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What is masculinity and the masculine ideal?

self reflection
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A search for the definition of masculinity in a global, historical, contemporary and personal context.


While looking for an appropriate image for this article I searched for “pioneer”.

The free spirit and yearning for more from life, more opportunity, more understanding, more for their life. The spirit of the pioneer. 

Why did I search for masculinity?

Because I wanted to understand what contemporary society thought it meant to be male.

Specifically, what is the role of the male homo sapien on this planet.

We, individuals, are the ones responsible for the growth of ourselves and our species.

Define Masculinity

There is no one right definition for masculinity. Different cultures, scientists and experts disagree.

Let’s instead look at some of the areas they agree on when looking to get the Masculinity Definition.

In this sense we need to first focus on masculine culture.

That is, manliness and manhood.

What does it mean to be a man? What does masculine mean?

Let’s start with the macro.

A male homo sapien, the great hairless ape. Your species is the dominant species on this planet through millions of years of evolution.

You are shaped by biology and culture. The old nature vs. nature discussion is one for another day.

You as a man find yourself in 2018-2019.

What does this mean for you?

First we must look at: the history of masculinity.

Crisis of Masculinity – human males have always been in crisis.

  • We are the expendable ones.
  • We are the ones who traditionally take the most amount of risk.
  • We are the ones who also die more often.
  • We are the ones who work in physically demanding labor.

Historically speaking.

So if that’s males, then what about masculine men and masculine meaning?

The males who survived and thus passed on their genes to as many different children as possible had a better chance of their genes and themselves moving into the future the the greatest odds.

It is this primary biological truth that is unavoidable.

You will die and so too will the world eventually. What do you want to leave behind.

Children is the biological answer.

A legacy or meaning is another. That is no small feat nor to be overlooked.

Masculine Strategies

As such males developed ways to succeed in these parameters.

Firstly, for basic survival. Though those are not by any means exclusively masculine.

The ways to move forward in the world in whatever way you thought best required three things; physical strength, emotional depth and mental capacity.

A tough body to protect yourself and the ones you loved was important. It still is.

Emotional depth because humans are emotional creatures, we have depth. We are also social, it pays to be able to understand others. It builds relationships, families, communities and partnerships. This is still important.

Mental capacity. Intelligence and other personal traits, like planning, risk assessment, negotiating skills, environmental awareness, etc.

You better believe this is more important than ever.

Therefore, advancement in these areas is advantageous regardless of your aim, even if it is basic survival, to say nothing of self realization.

Improve Masculinity

The male with the highest likelihood of survival is the one that embodies the best traits in all categories.

Thus, self improvement is part in parcel of our conversation. Continual, daily self improvement is the path to masculinity. Whatever that may be.

Being “a man” is not laziness, it is taking responsibility for yourself and the direction you want to lead your life and putting everything into taking it there.

Where there is, is your choice. Yours alone. You can look at examples throughout history of men taking their own path. It can be inspiring and terrifying.

It should be. You should be terrified. The likelihood of you getting everything you want out of your life by the time that you die is what?

Especially if your only goal is to have a life well lived.

How close are you to realizing whatever goal or meaning you are looking for? Do you even have a general direction.

Masculine Men are Heros

Men who have a direction in life and can adapt along the way are heros.

It takes a lot to create goals and stick to them, especially when you are doing this in every area of your life.

You are building character. Character is important because you have nothing else.

Your character, how you know yourself and how people know you matters.

Creating a good character is work, hard work, daily hard work. It gets easier over time unless you never give up trying to be the best you, you would want to be.

You can define this however you like. It just means you being you.

Why do the work?

Don’t. It doesn’t matter. It only does to you. So do as much or as little as you like. No one cares. No one should care. Except you. You have to live with yourself. Do you like who you are living with?

If you don’t then do something about it. Just don’t give up.

If you don’t like the world or who you are in it, you can just cower away from it and do nothing. Does that sound very masculine?

Not to me at least.

So you are going to do something. Pick a direction and start walking. Especially if that direction is picking a direction!

Direction, goals and adaptability

You will change directions. It will happen with more and more frequency the more you learn and yet less.

The macro courses of direction will get smaller adjustments and the finer details will get more frequent ones.

If your macro goal is to be independently wealthy, and it should be so you can have more choice and freedom in life.

Then your macro directions will define that, many of these macro goals change through stages of life as a man progresses. i.e. graduate a school, get a job, get married…

So you’ll adjust these directions with less frequency because they cause instability. Someone losing jobs every few months but not moving up in the process is having large macro directional changes frequently.

You need some stability. You need to survive on your own and ensure the continued future of that survival somehow.

So when you have a good macro direction that aligns with your goals you stick with it until something better comes along or until you engineer such an event.

This will require you to be observant and adapt. It will also require you to have a context of yourself within the world.

The more frequent micro swings in direction will take place at deeper and higher levels. As things settle down and life is going in the general direction you like, you may now have the luxury of contemplating the finer points of life.

It’s a very good example of Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs.

hierarchy of needs maslow
maslow’s hierarchy of needs

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At this level, major changes in the way you see yourself or the world can happen, all without you disturbing the general direction of your life in a negative way.

They should be happening frequently because you are at a higher level of thinking and deeper analysis. You are having more thoughts per hour on a deeper level.

This is good. Taking those thoughts and picking goals related to them will allow you to adapt more fine tuned to the world.

Why is adaptability important?

It’s the single biggest human strength that exists, the ability to adapt and change – to grow!

It requires a huge subset of other characteristics to be good at this.

  • Politicians get trapped by flip flopping on issues as if it’s a bad thing.
    • In some cases it is and in other cases it is not.
  • A politician who represents his constituents accurately will solicit their opinion regularly and bring up issues for people to think about.
  • They are a reflection of our society.

So why was I looking for a pioneer?

The story of the pioneer has always fascinated me, specifically the colonial pioneer. The American Pioneer.

A hero in his own life story.

Someone looking to leave poor circumstances, blaze their own trail and stake a claim for themselves in the world.

Some will argue that the pioneers and western expansion brought horrible genocide for the natives people. It did. There is no way to escape that fact. Western influence was the worst thing to happen to indigenous peoples.

A rich history, culture, language, wisdom and values wiped out. Even the bacteria brought over was responsible for millions of deaths.

Collectively, this is true.

Individually, it was not always the case. Many early settlers and pioneers maintained friendly relationships with natives, trading, intermarrying and reciprocal mutual aid.

I like this idea about the pioneer mythology.

Someone who does not accept the conventions of society, decides what they want from life, embarks on a path and treats everyone they meet along the way with mutual respect, truth and openness, building along the way.

Survival was a daily chore.

It forces adaptability and self reliance. Something we have less and less of.

Our societies are comfortable and we can get by with little self reliance.

What does this do? It builds lazy people. It builds people who are not concerned with survival. But we still are.

You are in charge of your own survival and at what standard do you want to survive at?

Relationships. People are important. The most important resource.

You are your most important resource. The skills you have, the ability to make your way in the world. You.

Accepting this is a huge responsibility. It requires you to be honest about how you are best using your life.

How does that relate to our topic? I think immensely.

We are all different, we have a governing biology but still are free to make relatively independent decisions from time to time.

The decisions you make, the path you choose and the ability to navigate the road along the way is the hero’s journey.

What propels the hero?


That the reward for the journey will be redeeming. It will be meaningful at every step.

But will it? It will if you interject meaning into it.

The last paragraph of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina touched on this.

‘I shall go on in the same way, losing my temper with Ivan the coachman, falling into angry discussions, expressing my opinions tactlessly; there will be still the same wall between the holy of holies of my soul and other people, even my wife; I shall still go on scolding her for my own terror, and being remorseful for it; I shall still be as unable to understand with my reason why I pray, and I shall still go on praying; but my life now, my whole life apart from anything that can happen to me, every minute of it is no more meaningless, as it was before, but it has the positive meaning of goodness, which I have the power to put into it.’

While life is still meaningless for him, he can choose when and where to extract meaning, if he choses to do so. What a wonderful idea of hope.

You get to chose what you put meaning into. Life can be as pointless and meaningless 5 days a week and you can have a moment of meaning once a week.

The two ideas don’t need to be separate. They can exist in harmony.

Finding at least something that means something to you is a good start. It can be your pet, your video game, your friends and family. Anything. Just pick things that mean at least something positive to you.

Life is essentially meaningless. Nihilism. Our planet will die, our species will die, any trace of anything will be wiped from existence. The time you existed will be trillions (if not more) of a second of cosmic time. So what’s the point?

It’s easy to get stuck here, because it’s true and it’s especially true if you don’t feel your life is particularly remarkable. It adds to the meaninglessness.

The journey is to find meaning, it is to find self. A men’s journal of self reflection.

If the opening argument in a debate is that “life is meaningless”.

Well your response has to be to go out and look for evidence to the contrary.


Because maybe life isn’t meaningless. Maybe through your journey you will find meaning.

You must live life authentically for this to take place.

It means being honest with yourself and always looking deeper into your own nature. Perhaps the answer lies within, as well as external.

It’s an old trope, repeated in countless spiritual texts for a reason.

There’s some truth to it.

It won’t be easy.

The hero’s journey is hard. Very hard. You’re no longer playing life on easy.

You’re required to go off autopilot to think and act consciously.

Take ownership of your actions.

The stoics contributed much to this notion, their philosophy has evolved since.

Ideology is limiting.

It binds people into smaller and simpler belief systems. Rather than a competition for the best values, which by the way is GOOD. It forces people into a convention of values. So don’t follow one path too strongly because it is not your own.

We all subscribe to ideologies. Yes, even you!

Do you participate in a capitalist economy? Do you use money as an exchange for goods and services?

Well capitalism is an ideology that you support through it’s marketplace.

It’s nearly impossible to avoid and it has it’s problems, but try to come up with something better.

In a more egalitarian capitalist system, perhaps many of the short comings of our current system could be avoided.

There is no avoiding capitalism. It’s the evolution of our behavior as animals throughout millions of years. Trade of goods, services, bacteria, symbiotic relationships, personal relationships all function on the exchange of a valued capital.

The best system is one with mutual satisfaction. Where no one loses and both parties are happy with the outcome.

It’s a lofty ideal, but it is an ideal. At the very least it makes things easier.

Why is it so hard to go through life with the principal of mutual gain?

Humans are naturally competitive and the competitiveness ranges from human to human. Those less inclined for competition will be taken advantage of by those more inclined for it. That’s about as simple as I can put it.

This will happen in an unregulated marketplace.

Social norms, civil rights, cultural values, societal values all play into regulating the global marketplace.

They are a stake holder as much as capital is, only with less resources.

So how do you make sure the worst off are still taken care of. You don’t rip them off completely. You give them the chance to fight another day.

How can you regulate this? Sounds like communism. Calm down, it’s not.

You create a values system in society that addresses those concerns. If a united and independent populace can collectively agree on collective values, a course or direction and then adapt and change when appropriate then they can navigate the world. The macro masculine ideal.

How do you unite people? It’s hard. It can be easier to control and manipulate them.

As a society we can encourage free speech civil rights and equal opportunity. Allowing for people to decide which ideas from a large panel of them to support.

Consensus building through honest debate free from corporate interests and corruption and full transparency is the first step. No, I am not an idealist, but that’s a good ideal to shoot for.

Wait a second, I thought this article was on masculinity?

Do you even lift bro? – frat boy

Elevate the conversation guys.

Are you trying to find meaning in your life or just validate your identity?

This validation is where the danger occurs. Men who do not have their masculinity validated (even from within) go down a dangerous path.

What is toxic masculinity?

It’s the school shooter, it’s the rapist, it’s the criminal.

The Dark Triad
The Dark Triad

The idea of the dark triad of masculine traits makes sense but it’s incomplete. It ignores a whole bunch of other values.

This value structure is often taken out of context and absorbed simply. Let’s expand on it.

Let’s start with narcissism.

It serves a purpose. Those who are narcissistic believe in themselves and the image of themselves beyond any logic. They are god whether you believe them or not. They are truly out of touch with reality. Yet, they make reality confirm to their frame. They value their own place in the world above all else. It’s a powerful belief, supreme confidence in the face of all opposition.

Yet, it is often the narcissist’s downfall. They are blinded by obvious pitfalls. Your ego is the narcissist.

The ego is the image of yourself that you show the world. This is the narcissist.

Internally, the relationship you have with yourself needs to be honest to make this trait work for you.

Imagine going into a business meeting with full confidence like you own it. That’s ego. Internally, you can feel whatever you feel but you portray an image because it serves a purpose.

Looking into a pond, do you only see your perfect reflection or do you look at the waters underneath?

Machiavellianism in psychology refers to a personality trait which sees a person so focused on their own interests they will manipulate, deceive, and exploit others to achieve their goals.

This is the win at all costs belief system. That there is only winning and if you are not winning you are losing, so you need to be winning at everything always.

Can you see why this isn’t a bad trait?

Yet, winning at all costs does have a cost. It costs you relationships and people. In order to make this ideal work, you need to be willing to sacrifice people, everyone in the extreme for the highest purpose as you define it. The ultimate goal.

You will have to decide what relationships are worth more than everything else. Your family, your friends, people on the street, your competitor.

Win when you need to win. Know the boundaries of your ethics.

I am reminded of the philosophical idea of…

You are forced to make a choice. Your family will die unless you press a button to drop a bomb and kill 1,000 people.

Most people would press the button. Their family is worth more than 1,000 people.

Decide who is family and try to bring more people into it.

Extending your graces is a good thing.

It builds cooperation.

But know who proves themselves to be outside of that and act accordingly.


The big difference between a psychopath and the average person is that a psychopath has no morals.

They literally feel the same emotion when killing someone as they do when sweeping the floor. They lack an emotional processing capability.

Why is this advantageous and why are 1 in 5 CEOs a psychopath?

Acting without emotion allows you to make very rational decisions based on the best information available while using other people’s emotional cues to manipulate them.

It cuts out the bullshit. It cuts out the feelings. Can you see how this would be useful at a fortune 500 company?

“Sir, our South East Division is losing $80,000,000 a year. The only solution is to take a risky loan to try to turn this around or cut our losses and invest in our biggest growth divisions. If we close them, 10,000 people with mortgages and families, will be out of work, we will effectively kill a town.”

“Do it.”

The psychopath answers without hesitation. It’s the right choice for a business and capital pushes the boundaries of ethics to it’s no reason why a psychopath would rise to the top.

Fortunately, unfortunately. Psychopathy is genetic. You either are or are not and its a sliding scale in some respects.

Psychopaths miss out on a very rich part of life. Intimacy, connection and love.

What about the feminine male or feminine men?

Feminine men are men who are associated with more female traits than male traits within a given society.

The feminine male is often seen as less masculine. There is a difference between being in touch with your feminine side and acting from your feminine side.

The world will not always reward feminine behavior from men and in fact it may punish them.

But to define what feminine man is we need to then discuss the feminine or female at least a little.

masculinity vs femininity

The masculine feminine paradox. We can start with culture vs. biology to help give the context on the masculine and feminine some perspective.

Females and female gender roles

Much of this discussion has already been covered in the article: The Underlying Drivers For Sexual Economics.

Much of this discussion can also be applied to females because they are on their own hero’s journey.

For the purposes of this discussion, let’s take the most lose definition of a feminine man as someone who is less masculine than the norm.

The norm being defined by the shared cultural values surrounding masculinity.

For example, some native cultures had coming of age rituals for young men. They were to live alone in the wilderness for some time alone.

Imagine, 12 year old you spending a week out in the wilderness alone with only the clothes on your back.

It forced the child to learn how to adapt and survive by throwing them in the deep end head first. It also built strength of character.

If a child didn’t take this initiation ritual he was considered less of a man or never considered a man in this society.

Where as in our modern society, most men do not have a cultural initiation ritual and being a man is generally just regarded as being a good person.

The middle ground on cultural values defines what is masculinity in culture. It’s important to understand what the current culture is, so that men can collectively adapt values that produce better men. Whatever the discussion defines them to be.

I don’t mean anything so grand other than adopt your own definition and live it as an example for others. If you care to.

Hegemonic Masculinity

“Hegemonic masculinity is defined as a practice that legitimizes men’s dominant position in society and justifies the subordination of women, and other marginalized ways of being a man.”

Power dynamics exist between men and women, it’s what makes relationships playful and fun. There is a give and take. There is dynamism.

A powerful man does not need to subjugate a woman, his character will make her want to follow him willingly.

Strong women will challenge you to be a better man. They will force you to raise your own level and inspire you to do so. Find a woman with character you admire.

Let’s look at some more positive masculine traits.

Just because we are calling these masculine does not mean women cannot or do not embody them. They certainly do. This discussion references anthropological and biological notions of masculinity and will classify accordingly.


Courage means taking right action even when you don’t want to. See the wording “right action”, not right thought. Many people who are considered courageous are fighting through some pretty difficult stuff to overcome their fears and be courageous. They are doing what’s hard for what’s right.

Courage means being truthful and authentic. Firstly, with yourself.

It requires you to stand up for your truth and your beliefs.

It requires you to be the person you want to be.

Consistent right action towards meaning as defined by you requires the highest level of courage and as such it is the ultimate hero’s journey.

Back to the Pioneer.

Imagine the life… Wandering through uncharted territory, dangerous animals, every encounter with another person is a potential lethal threat, food and water shortages, sickness and death.

A hard grueling life? For what? For something better.

This is the American Spirit that everyone gets wrong.

You can be a pioneer anywhere in life, just start searching for something better for yourself and decide what you want to risk for it.

Isn’t constantly wanting more bad for you?

It depend on what you want. You want to create a better life for your family, friends, community? Is more of that bad? Could be.

The point is you define what you want more of, and your wants and more importantly needs will change over time. Adaptability again.

This is how it relates to masculinity

  • A sincere desire for truth and meaning as defined by you.
  • The conviction to pursue that to the best of your ability.

Enter the darkness, it is only through there that you shall see light -Truth.

It is only when you confront your darkest realities do you begin to see things clearly.

This sounds hard and scary. It is.

It removes you from your own story.

Maybe you aren’t the hero you thought you were. Maybe you are your own villain, sabotaging the inner hero at every step?

What choice do you have though? Don’t do it and miss out on discovering meaning?

So don’t do it, and while you’re at it, don’t do anything. Just give up on life.

Unfortunately, for some people unconsciousness is their reality.

They give up, we all do in some ways.

They settle on this is enough and coast.

Growth occurs outside of your comfort zone.

It’s settling. It’s saying I am happy with this.

There is nothing wrong with that but you need to acknowledge that consciously and ask yourself,

Is this enough meaning for me?

This is the crux of masculinity going after what you want and deciding when you’ve had enough.

It’s why old men enjoy philosophy and young men enjoy having sex (not that old men don’t and vise versa). Stages of life, different pursuits and goals. Finding what you need right now that will take you to where you need to be.

So what is the definition of masculinity?

What’s yours?


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