Fragile Masculinity: Here’s Why It’s Such a Problem

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Fragile masculinity is defined as “the anxiety felt by men who believe they are falling short of the cultural standards of manhood”. This anxiety is proven to lead to overcompensation in an attempt to prove one’s gender, which often results in an aggressive response.

Where Does It Come From?

Fragile masculinity stems from insecurity in a person’s manhood. This develops based on the images of masculinity that vary with culture. However, there generally seems to be a universal thought that men the ‘manly men’ are aggressive and physically dominant.

Photo by Damir Spanic on Unsplash

Patriarchy tells us that men are superior but it does this from an almost inverted perspective. Society and culture don’t tend to focus on claiming that ‘men are better’ but it does functionally perpetuate the claim that ‘women are worse’. We tend to focus on the things that women are “bad” at

  • “Women can’t do sports”
  • “Women are too emotional to run countries”
  • “Women aren’t smart enough to be inventors”

By doing this, women are pushed into an inferior social position. As a result, men are the superiors, but not necessarily by nature.

Males are expected to earn and then maintain their status as “real men”. Masculinity is earned, not given. It’s a status symbol of dominance. There are certain behaviours, characteristics and traits that men are told to express and possess for them to be seen as “real men”.

What Is Fragile Masculinity?

Fragile masculinity is directly connected to the male power fantasy. This image is what men idolise. The strong man. Biceps. Triceps. Quadriceps. All the -ceps. With money and racks of designer suits. This is the image that men think women want. However, this is actually just what men want. This is the sort of person that men look up to – that they idolise – because they see it as the pinnacle of how a man should look. But this image of masculinity doesn’t make a “real man” and it’s certainly not what women are generally attracted to.

Yes – many women may find this image attractive. The point is this: fragile masculinity only comes about when men are performing for other men, not women.

Tony Porter describes the “Man Box“. The Man Box is all the things society claims is a man. Fragile men find validation of their gender identity externally. It’s not based on their own thoughts and feelings but is based on the opinions of others. This means that (generally), “manliness” is simply performative. Many men (not all) possess these traits simply for the validation of other men.

A Call to Men – Tony Porter

Fragile Masculinity and Misogyny

A part of this is misogyny. Toxic masculinity is the belief that “real men” must be strong, tough and independent. Toxic masculinity encompasses the social ideals of masculinity that are pushed to force the image of a ‘real man’. Essentially, these are society’s patriarchal rules of manhood.

A big part of this is misogyny. Since masculinity is earned, men have to dissociate themselves from all feminine traits. This causes misogyny. The most fragile men will use misogyny to elevate themselves above women. So fragile masculinity often involves violence towards women, aggression, degradation and abuse. If a man’s manhood were dependent on the female gaze, violence and aggression wouldn’t be the most common responses to invalidation.

Fragile masculinity doesn’t actually make a man appear more masculine in any way shape or form. It’s entirely transparent. Both women and secure men see right throught it. It just makes him look insecure. Masculinity is not negative, but fragile masculinity harms people.

Men with fragile masculinity are looking to secure their superiority and they won’t do so by considering the perspective of the inferior class (women) but by the superior class (men) that they consider their peers.

Where Can We See Fragile Masculinity?

Napoleon Complex

Have you ever told a guy he was short or implied he was short or just simply been taller than him? Did he instantly try and prove he was 6ft because he just happened to check the other day? Did he go so far as to demean you because “it’s not my fault that you’re a giraffe-shaped b*tch” or something like that?

Well, this is the Napoleon Complex.

I assume most people have seen this in action at some point. Short men will act more aggressively to make up for what they lack in height. It’s also known as ‘short man syndrome’ or ‘little man syndrome’. It’s always that one guy in the group who’s about 5’6”-5’10” that also just so happens to have the shortest fuse and the biggest ego.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with short guys. There is a problematic standard that men are more attractive when they are taller. This standard comes from men. They developed the patriarchy by stating that men have to be bigger than their wives so that they can protect them. Many women find taller men more attractive because it makes them feel more feminine. In turn, men prefer shorter women because it makes them feel more masculine. It’s also easier for them to assert dominance in a relationship.

So shorter men tend to be far more aggressive and defensive in all social environments. This issue stems from social insecurity.

Fun fact: Napoleon wasn’t actually that short! He was 5′ 7″.

Are Younger Men More Aggressive?

Similarly, Adam Stanaland did a study at Duke University into the views and attitudes of 195 students and a random group of men. They were all aged between 18 and 56 and the study focused on their views on manliness and their responses to certain questions and scenarios. The study showed that younger men (aged 18-29) are far more likely to show aggression when their gender is threatened.

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Photo by Chris Chow on Unsplash

Stanaland commented “men report aggressive behaviour in all sorts of domains. Some of them are trying to prove their own manhood by being aggressive”. Stanaland found that younger men, who’s sense of self relies on other people’s opinions, were more likely to show hostile behaviour. The study also identifies how fragile masculinity may be able to explain men’s violence, political aggression, men’s violence towards women and more: ‘When those [insecure] men feel that they are not living up to strict gender norms, they may feel the need to act aggressively to prove their manhood – to be a man’.

“When those [insecure] men feel that they are not living up to strict gender norms, they may feel the need to act aggressively to prove their manhood – to be a man.”

Adam Stanaland

How Do You Know If Your Masculinity Is Fragile?

There are a number of ways to tell. There are many tell-tale signs that men can use to point in themselves when they are exhibiting fragile masculinity. Here’s a few examples:

  • If you cannot hug or touch or compliment another man without saying “no homo”, you have fragile masculinity.
  • If you feel the need to be the biggest, strongest, smartest person in the room, you have fragile masculinity.
  • If you are uncomfortable in discussions about the issues women face, you have fragile masculinity.
  • If you call women ‘bitches’, you have fragile masculinity.
  • If you are offended or insecure when a women achieves more than you, you have fragile masculinity.
  • If you immediately jump to defend men when people are talking about women’s issues, you have fragile masculinity.
  • If you are unable to show emotion in front of other men, you have fragile masculinity.
  • If you are uncomfortable when others show emotion, you have fragile masculinity.
  • If you are uncomfortable around gay men or when a gay men compliments you, you have fragile masculinity.
  • If you assume that feminists hate men, you have fragile masculinity.

READ: Not All Masculinity is fragile: How to Tell if Yours Might be Precious by Crystal Jackson

Women’s Experiences Facing Men With Fragile Masculinity

Should Women Be More Polite to Men?

Usually, women can see fragile masculinity from a mile away. It’s painfully obvious and we tend to see right through it because it’s instantly unappealing. Some women test for it. There are certain social practices that me and my friends often engage in. For example, when a man compliments us we never say “thank you”. We just agree with them. The responses can really be something…

Guy: You’re kinda cute y’know
Me: I know
Guy: I mean no you aren’t
Guy: Your hair is beautiful
Friend: Yes, it is
Guy: No you look dusty
Guy: That dress was immaculate
Friend: It was
Guy: You looked fat though
Guy: Them lips look real nice
Friend: I know. It’s Fenty
Guy: Wait your lips look disgusting

Most guys naturally expect a “thank you” or some expression of gratitude. Many question our actions by saying “it’s polite to say thank you” or “he’s just being nice”. Well, if he’s just being nice then he won’t be bothered if we don’t turn and say thank you. If he’s just being nice, then he won’t expect something in return. If he is just being nice, then his compliment is much appreciate but that doesn’t mean we owe him anything. We’ve all heard the boring clichénice guys finish last“. They don’t but it’s a shining example of fragile masculinity to say they do.

Men tend to expect something in return. A phone number or a date when they compliment women. and when they don’t get the response that they wanted, they ‘take it back’. Fragile masculinity will make them do whatever they can to win back the upper hand. They’ll throw insults and slurs and verbal abuse at you – at the very least. Of course, it gets a lot worse for a lot of women.

Men are often also insecure in other aspects of their identity. Commonly, their sexual orientation. On one occasion my friend and I were looking after her baby cousin. Her older brother refused to hold his own baby cousin’s hand because “it’s gay to hold hands with a guy”. There are so many things that are wrong with this. One of the most glaringly obvious issues being the fact that his immediate response to physical contact with a baby is “what if people think I’m attracted to him”. There’s also the blatant homophobia, which tends to play a big role in fragile masculinity.

Violence Against Women

Lakeeya Walker, while seven weeks pregnant, was violently attacked by Darryl Guillyard after she didn’t thank him for holding a door open for her. (If you just thought “well she could’ve just said thank you”, you might have fragile masculinity and if you don’t you definitely need to reflect on your instinctive responses to violence against women.) Guillyard threw hot coffee in her face; repeatedly punched her in the stomach and neck, whilst telling her to “suck his dick” and that he’d “kick that baby out your womb”.

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Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

I recently saw a news story about a girl that had a similar experience. When she was in high school, a boy in her class had invited her to his house by claiming he was depressed and “needed a friend”. He lied and actually intended to assault her. He did this because she corrected him in their lesson the day before. Because of his fragile masculinity – his own insecurities – she suffered. Would he still have done this if it was a boy that corrected him? Would he have even acted out in any way?

These men see women as inferior and when a woman shows any superiority in any way shape, it becomes a murder or a rape or a shooting. These men are desperate to find some way to retain their ‘superiority’. This desperation always becomes aggression and aggression very quickly turns into violence.

Commercialism and Advertising

Though there are plenty more subtle and less violent depictions of fragile masculinity. One that we all often come across but also don’t tend to notice is men’s products. Products that are advertised towards men will always make it excruciatingly clear that they are advertised towards men. Usually, they’ll do so by subtly writing “MAN” in huge bold letters somewhere on the package. Or sometimes by writing “NOT FOR GIRLS” just so we get the message.

Main Issues With Fragile Masculinity

One of the issues that society faces is that these images and stereotypes are only being perpetuated. The next generation is going to be exposed to the exact same thing. They’ll develop all the same behaviours and oppression will prevail. All of the issues that both men and women face because of fragile masculinity are just going to be imitated as we raise the next generation to believe all the same things.

Politics and Party Support

Fragile masculinity also has a rather large political impact. For example, during Covid-19 some men have genuinely been too fragile to wear Covid-19 masks.

Sarah DiMuccio and Eric Knowles also point out another issue in a report that goes through a review of the political significance of fragile masculinity. The paper evaluates how threats to manhood alter a man’s political stance. Specifically, when a man’s manhood is threatened, he is more likely to adopt a right-wing political stance.

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Photo by David Todd McCarty on Unsplash

They claim that this has lead to the ‘partisan gender gap’. Public-opinion research tells us that men and women generally differ in matters of: which party they support, their voting behaviour, the social ideologies they follow and overall political attitudes. Women are more likely to support egalitarian, left-wing policies and men are more likely to support conservative, right-wing policies. It was observed that the biggest gender differences revolve around the use of force domestically (capital punishment, gun control, police brutality, etc) and internationally (war, military force, foreign policy and military/defence budget). Of course, men tend to prefer more violent policies.

Sexual Assault and Harassment

Socially, fragile masculinity breeds aggressive men. This results in multiple widespread social issues, such as the sexual assault of women and men. An investigation done by UN Women UK found that 97% of women aged 18-24 have been sexually harassed and 96% chose not to report this believing that it wouldn’t help. Many of these will have been committed by fragile men. These men use sexual violence to assert dominance.

However, it’s important to understand that sexual assault/harassment doesn’t just mean being violently abused or assaulted. It also includes:

  • D*ck pics
  • Sharing women’s nudes
  • Waiting until a girl is “legal”
  • Rape jokes
  • Touching girls as a “game”/”joke”
  • Purposefully dropping pens on the floor so women have to bend over and pick them up
  • Bullying girls for having high/low body counts
  • Harassing/misgendering transwomen

… and so many more.

Most women first experience sexual harassment at the age of 12. My friends and I used to get catcalled all the time when we just started high school. In fact, many young women and girls (myself included) report sexual harassment less as they get older.

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Photo by Sydney Sims on Unsplash

Many women experience sexual assault/harassment as a response to rejection. Women are told “just give him your number and then don’t text him back” or “just give him a fake number” or “just give him a chance maybe he’s alright”. Men can’t take rejection. Women are told to respond with everything except “no”.

“I actually have a boyfriend”. “I’m only 16”. “I’m with my brother and his friends so I think it’d be weird”. *Fake number*.

Men can’t take a simple “no” for an answer. They like “the chase”. If a man likes “the chase”, that is a massive red flag. He wants her to say no a few times and then say yes? He doesn’t just want consent up front? Coercion is not consent. Coercion is rape. Rather than telling men not to assault people, we do everything we can to penalise women for not doing everything right to avoid the assault.

Most of the time, men won’t just leave it alone. They feel entitled to a ‘yes’, a phone number, sex. So they go on the ‘chase’. When fragile men experience rejection there is an immediate scramble to retrieve their masculinity. The mildest response that I know most women will have heard at some point is always just some random insult: “you’re fat anyways”; “I was trying to be nice, you’re a 4 on a good day”; “you’re ugly anyway”; “I was just trying to get to your friend to be honest. Some dumb sh*t like that that always makes you think “I didn’t approach you. I didn’t want to talk to you. You came over to me”. Men don’t seem to comprehend the fact that rejection is not an insult. Women are simply not interested.

For most women who have experienced this, they definitely could have experienced a lot worse. Mary Spears was 27 years old when she was shot and killed by a man for refusing to give him her number. This is not an isolated incident. Not only do we see women getting murdered on the news and in stories for rejecting men but it’s so ingrained into our society that women are taught to expect it. For most people, the instinctive response is “she should’ve just given him the number because it would’ve been easier” – as if it was Spears’ and every other victim’s fault they were murdered. As if they wanted to be murdered. Women everywhere just want to be able to say no and not get killed for it.

It is beyond clear that fragile men are more likely to use violence and aggression to assert their ‘masculinity’. This also results in the habitual abuse of their romantic partners, mothers, children and even siblings. The impact that his has – not just on the individual victims – on society overall is major. Domestic violence directly contributes to the oppression of women because women are cut off from society and have little to no access to resources. So they are entirely reliant on their abusive male partner.

Fragile masculinity also contributes to fundamentally every other form of conflict known to humanity. War, shootings, terrorism, bar fights can always be traced back to a man who was insecure in his manhood. These men are overcompensating for their ‘lack’ of masculinity by committing heinous and violent crimes against others.

Another example is hate crimes directed at minorities. Over 75% of people who commit hate crimes are men. These men definitely have fragile masculinity. Any threat to their social superiority (their sexuality, their dominance, their gender, their influence, their power in society) is considered a threat to their masculinity. These men will murder trans people for being trans, gay men for being gay, lesbians for being lesbians and then they’ll complain that everyone else is just far too sensitive about it.

Fragile men don’t just have to murder. They make rape jokes. They make homophobic comments. They insult women and make sexist comments. They use slurs. They invent fake sexual orientations to overcompensate for insecurities in their sexuality.

Men’s Mental Health

Fragile masculinity also has a huge negative impact on men. Men who’s security and manhood is dependent on the opinions of other people are more likely to develop depression and anxiety. Fragile masculinity is (by definition) a form of anxiety. This has a severe impact on men’s ability to socialise properly with women and even with other men. In many situations, fragile masculinity can lead to addiction issues, most commonly alcoholism, as a result of the unbearable need to “fit in”. Alcohol and other dangerous, daredevil late-night activities are often swept under the rug as ‘boys being boys’.

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Photo by Tom Pumford on Unsplash

The centre of discussion for men’s issues tends to always be the ‘suffer in silence’ situation that men have to endure. The image of masculinity that men perpetuate disallows men from showing any emotion other than anger. Fragile men refuse to show emotion to others. This means that when they are suffering (from depression, stress, a traumatic event, etc) they don’t communicate. This isolates men and is a significant factor in the high male suicide rates.

The University of Arizona had a study conducted by Veronica Lamarche, Alyssa Croft and Ciara Atkinson titled A Cognitive Uncoupling: Masculinity Threats and the Rejection of Relationship Interdependence. They looked into men’s responses to social emasculation and how it affects their romantic relationships. The study found that when a man’s masculinity is under threat, he is more likely to pull away from his partner rather than seek emotional support. The study points out that this is an entirely pointless response because men who withdraw from their relationship are not seen as more masculine.

The Solutions

One of the clearest solutions, that feminism strongly advocates, is to get rid of structured gender roles. Fragile masculinity is based on a fight for the power and superiority of manhood. Getting rid of gender roles would eliminate the many social repercussions of gender inequality. This would make way for equality that would benefit everyone, including men.

A more pragmatic solution is introduced by Victoria Banyard, a professor at Rutgers University-New Brunswick’s School of Social Work and lead author of the paper Evaluating a gender transformative violence prevention program for middle school boys: A pilot study. Banyard suggests educating youth on the positive expressions of masculinity to combat violence from men. Banyard points out that “most research on sexual and dating violence has focused on high school and college students but research shows these forms of violence are also prevalent among middle school students”. Despite the rate of violence, there are no structurally-implemented sex & dating violence prevention initiatives for boys in the middle-school age range.

“Most research on sexual and dating violence has focused on high school and college students but research shows these forms of violence are also prevalent among middle school students.”

Victoria Banyard

Another solution is to accurately represent women and violence against women in the media. The discussions always centre around the victim. Violence against women is considered a women’s issue, rather than men’s. We interrogate victims and follow statistics and information about victims of sexual assault constantly. This is very important to understand. But it never brings attention to the cause of these issues, which is men. We should all be educated on the root cause of these social issues, especially men because this would work to prevent them from causing or perpetuating the problem in the future.

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