Home All Positive Male Identity: What is a Real Man, Anyway?

Positive Male Identity: What is a Real Man, Anyway?

written by Steve Safigan 29 February 2012

Steve Safigan, MAPP '09, is a practicing life coach (CPCC). He is president of Foundations Seminars and presents personal growth seminars specializing in positive interventions for healthy adults looking for more happiness, meaning, and connection in their own lives. Full bio.

Steve writes on the 4th of the month, and his articles are here.

What does Positive Psychology tell us about positive masculinity and how it relates to femininity and sexuality? Bridget Grenville-Cleave wondered the same thing, asking, Dare We Let Boys Be Boys?. My curiosity led me to check in with Brianna Booth, MAPP graduate and doctoral student in Human Sexuality at Widener University. Brianna works in a field she calls Sexual Well-being at the intersection of the Positive Psychology and Human Sexuality fields. She helped me sharpen my interest in the concept of male identity, which led me through the men’s movement of the 80’s and 90’s, to the work of psychologist and author Christopher Blazina, and to Roy Baumeister’s provocative article about what there is that is good about men.

Gary Cooper: tall, dark, and handsome

The Men’s Movement

The “men’s movement” emerged in the 1980’s as a complementary counterpart to the feminist movement. It explored the different roles men play and identities that men hold. Like the feminist movement, it was not simply psychological. Works by writers such as Robert Bly, John Eldredge, Sam Keene, John Gray, and Robert Moore were also sociological, philosophical, political, and even environmental, spiritual, and mythological. The movement offered alternatives to traditional male role models exemplified by John Wayne and Gary Cooper.

As helpful as the men’s movement is, it seems more involved in advocacy than concerned with empirical research. Many authors promote their own specific views of masculinity rather than support an individual’s search for his own masculinity. From my own exploration, I haven’t found much descriptive research into how men see themselves as men and how these perceptions affect men as well as boys. We do not know enough about male identity.

The Ten Myths of Growing Up Male

Psychologist Christopher Blazina tells a story about one of his counseling clients who finally said in frustration, “Look, can we just cut to the chase? Can you tell me how I am supposed to be as a man?”

In his recent book, Blazina explains that many men operate under a set of misunderstandings about what men are supposed to be. These misunderstandings are inadvertently taught and enforced mainly by men. He sums them up in what he calls the ten commandments of growing up male, myths that permeate our society.

   Based on Power

  1. There is only one way to be a man.
  2. Fear the feminine.
  3. Men must funnel all their feelings into sex or aggression.
  4. Affection is always associated with sex.
  5. Boy society is based on power, strength, and paranoia.
  6. A boy needs a male role model or his sense of being a man is flawed.
  7. If your father is rejecting, you must learn to please him.
  8. If you don’t please your mother, you must marry someone like her.
  9. Being a man is a 24/7 job.
  10. A man must follow the commandments even if it causes him to be emotionally stunted or leads him off track.

These myths are contradictory, confusing, and demand that men conform to an unachievable standard that overlooks the nuances of men as individuals. Following the commandments, men generally concede that they can’t live up to society’s definition of masculinity. Blazina argues that once we recognize the way that the commandments dictate our lives, we can rewrite them to reflect our unique positive identities.

Father and Son

Provider, Protector, Progenitor

Throughout his book, Blazina makes two core assertions. The first is that men and women are more alike than they are different. The second is that there is no one way to be a man. The feminist movement helped establish this fact for women. It now sounds strange to ask what a “real woman” is. The same should be true for masculine identity, but as a society we still seem to have more rigid expectations for men.

Blazina draws on anthropologist David Gilmore’s research into what is considered masculine across cultures. Gilmore groups traditional roles of males in most cultures under the three P’s: protector, provider, and progenitor. Masculinity is often defined within a culture as a man’s ability to achieve all three roles.

The three Ps are not inherently destructive. However, they do cause boys and men to question whether they have what it takes to act in these roles. Blazina sees these role standards as a checklist in which a man either succeeds or fails. Significant psychological angst can occur if a boy or man concludes that he doesn’t measure up.

The View from Society as a Whole

Baumeister: The gender gap in dangerous work persists

Noted psychologist Roy Baumeister points out that men dominate both the top and bottom of the social ladder. The large majority of our top CEOs, scientists, and politicians are men, but so are the majority of prisoners and homeless. Baumeister argues that

“The essence of how culture uses men depends on a basic social insecurity. This insecurity is in fact social, existential, and biological. Built into the male role is the danger of not being good enough to be accepted and respected and even the danger of not being able to do well enough to create offspring. The basic social insecurity of manhood is stressful for the men, and it is hardly surprising that so many men crack up or do evil or heroic things or die younger than women. But that insecurity is useful and productive for the culture, the system.”

Positive Perspective: Looking Forward

But this is a view of society as a whole, not one focused on the well-being of individuals. If we shift our view to individual well-being, how can boys and men define their own positive and achievable roles in reference to their male self-identity?

Blazina contends that a man’s identity must evolve as he ages. An athlete will need to redefine himself when his physical skills decline. A businessman will need to redefine his role when he retires. Additionally, Blazina recommends that we replace our notion of traditional male role models with the concept of guardians, male or female, who can support a boy’s development of a healthy, authentic sense of self. Boys and men need guardians throughout their lives as their roles change and as they face new challenges in what it means to be men.

Blazina has a vision of a man’s sense of his own masculinity as “a common tie that binds all his responsibilities and endeavors [. . .] a rich resource, bolstering who he is every step of the way along life’s journey.”

My question is how we, both as members of society and as adherents of positive psychology, can arrive at this point. What do we still need to learn from research to better embody positive concepts of masculinity in our personal lives?


Baumeister, R. F. (2007). Is There Anything Good About Men? Invited address to the American Psychological Association.

Blazina, C. (2008). The Secret Lives of Men: What Men Want You to Know About Love, Sex, and Relationships. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications.

Bly, R. (1990). Iron John: A Book About Men. Boston: Addison-Wesley.

Eldredge, J. (2003). Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale.

Gilmore, D. (1990). Manhood in the Making: Cultural Concepts of Masculinity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Gray, J. (1992). Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus: The Classic Guide to Understanding the Opposite Sex. New York: Harper Collins.

Grenville-Cleave, B. (2010). Dare We Let Boys Be Boys? Positive Masculinity and Positive Psychology. Positive Psychology News.

Keen, S. (1992). Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man. New York: Random House.

Moore, R. (1991). King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine. New York: HarperCollins.


Gary Cooper courtesy of Thom Wong
Round Two begins courtesy of Cubmundo
Madagascar Father and Son courtesy of Steve Evans
Firefighter courtesy of Brett Arthur

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Christine Duvivier 29 February 2012 - 5:39 pm

Steve, I really enjoyed this article and am going to send it to men (and women) in my life. Thank you! I was heartened by your point about men and women being very much alike and intrigued by your quote from Baumeister about men as CEOs and prisoners.

One thing I would point out about re-defining roles over time is that this is true for women as well as men. Women executives have to work through identity issues when they leave corporate America and mothers often face identity issues when their kids leave home. I do agree that men, in general, seem to have more rigidly-defined accepted ways of being in the world. It’s great that you’re helping to re-think this.


Louis Alloro 29 February 2012 - 10:21 pm

Love this article — way important to challenge our beliefs on sexual identity. Thanks Brianna, for your work, and Steve, for reporting on it.

Explore Nature 1 March 2012 - 1:57 am

Good post and thanks for the information.

Gender represents the psychological factor of sex. Gender specifications are essential things in the human society. Balance between masculinity and the femininity is very important for the long time existence of human kind.
Developing children’s psychology with proper gender specifications is a great responsibility of parents. In this case, fathers must raise their sons with masculine gender specifications from younger ages. In addition to that they must let their sons to be sensitive for feminine gender specifications which are corresponding to their masculinity. Femininity is the corresponding feature to the masculinity of men. Fathers must develop the psychological masculinity of their sons and the sensitivity of identifying femininity of girls and women. There is a great responsibility of protecting boys psychologically from complicating their gender to all of adult men.

Tracy 1 March 2012 - 6:19 am

This topic never truly hit home for me until I was raising my son. Some of the classic ideologies about raising a boy into a “man” quite frankly sickened me. A real man to me is one that is REAL from the inside out, not what society tells him he is supposed to be. I see so many men struggle today because of that.

Women have pressured stereotypes as well, just watch about a million ads telling us to lose weight, remove body hair, wear makeup, dress in heels that ruin our back and feet…, and men have other stereotypes they are expected to fit into. I think men have it worse because their stereotype goes so much deeper than the physical trappings, it screws with their emotions and that sort of invalidation is profoundly damaging on so many levels.

Jeremy McCarthy (@jeremymcc) 1 March 2012 - 9:54 am

Hi Steve, I always enjoy your articles (I wish I had been in your cohort in MAPP so I could have read some of your papers, I bet they were good! :-)). I hope you do a follow up on this piece that attempts to answer some of the questions you brought up. Interestingly, I also had something published on gender this week as I was asked to write about my career experience as a male working in the predominantly female spa world: http://www.spatrade.com/americanspa/spa-business/venus-and-mars

Recently, at a family gathering there were a bunch of kids under 10 and some of the girls (daughters of my cousins) were doing their nails. One of the boys wanted to paint his nails but when he reached for the nail polish, his sister grabbed it, exclaiming, “no! This is for girls only!” My cousin immediately looked down at her children and said, “Hey! No gender scripting!” and told her to share the nail polish with her brother. I thought this was a hilarious thing to hear from a parent so I was laughing but I was also impressed by this approach and it has changed the way I think about raising my own two boys.

There is a lot about this in “Situations Matter” by Sam Sommers (which I wrote about here on “Why Men Are Better Than Women at Math” http://psychologyofwellbeing.com/201110/men-are-better-at-math.html) Thanks for stimulating something interesting.

Steve Safigan 1 March 2012 - 12:12 pm

Jeremy, thank you for your links to other references on this topic. If anyone else knows of research, authors, books, articles or other resources on this topic, please post them here. I’m interested in learning more!

Jeremy McCarthy (@jeremymcc) 1 March 2012 - 1:47 pm

Here is an interesting article (from yesterday) showing how Norway is pushing gender equality and changing social norms with a new law that pushes father to take time off to spend with their newborns while encouraging women to come back to work: http://www.theglasshammer.com/news/2012/02/29/women-men-work-and-family-%E2%80%93-why-our-mindset-must-change/

Bridget 22 March 2012 - 7:51 am

Great article Steve

I have recently been reading Natasha Walter’s book ‘Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism’ – in short she demolishes the argument that there is a biological difference between the male/female brain which is often used to explain why boys & girls think and behave differently. She argues that it’s all due to socialisation. The research she uses to support this is robust, and it’s interesting that top scientists (she names many) still persist in the biological explanation when there appears to be none.

Our 10 year old son is a great communicator and has great empathy, and he’s not in the least bit girl-like. In my observation, people treat boys and girls differently, and have different expectations of them from the moment they’re born. It’s no wonder they grow up differently.


Al 25 March 2012 - 10:20 am

Why is there no option to post this article to Facebook? I see an option to “retweet,” but I don’t see a button for Facebook. This is an excellent article that deserves wide dissemination; I would post it to my Facebook wall if I could. Thanks.

Steve Safigan 25 March 2012 - 2:29 pm

Hey Al, I think if you copy and paste the web site address to a status update on Facebook it will automatically create a link and allow you to attach a comment to it. There may be other ways as well.

Al 25 March 2012 - 2:51 pm

Thanks, Steve. That’s what I ended up doing. Still, if there’s a “retweet” button, why not one for Facebook too? (A question for the programmers, not the author) 🙂

Editor K.H.B. 26 March 2012 - 9:42 am

You are quite right. I think when we last looked, it was not simple to do, but I suspect it is drop-dead easy now. I’ll look into it.


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