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“The Unrealistic Sex”: An Assessment of the Contradictory Plight of the Modern American Male

The work of anthropologists such as Franz Boas, Margaret Mead, and Ruth Benedict did much to popularize the notion that accepted American standards of behavior were not found universally in other cultures. Traditional gender norms therefore were culturally and historically determined rather than derived from nature. In the following Collier’s article from 1952, Dr. Judson T. and Mary G. Landis invoked Mead’s work to investigate contradictory assessments of the “typical” American male as either dominant and aggressive or blundering and dependent. The authors examined findings of social scientists that compared male and female survival rates, achievement, and sexual performance. They argued that while men were, in fact, the “weaker” sex biologically, their struggle to conform to cultural ideals of superiority and dominance often led to failure and difficulties in relationships. Their conclusion—that “in most families the man is, and has to be, the ‘stronger,’ he has to be the bulwark for the family” because of greater fluctuations in “endocrinological functioning” of women than in men—shows the power that ideas of biological determinism held even in the social science community.

The U.S. Male . . . Is He First-Class?

Is he the simple blunderer of the comic strips? Or is he really self-assured and dominant? Does he like the role of aggressiveness he has to play?

By Dr. Judson T. and Mary G. Landis

After we wrote an article for Collier’s about women, a woman said, “Why don’t you write the truth about men?” Another woman who heard her question spoke up, “There’s a good reason why. Men couldn’t take the truth about themselves.” Was she right? And what is the truth about men? Is there such a thing as a typical American man? We might answer glibly that yes, there is. He likes sports, is more aggressive and active physically than the average woman; he is handier in mechanical matters than in personal relationships; he is more interested than women are in politics, adventure and sex. He belongs to the stronger sex and is glad of it.

A group of able psychologists led by Dr. Lewis Terman of Stanford University concluded after intensive study of masculine and feminine characteristics in our culture that in general the typical masculine American could be described in those terms.

Looking at the average American male from another viewpoint, we find him pictured in commercial advertising as the good provider who brings home to his delighted wife and children all sorts of beautiful and useful gadgets. He gladly slaves to provide his family with wrist watches, television sets, sleek cars and life insurance, and in his spare time he decks himself out in chef’s apron and cap and serves the family’s friends with food prepared by his own hands over the barbecue that he has ingeniously built in the back yard.

But a different and very specific picture of the average American man emerges from radio programs and comic strips. Fibber McGee and Mollie, Dagwood and Blondie, Ozzie and Harriet are examples. They picture the man as a simple, blundering but well-meaning soul who could hardly manage to survive if it were not for the little woman who looks after him.

Yet a sociologist, Helen Hacker, writing in a scientific journal recently, held that American men occupy the position of a dominant, majority-group and that women get along with them by using the same tactics that racial minorities and other subservient groups must use to get along with the dominant groups about them. She emphasizes that subtle appeals to the male ego are a necessary tactic for women. So to tell even a smattering of the truth about men becomes more complicated than it at first appeared.

In the first place, the characteristics that men possess because of the biological fact of their sex may be changed in many ways by the social set-up or the culture in which they live. Sociologists, psychologists and anthropologists have long debated “nature versus nurture”; they disagree as to the extent man is a product of biological characteristics as opposed to being a product of his experiences in the culture in which he lives.

Dr. Margaret Mead, distinguished anthropologist, after studying the lives of primitive tribes, has pointed out some of the extreme differences that exist in ideas of what is masculine and what is not, with each group of people feeling sure that its own ideas are right according to man’s natural endowment. She tells of a man among the New Guinea mountain Arapesh people, who, of all his community, most nearly approached the American ideal of the male. He had a well-built physique and a handsome face, according to our standards. He showed initiative and energy; he was possessive and aggressive. But these characteristics made him a misfit among his own people.

Where Men Must Have Feminine Traits

Dr. Mead explains that among the Arapesh, men as well as women are supposed to be naturally maternal, gentle, always co-operative rather than competitive and never aggressive; therefore, this man who would fit so well into some parts of our society was merely a “pathetic figure” in his own world. He was not “masculine” according to Arapesh standards.

Dr. Mead tells of another group of people, the Tchambuli, of whom she says, “We found a genuine reversal of the sex attitudes of our own culture, with the woman among the Tchambuli people the dominant, impersonal, managing partner, the man the less responsible and the emotionally dependent person.”

Regardless of whether his biology or his environment has most to do in making a man what he is, it is true that in our own culture certain standards of what men are and ought to be are quite generally accepted, and these standards are not even as contradictory as they at first appear. Almost any woman will tell you that this is still a man’s world.

Women don’t mind seeing men pictured as the weaklings; it makes them feel superior. Yet they really hope to find security with a strong man who can protect them. Men may enjoy feeling superior to the oaf type of man pictured in the comics; they may even secretly wish they could relax and play the role of the lovable, incompetent Dagwood. Yet they know that in our society they have to keep playing the strong-man part, nevertheless. In our culture we teach little boys not so much that it is important to behave like a human rather than an animal, as that it is important to behave like a man and not like a woman. So from the beginning boys are aware of an urgency to conform to the characteristics that are assigned to their sex by our general standards. They must be strong, physically active, sexually aggressive, adventurous, economically ambitious and they must not be “soft” or sensitive in their personal relationships.

But just as the Arapesh people of New Guinea are not necessarily right in assuming that all men should be gentle, passive and maternal, so it isn’t necessarily so that all American men naturally fit our stereotype of male dominance and superiority. There is reason, in fact, to believe that many men find the struggle to conform to such expectations too much for them. They have human weaknesses just as women have, but are not allowed, in our culture, as many socially accepted ways of avoiding pressure. . . .

The feeling men have that they must be the superior sex in all things puts a cruel burden upon many men, since Nature didn’t consult our American standards when she designed the male of the species. Let us look at some of the physical facts.

Biologically this is not a man’s world. Males are the weaker sex, in some ways, from the moment of conception throughout life. The average man of today can look forward to about five years less of life than a woman his age will have. Men’s shorter life expectancy is owing not only to the fact that they work harder or are exposed to greater dangers; it is owing also to the fact that they have not been endowed biologically with as much hardihood as women have to withstand or survive life’s hazards. . . .

Boys' Early Lag in Studies Explained

What of intelligence? Unquestionably men do achieve greater success in mental activities than women do. Girls in grade school advance more rapidly than boys do and make higher grade averages throughout many of their years in school, but during late adolescence the boys catch up and go ahead. One reason advanced for this is psychological—young boys feel it’s “sissyish” to excel in school—it isn’t until they are older that the competitive urge begins to dominate. A look at the names of the great in almost all fields shows the list to have more men than women. In present-day America, success of some sort is a necessity for most men.

But just as not all men are strong in ability to survive, so not all men have the ability to achieve. It is considered a compliment to say of American men that they have “drive,” and many men go straight along driving themselves toward conformity to a standard of masculine achievement and success no matter what the cost to their health or to their personal relationships. So we have the illuminating American wisecrack: “He is a successful man. He’s moving up now from a two-ulcer job to a three-ulcer spot!”

Men are daring and venturesome when it comes to pioneering in new worlds or trying out new inventions, but in their attitudes toward women many cling to tradition and are conservative to the point of being unrealistic. Some men complain that women don’t know their places, but more men go along with the idea, in theory, that a modern woman is independent and wants to be looked upon as an individual, not just as a “helpmate” to a man.

They may agree heartily to whatever the Girl says on this subject before marriage, yet without once applying it to themselves personally. Their rosy anticipation of marriage is likely still to resemble the traditional picture of the patriarchal male who comes home from work and is met at the door by a loving wife who offers him his pipe and slippers. If it turns out that she doesn’t meet him at the door but expects him to let himself in with his latchkey, and perhaps even rustle his own dinner, he wonders what went wrong. . . .

Many men are unprepared psychologically for wives who are fairly uninhibited sexually. Before marriage most men hope for sexually energetic wives. In a research study dealing with marital adjustment, we collected specific comments about various phases of marriage.

One of the most common complaints mentioned by the husbands in this study was that their wives were too indifferent about sex; many wives complained that the husbands were too much concerned with sex. And Dr. Alfred Kinsey, director of the well-known sex studies at Indiana University, says that his findings indicate that in about 80 per cent or more of marriages there is less sex than the husband wants and more than the wife wants. However, our research with married couples as well as our counseling with men and women has convinced us that most men can cope with the problem of a cool wife better than with the opposite situation.

In spite of their complaints on this point, men’s feeling that they must be the superior in sex adequacy is so strong that they are certainly happier feeling somewhat frustrated sexually than they would be if they were less adequate than their wives. If it turns out, as it sometimes does in modern marriage, that the wife is more able in sex than her husband, the man is likely to begin to have doubts about his own virility. One man who, shortly after his marriage, came for counsel because of this situation summed up his worries by asking, "What is wrong with us?"

When Wife Is the More Eager

Actually nothing was wrong with either him or his wife. It just happened that he belonged in the statistical average of men with normal but not excessive sexual need and capacity. But his wife happened to be in the statistical minority of women with unusual physical energy and very marked sexual capacity. Professor Lewis Terman of Stanford University has studied many aspects of marriage with the co-operation of nearly 800 California couples, and his findings show that the marital happiness of husbands was quite low in marriages in which the wife was more interested in sex than the husband was. American men just aren’t prepared for that situation. . . .

Certainly, there are all kinds of men; as a sex, they offer as many contradictions and paradoxes as women do. In their work in business, industry or a profession, they are likely to be realistic, hardheaded when necessary, and practical. They are forced to be, to survive in our culture. But when it comes to their own make-up and their relationships with women, they are the unrealistic sex, striving to conform to traditional molds and trying to bend their personal relationships to fit unrealistic patterns.

Nevertheless, many men have learned that life is a series of deals or trades. A man can, if he tries hard enough, successfully hold tight to all his masculine prerogatives, but if he does he may be the loser in satisfactory personal relationships with women.

The more a man understands himself and becomes able to accept his weaknesses and to recognize his basic strengths, the less necessary he will find it to throw his weight around. Nature did cheat him on some points. He is big and muscular, but he is a push-over for a lot of ailments and diseases. In our culture he does have to go out and meet life head-on to a much greater extent than women do, but he doesn’t have to try to fool himself into thinking that it always comes natural to him. He needs a lot of moral support from some woman in order to be brave enough to buck the world.

We have pointed out earlier that men are biologically the “weaker” sex when it comes to survival. But in some other aspects, such as sex drive, they are the stronger, and it seems probable that these other factors are crucial in establishing the pattern of man-woman relationships.

For example, the facts of endocrinological functioning mean that women are emotionally and physically subject to fluctuations. Periodically their efficiency is below its usual level, and their dispositions show corresponding irregularities. This fluctuation is more extreme than the slight ups and downs that men have according to whether they are tired or hungry or for other minor reasons. Over a period of years in life, this periodicity of feminine functioning and the lack of periodicity in masculine functioning add up to a major difference in “drive” and in ability to carry certain kinds of continuous and grueling responsibilities. So in most families the man is, and has to be, the “stronger”; he has to be the bulwark for the family.

Source: Judson T. Landis and Mary G. Landis, “The U.S. Male . . . Is He First-Class?” Collier’s, July 19, 1952, 22.