Some decisions meant to gain control come with the cost of losing one’s soul.
Former President Barack Obama and American musician Bruce Springsteen on March 22nd aired the sixth episode of their podcast Renegades: Born in the USA, entitled “Wrestling with Ghosts: American Men.” In it the two discussed how American culture often promotes troublesome ideas about masculinity. Obama claimed both he and Springsteen are more attune to this issue because of the complicated relationships they had with their fathers, which he described as flawed role models both spent much of their lives coming to terms with.
A man’s world
The former president opened Episode 6 by speaking on his upbringing and how he lacked a true father figure — he only met Obama Sr. once and lived apart from both his mother and stepfather as a child. This prompted him to learn from media how to be a man.
Being a man or exhibiting male traits is often associated with masculinity, defined as the quality or character of the male sex. According to writer Keri Mangis, however, the terms masculinity and femininity are descriptors of energy rather than labels assigned to a specific sex. She furthermore argued that masculine energy is hot, quick, light, and bright, in addition to exhibiting ambition, aggressiveness, and drive.
Expressions of masculinity in both men and boys vary based on geographic location and cultural background. Further diversity is shaped by other factors, including class, race, ethnicity, and sexuality. Sociologist Raewyn Connell claimed that multiple masculinities are often in competition with one another to determine which is more authentic. Therefore, the standards used to define a “real man” can vary greatly across time and place.
American society often socializes males to showcase masculinity in ways that emphasize toughness, stoicism, acquisitiveness, and self-reliance. Consequently, this may result in rejecting behaviors that appear feminine, suppressing emotions other than anger, promoting homophobia, and striving toward competition, success, and power. These ideas of manhood are often encouraged by media. Examples from Obama’s youth include James Bond, Shaft, and Harrison Ford’s portrayals of both Indiana Jones and Han Solo. Each of the fictional characters listed exhibit attitudes that align with popular American views of “true” masculinity.
With pressures from media and society, both men and boys often feel a need to conform to certain displays of masculinity. These attitudes may often conflict with their actual beliefs. Springsteen made note of this, saying,
“I was at my most popular, I feel, when I had an image that was least like myself. I had a very alpha male image right in the middle of the Regan-era 80s. Right? And that view of the United States as something powerful and domineering was resurgent.”
Another point to consider, somewhat touched upon in Springsteen’s recollection, is that men and boys are frequently rewarded in a variety of settings, including schools, the workplace, military, and prisons for conforming to stereotypic expectations of males.
Problematic displays of masculinity may also be rewarded through intimate relationships or access to women and girls as romantic partners. Oftentimes, females are swayed by media and subscribe to harmful ideas of masculinity exhibited by the opposite sex. Such beliefs frequently hurt this group as well. Obama highlights this when mentioning his talk about boys with his daughters’ friends, in which he claimed following:
“So much of popular culture tells them [young women] that the only clear defining thing about being a man, being masculine, is you excel in sports, and sexual conquest.”
Violence and how much money one makes were also added by both Springsteen and the former president respectively.
Today male athletes, music artists, and movie stars with socially accepted displays of masculinity are constantly paraded around in media. Moreover, their female counterparts do much to bolster such behaviors. First, there is evidence to believe that intelligent and high-performing women tend to value toxic men as partners. Additionally, when looking at hip-hop music, the most popular musical genre in American culture, there are several examples of female artists promoting masculine behaviors deemed problematic.
During the chorus of Saweetie’s “My Type,” she raps, “Rich nigga, eight-figure, that’s my type/ that’s my type, nigga that’s my type.” Here, Saweetie emphasizes her want for a man who makes a significant amount of money. This point is echoed by JT on “Twerk,” where she raps, “Too rude for a soft nigga, need a boss nigga/ floss nigga who don’t give a fuck what it cost, nigga.” In JT’s verse she also mentions being too rude for a man who is soft. Here, “soft” is being used as a slang term to describe those in touch with their emotions or good-natured. Having this attitude further perpetuates the idea that men cannot be emotional.
Regarding the artists mentioned above, one could argue these women are entitled to having preferences in their male partners. While this is true, listening to multiple female artists stress similar desires adds to popular societal views about masculinity.
Obama and Springsteen’s talk of masculinity, along with what it means to be a man in American society, was needed, especially considering the toll harmful masculine norms have on one’s mental health. Combating destructive messages aimed at men and boys requires unlearning negative behaviors, in addition to developing better ways of expressing masculinity. Furthermore, the way women and girls promote troublesome masculine behaviors must also be properly addressed.
During the podcast, Obama praised certain aspects of the traditional male such as having a sense of responsibility, making sacrifices for one’s family, handling business, and being an adult. According to Connell and others, common masculine ideals become challenging when they set unreachable standards. Thus, amplifying certain aspects of masculinity is problematic as opposed to masculinity itself (e.g., feeling pressured to have sex with multiple people vs. exhibiting sexual prowess in a committed relationship).
Lastly, figures such as Obama and Springsteen who give advice to men and boys about manhood must consider their privilege when making suggestions. The former president exhibits a form of masculinity that is well respected, despite being vulnerable and showing his emotions at times. However, he once held a position of power higher than others (i.e. President of the US). Thus, Obama can afford to act in such a way without being heavily scrutinized. The same could be said of Springsteen, who is considered a legendary rock star. Given this, one must ask if the same type of man would be praised, or even respected by their partner, without reaching such a level of significance.