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USF “manhood” study sparks worldwide debate

TAMPA, Fla. -- “Masculinity, a Delicate Flower”, one headline announced. “It's official: Men hate household chores”, the Times of India exclaimed.

”Males act hostile when asked to do dishes,” announced in yet another -- albeit somewhat puzzling -- take in what has become a worldwide cacophony of opinion over the latest publication from University of South Florida psychology faculty members Jennifer Bosson and Joseph Vandello.

Their studies on how gender roles can be challenged and defended, undoubtedly, touched a nerve. But behind the headlines is a serious and fascinating look at what it means to be a modern man and what happens when manhood is challenged.

Bosson and Vandello study socially-shared beliefs about gender, and how gender-related traits are shaped, bent and at times broken. They had gone about their serious work in relative quiet until recent weeks, when an article in Current Directions in Psychological Science had the headlines atwitter.

With scores of publications across the globe seizing on their work, their e-mail inboxes have been flooded with comments. Many objecting to the research as a waste of money (it actually didn’t cost taxpayers anything and the participants in the study were USF psychology students) or challenging the notion that men reinforce their gender status with fists of fury.

Modern men -- from the “Jersey Shore” gym-tan-laundry guys to the post-modernist male feminist -- defend against threats to their traditional notions of manhood with aggression. And as it turns out, it doesn’t take much to rattle their sense of studliness -- something as benign as asking men to braid hair will do it.

The researchers found that situational and cultural factors that remind men of the precariousness of manhood also increase the likelihood of male aggression.

Parts of their studies have involved an experiment in which men were asked to braid hair while a control group braided rope. After the task, the two groups were offered a choice of punching a bag or solving a puzzle. The men who braided hair were more likely to want to punch a bag and they punched harder than the rope braiders.

The scientists’ conclusion: Men who felt their masculinity was threatened by partaking in a traditionally feminine activity sought to reestablish their masculinity with aggression. Anyone who has ever seen a guy pick a bar fight can see the logic.

“We’ve gotten a lot of comments from men who say, ‘I’m not that way; I’m not that Neanderthal,’” Bosson said. “The most liberal, non-homophobic men in our studies were just as uncomfortable braiding hair as those who hold very traditional beliefs about gender roles. Men’s anxiety about violating the male gender role is almost like a classically conditioned response. People have no control over it.”

Curious as this precarious manhood may be, there are also serious implications to those challenges, the two psychologists note.

Vandello studies aggression and the connection between aggressive behavior and male gender identity, exploring what occurs behind explosive incidents of violence. Bar brawls which turn deadly, a perceived slight that ends with someone returning with a gun. Innocent victims get caught in the crossfire.

Bosson studies what she calls “gender role violators” -- people who step outside the traditional notions of what it means to be a man or a woman, and why people are less uncomfortable when women take on more traditional male traits than when men adopt more feminine behaviors. She also explores the mental health aspects of rigid gender roles, such as why men are less likely to seek medical attention for problems such as eating and anxiety disorders, which are often viewed as women’s health issues.

“We are not saying anything that other people haven’t already said,” Bosson said. “What’s different is we’ve used the test of social psychology to test these theories.”

The two have collaborated for more than five years, with Bosson bringing her now much talked-about hair braiding experiments to USF.

Why hair braiding? Because hairstyling is something uniquely feminine that can be translated into a non-gender specific activity such as rope braiding. It’s also a relatively inexpensive way to conduct research without having to rely on complex, costly equipment, Bosson said. To push their comfort level, Bosson has the men braid very girly-wigs and work with frilly pink combs and brushes.

“I’ve used it in six studies and it works really well because men hate it,” Bosson said.

Vandello said every culture has tests of manhood: from ancient rituals and feats of strength to hunting challenges. But once manhood was established, it wasn’t something that could be taken away. The same is true for young women, whose status is established by physical maturation as they enter their child-bearing years.

But modern times have changed for men: those rituals have often fallen by the wayside and their traditional status -- particularly as women advance in education and earning power -- isn’t as solid as it was before, he said. Women, who may feel invisible in the culture because of infertility, age, weight or lack of physical attractiveness, might feel judged, but don’t lose their status of women just because they don’t fit a physical ideal.

“You can’t talk about manhood without talking about womanhood as well,” Vandello said. “In American culture, women have become more masculine. Men have not become more feminine. Men are still at a place where they are wrestling with those changes.”

The two are continuing their look at people being pushed outside traditional gender roles in relevant new ways. One project has looked at how men and women who lost their jobs in the recession have coped, finding that while both unemployed men and women have suffered from depression, anxiety and low self-esteem the men were more worried about others seeing them as failed providers than the women.

So is aggression the answer to making men feel good about themselves? Not really.

Interestingly, in their studies they have shown when men were offered alternatives to violence that were typically male -- say shooting hoops -- they happily opted for the less violent alternative, the researchers noted. The story doesn’t always have to end like another episode of “Jersey Shore”, they noted.

“What we need in our culture is another alternative to The Situation’s notions of masculinity,” Vandello said.


Filed under:Arts and Sciences Psychology School of Social Sciences Research  
Author: Vickie Chachere