Tough Guys and Tough Guises

Tough guise

Tough guise

Boys and men can spend a lot of time putting on a tough guise, hoping to pass for tough guys.

Maybe you’ve seen Jackson Katz’s film, Tough Guise, which explores the problem.

The film opens with Dorothy pulling back the curtain of the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz — who turns out to be a nervous and tragic man. 

Or maybe you’ve seen the film, The Mask You Live In — say it fast and it sounds like “Masculine.”

What makes a man?

Don’t cry. Don’t show your feelings. Don’t be a pussy. Don’t be a faggot. Don’t be dependent on anyone.

What don’t you let people see?

My heart. My pain. My anger.

Men are under constant pressure to cut off half of their humanity (their more “feminine” side) in order to be respected as “real men.”

And yet men who do so much work to create this pose are anything but real, let alone real men.

When a guy’s masculinity feels threatened he’s most inclined to take on this pose.

If he feels disempowered he may try to “get his power back” in a way that is actually fake, not satisfying — and even disempowering and harmful:

  • A man who feels disempowered at work might come home and beat up his wife — feeling powerful and superior as he beats her.
  • Rapists often feel inadequate and seek to feel powerful and dominating by overpowering and dominating a woman.
  • Gangsters typically live in poverty but try to create a sense of power and ownership by tagging, defending territory, and beating up other gangs.

Do any of these guys end up with real power? Probably not. But many do end up in prison or dead: Not very powerful.

I’m reminded of something David Brooks once wrote about gangsters. To paraphrase:

A few highly alienated and fanatical young men find their self-respect by embracing the poses and worldview of American hip-hop and gangsta rap. They seem to have adopted the same poses of exaggerated manhood, the same attitudes about women. It’s built around the image of the strong, violent hyper-macho male who loudly asserts his dominance and demands respect.

You take a population of young men who are oppressed and who face limited opportunities, and you present them with a culture that encourages them to become exactly the sort of people the bigots think they are — and you call this proud self-assertion and empowerment. You tell them to defy oppression by embracing self-destruction.


And lacking the most important of human needs: love and emotional connection.

That tough guise looks a lot like a straitjacket.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on October 3, 2016, in men, psychology, violence against women and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 50 Comments.

  1. The apparent need for men to put on a tough guise and act tough, has deep psychological, social, and cultural roots. As society progressed from an agrarian economy to the industrial age, avenues for education, self-advancement and vocational choices were reserved for men. Traits such as independence, autonomy, intellect, enterprise, domination and hierarchy were identified as necessary ingredients in the battle for cultural, economic, political and colonial expansion. These traits were instinctively identified and associated as masculine traits and men were expected to demonstrate these traits. Male approaches to moral reasoning posited and realized a framework of rules, rights, duties, transactions, hierarchies, chain of command, neutrality, objectivity and product. In contrast, traits such as compassion, empathy, relationships, caring, trust and process – traits that did not serve the economic, political and colonial needs of the times – were relegated to being feminine traits that belonged to women who were free to practice them in the privacy of their homes. Individualism and self-agency was a masculine idea. Women were seen as relational dependents that were incapable of independent thought, will and action. Men therefore saw and see themselves as natural custodians and enforcers of rules in these domains, including the private domain of the family. As much as we would like to say that we have moved past these patriarchal notions, for men, their individual psyche and a stronger physical body conspire to impel them to needlessly look and act tough.

  2. Did I comment on this post, I can’t see, so just making a post to see if a pending one shows.

  3. I agree with this post. Ever since I was young, I tried to show that I was not a sissy. Here is a list of what I did to be or appear to be tough from at a young age to today: I played with action figures, I spent couple years training in the martial arts, I lifted weights, I stole things, and I got into fights. If I had the chance to go back in time to change myself then I would in a heart beat. Acting tough leads to trouble from my experience. I got caught stealing multiple times, I got busted for ditching class, I got a ring mark on my face from fighting, and more. I remember my female friend in middle school told me that I looked intimidating and I felt good hearing that but not really worth the trouble.

  4. As someone who had embraced his feminine side, and then distanced himself from that, I need to offer the idea that maybe you as a woman don’t understand how unnatural that is for men (men with male chromosomes, and generally standard genetics) to ’embrace’ a feminine side, that you claim they are meant to have. I think you might be mistaking chatharsis for a feminine quality. Catharsis and the healing, sometimes crying, that go with it should be universal to all and not considered masculine or feminine, but embracing a feminine side I think is misleading if not downright false.

    On the other hand, as far as ‘masculine’ men not being real men, I believe you are seriously mistaken. I’ll take an evolutionary psychology perspective here and say that men need that primal / carnal attitude, to be a wolf, a shark, otherwise they will never master manhood or themselves in the least. They will be lost and suck at being men, ultimately. Perhaps to master being a man they need the cathartic experience and to embrace that at times, and if you regard that as feminine, well so be it, but I think that’s a little misled, if not downright offensive.

    (Ever seen a movie where the muscle bound hero, breaks down and cries, during wartime for example, if that’s not a masculine moment, I don’t know what is. Other examples could be a male character in a caretaker role, a medical professional, one who’s attached to an animal such as a horse, some sort of genius, or one in any sort of crisis. I think these can all be masculine moments, if such characters were to cry, as an example.)

    I’ll admit it’s easy to overanalyze men because we’re the topic of and focus of just about every piece of media in all human history. And because of this it’s easy to take any number of perspectives, and men will fair well either way. If one twists a perspective on women it could be devastating, so I’ll admit that.

    Perhaps I’m just bringing up semantics though, with the catharsis versus femininity thing, but I’m pretty sure I’m not.

  5. I enjoyed reading this blog post. I think this idea has hardly been dealt with until rather recently. There was a Facebook video on a little boy in a karate class and his instructors telling him it was alright to cry, after watching him try to break a piece of wood and holding back tears. The idea that a man has to live up to a certain standard is just like holding women to the obligation of being a stay at home mother. This standard is absurd. Men should not have to hold back their emotion. We all, as human beings, need to express themselves in order to survive. I think most women have experienced a relationship in which the other person does not reciprocate any expression or emotion back, making the relationship feel one sided. It’s hard to imagine a life in which you felt you had to restrain from showing any emotion because if you didn’t, you would not be seen as a man.

  6. You talked about this in class I think last week, if I’m not mistaken and I found it very interesting. I think society has a big influence on this whole ‘tough guise’ dilemma. Society (as in most guys and some girls) make you think that being a guy and acting or being a bit feminine makes you “gay” or a “pussy”. This is what I hate the most because I have never been a “tough guy” and I know how it feels to be called these words. I’m actually a very sensitive guy and yes I have been called these words for being one and it hurts but I have never really let it phase me. I simply surrounded myself with people that were like me and could relate to me and how I felt. I can say one thing is for sure, I hate that stupid stereotype of guys having to be “tough”. It is the stupidest thing ever and I think life would be much easier for men and women if it would have never been invented, possibly even safer.

  7. I truly can understand how men and boys may feel the need to hide their emotions and feel awkward or ashamed in expressing their emotions. Ive personally seen this in my family where the men are looked down upon when they show any bit of emotion. Men are supposed to be the “rock” in the family and should never be able to cry. I completely disagree with this for people in general need to express how they are feeling in order to not feel like they are trapped. Society does already have this notion already made in which men who do show emotion are seen as gay because they are showing their feminine side. Letting ones emotions out is very therapeutic and can help resolve unsolved issues within themselves regardless of wether they are a man or a women.

  8. So the essential message of this blog is that men are in a straitjacket and a sort of bind. They do not show their more feminine side to prove to everyone that they are very strong and powerful. On top of this, if they are shown as weak, it makes the men feel less of themselves and that causes them to do things that are not good just to gain their masculinity again and power. That may be beating up people to look like they’re more powerful.

  9. So true! There are very fragile egos underneath the tough guise.

  10. I couldn’t agree more with this blog. I feel that men go through more of a struggle explaining their feelings and being emotional, which in return could cause them to act out. It’s understandable that men want to raise men. A father wants to teach his son how to do manly things and to defend their family. All that growing up as a child could cause some damage when getting older. “Don’t cry. Don’t show your feelings. Don’t be a pussy. Don’t be a faggot. Don’t depend on anyone.”, that phrase isn’t very motivational for a little boy to hear.

    I do believe that society should take it easy on men, it’s tough constantly having to hide your feelings and bottle things up. I am not a man so I wouldn’t know exactly but from living with brothers and watching my nephew grow up I can see where this form of normality can torment a little boy to a man.

  11. I have seen the movie Tough Guise, and I am well aware of the unjust way men are forced to be so masculine, to the point where they feel it is unattainable. As a woman, it helps me to parallel the way women are told they need to reach this unattainable beauty and perfect body, to the way that men are told that they need to be macho, unemotional robots that also somehow have an aura of dominance and power around them. It is simply an unfair thing to ask of people, and it leads to destruction within society.

  12. It is a shame men are “taught” or believed they must portray toughness in order to be considered a man. A man who isn’t afraid to show emotion doesn’t mean it makes them less of man. I think some part of it has to do with how your family was raised because they are the ones that pass on their “advice” to you. I know that coming from a mexican family, a boy is raised from a young age to be strong and tough, because in the end, it is what will get you a wife because a woman wants a man strong enough to support and protect the family. My brother’s were raised to be “tough” and show less emotion as possible because that is what they were told a man is. One of my brothers is a little soft, and can be sensitive at times so my other brother’s make fun of him for it. My brother just laughs it out. But that is how they were raised. I think today, toughness isn’t what makes a man a man but a man who isn’t afraid to show emotion that is a man.

  13. I agree that boys and men grow up putting on a front that they are tough. Some are tough and many aren’t. There are many characteristics on what makes a male, a man. Those characteristics are hard to achieve but easily fronted to others. The man’s true identity is revealed when no one is looking which, is universal.
    All sorts of men will get aggressive if they are provoked and especially when it deals with their manhood status. I believe more violent acts are committed by men than women since men has that, “I need to prove mindset.” When I was in elementary school, I punched my younger sister after she clawed the side of my face. That was the only time I laid my hands on another female and I will never forget that. I felt horrible after the conflict I had with her and apologized. I did feel some sort of power but it wasn’t a good feeling to have that involves violence. After that incident, I told myself that, “I’m a lover and not a fighter.” But, when a situation comes where I need to handle it with my fists and is when I am defending others or myself.

    • And consider that the reason why a man might tend toward more physical aggression is the way he is socialized: taught to be tough, and toughness for guys is role modeled in cartoons, TV, Movies. Men have more testosterone but men can have plenty of it and still be very nice, they have more testosterone has grown men then as little boys — and yet they’re more aggressive as little boys, generally. Also, estrogen is also tied to aggression.

  14. But it’s on my list. Please feel free to remind me because I and developing a list of things to write when I get a chance.”

    The only other one I can think of is, the extended version or longer, multi layered version you said you wrote or were going to post of the mike posner post. You posted the short version which was where I talked about the ibiza song and it’s lyrics from mike posner’s song and it’s relation to men and the high life. But the other one I had was where I relayed them all with two other songs and how they correlated to each other. The other one was bakerstreet by jerry rafferty and the other one a poem and also become a song by simon and garfunkel. I think you know what I’m talking about there.

  15. thing about it is that men just have too much pride to show their emotions or their true feelings I’m guilty of this too don’t forget so I can’t exactly tell men to show their feelings when I won’t do as much myself lol

    • And that pride comes from ranking males over females/Masculinity over femininity. Women don’t have too much pride to do masculine things like wear pants, become CEO or US President. If we valued traits that were associated with women it wouldn’t be such a problem for guys’ pride. But as a result men end up cutting off half of their humanity, because these “softer” traits are human traits actually, Not just female or feminine traits.

  16. Yes, most of the times, the real feelings of men are lost in these cynical circle of “be a real man”. I find them as victims, sometimes.

  17. I believe that it’s not fair for men to grow up, thinking they shouldn’t show any expressions of defeat, sad, whining, because men are humans! they’re not robots! and obviously no men should ever feel that they can’t show any expressions, the result is that these men would later become mad about the world, and even feel like they’re such failure, and start thinking about suicidal. 😦 Crying is only an emotion, that helps us, elevate our mood. Nobody ever judge a baby for crying! no matter it’s gender. Then why does it make it okay, to judge men now for crying?

  18. I truly could see how social media, can also have an impact on little boys, for example, the saying, “Monkey see, monkey do,” So whatever social media is showing out there, obviously little kids would become its follower, specially if it’s really popular! Not only that, but people in the society could also, shape boys lives, by constantly letting them know about their flaws, and even exaggerate it! Older people barely even think, the consequences of just telling boys or girls how bad they are doing, they don’t know, that someone needs to know their achievements as well, so that they can become better people, and perhaps persuade it through their adulthood.

  19. This was a very interesting article!

    Throughout the world’s history, something has pushed men further down the rabbit hole of this guise. From cultural and old civilization studies, Men were not always portrayed as dominant figures who show no emotion. In fact men had high regards toward the emotions he learned from his mother and still ended up being efficient hunters and warriors. I think a major aspect to understanding this male guise is by understanding the subconscious affected through media. Men see all these visuals from movies, pictures, and commercials. While these may not scream for men to have no emotion; there is a repetitive factor that men should act this way to be attractive in the eyes of a society that judges on social norms. The human trait to be accepted has drawbacks and it is important for both men and women to see past these false portrayals. I can relate to this and have questioned my manhood, not on the basis that I wasn’t sure if I was a man, but on the issue of why I felt restricted to how I acted. If only there was a way to remove this stigma that has heavily rooted itself into our understanding of gender.

  20. I found this post to be very thought provoking.

    If a male does not become tough, there will be times when it will be to his advantage to act the part in order to minimise the amount of inter-male aggression that he potentially may encounter.
    Taking on the guise of someone who is “hard” can often be sufficient to deter an unprovoked attack.

    I have no qualms about displaying my sensitive nature, because I am tough anyway. 🙂

  21. Real guys don’t wear a mask of power. Those who do are actually very weak and they know it, that’s why they feel the need to demonstrate their power.

    • And a lot of times people internalize ideas and don’t realize how much they control their lives, Which I suspect is very common with guys. Women and men both need to become more aware so they can step out of their straitjackets.

  22. I believe the Guise that men have to put on stems from many causes that actually crossover with some womens issues. As a recent example we have been starting to have an issue with how women are portrayed in media (magazines, ads, etc..). Many of these market the idea of what a “sexy” woman is supposed to look like (hourglass figure, makeup, etc..).At this point we are trying to make changes in how that image is portrayed by using models who more accurately represent the average figure and using less photoshop.
    If you look at male focused media you will see a very similar thing going on that is not being addressed. Magazines show men that are “ripped” and extremely buff as the standard men should be aiming for.
    I believe this kind of advertisement can hurt men just as much as its female counterpart hurts women and should be something we take into consideration.

  23. What is your new book? Has it been published yet?

    • I’m still writing it. I’ll promote it on my blog when it’s out. Have to finish writing and get a publisher. Then it still takes another year to come out. Stay tuned.

  24. Unfortunately, many men are missing out on some of the most fulfilling parts of life by denying their feelings and wearing a false mask. Their relationships with other people will never be what they could be when their ‘uber machismo’ trumps ’emotional connections’.

    In much the same way that the LGBT community celebrates ‘gay pride’, feminists should celebrate femininity in both women and men, so that feminine traits will be appreciated rather than scorned. Just like there are ‘gay pride’ parades, why not a ‘world femininity day’?

      • I wrote something a while ago about my thoughts on gangs, I thought it was good and wondered what you thought as it was something you asked me. I brought up the documentary like show, Gangland and you asked me about a clip and what stood out to me and I brought it up as well as brought examples in regard to quotes from a Bronx tale. Just wondered what you thought.

      • I think it’s terrific! And I plan to write on it, But last summer I hardly did any new writing because I was working on a rough draft of my book — it’s a lot easier to focus when I can work on the same topic day after day. I’m still find of finish up and probably won’t be doing many new posts until November. But it’s on my list. Please feel free to remind me because I and developing a list of things to write when I get a chance.

        In past years I have used the summer to write extra blog posts for when I’m too busy, So I have quite a catalog but it is depleting rapidly. 🙂

      • Actually, I got to thinking and googled ‘world femininity day’, and was surprised to find that June 22 has been declared ‘World Femininty Day’ by some folks over in the U.K.

        I’ve never heard of it before, but think it would be a great way to celebrate here in the USA…

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