The psychologist on the evolution of maleness and the sociocultural forces that have long stifled men and fathers.
Last September, Emma Watson, actress and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, went before the UN General Assembly and called on men to participate more wholeheartedly in the fight for gender equality. “I’ve seen my father’s role as a parent being valued less by society,” she said. “I’ve seen young men suffering from mental illness, unable to ask for help for fear it would make them less of a man…. I’ve seen men made fragile and insecure by a distorted sense of what constitutes male success.”
These are familiar problems for University of Akron psychology professor Ronald Levant, who, in a career spanning almost forty years, has become a foremost authority on masculinity and its discontents. Driven by his own struggles as a son and as a father, Levant set out early on to research the roots of the male psyche and understand what seemed to be afflicting him and fellow baby-boomer men.
Levant’s father—a World War II veteran with a blue-collar job—was remote and unaffectionate as a parent, not unlike most dads of that era. At school, the young Levant encountered the restrictive role of being a man: he could be aggressive but not nurturing, stoic but not expressive, public and professional but not domestic. In the late 1970s, after Levant became a dad himself, he and his wife divorced, leaving him with partial custody of his daughter. He says he felt like a failure as a father—and he was not alone; from 1960 to 1980, the divorce rate more than doubled—from 9.2 divorces per 1,000 married women to 22.6 divorces per 1,000 married women—creating a generation of single dads ill-equipped to handle the demands of raising children.
At the time of his divorce, Levant says, “parenthood was synonymous with motherhood.” He sought to expand such expectations, founding and serving as the director of The Fatherhood Project at Boston University from 1983 to 1988. There, he coached men to become better fathers by helping them identify and express their emotions—tasks with which many of them fumbled. And in 1995, Levant co-founded and served as the first president of the Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity, a division of the American Psychological Association. The subgroup convened men to research and discuss the toxic elements of masculinity and its impact on men’s psychology.
In his teaching and in his writing, Levant has long worked to debunk myths about masculinity and, building on the groundwork of second-wave feminists, explore the male gender as a construct. His books, such as Masculinity Reconstructed (1995), and articles for Psychology of Men & Masculinity and elsewhere, make clear that sociocultural mandates—not genetics—force boys to suppress feelings that violate masculine norms. The ensuing psychological tension, Levant argues, can lead to unhappiness, anxiety, or more severe mental health problems.
Levant’s groundbreaking contributions to the field of men’s studies laid the foundation for the more evolved masculine norms we are witnessing today: it is no longer unusual to see a man prioritize his family over his work, nor must men present an expressionless face to the public. Levant’s work aspires to a world in which personality traits are unchained from gender, and one in which men and women are on equal footing in the workplace as well as the home.
—Brian Gresko for Guernica
Guernica: You’ve said that the movie Kramer vs. Kramer sparked an epiphany for you with regards to how you saw yourself as a father.
Ronald Levant: Back in the late ’70s, I was a divorced, semi-custodial dad. My daughter would spend summers with me, and during the academic year I visited her on the weekends. I don’t think those visits went particularly well, and I don’t think I was a sensitive or good father. During this time, I got my first job at Boston University as an assistant professor of counseling psychology. I was responsible for instruction in family psychology and doing research on parenting. The irony was not lost on me that here I was being presented to the world as an expert on parenting, while secretly in my personal life I felt like a flop as a dad.
Kramer vs. Kramer led me to realize that maybe it wasn’t just me who sucked as a father. Maybe it was men of my generation, the baby boomers, many of whom were trying to be the sole parent for extended periods of time, and lacked the skills to do it. This made sense: they had no orientation growing up that this would be their role, and they were unprepared. Boomer men had fathers of the World War II generation, who modeled themselves on men like John Wayne—the strong, silent type. My dad was not involved with my brother or me unless we got off base somehow, and then we didn’t want him involved—then it was the strap!
I didn’t have any models of how a father could be the only parent, and I reasoned that other guys, like the ones I saw in Harvard Square with infants in snuggly packs or strollers, might be in my situation, too. So I looked at the psychology literature, wondering if anyone had studied this. The first thing I found was that all parent education was geared toward women. Parenthood was synonymous with motherhood. There was nothing for dads.
In 1983, I got a grant and some release time and started the Boston University Fatherhood Project. It offered workshops for men on how to be a better father. We stocked a large room with more video equipment than any sane person could ever want. At that time, video equipment was expensive and very cool to have, and that was partially our schtick. We told these guys, “We’re going to teach you how to be a father like you might have been taught how to play a sport. We’ll make a video of you doing your thing, then we’ll watch an instant replay of it. We’ll analyze your performance and figure out how you can improve it.”
From a pedagogical standpoint, the classes were behaviorally oriented, and they went over very well. We had a structured curriculum and a workbook, and focused on building discrete skills: communication skills, expressive skills, how to manage child behavior, how to deal with sibling rivalry—all sorts of hands-on parenting issues. The Fatherhood Project lasted for five years and reached a lot of fathers in the community. About half a dozen doctoral dissertations came out of it, along with many research articles.
I didn’t have a moment of insight—this took me several years to figure out—but in a significant way, Kramer vs. Kramer led to where I am now, focusing on men’s psychology and masculinity.
“I’m here so that my son doesn’t grow up to feel the way about me that I do about my dad.” His words hit the room like a hurricane.
Guernica: Do you have any sense of what factors made the dads who attended your classes open enough to even be coached?
Ronald Levant: It was their wives. Our first class was a “getting to know you” session, and we would ask, “How did you get here?” Many of the guys would say, “My wife bought me the tuition.” So they needed a little coaxing.
Another thing that drew these men was their own relationships with their fathers. There was this one time that I remember very clearly—a working-class guy, struggling to maintain his composure, lips quivering, voice shaking, said, “I’m here so that my son doesn’t grow up to feel the way about me that I do about my dad.” His words hit the room like a hurricane. Every man there was immediately empathic with him and began sharing similar stories.
Many men with World War II-generation dads either felt like they never knew their fathers, or else had a negative relationship with them that might have even been physically abusive. They felt their dads were mean, overly punitive. I would say that’s true of me, too. My father, who served in the Navy, was very distant and aloof and really didn’t seem that interested in my brother or me. He worked all the time, and we appreciated that he was a good provider, but he wasn’t the guy who’d go to our ballgames. He didn’t even know when the ballgames were.
The men in these classes, like me, wanted to be different, to change their lives. That was a huge motivating force.
Guernica: Within the traditional male paradigm, it’s seems that it’s okay to express aggressive emotions—anger or lust—but not warm, nurturing feelings, like the ones associated with fatherhood.
Ronald Levant: Yes, those stoic, cold guys may have had a lot of love for their sons in their hearts, but it would violate their idea of what it meant to be a man to simply say, “I love you.” Men of my father’s generation, and even of my generation, believed that you had to stop providing affection to your sons by about the time they went to school lest you make them effeminate.
The old parenting magazine Family Circle once ran a story called “Daddy’s Home.” In it, Daddy pulls into the driveway and his three little children bound out to greet him. He picks up, hugs, and kisses one of his daughters, and then he does the same for his other daughter. His five-year-old son is standing there waiting to be hugged and kissed too, but the father looks down at him and shakes his head. His son reaches his little hand out and they exchange a handshake. That father plainly communicated that boys don’t hug and kiss like girls, and dads don’t express affection to their sons.
This was back then. Today, I know a lot of fathers your age who are very affectionate with their children, boys or girls. That particular dynamic has changed quite a bit.
Guernica: You write about the social forces that stifle boys’ emotional expressiveness at a young age. Are fathers the primary conduits for those forces?
Ronald Levant: In early childhood, those messages came from the dad. There hasn’t been any good in-home research of fathers’ behavior since the late ’70s, so we’re talking about boomer men here. The studies indicated that the fathers were the guardians of masculinity. Their job was to make men out of their sons by modeling emotional restrictiveness and punishing their boys when they violated those norms. They would say things like, “Big boys don’t cry,” or, “If you don’t stop crying, I’ll give you something to really cry about!” Boys were not allowed to show vulnerability to their fathers.
Then boys entered school, and you would see some very big changes. In one study, researchers showed children between the ages of four and six slides illustrating different emotions. They videotaped the children’s faces looking at the slides. Then the child’s mother would watch the child’s face, and she had to identify which slide the child was viewing. Was it an angry face, or a sad one, or happy, etc. Mothers could accurately identify what their sons and daughters, at the age of four, were seeing. As the children got older, though, the mother’s accuracy with the boys went down, until at six years of age she could not identify the emotions in her son’s face. Why? Because in preschool and kindergarten, boys receive peer group influence from other boys who have been told by their fathers to “man up” and don’t cry. Those boys then punish the boys who deviate from these gender norms. Through this socialization, boys learn that expressing emotion is feminine or gay, that it’s bad, that they shouldn’t do it. This, I fear, is not changing that much in school.
Boys also learn, when they get hurt feelings, to take those vulnerable feelings and turn them into aggression. When a boy gets pushed down by another boy on the playground, he figures out that he has to come back with fists full of gravel to throw at the other kid rather than a face full of tears. He transforms his sadness and fear into aggression, focusing it in anger toward the other person. That becomes part of who he is as a man.
Now, this is not true for all men. It’s not the Y chromosome. But men who are reared in the manner we’re talking about, with traditional masculine socialization at home and school, tend to get enraged when somebody disappoints them or hurts their feelings rather than express what would be the appropriate emotion.
I’m openly feminist, and I support gender equality, and every now and then I get trolled by these [men’s rights] guys on discussion groups because they see me as their enemy.
Guernica: In the Journal of Men’s Studies, you used the phrase “masculinity crisis” to describe the shifting nature of masculine ideology. Does “crisis” still seem the proper term?
Ronald Levant: That term applied better in the 1990s, when I wrote the article to which you’re referring. At that time, women were becoming more empowered, making strides in college and at work. They were also demanding that men meet them more as equals, particularly in the home. White, heterosexual men found themselves in the middle of an identity crisis, which the book/movie The Bridges of Madison County expresses quite well. In it, the central character talks about feeling useless because women can do pretty much all of the things that men used to do for them. There was an acute sense of estrangement between sexes, because women wanted men to talk honestly about their feelings, and embrace childcare with them. Many men resisted that, because it violated their masculine norms.
By the mid-’90s, a men’s movement emerged which had a few different flavors. One part of that was Robert Bly, the poet who started the mythopoetic movement. He led workshops designed to break up stoicism, what psychologists call alexithymia, a clinical term that literally means “without emotions.” Bly wanted men to feel more, and his work spawned programs where men would go off into the woods with a talking stick that they would pass to one another, and when the guy got the stick he would open up. It’s kind of hokey to think about now, but this was a sign of the times.
There was also a segment of men fighting a rearguard action against feminism. Like the Promise Keepers, a Christian organization led by Bill McCartney, a former football coach at the University of Colorado at Boulder. They had a book called Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper, and there’s one passage that encapsulated their views. The author told the reader, “You have to have a serious conversation with your wife. Sit her down at the dinner table and say, ‘Honey, I’ve made a terrible mistake. I’ve given the leadership of this family over to you, and I’m taking it back.’ Don’t ask her, demand it. Tell her you’re the boss, and she’s subservient.” Those attitudes persist today in the men’s rights movement and the National Coalition for Men, groups essentially fighting to reinstate patriarchy. I’m openly feminist, and I support gender equality, and every now and then I get trolled by these guys on discussion groups because they see me as their enemy.
These days, there have been some substantial changes for millennial men, a big one being in attitudes toward fathering. Men are more hands on, they feel comfortable embracing and caring for their children, and are integrated in the household. A man who, for example, takes the morning shift and gets his children dressed and fed for school has to think about laundry and grocery shopping. Studies show that men in the ’60s [whose wives worked outside the home] literally did six minutes of this kind of family work a week, leaving most of those chores to their wives.
The other thing that has changed are attitudes toward sexual minorities, but that’s not just men, that’s the entire country. A majority of Americans accept that gay and lesbian couples should be together, and that affects one of the central male norms, which is disdain for sexual minorities.
Another shift has been in attitudes toward mental health and mental illness. We’ve had a lot of high-profile athletes come out about their depression and mental health problems and how therapy has helped them. That has eroded some of the stigma that men attach to counseling.
Emotional expressivity still has a way to go, though we have seen some great role models. Bill Clinton was the emoter-in-chief when he was president. General Norman Schwarzkopf, the general of the first Iraq war, openly cried on television when talking about losing troops. Compare that to Ed Muskie, a Democratic presidential candidate [in 1972]. [While defending his wife and himself from verbal attacks], Muskie was caught on camera crying. He was seen as too effeminate to be president, and his campaign died. That was the ethos then in the whole country: you just didn’t show tears as a man.
I think we’re moving to a point where we’ll stop thinking of personality as gendered, and recognize that all humans have the capacity for sadness as well as aggression, whether you’re a woman or a man.
Guernica: Did the masculinity crisis affect men of color differently from white men?
Ronald Levant: There are some cultural variations in the African-American community that appear to be based upon historical adaptations. For example, the acceptability of women making more decisions in the home and having employment outside of the home may be the byproduct of slavery and economic necessity. Still others, such as the “cool pose” of young, inner-city African-American men may be a form of resistance to their marginalization by hegemonic masculinity.
It’s no surprise that 87 percent of the violent crime committed in this country is committed by boys and men.
Guernica: What role has feminist scholarship played in the development of your work and that of your peers?
Ronald Levant: The first part of this answer is personal. After my divorce, I didn’t seek a relationship for some time because my priorities were my daughter and graduate school. But when I started to date, I found that the educated women I saw were strongly influenced by feminism. Through those encounters, and ultimately through meeting my present wife, my attitudes about masculinity were challenged. As a boy, I was the poster child for traditional masculinity. I was a tough boy and alexithymic. I didn’t know how to talk about my emotions. It was in this later stage—post-divorce, trying to seek another mate in life—that I started to change my own beliefs and rethink my masculinity.
The academic component is that, in 1980, I took a post-doc fellowship with Joseph Pleck. Pleck was a clinical psychologist who at the time was writing what would go on to be a landmark book called The Myth of Masculinity. Both Pleck and I would not have written [such books] had feminists not elucidated that gender is different from sex. Sex is biological; it refers to our genitalia, our secondary sex attributes, our chromosomes. Our behavior and personalities are socially constructed, and only have a mild relationship to our biology. Feminists had the insight that gender roles were created by a patriarchal society which saw women in subordinate roles to men.
Pleck applied that to social cognition theory—as I also did, later—looking at children and how they learn their roles and behaviors. Pleck formulated what’s called the gender role strain paradigm, which is the idea that gender roles are artificially imposed on children. As a result, this causes various kinds of strains because children’s personalities vary enormously. If you take any personality trait—aggressiveness, say—and draw a bell curve for the distribution of this trait in girls and boys, you will find there are many girls who are more aggressive than a number of boys. But when adults buy into traditional masculine or feminine ideologies, they rear their children to conform to those norms. They try to force girls who are aggressive into not being aggressive, or boys who are nurturing into not being nurturing.
When a child internalizes norms that don’t fit his or her personality, various kinds of problems arise, one of which is feeling that he or she doesn’t live up to expectations. For example, a lot of men harbor the feeling that they’re not man enough. They would never say that they did something they fear would get them kicked out of the male sex, but they feel that way. Or there’s dysfunction strain, where a man has so completely conformed to norms of toughness and aggression that he’s dysfunctional and maybe violent. Given that aggression is a masculine norm, it’s no surprise that 87 percent of the violent crime committed in this country is committed by boys and men. Then there’s trauma strain, which is where I come in, because I think raising our boys to stifle their emotions is at least mildly traumatic, and for some it’s actually traumatic, because they get the crap beat out of them for being what their parents might call sissies.
Guernica: I was telling a very educated, accomplished female friend about this interview and she said something to the effect of, “You men are stressed out because you’re trying to balance work, family, friends, and romance—but guess what? Women have been doing that for years. Welcome to the club.” She was poking fun, but behind her jest, I heard some real exasperation. Do you ever encounter resistance from women about your line of study?
Ronald Levant: That’s the crisis of connection between women and men: women are tired of us men not getting with the program, pissing and moaning about how hard it is to give up our privilege. Women of your generation have been empowered largely because they had empowered mothers who weren’t about to raise their daughters to be subservient. So they’re probably a little impatient with men—I wouldn’t say resistant. I think they would like to see men get to the point where they are, where they recognize that they have to balance roles that are traditionally feminine and roles that are traditionally masculine, because that’s just the way we live. Is that what you’re talking about?
Guernica: Yes. Also, because of the feminist movement, I feel there is social support among my female friends that I don’t necessarily see among my male friends. Women seem to talk in detail about their negative feelings at home and at work. Many men don’t have a lot of experience with that kind of discourse, and so it doesn’t often happen. A female friend once revealed how specifically she discusses sex with her close girlfriends, and I realized that men talk with a great dearth of detail about that. We’ll say, “She’s hot,” or “I had great sex last night.” If there are details, they’re often discussed humorously, and you would never talk about an intimacy problem.
Ronald Levant: I think you’re absolutely right. Men’s friendships tend to be impoverished relative to women’s friendships. People have been conducting research on this and writing about it at least since the ’90s. When men get together they talk about work, mutual interests like sports, and women, but, as you say, only in vague terms.
The framework doesn’t exist for men to easily engage in intimate conversation with other men about their lives, and that’s a damn shame. Pleck and I, together with a number of other guys, started a division of the American Psychological Association dedicated to men’s issues: the Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity. For about twenty-three years, we’ve gone on a yearly men’s retreat. These are all psychologists, men who are fairly conversant, most of whom have been in therapy and are reasonably able to talk about their vulnerabilities. These get-togethers are amazing. We process life at a very deep level, and talk to each other in a frank manner that almost never occurs in ordinary discourse.
I mention it because it’s so rare, and I think most men don’t have that kind of opportunity. The majority of men are probably most intimate about their lives with their wives, or maybe other family members, like sisters—always with females. Brothers aren’t that intimate with one another in general.
Family leave has gotten caught—like climate change and immigration policies—in between these two visions. Though it is clearly not a Democratic idea or a Republican idea, it’s a smart idea.
Guernica: You’ve written about the systematic problems facing fathers. For example, the president mentioned maternity leave in his State of the Union address, but not parental leave, which would include fathers. Have you seen any changes in family leave policies in America?
Ronald Levant: I’ve been following this for quite a while, and I don’t see much change either at the governmental or corporate level. We’re way behind Europe, in particular the Scandinavian countries and the UK, in recognizing the importance of the father bonding with his children. Research shows that fathers who take paternity leave and spend time with their newborn children develop stronger bonds with them that persist for a considerable amount of time.
Part of what we’re dealing with in America is gridlock between two groups. One wants to return things to the ’50s, to try and recapture some vision of idyllic family life where the woman was the homemaker and the man the provider. On the other side, you have progressives pushing for marriage equality and equal gender rights. Family leave has gotten caught—like climate change and immigration policies—in between these two visions. Though it is clearly not a Democratic idea or a Republican idea, it’s a smart idea. In an age when fathers are taking much more responsibility for their children, they should have the opportunity to be more involved. But that flies in the face of traditional gender ideologies, which remain deeply ingrained in some aspects of our society and won’t budge.
Family leave and paternity leave don’t have a constituency clamoring for them the way an issue like marriage equality does. The sad thing is, fathers aren’t going to speak up for themselves. They’re not going to organize or write petitions or lobby politicians for it.
Guernica: In general, are you hopeful that masculine ideology is going to continue to evolve?
Ronald Levant: Yes. Major changes have happened, many in the last seven or eight years, around men’s involvement in fathering, their acceptance of gays, and their willingness to be emotionally expressive. Today, it’s hard to find a guy who really endorses all of that macho stuff, who says, “I want to be tough and dominant and aggressive, and my wife is going to be under my thumb.” I’ve been doing this work for more than thirty years, and there was a long period of time, in particular in the ’90s, when I felt very discouraged because it didn’t seem like much was really changing. Of late, I’ve been much more optimistic. I believe that your generation and the following generations of men are going to carry the ball to the goal line, to use, appropriately enough, a football metaphor.
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