Younger men rewrite the rules on masculinity

One young construction manager finds the 'dinosaurs' an embarrassment

Misty Harris, Canwest News Service
Published: Friday, September 05, 2008

From presidential chest-bumps to parliamentary hugging, politics is becoming a full-contact affair for the men in its ranks.

In recent months, such leading figures as George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Joe Biden and Liberal MPs Bob Rae and Michael Ignatieff have each been captured in public displays of affection, all of them with other males.

Increasingly physical greetings are in evidence in all professions, ages and back- grounds, and are part of what sociologists are calling a "major shift" in the ways modern men interpret masculinity and gender roles.

We're definitely seeing a swing in what it means to be masculine, and that (new) definition seems to be a broader one by which men are allowed to be more expressive and show greater intimacy and emotion than in the past," says Peter Nardi, an expert on male friendships. "I wouldn't say we're totally there yet, but compared to 20 or 30 years ago, it's a major shift."

In March, Rae raised conservative eyebrows with a House of Commons hug between himself and fellow MP Ignatieff, a former roommate and old friend. Two months later, U.S. President George W. Bush greeted an Air Force Academy cadet by bumping chests with him.

And U.S. senators and running mates Obama and Biden have done enough public hugging of late to lead the media to declare that "this year's Democratic ticket is bonding."

Add that to the open weeping of Canadian equestrian Eric Lamaze at the recent Olympics and it's easy to see how the trend could be mistaken for metrosexuality, Part 2.

The new masculinity, however, isn't all hearts, hugs and designer cream-rinse. If recent years have concentrated on the collision course between old and new ideals of masculinity - pitting the hairy men against the waxed, those with chewed fingernails against those with manicures - Nardi says we're starting to strike a balance between the two extremes.

"My sense of looking at college students is that this new generation of men is a little more flexible," says Nardi, a sociologist. "They're not sitting around in a cafe talking about their feelings, but they're much more willing to hug each other in camaraderie, and they do talk a little bit about their vulnerabilities and anxieties."

In the hit summer movie Pineapple Express, for example, the male leads can be seen holding hands and embracing one minute, then packing guns and breaking bones the next.

Toby Miller, a gender scholar at the University of California-Riverside, observes that even "the last refuge of male-separatist brawn - the Canadian hockey changing room - has reportedly become a site for swapping recipes and swooning over dining ambience."

Indeed, New Brunswick writer Chuck Brown, 37, says the burly men who whip out their false teeth before a hockey game are the same ones swapping cooking techniques in the locker-room afterward.

"They know what cumin is," says Brown of his teammates, laughing. "Maybe our combined life experience has made us more sensitive ... I mean, I wouldn't walk a Yorkie. I'm not ready for that yet. But I don't feel the need to flaunt any kind of macho masculinity."

On building sites, long a stronghold of catcalling and chauvinistic behaviour, attitudes are also evolving.

"To be a man means that you're true to your word, compassionate - which is a new thing, I think - honest, have lots of integrity, are helpful, and take care of your friends and your family," says Adam Strong, a 34-year-old construction manager and rockabilly band member from Calgary.

"There is still a good 50 to 60 per cent of men in the construction world that are dinosaurs, that are everything the stereotype says ... I find it embarrassing."

A new Canadian-led study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine finds the male notion of a "man's man" is someone who is responsible, honourable and a devoted partner.

Other research suggests there is still work to be done in uniting old and new notions of masculinity. A study to be published in a future edition of the Journal of Sex Research, for example, finds fully half of young men are experiencing at least one set of conflicting messages about such issues as gender equality and whether it's better to be a tough guy or a nice guy.

And in Guyland, a new book based on a study of 400 males ages 16 to 26, sociologist Michael Kimmel notes that despite the seismic changes to the ways in which men behave, many are still confused when it comes to simple matters of gender interaction.

"Forty years of this kind of conversation and we're still wondering if it's OK to hold the door open for a woman," says Kimmel, a professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. "Of course you can, as long as you don't think it entitles you to anything else."