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Trangender Day Of Rememberance





The sex/gender system can also be understood as operating on a symbolic level. Symbols of masculinity and femininity are culturally constructed rather than reflected purely in biology. The distinction between men and women is created through language, gestures, dress, art and even discourses on gender.


References and further reading

ConneU, R. (2002) Gender, Malden, MA: Blackwell. Fausto-Sterling, A. (2000) Sexing the Body, New York: Basic Books.

Rubin, G. (1975) ‘The traffic in women’, in R.R. Reiter (ed.) Toward an Anthropology of Women, New York: Monthly Review, pp. 157–210.


Sex role theory has been important in the study of masculinity since the 1970s. It has its origins in the work of Parsons (Parsons and Bales 1953), who argued that all societies needed to fulfil the functions of production and reproduction. In his view, these social activities required separate ‘instrumental’ and ‘expressive’ roles. He believed that men were more suited to perform the instrumental activities such as competition and rational action, while women were most suited to undertake expressive activities such as nurturing, caring and creative work. Parsons regarded these culturally prescribed roles as complementary to each other and as meeting the functions required by society. Consequently, men and women needed to be socialised into the ‘appropriate’ sex roles. Boys and girls learn the social expectations conveyed by family, peer groups, education and the media to guide appropriate behaviours for men and women. Men and women were thus socialised into dominant and submissive behaviours respectively (Clatterbaugh 1990).

Brannon’s (1976) influential article on the male sex role in the 1970s outlined what he saw as the four main rules that men needed to adhere to. They were: no sissy stuff—avoid all feminine behaviour traits; be a big wheel—acquire success and status in the breadwinning role; be a sturdy oak—develop strength and confidence; and give ‘em hell—be daring, aggressive and violent. He argued that this role was harmful to men as well as being oppressive to women. In this view, boys see models of men who seek material success, physical and psychological strength, independence, toughness, leadership and invulnerability. They suppress their fear and control their emotions. Sex role theorists argue that this stereotype of masculinity is imposed on boys from birth and is reinforced through pre-school and school (see Farrell 1975).

The sex role approach to masculinity parallels the theoretical ideas underlying liberal feminism, wherein women’s disadvantages are said to result from stereotyped customary expectations, internalised by both men and women. Inequalities between men and women can then be eliminated by giving girls better training and more varied role models (Connell 1987). Because it is compatible with liberal feminism, sex role theory has been influential in shaping government programmes concerned with discrimination against girls and women, particularly non-sexist school curricular, assertiveness training for women, anti-discrimination legislation, equal opportunity policies and affirmative action programmes.

In spite of the implicit social determinism, sex role theory promised the possibility of social change in gender roles because if masculinity was not biologically determined, it could be changed by setting up more positive role models. As Connell (1995) pointed out, it was simply a matter of transmitting new expectations through the family, school and media. Men’s dominance, aggression and emotional stoicism could be challenged by teaching them to be more egalitarian, gentle and expressive.

Sex role theory informed the early men’s liberation movement of the 1970s, whose theorists maintained that freeing sex role conventions might be good for men as well as for women. Men were thus encouraged to break free of the stereotypes and restrictions of traditional male sex roles. Through this popular discourse, the liberation of men was linked with expanding the role options available to them. By implication, men’s transformation was envisaged without reference to wider social processes, as the male role was seen to be a constraint that could be discarded, allowing the human being in the man to emerge. These ideas promoted the view of men’s liberationists that men were also oppressed by traditional sex roles (see Messner 1997): since symmetrical sex roles hurt men and women equally, there was no hierarchy of oppression between women and men.

Pleck, an important theorist of male sex roles in the 1970s, constructed what he called the Male Sex Role Identity (MSRI) (Pleck 1976). He believed that the male sex role was contradictory and that this thwarted the successful attainment of male sex role identity (Pleck 1987). He consequently developed an alternative model, which he called the Male Sex Role Strain (MSRS), where the tensions inherent in the role were openly acknowledged and addressed. However, his models did not adequately explain men’s social power.

A major criticism of sex role theory is that it under-emphasises the economic and political power that men exercise over women and cannot explain male domination or gender inequality. Nor is it able to explain men’s resistance to change. A number of critics have also pointed out that by focusing on one normative standard of masculinity that is white, middle class and heterosexual, sex role theory is unable to account for diversity and difference in men’s lives (see Edley and Wetherell 1995). Because of its inability to theorise power and interests, and its assumption that a normative standard exists throughout history, many theorists argue that sex role theory is inadequate for explaining masculinity. Consequently, this approach has been overtaken by other theoretical accounts of masculinity.

References and further reading

Brannon, R. (1976) ‘The male sex role’, in D. David and R.Brannon (eds) The Forty-Nine Percent Majority, Reading, MA: AddisonWesley.

Clatterbaugh, K. (1990) Contemporary Perspectives on Masculinity, Boulder, CO: West View.

Connell, R. (1987) Gender and Power, Cambridge: Polity.

(1995) Masculinities, Sydney: Allen and Unwin.

Edley, N. and Wetherell, M. (1995) Men in Perspective, London: Prentice Hall.

Farrell, W. (1975) The Liberated Man, New York: Bantam.

Messner, M. (1997) Politics of Masculinities, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Parsons, T. and Bales, R. (1953) Family, Socialisation and the Interaction Process, Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

Pleck, J. (1976) ‘The male sex role’, Journal of Social Issues, 32:155–64.

(1987) ‘The theory of the male sex role identity’, in H.Brod (ed.) The Making of Masculinities, Boston, MA: Allen and Unwin.

See also: masculinity/masculinities













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