Skip to main content

"The best thing that ever happened to me was losing my balls..."

Barry Munday utters the words to a rugged - and horrified - guy sitting next to him at the bar. An aspiring ladies' man, Mr. Munday suffers an injury to his testicles, learns he's a father and grows into a better man in the film named after him, opening Oct. 1 in theatres.

The movie is just the latest in a string of emasculating offerings in popular culture. In April, bloggers seized on an oxytocin-laced "cuddle spray," rumoured to entrance your guy into snuggling after sex instead of cozying up with ESPN.

The same month, a German political party called for "a new awareness of a new masculinity." In July, The Atlantic's Hanna Rosin proclaimed "The End of Men." Details magazine was a touch less gloomy, this month declaring Jon Hamm the last alpha male standing. (Author Adam Sachs drools over the "lost masculine cool" of Don Draper, a "chisel-chinned messenger" of "adult-ness.")

With the "mancession" hitting men hard during the economic downturn and traditional gender roles mutating, there is rabid concern that men are being robbed of their essential masculinity. The debate heated up after the Pew Research Center reported in January that women have outpaced men in education and earnings growth: 22 per cent of husbands have wives whose income now exceeds theirs, compared to 4 per cent in 1970. The rise in women's earnings corresponds with an upsurge in their education. (The women were quickly dubbed "alpha wives.")

For some, the shrinking earnings gap is a portent of marital doom. Men who are financially dependent on their wives are more likely to be unfaithful, and the greater the gap, the more likely the man is to cheat, according to a Cornell University study presented at an American Sociological Society conference in August. Surveying the salaries and relationships of 18- to 28-year-olds, lead author Christin Munsch surmised that making less money than a wife threatens a husband's gender identity - and nudges him to cheat to bolster it.

An extreme illustration of the slide away from masculinity may be the asexual "herbivores" of Japan, young heterosexual men who are wholly uninterested in pursuing women, material goods or careers. Multiplying after the recession, herbivores live reclusive, uncompetitive lives dominated by the Internet.

Despite such revelations, calls for a softer masculinity persist.

Boys who resist macho behaviours such as aggression and "emotional stoicism" have better mental health and social relationships, according to Carlos Santos, an Arizona State University researcher who studied 426 middle school boys and presented his findings at the American Psychological Association's convention in August.

In April, Germany's feminist Green Party (which includes male members) declared: "We no longer want to be macho, we want to be people. You are not born a man, you are turned into one." The party is pushing for "gender-sensitive career-guidance sessions" for boys, who apparently aren't born with an "interest in mechanical engineering."

In a recent Newsweek article, Andrew Romano and Tony Dokoupil called for a similar re-imagination of "what men should be expected to do" at home and at work, two worlds that "always determined their worth." While the authors stressed they don't want "a world in which men are 'just like women,' " they did agitate for a "New Macho" of dirty diapers and "girly jobs" such as nursing.

Perhaps tellingly, a 2008 poll of 1,300 moms by Parenting Magazine found that 15 per cent of women are aroused by "choreplay" - that's watching their hubby pitch in with the dishes.

The popularity of the tongue-in-cheek book series Porn for Women - sample photo: hunk carrying chicken soup to sick wife - suggest some feminizing is at play in the new masculinity. But do women actually want emasculated men?

Judy Mandelbaum thinks not. The writer pondered the "cuddle spray," which stemmed from a study that saw men's empathy spike to levels normally only seen in women after oxytocin was shot up their noses. "If the new nasal spray goes into mass production ... and we suddenly find ourselves living in a brave new world of compulsively emoting, verbalizing men, I suspect we might soon start pining for the strong silent type once more," Ms. Mandelbaum wrote.

"There's room for men to be just as alpha and confident today, and I think women for the most part still respect that type of behaviour," says Derek Comeau, a 27-year-old senior instructor at Love Systems, a Los Angeles service that helps men "have more success with women." The company was formerly Mystery Method Corp., run by eyeliner-loving Canadian pickup artist Erik von Markovik.

Understandably, the gender-rejigging makes some men antsy. "I think guys get nervous because it's coupled with economic stuff," says James Bassil, editor in chief of

The website's latest Great Male Survey found that men's values still lean to the traditional: 50 per cent of the 100,000 respondents felt "being a great father and husband who takes care of his family" best defined a "real man" in 2010.

But, the model allows for some variation. "They want to be the provider and protector of the family, the guy who can fix stuff. At the same time, this traditional model has been updated. He's comfortable with the idea that his wife or girlfriend may make more money than him and pick up the tab sometimes on dates," Mr. Bassil said.

He adds: "I don't see machismo as something that drives your everyday guy. When ... you see hipsters in Brooklyn walking around in logging jackets, that's not really macho. There's a certain nostalgia and a real sincerity in it."

Brett and Kate McKay, authors of The Art of Manliness, argue that "manliness doesn't need to be reinvented. The art of manliness just needs to be rediscovered." Their book and blog offer advice on many old-timey masculine pursuits, from navigating without a compass to performing the fireman's carry to "delivering a baby in a pinch." This is your grandfather's masculinity, they write, not machismo.

Men have more to gain than lose from the "down with macho" movement, says Jennifer Berdahl, an associate professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management.

Prof. Berdahl, who investigated "masculinity teasing" in the workplace in the mid-1990s, just as men began taking paternity leave, denies that "we're turning men into women."

"Traditional definitions of masculinity entail a man being powerful over a woman," she says. "That's the masculinity that's changing. That's probably threatening to a lot of men, but to a lot it might also be liberating. If they're not feeling the pressures to be the sole breadwinners and to always perform this extreme version of masculinity, they have a lot to gain."