Masculinity in Three Words or Less

By David Michael Newstead.

Recently, I asked five women and five men to tell me three words that they associate with masculinity. I attempted to select a diverse age range beforehand and I deliberately did not explain the purpose of this activity until after I got their answers.

The participants are geographically dispersed throughout the United States. Some are single. Some are married or divorced. They vary in their political and religious leanings. And all of them have at least a bachelor’s degree, but a few have more advanced and specialized degrees. Each person responded with their three words and those words are displayed exactly in the order that they were received.

The idea behind this experiment is that masculinity is socially constructed to some extent, then reinforced by our culture and its collective expectations. To that end, men and women could be perpetuating very different concepts, even when it comes to male identity. To touch on those perspectives, I conducted my informal survey. Then, I compared what men had to say to what women had to say on the subject of masculinity. Their answers are below.

Masculinity According to MEN

Man in His Twenties: Integrity, Reliability, Courage

First Man in His Thirties: Penis, Job, Tie

Second Man in His Thirties: Strong, Leadership, Composure

Man in His Forties: Reality, Determination, Power

Man Fifty-Plus: Stoic, Strong, Persevering


Masculinity According to WOMEN

Woman in Her Twenties: Beer, Beard, Lumberjack

First Woman in Her Thirties: Strength, Security, Stability

Second Woman in Her Thirties: Secure, Strong, Manly

Woman in Her Forties: Strength, Responsibility, Respect

Woman Fifty-Plus: Strong, Confident, Protector

Now after reading over that, you’re welcome to draw your own conclusions, but here are a few of my thoughts. The men that I surveyed obviously had some common themes among their answers, but the women overlapped with almost identical responses. And I was surprised. My impression is that the men are probably describing themselves (or who they aspire to be), while the women are stating things that they want. Also oddly enough, no one said anything negative about masculinity. Words like sexism, violence, and misogyny are accurate terms for plenty of male behavior, but none of those got the top three slots on an open ended question. Those were reserved for positive associations the way someone might describe their father or their fiancée. Likewise, no responses that relate to weakness or emotion made the list either. In short, people said what they think masculinity should be and should mean, not necessarily what’s true or what deviates from the ideal. Are these perceptions grounded in reality? When it comes to being a man, there seems to be more than one answer.