throughout boys’ childhood and adolescence. Boys are dressed in blue clothing displaying big vehicles or heavy machinery (e.g .trains, planes, tractors), or the adventures of powerful superheroes. Boys are encouraged to engage in physical play and be competitive. Boys are also praised mainly for their physical and intellectual performance and accomplishments.
 
And after we teach boys and men all this, we often turn around and blame and scold Finnish men for not "talking or kissing". But how could they, as they themselves have not been talked to or kissed! In fact, talking and kissing may even have carried social penalties, such as mockery and belittling, possibly in all of their social contexts: home, friendships, school, and even the workplace. 
 
What kind of challenging, even traumatic, experiences can these lessons of “proper” masculinity lead to for an individual man or a boy? Here are a few possible examples:

For the daycare costume-party, a little boy would like to dress up his personal hero, Elisa from Frozen. In the worst case, he may face ire, disdain, or ridicule, possibly from his own parents, but also from other significant adults (such as kindergarten teachers), or from his peers. The boy learns that impersonating a female characters is wrong and shameful, and never asks to wear in ways in which are considered feminine. And he will not watch Frozen again, even though before the experience it was his favorite movie.

A young man fresh out of high school does not want to enter military service, as it is stark contrast to his pacifist worldview. Family and friends pressuring him, because, after all, a Finnish man must want to! If he does not, the stigma may follow him throughout his life; when interviewing for jobs, he has to explain and defend his choice to refuse military service, and during boy’s nights he is a butt of mean jokes. He considers it distressing, to the point he starts avoiding about all the situations in which military service could possibly come up, thus narrowing his social life. 

A homosexual man repeatedly sees TV sketch shows, in which a straight actor mocks his sexual orientation. This forces him to question himself; is this character me? If it is, should I be ashamed? Am I the lisping, effeminate queen, ad if I’m not, what are the alternatives – do I the right to discard the caricature, and be the masculine man that I am?

A middle-aged operator of a heavy-duty vehicle is a gentle man, who loves to garden. But at work he cannot be himself at work because, as at the construction site he’s require to fit in the tough-guy role. Therefore, he turns into another person when at work; one who either keeps quiet, or, alternatively, laughs loudly at the greasy jokes told in the break room. He does not tell anyone about his hobbies, which ensure the possible friendships he could form remain superficial. However, pretending to be another person for hours each day is a heavy mental burden, and soon starts taking its toll. Gradually, this begins to affect his well-being and performance at work.
 
In 2018, the government concluded that the greatest security threat Finland faces is the wide-scale social exclusion of young men. At the time, Anneli Taina, the leader of the task force set up by the Ministry of Interior, stated that this exclusion was visible in many statistics, particularly in the number of school drop-outs, increase in violent crimes, and increased rate of substance abuse. For older Finnish men, the risk of social exclusion increases significantly as a result of divorce, 70% of which are initiated by the wife. The man often ends up alone, as his wife was also his best friend, their shared friend turn out to be her friend, and he cannot talk to the friends he still about his problems, especially his feelings of hurt. But what if a more wide-range of emotional expression was acceptable to men as well as women? What if boys were encouraged to develop their social skills, and voice feelings other than aggression? By doing so, would it be possible to reduce the emotional distress and agony that are often channeled through physical violence, or self-medication with alcohol? Could it even be possible to save marriages?
 
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Problems related to harmful gender-stereotypes are structural in nature, meaning that they are deeply rooted in our ways of thinking, acting and speaking. We adopt these the gendered assumptions as a child, reproduce them in our own lives, and then pass them on to the next generation. Structural problems are often perceived as very difficult to correct, and in many ways they are. But on the other hand, we can all work, in our daily lives, towards changing our patterns of thinking and talking. Educators, both parents and those working with children and adolescents, have a forum to make difference simply by behaving and talking differently. But so can everyone, in their families, in their circles of friends, and at work.
 
To honor the national Men's Day, the Espoo Equality Committee states, that each of us deserves to be seen accepted as an individual, not as a representative of our gender. Every man has the right to assume the traditional male gender-role, of course, but he is by no means required to. A man and a boy are allowed to be and do everything that women and girls are allowed to be and do. For example: they are allowed to be caring and sensitive. They get to cry and ask for help. They can enjoy horse riding and gymnastics. They can wear a skirt and make-up. They can express their feelings and talk about their feelings. And it is the responsibility of all of us to work to make this better possible world a reality.

Dr. Ilona Mikkonen
Senior Lecturer
Aalto University School of Business
Department of Marketing

[i] Eckert, P. and McConnell-Ginet, S., 2013. Language and gender. Cambridge University Press.

[ii] De Beauvoir, Simone. Le deuxième sexe. Vintage, 1989.

[iii] Kimmel, Michael. 1998. Interview. No Safe Place: Violence against Women. PBS March 27, 1998. Television.