Ideals and norms still dictate relatively narrow norms of what masculinity is and what ‘a real man’ is. But changes are happening, and KVINFO is keeping an eye on them – and they benefit men and everyone else.

A narrow ideal of masculinity has long dominated, and if you ask what a ‘real man’ is, words like strong and powerful will come to mind.

The Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell put this into words as early as 1995 with her formulation of the theory of hegemonic masculinity, i.e. that the notion of one single masculinity has taken over.

Although Connell’s theory of hegemonic masculinity is a dynamic concept that involves variation according to context, the concept has often been attributed to a number of specific characteristics such as: Heterosexuality, job status, pay, control and oppression of women by virtue of a affiliation with patriarchal culture.

But changes are happening. The research has expanded both its focus and its toolbox for the understanding that one can be a man in many ways, and Connell’s famous theory has been both criticised and revised.

Critiquing masculinity norms – not men

Research and discussions of masculinity should not be understood as criticism of either a specific man or of men in general. Both discussions and research examine traditional and built-in notions of what men should and must do and what role they have in society – and then also look at how ideals and norms affect everyone, not just men.

Toxic norms

When some researchers and debaters talk about toxic masculinity – a form of masculinity characterized, among other things, by misogyny and homophobia – these are not men who are ‘toxic’, but rather specific masculinity norms.

These norms are also toxic to the men themselves because they maintain men in restrictive roles and behaviors that make it difficult for them to act differently and seek other paths that deviate from the norms of what ‘a real man’ should be.

Men on top and at the bottom

In these years, researchers are widening the scope of work describing and understanding men’s lives and identities. This is partly because the hegemonic theory of masculinity cannot explain why men are both overrepresented at the top of society but also at the bottom.

Far more men than women, for example, are homeless in Denmark, just as men more often than women commit suicide.

Winners and losers

Back in the 1990s, the historian Hans Bonde described men as ‘the extreme gender’ and spoke somewhat polemically about so-called winner men and loser men.

These positions cannot be adequately explained by the hegemonic theory of masculinity, and although Bonde’s interpretation does not resonate with all gender researchers, new masculinity research is working to find more tools to better uncover and understand the different positions and circumstances of men.


Including more factors than just gender

At Aalborg University’s Department of Sociology and Social Work, Professor Ann-Dorte Christensen, argues that masculinity research should be intersectional, just as a large part of gender research is in general.

The intersectional approach involves other factors such as class, age, social status, race, and ethnicity – and not just gender identities. In this way, research can examine several of the factors that influence and determine men’s lives and ways of identifying themselves.

Dismantle stereotypes

At Aalborg University the Center for Masculinity Research, CeMAS, is working to create a better understanding of the current societal problems associated with men.

The issues ranges widely from homelessness and suicide to the more general, such as inequality in education level and and educational choices.

At the same time, CeMAS focuses on dismantling the stereotypical understandings of masculinity that limit both men and women. That is, not to problematize men, but to examine and dismantle problematic ideals and norms.

This part of the research into masculinity is often used to push for broader and more inclusive norms and ideals, because the current stereotypical male ideals are proving to create unrealistic expectations and demands on men and have a limiting effect.

Nostalgic masculinity

In connection with the #MeToo movement in Denmark, among others, the Danish gender researcher Christian Groes has used the term ‘nostalgic masculinity’. It is an expression of an attempt to hold on to old ideals, both because there are no explicit new ideals to embrace to take their place, and because the #MeToo movement challenges the privileges associated with the idea that men are and must be powerful.

According to Groes, ‘nostalgically masculine’ men, with their rejection of #MeToo, show that they themselves are challenged and that they perceive both the movement and the discussion of masculinities as an attack on men as a gender and as human beings.

“These men do not know at all where to find their self-esteem and how to find meaning in their lives as gendered beings when the old gender roles collapse. Their responses to the debate are therefore typically very emotional, and they often try to ridicule the movement [#MeToo, ed.]. In the most violent examples I have come across, it becomes clear that some of these men feel that it is the male gender itself that is under attack, ”Groes told KVINFO in 2017.

The head of the family on painkillers

Internationally and, for example, in the Middle East and North Africa, discussions about masculinity are also in full swing.

In 2017, a report by the international organisation Promundo showed that in Morocco, Palestine, Egypt and Lebanon, men have a very short job description to fulfill the ideal of being a ‘real’ man: They must take care of the family and be the head of the household.

The same report tells the story of Egyptian men who work 14 hours a day on painkillers to make ends meet – and to live up to their own and others’ demands and ideals.

The narrow understandings of masculinity have consequences, not least when men are also pressured by distressed finances personally or in society – or by living as migrants.

Male refugees are experiencing a so-called ‘de-masculinisation’ because they can not meet the demands from themselves and the surrounding communities, says Lebanese Suhail Abualsameed, who works as a gender expert for international organisations. And it affects both the men themselves and the people and society around them negatively:

“The conditions they live under mean that they can not be the men they want to be. Some have been recruited into militias, into the army, taken prisoner, subjected to violence or rape and suffer from an extreme taboo around sexual assault on men. Others have lost their homes and their jobs and cannot find new ones in the new situation they find themselves in. They are hurt and are starting to hurt others, ”Abualsameed told KVINFO in 2018.

KVINFO’s work with masculinity

Around the world, many aspects of society are characterised by narrow masculinity norms. In the work on gender and equality, the question of ideals of masculinity plays an increasingly clear role, because it is central to being able to work for a free and equal society. Quite briefly and somewhat simplified, one can say that narrow masculinity norms – and especially toxic ones – stand in the way of equality no matter what gender one has.

Masculinity and understandings of and ideals of being a man are recurring elements in large parts of KVINFO’s international work.

Masculinity across borders

KVINFO’s work with Ahel in Jordan is funded by the Novo Nordisk Foundation and the Danish-Arab Partnership Programme (DAPP) under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The work in Lebanon with ABAAD is funded by the Novo Nordisk Foundation.

Read more about KVINFO’s international work at this link.

In Jordan, KVINFO’s partner organisation Ahel works with awareness training, which strengthens participants in challenging stereotypical and toxic gender roles and masculinities. This is especially done in parts of Jordan, which are characterised by poor finances and job opportunities. The work is about the participants being able to create improvements in their own communities, whether they are refugees or Jordanians – and that they create changes that are for everyone and do not repeat known obstacles that are rooted in stereotypical understanding of gender.

In Lebanon, KVINFO’s partner ABAAD works with men and boys in the organisation’s Men’s Center. The users are both perpetrators who have conducted violence against, for example, their partner, and persons who themselves may be at risk of being exposed to violence. The work uses discussions about masculinity as a tool to train participants in using solutions other than violence when they are in a difficult situation.

Also in Denmark, KVINFO works with masculinity. This happens not least in connection with Men’s International Day, which is 19 November and which KVINFO marks every year.

In addition, KVINFO gathers and disseminates knowledge and research into norms and ideals for masculinity and how they affect men’s lives and society in general. This work takes place, for example, together with the Men’s Health Society, Denmark.