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Fifty shades of men

A growing number of Concordia researchers and students are examining what makes guys tick
September 17, 2013
By Sylvain-Jacques Desjardins

Popular literature would have us believe that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. The sexes are further polarized in television dramas such as Mad Men and Game of Thrones, where hyper-masculine leads enact outdated gender ideas to a modern audience whose concepts of masculinity are becoming increasingly diverse.

Fifty shades of men

At the movies, cowboys and conquerors are now supersized. Hollywood hurls an increasing number of superheroes to the big screen — be it Batman, Thor, Captain America, G.I. Joe, Wolverine and Superman — whose brute force is pivotal in saving Earth and distressed damsels.

Is it any surprise that since their 1960s debut, G.I. Joe figurines marketed to young boys have grown in muscle mass? American researchers found the toys now exceed the muscularity of even the largest of human bodybuilders.

Could it be that the entertainment industry is manufacturing vicarious outlets for guys from the real world as they become decreasingly alpha?

“Popular culture is presenting a fantasy of what it means to be a man as roles continue to be redefined,” says Marc Lafrance, an assistant professor in Concordia’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology who is an expert on media representations of men and masculinity.

Conversely, humiliating men is gaining traction in popular music — a domain that’s no longer a “Man’s Man’s Man’s World.” Popular female singers such as Lady Gaga, Beyoncé and Christina Aguilera have recorded videos where men are tortured and killed — a pendulum reversal to misogynistic scenarios once (still) commonplace in male rock. “Such revenge fantasies, where women are empowered and in control and men are disempowered and dominated, say bigger things about the shifting balance of power in society where gender norms are changing and men often appear in crisis,” Lafrance says.

These mass media fantasies blur reallife gender ideals. A telling example comes from the classroom of Professor Anthony Synnott, former chair of Concordia’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology. Each semester, he begins class discussions by asking students to identify five male heroes. “Oftentimes they can’t name one,” he says. “They pick comic book characters such as Superman or Batman.”

Gone are the days when heads of state or public figures were considered heroes or role models. Blame changing demographics, corruption in government, fragile economies, unemployment in traditionally male sectors and fastchanging social mores, but Western concepts of masculinity have splintered into 50 shades of men with no hard and fast models emerging.

Consider Statistics Canada’s 2011 report that found 60,000 guys across the country were the principal caregivers of their children — a threefold increase from 1976. Chaps now represent 12 per cent of Canada’s stay-at-home parents. And while women still make up 88 per cent of caregivers, these figures show that new gender roles are emerging. Such trends in social change have prompted a growing number of Concordia researchers to study what makes men tick.

Anthony Synnott Sociology and anthropology professor Anthony Synnott examines changing gender roles and how that’s affected men.

Synnott is a pioneer in men’s studies and wrote a major book on the topic, Re-Thinking Men: Heroes, Villains and Victims (Ashgate, 2009), which won the American Library Association’s award for “Best Title.”

“Men’s roles are defined by their epoch,” says Synnott, who blogs about the Y chromosome for Psychology Today magazine. “In wartime, men were warriors. In times of peace, they strove to be peaceable. In our current postindustrial society, men often aspire to be the American ideal of the self-made man.”

He says the advent of the birth control pill and the women’s movement were crucial to refashioning gender roles: “The women’s movement transformed our world for the better, but there has been a cost” — such as plummeting birth and rising divorce rates across Canada. Roles continued to alter as more women entered the workforce and earned their own money. “Until the women’s movement, men had been the main providers for their families. In times of war, men were and continue to be the primary protectors of their countries. Men had also been rulers, in politics and economics, despite universal suffrage in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom.”

Men face another disparity — grim death rates. In collecting data for his book, Synnott found men make up two thirds of accidental deaths. Men are disproportionately addicted to drugs or sent to prison. “Homeless people are most often men,” he adds.

About 9,000 men die violent deaths in Canada each year. Canadian males constitute 99 per cent of military victims of war, 73 per cent of homicide victims, 77 per cent of suicide victims and over 90 per cent of workplace fatalities. “This presents a rather different picture of men as victims,” says Synnott. Students have found these facts illuminating. “Professor Synnott’s class changed my views on gender substantially — I gained a lot of insight into the lives and motivations of the men around me,” says Sarah Anstis, BFA 13.

A crisis in masculinity?

Unemployed men turn to social deviance, substance abuse and public brawls, says Lafrance: “Historically, the biggest riots have always been led by disaffected men who felt emasculated.”

Marc Lafrance Sociology and anthropology professor Marc Lafrance’s research includes studying how the changing economy has caused a shift in men’s roles and, therefore, self-perception.

As the patriarchal advantage began to diminish in Western society, the number of female breadwinners began to exceed the number of male breadwinners. Recent studies in Canada, the U.K. and the U.S. indicate that women are outnumbering men in university in just about every field.

In a recent analysis of students aged 18 to 24, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada found that women represented 28 per cent of university scholars and men 18 per cent. At the same time, the high school dropout rate for male students has remained consistently higher in recent decades. A 2009-10 Statistics Canada report found 10.3 per cent of dropouts were young men, while 6.6 per cent were young women.

“Our global and changing economy is causing enormous shifts in men’s roles,” Lafrance says. “From blue collar to white collar, jobs that were typically held by men are gone and won’t return. Yet what happens when men no longer earn solid wages that allow them upward mobility and to support their families? Society has to rethink what it means to be a man.”

Lafrance began zeroing in on masculinity-related research as a PhD student at the University of Oxford in the early 2000s. “I was coming across a lot of dogma and a lot of rhetoric, but not enough systematic research on what it means to be a heterosexual man,” he says. Lafrance credits feminism and the gay rights movement with providing scholars of men and masculinity new ways of thinking about gender and sexuality: “These groups made us question the status quo and ask, ‘What does it mean be a woman? What does it mean be a man?’ ” Lafrance hopes that Concordia considers opening a men’s studies hub to complement the university’s groundbreaking women’s studies centre, the Simone de Beauvoir Institute, which celebrates its 35th anniversary in 2013.

“There are now women’s studies centres around the world and there’s absolutely no reason why men’s studies should not receive the same amount of attention,” says Lafrance. “If we don’t investigate both sides of the gender spectrum, we’re not seeing the complete picture. Those of us who are examining men’s issues have just started the thinking.” Males require closer examination to benefit future generations — of men and women, he adds: “Researchers are opening up a dialogue so that we can begin to think critically about men’s relationships to themselves and others.”

Men and marketing

Differences between men and women form the premise to most of Gad Saad’s research. As a professor at the John Molson School of Business and Concordia University Research Chair in Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences and Darwinian Consumption, he’s examined how elevated testosterone levels foster risky behaviours in males and how menstrual cycles affect consumer habits among females.

Gad Saad Gad Saad at the Ferrari Maserati Quebec dealership in Montreal. His research shows certain material items — such as Ferraris —can elevate men’s testosterone levels.

“Two decades ago, the mere idea that men and women could be biologically different was considered abhorrent to some academics, feminists and social constructivists,” he says. “Yet there are attributed differences in the sexes across all cultures.”

Investigating gender variances helps science progress, says Saad, quoting the late J.B.S. Haldane’s four stages of acceptance: “One: This is worthless nonsense. Two: This is an interesting but perverse point of view. Three: This is true, but quite unimportant. Four: I always said so.”

To support his theories, Saad merges psychological and biological evidence. In one peer-reviewed study, he found that increased length between men’s second and fourth finger was linked to high levels of prenatal testosterone and risk taking. “In each of our studies, our goal is to find the physiological proof to back our concept,” says Saad.

He’s documented how sports cars and premium wares can trigger biological response in men. “A Rolex or luxury vehicle can cause a rise in testosterone,” he says, noting he examines these issues in his interdisciplinary book, The Consuming Instinct: What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Pornography, and Gift Giving Reveal about Human Nature (Prometheus Books, 2011).

Saad argues that consumer behaviours in men and women are rooted in evolution and four Darwinian drives: survival (we prefer foods high in calories); reproduction (we use products as sexual signals); kin selection (we naturally exchange gifts with family members); and reciprocal altruism (we enjoy offering gifts to close friends). “We are a sexually reproducing species that uses products to impress and attract members of the opposite sex,” he says.

Blokes and booze

Roisin O’Connor investigates what drives problematic drinking in young adults, specifically understanding unique risks for men. A professor in Concordia’s Department of Physcology and director of the Young Adult and Alcohol Research Lab, her Loyola Campus lab was built to mimic a bar. There she investigates how men aged 18 to 25 imbibe beer and other spirits to cope during situations of high anxiety. “I’m looking at how young men might be drinking to reduce tension during the transitional years between school and the working world,” she says.

Roisin O’Connor The research of psychology professor Roisin O’Connor delves into what drives men’s drinking habits.

“I’m particularly interested in how people prone to anxiety, especially in social situations, are at risk of heavy alcohol use in later life.”

She seeks clues that might explain why some men engage in binge drinking in youth, moderate as they age, while others continue in excess into adulthood. “Are they impulsive? What piece of the puzzle are we missing?” she asks.

To shed light on such questions, O’Connor recently launched the groundbreaking smart phone study on drinking patterns among undergraduates. Participants receive messages, Thursday through Saturday evenings, asking them to text information on their mood, location and what they might be drinking. “It’s discreet and we can almost be there with them,” says O’Connor.

Her goal is to better understand how dysfunctional drinking patterns emerge. “Drinking is such a complex behaviour that can cause so many problems,” she says, noting her gender focus changed after she found evidence that young men seemed to be at particular risk for heavy drinking as a way to cope. “I expected young women might drink more during anxious periods, yet I found it is men who drink more heavily in an effort to reduce tension.”

While O’Connor’s research is funded by government agencies like the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, she occasionally encounters people who question why any investigation would segregate the sexes. “Yet front-line practitioners need such data to decide on best courses of treatment,” she says. “ The key to appropriate intervention is knowing how and when to get involved.”

– Sylvain-Jacques Desjardins, BA 97, is director of communications for Concordia’s Advancement and Alumni Relations.

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