Etymology and Historical Context

The word “masculinity” has been defined as “the state or fact of being masculine; the assemblage of qualities regarded as characteristic of men; maleness, manliness” since the 1300s (Oxford English Dictionary). The word “masculine” comes from both the French word masculin and the Latin masculinus, which both originally simply meant “male,” but later came to carry the cultural expectations and gender stereotypes of the masculine. Today, masculinity has come to describe the traits specific to the gender roles assigned to men, and is considered synonymous with words like “manliness, strength, and power” (Merriam-Webster Thesaurus). Most traits considered masculine are enforced by cultural values, and are therefore adaptable, and most importantly, passed down from male to male within each culture, or permeated through cultural and systemic displays of “the masculine.” Male role models are an integral part of defining desired masculine traits in young men, and also communicate what the current culture considers “normal” in terms of the masculine to the individuals who live within that culture. Because of the effects the portrayal of masculinity have on men within their own culture, the study of masculinity in YA literature can illuminate the expectations our culture has for its young men during the formative period of their lives.

Masculinity can be defined as a “man in power, a man with power, and a man of power” (Kimmel qtd. in Khan 66), essentially equated with “being strong, successful, capable, reliable, [and] in control” (Kimmel qtd. in Khan 66). This definition “relies on the underlying assumption that being a man means being unlike a woman” (66), creating strict gender binaries for both males and females. The tradition of masculinity and femininity, and their relationship with gender and the physical body, can be traced centuries back to ancient Rome. Roman culture strived to cultivate virtus, or virtue, which literally means “a force that drives life,” in each of its citizens. This important force to drive life included protecting life, bearing life, as well as a moral excellence that enriches life. In ancient Rome, the responsibility of protecting life was given to men, which led to their virtue lying in political and military successes, thus giving value to the masculine characteristics of being strong, successful, capable, reliable, and in control. The responsibility of bearing life was given to women because of their physical ability to bear children, which led to their virtue lying in chastity and moral excellence so as to bear and raise virtuous Roman children.

This tradition of masculinity continued to spread throughout Europe, and chivalry culture in Medieval England solidified the role of males as heroic and strong, while females were seen as dainty and in need of protecting (Wikipedia). Eventually, the need for strength in physical combat became outdated, and while men were still expected to be physically stronger than women, the focus for men transitioned to being well-educated and skilled in various areas of refinement. This tradition of masculinity carried itself over from England to America, where men were expected to work and provide for their families outside of the home and women were expected to take care of the house and children. While the role of women in society has developed quite a bit since the 18th century, the role of males, and many standards of masculinity, has stayed basically the same. In our current society, men are still expected to be strong, aggressive, and smart while providing for their families. However, this view of the masculine is slowly shifting as discussion regarding gender roles opens up to include the unfair expectations of men placed on them by society, and the many ways that one can “be a man.”

YA Literature and Masculinity

20th Century

The 1920s have been referenced as “the first time when it became clear that the young were a separate generation” (Cart qtd. in “Young Adult Fiction”). It would seem no coincidence then that the popular Hardy Boys series, written for and about youth, would first appear in 1927. The Hardy Boys can be looked to as examples of prototypical manliness, which is summed up by researcher Donnelly:

…they are not dependent on their mother for help; they are heterosexual; they are members of a peer group, whether it is just the two brothers or their larger group of chums; they can be boisterous and playful, participating in the practical jokes and hi-jinks; they are physically strong and skillful in a variety of outdoor activities and sports; and they are able to defend themselves and hold their own in a fight. (57-58)

These traits of manliness evidenced by the Hardy Boys can be seen as a reflection of the culture of their time, but these traits remain an influential model for males, as seen in the recent post by “The Art of Manliness” blog describing, “9 Things a Grown Man Can Learn From the Hardy Boys.”

Young adult literature closer to the end of the 20th century shows that masculinity continued to be a shaping force in coming of age stories. Khan and Wachholz posit that young male protagonists must continuously struggle with other males in terms of social status and acceptance of self and each other, with several characters in The Chocolate War directly commenting on this ranking or admiration made by other males (69). While the main character in the book, Jerry, “has qualities of the traditional man (he has strength, courage, is tough, an indi­vidual), he lacks power. In the end, he loses, finding that he can not escape the relentless test of masculin­ity—the ongoing battle to prove oneself a man, and more importantly, not feminine,” (Khan 70). This contrasts with Khan and Wachholz’s description of Stanley Yelnats, who was able to overcome his initial unmanly softness and find success. They found that he progresses “from a soft, ineffectual boy to a stronger, self-actualized young man,” and that the author hints that Stanley is on the right track as his attaining manhood “reaps rewards: money, power, and friends,” (Khan 68). Jerry’s “loss” and Stanley’s “success” should not be simplified as incorrect vs. correct paths for coming of age and attaining manliness, but rather as showing the complexity of the process and indicating that success is not guaranteed.

21st Century

With a rich history of masculine examples for adolescent males, recent years have called attention to the need for female characters to act as role models for today’s young women. In creating characters worthy of young women’s admiration, the need for worthy role models for young men can be seen as neglected. In her article “YA Fiction and the End of Boys,” blogger and teacher Sarah Mesle acknowledges that characters who act as role models for young women are often scrutinized and easily questioned, but that we neglect to consider the impact and lack of characters provided as acceptable role models to young men. She goes on to point out that nineteenth century YA literature like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Little Women celebrates the transition from boyhood to manhood. Over and over these novels portray that “the right boys become the right kind of men.”

Modern YA literature approaches the subject of masculinity with trepidation and ambiguity and instead asks the questions: “Are there any good men?” and “How can a boy become a good man, if he doesn’t know what that would mean?” In her novel Twisted, Laurie Halse Anderson addresses this issue of the lack of guidance and direction to young men on what it means to become a good man. The summary for the novel provided on the inside cover says, “Everyone told me to be a man. Nobody told me how.” The novel follows 17-year-old Tyler as he navigates the many and often contradicting expectations for masculinity: cool, athletic, disciplined, respectful, dangerous, gentle, easily controlled by sexual desires yet able to rise above, honest, independent, level-headed. Tyler’s primary role model is his father whom Tyler describes as a “dragon hiding in the skin of a small man” with “slime-colored scales and poisonous claws” (28). Tyler knows that he definitely does not want to be the kind of man that his father has become, but Tyler doesn’t know what it would look like to be something else. Ironically enough, Tyler’s father acts the way he does in an effort to avoid becoming like his own father. The book clearly deals with the need for worthy male role models to pass on the values of masculinity and the dangers of what happens when one isn’t available or the wrong kind is available.

Today’s masculinity seems to have fractured into many different kinds of masculinity that explore the many ways in which one can be a “man.” The traditional, red-blooded masculinity is still alive and well as seen in media advertisements that show men in control of women and valuing strength and “toughness.” But YA literature has also opened up a space where this type of masculinity can be questioned by novels like Twisted, in which Tyler instinctively wishes to protect his mother and sister from his father’s domineering masculinity and anger. Calamity Jack features a male protagonist who faces traditional male struggles for power, redemption, and love and is able to overcome them with the help of his female friends Rapunzel and Prudence without compromising his masculinity. This new space also offers a place where different kinds of masculinity can be explored as in Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell in which the main character, Park, is not concerned with or limited by gender roles but feels that he can be a “man” and still participate in both masculine and feminine activities. Other kinds of masculinity being explored involve homosexual relationships like in Carry On also by Rowell, which features a homosexual romance where neither of the young men in that relationship feel emasculated because of their romantic attraction to men. As these different kinds of masculinity are explored and accepted, young men are provided with more realistic role models from which they can learn what it means to be a man, and become liberated from the limits of strict stereotypical gender expectations.

Works Cited

Anderson, Laurie Halse. Twisted. New York: Penguin Group, 2007. Print.

Cormier, Robert. The Chocolate War: A Novel. New York: Pantheon, 1974. Print.

Dashner, James. The Maze Runner. 2009. Print.

Donnelly, Caitlin R. “That’s Just Like a Boy”: A Content Analysis of Masculinities in Hardy Boys Mystery Stories, 1927-1932. A Master’s Paper for the M.S. in L.S. degree. April 2008. 77 pages. Advisor: Brian Sturm.

Hale, Shannon, Dean Hale, and Nathan Hale. Calamity Jack. New York: Bloomsbury, 2010. Print.

Hinton, S. E. The Outsiders. New York: Viking, 1967. Print.

Khan, Soofia, and Patricia Wachholz. “Rough Flight: Boys Fleeing the Feminine in Young Adult Literature.” The Alan Review 34.1 (Fall 2006): 66-73. Digital Library and Archives. Virginia Tech. Web.

“Masculinity.” Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: 2016

“Masculinity.” Merriam-Webster Thesaurus. Merriam-Webster: 2016

“Masculinity.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 25 May 2016. Web. 31 May 2016.

Rowell, Rainbow. Carry On: The Rise and Fall of Simon Snow. Print.

Rowell, Rainbow. Eleanor & Park. Print.

Sachar, Louis. Holes. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998. Print.

“Young Adult Fiction.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 25 May 2016. Web. 31 May 2016.