The Masculinity Problem

“Scholars who study masculinity and mass shootings have consistently drawn attention to the fact that mass shootings are not only a uniquely American social problem; they are a problem with American menWe’ve argued before that there are two questions that require explanation related to gender and mass shootings. First, why is it that men commit virtually all mass shootings? And second, why do American men commit mass shootings more than men anywhere else in the world?

Why is it men who commit mass shootings?

Social psychologists have a theory referred as “social identity threat” that has been studied across a wide range of contexts. The idea is pretty simple. Research demonstrates that if people feel that a part of their identity that they hold dear is being called into question, they are likely to respond with an exaggerated display of qualities associated with that identity.

Applied to gender, social scientists refer to this issue as “masculinity threat.” Men who have their masculinity called into question (or “threatened” to use the social psychological language) react in patterned ways. Research shows that they are more supportive of violence, less likely to accurately identify sexual coercion as such, and more likely to support statements about the inherent superiority of males, among other responses.

Research has also shown that men whose masculinity has been threatened are more likely to identify as Republican, supported sexually prejudiced statements about gay men, and more supportive of war as a solution to national disputes. They were even more likely to say that they wanted to purchase an SUV. When men’s masculinity is threatened, they don’t respond by backing down; they double down on masculinity and “overcompensate” to demonstrate just how manly they are.

The list of things that men turn to when they feel emasculated is quite revealing about what it means to be masculine in our society. Masculinity is associated with homophobia, sexism, misogyny, male supremacist ideals, and violence, and so men turn to those things in order to demonstrate their membership in the group.

Mass shootings follow a consistent pattern: The men who commit them have often experienced what they perceive as masculinity threats. They’re bullied by peers, gay-baited by classmates, and often perceive themselves as unable to live up to societal expectations associated with masculinity, such holding down a steady job, having sexual access to women’s bodies, or being tough or strong.

This does not suggest that men are somehow inherently, unavoidably more violent than women. But it does suggest that mass shootings need to be seen, in part, as enactments of masculinity.

Why do American men commit mass shootings more than men elsewhere?

Certainly men have their masculinity threatened in other societies as well. So why is it that American boys and men are so much more likely to respond to threats with such extreme forms of mass violence?

The answer is that American culture plays a role in supporting this kind of violence. Consider the sociocultural contexts in which these kinds of violent masculinities are produced and (sometimes) valorized. Men have been the beneficiaries of an extraordinary amount of privilege over the course of human history—white, heterosexual, able-bodied, educated, class-privileged, American men in particular. Now a great deal of progress has been made toward chipping some of that privilege away or, at the very least, publicly calling it into question. Gender inequality is alive and well today, but it is also true that men—as a group—have witnessed the gradual erosion of privileges previous generations of men took for granted. Sociologist Michael Kimmel suggests that this shift has produced a uniquely American sentiment among men that he refers to as “aggrieved entitlement.”

Many men still feel entitled to the forms of privilege their fathers, grandfathers, and great grandfathers cashed in on. And they are resentful of the fact that what they feel to be rightfully theirs feels like its slipping away. Neither we nor Kimmel are suggesting that feeling pissed off about these changes will always lead to mass shootings. Rather, mass shootings are simply an extremely violent example of a more general issue regarding shifts in relations between women and men and historical transformations in systems of social inequality.”

Bridges, Tristan and Tara Leigh Tober. 2017. “The Sociological Explanation for Why Men in America Turn to Gun Violence.” Quartz, October 7. Retrieved October 9, 2017 (https://qz.com/1095247/the-sociological-explanation-for-why-men-in-america-turn-to-gun-violence/). [From the section, “The Masculinity Problem.” Links in original. Emphasis added.]

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