Manning up: The role of masculine suffering throughout history


1.1. Topic and context

What do Jesus Christ and hip hop artist Lil’ Peep have in common? At first glance you would think very little, but there is actually a striking similarity: They do not represent the standard image of what masculinity should look like. 

Contemporary gender theorists such as Whitehead and Barrett (2001) define masculinity as a construct of behavioural patterns, language and practices which are associated with being male and thus defined as not feminine. Stereotypical characteristics of masculinity include strength, sexual conquest, violence, being rational, being a provider for the family and not showing emotions so as to appear stable. The male is known for being dominant and is only allowed to show acceptable emotions within masculinity such as anger or happiness. Masculinity is also about being independent and power focused (Prentice & Carranza, 2002). Interestingly, these stereotypical behaviour patterns are the complete opposite to what is defined as feminine. According to research, women should be warm, sensitive, nurturing and cooperative, which is in direct contrast to the masculine norm (Prentice & Carranza, 2002). 

A study has shown that men who deviate from that norm and expose vulnerability on the workfloor are viewed as less confident, capable, and competent (Rosette, Mueller & Lebel, 2015). In some workfields, men experience distrust and negative reactions because of the feminine behavioural patterns associated with the job, such as being a caretaker. Thus, for example male nurses have to deal with this stigmatization and are still being labeled as weak (Evans, 2002). 

In modern pop culture, this image of masculinity is often portrayed in exaggerated ways. For instance, in hip hop culture the artist is a symbol for everything that is this image of masculinity; The music and the music videos are mainly about money, power, and treating women as objects. An example of this image is the music video from the rapper Jay-Z and his now-wife Beyonce for the song “Upgrade U” from 2009. The video shows a powerful image of Jay-Z wearing lots of expensive jewelry and sunglasses while being properly clothed in a white button-up and black trousers. He’s rapping about all the things he is going to buy for his girl, for example expensive holidays and designer bags. Beyoncé is portrayed as a stereotypical sexy woman, wearing high heels and barely any clothes while dancing around the chair Jay-Z is sitting in. 

Although this image of masculinity has been around for ages in hip hop culture, in recent years there has been a major change. In Emo Rap, which first rose to mainstream prominence in 2013, artists speak openly about mental problems, vulnerability and insecurities. For example, Swedish rapper Yung Lean opened up about his admission in a mental hospital in 2015 in an interview with magazine The Fader in 2016. This led to the emergence of a new subculture called the Sad Boy Movement, which now has a huge following (Twells, Kelly, Lea and Ravens, 2013) and in this way has opened a dialogue among young people on mental illnesses, contributing positively to the stereotype image of the patient.

However, the image of the vulnerable man is not something new. When you look even further back in history, the vulnerable man is an image that was idolised. This is mainly visible in Christianity, where Jesus Christ on the cross symbolizes collective suffering. This symbolism goes completely against the classical image of masculinity. 

It is interesting to see that the image of the suffering man has reappeared in modern pop culture the last few years. Although this image has been around for ages, it was always on the background. 

The purpose of this essay is to sketch an image of the ‘suffering man’ as counterpoint to the ‘strong man’ by comparing two figures of this archetype from different time periods. This research will create awareness about multiplicities within gender roles, thus more room for diversity. I employ sources from disparate fields such as gender studies, theology, cultural analysis and psychoanalysis to create a more nuanced view of modern masculinity. Furthermore, I argue that these characteristics, which do not fit the standard pattern of masculinity, have been projected onto women to safeguard this classical stereotype image of masculinity. My method for deconstructing these established patterns for masculinity is similar to Foucault’s archaeological method, which consists of digging through sedimented layers of discourse to understand the history of ideas (Foucault, 1969). 


2.1. Jesus Christ as symbolism for ‘the suffering man’

When we look into the history of ‘the suffering man’, a famous example for this archetype is Jesus Christ, who deviated from the established behaviour patterns of masculinity. He was known as a very emotional man; a characteristic that is often defined as feminine. Firstly, Jesus expressed his emotions in a very exaggerated way, for example his anger attack in front of the temple in Jeruzalem, where he expelled the merchants and the moneymakers in front of the temple, using physical violence (John 2:14-16). This particular action can be described as masculine, mainly because of the anger and the physical violence. However, it also appears as rather hysterical; a characteristic that would be defined as feminine. 

This is not the only event in the Bible where Jesus would act in a more feminine way rather than masculine. Secondly, in Matthew 23:37-39 it is described how Jesus got emotional a few days before he was crucified, and cried over the city of Jeruzalem. A third example of Jesus expressing feminine behaviour patterns is shown in John 13:1-17, where he would kneel down to wash the feet of his disciples. Interestingly, Jesus placed himself underneath the disciples; in a physical way but also an emotional way. Washing feet is something that a servant would do, and Jesus consciously placed himself in a submissive role. Being emotional, showing tears and consciously being submissive are characteristics that are not acknowledged as masculine and thus being feminine. 

Another reference in the Bible to behaviour of Jesus which may be interpreted as feminine occurs in Matthew 9:36: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd”. In the Greek version, which is the original language for the New Testament, “having compassion” is written down as the word “splagchnon”, which literally translates to “intestines”, meaning bowels, heart, liver, but is also used for the uterus. In this case, the meaning of “having compassion” would read as “feeling strong emotions from the inside and/or the uterus”. Since the uterus is a symbol for femininity, it is interesting to see that Jesus can feel emotions from this part of the body, which is absent for himself. 

Lastly, the body of Jesus on the cross, how it is portrayed on holy figures, deviates from the established image of masculinity. A famous example of this visualisation is the painting “Crucifix”, by Cimabue at Santa Croce (c. 1265). Jesus is visualised as very emaciated and weak in comparison to the image of the masculine man who needs to be muscled and strong. His stigmata is also explicitly shown and he is barely clothed in ripped old fabrics. Yet, the image of the emaciated and weak Jesus has become a symbolism for Christianity all over the world. 

In this respect, it is also interesting to mention the philosopher Nietzsche’s interpretation of Christianity as a slave morality. According to Nietzsche, such a morality derives from the ‘ressentiment’ which those who are oppressed feel with regard to those who are in power. The latter, who are confident, happy, and frank with themselves, are labeled as ‘bad’ and even ‘evil’. The former, the oppressed ‘men of ressentiment’ are “neither upright or naive, but would be best described as passive” (Nietzsche, 1887). Furthermore, the ‘men of ressentiment’ cherish a lot of hate, and are distorted and emotional. These characteristics are then interpreted as ‘good’. This can be linked to the bible verse of Matthew 20:16: “So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.” This means that the men who would fit the established image of masculinity the best, are evil and ‘the men of ressentiment’, who are emotional and thus feminine, are good.

2.2. Lil’ Peep as ‘the suffering man’ in modern pop culture

Because musical conventions are deeply influenced by societal norms, its analysis can provide important insights about sociological phenomena within modern pop culture (Higham, 2009). Especially mainstream subgenres such as hip hop play an important role in influencing the new generation’s opinion about topics such as gender, sexuality, and identity. Hip hop has always been a strict subculture, with little space for questioning gender structures. It is known for being a homophobic industry as well (Shimeles, 2010). In 2017 a new hip hop artist was rising, named Lil’ Peep. He was one of the first hip hop artists who would break silence about sexuality and anxiety when coming out as bisexual and mentally ill, for example in his interview with music channel Montreality in 2017. He would deviate from the norm of masculinity within hip hop culture by dressing up very androgynously and what would be described as feminine sometimes. 

Lil’ Peep was part of the post-emo wave, a movement influenced by ‘emo’, an earlier subculture that would embrace pain and suffering, becoming popular in 2005 (Richman, 2018). Within this subculture, being androgynous was already embraced and accepted and strict boundaries for what is masculine or feminine were already getting blurred. However, this was a very niche subculture and never went mainstream, let alone in the hip hop culture. 

From a historical point of view, these phenomena could be explained by the context of the current time we live in, where there is more awareness for mental health under youths in general. According to an article by Hoffower for Business Insider (2019), the generation of millennials (defined by the Pew Research Center as the cohort turning ages 23 to 38 in 2019) are dealing with more mental health disorders than the generations before. These disorders are mostly depression, death of despair, and loneliness. An article by Dexter (2019) for The Wall Street Journal says that this generation is also seeking out more for therapy and are less afraid to talk about mental health anymore. 

Furthermore, this happens in a time where gender as a social construct is being questioned. There is more awareness about the LGBTQ+ community through television shows such as Rupaul’s Drag Race (Cummings, 2018) and role models talking about their gender. For example, the famous model Hanne Gaby Odiele came out as intersex in an interview with Vogue in 2017. Indeed, even social network platform Facebook has fifty genders to choose from. 

In current times it is interesting to see that men with few established masculine behaviour patterns, thus, ‘the suffering man’, are given a bigger platform. Artists like Lil’ Peep get millions of fans who appreciate his story and look up to him. In recent events, the #MeToo allegations against Harvey Weinstein in 2017, masculinity is being questioned and considered old and tired (Brookshier, 2019). In fact, in an article for The Guardian by Jotanovic (2019) it is discussed how society is being obsessed with the stereotype of masculinity, and that this affects men as well. 

These modifications in gender roles today are also relevant to Nietzsche’s theory of slave morality. ‘The suffering man’ is being accepted and given a bigger platform, while ‘the strong man’ is being depicted as old and tired, and is getting more backlash for these established characteristics. However, Nietzsche’s slave morality is also being used by the counter movement. The alt-right uses this theory to criticize the modern man and places him again in this archetype (Beiner, 2018).

Counter movements 

3.1. The incel movement as a new online subculture

On the 14th of July in 2019, 17-year old Bella Devins was brutally murdered by a male friend of her, who then posted images of the murder on social media platform Instagram, according to Rolling stone Magazine. Bella Devins was a so-called “E-girl”. According to the Urban Dictionary, an E-girl is a girl who can be found at social media platforms such as Twitter or gamers platform Discord, where they sell nude pictures to men without actually having sex with them. She was murdered because her friend was jealous about the fact that other men were looking at her social media platforms. He allegedly captioned this on online gamers platform Discord. 

These events happen more often since the rise of a new movement called the “incel” movement, which stands for ‘involuntarily celibate’. Incels are defined by Urban Dictionary as the following: 

“A person (usually male) who has a horrible personality and treats women like sexual objects and thinks his lack of a sex life comes from being ‘ugly’ when its really just his blatant sexism and terrible attitude.”

The incel movement is quite new and exists mostly on the internet. These men worship the established image of masculinity and are putting in a lot of effort to fit this image. Especially the sexual conquest is a huge part of their ideology. There are many online forums such as Reddit and 4chan where they exchange advice on how to manipulate, drug, and even rape women. On these forums, there is also much praise for “sexual communism”: the idea that sex is a human right and that it should be treated as a distribution product. 

Furthermore, the incel movement takes it a step further with regards to their insecurities. On the online forum Lookism you can find many members of the incel movement, asking advice about their appearance to other members. This includes advice about improvements that would help them for conquering women. The comments easily shift from fitness advice to cosmetic surgery. The interesting thing about a phenomena such as Lookism is that vanity is a characteristic that would be defined as feminine, but in this context it is actually carried out by men who are trying to maintain their masculinity. 

This new movement is also being referred to as “The Manosphere”. This goes from men participating in the ‘straight pride parade’ in Boston in the summer of 2019, to the anonymous internet culture filled with misogyny and hatred against women. It has been argued that this movement started because feminism became an important political force (Nagle, 2017). This means that masculinity is threatened when feminism is rising, which means it can be seen as a competition. Also, competitiveness is a established behaviour pattern for masculinity (Prentice & Carranza, 2002).

3.2. Freud’s projection theory

If you look at the behaviour patterns these men show, it is remarkable that the men from this subculture are all inherently insecure. This goes from advising each other on their appearance to blaming women for not sleeping with them and demanding concepts such as sexual communism. If we view these characteristics from Nietzsche’s slave morality perspective, it could be argued that these men are actually ‘the ressentiment man’, and therefore ‘the suffering man’. Instead of accepting these characteristics as normal, they will ignore and fight these behaviour patterns to maintain their image of masculinity. Furthermore, they will project these insecurities on women and will blame them for their lack of classic masculinity. In projection, the feelings and thoughts that can not be accepted will be placed in the outside world and will be projected on someone else. Everything that is not suitable for the ego will be repudiated and placed in another (Freud, 1887-1904). This theory is applicable to ‘the Manosphere’ as well; every characteristic and behaviour pattern that is not accepted within the established idea of masculinity, will be placed outside and projected onto women to protect the ego and maintain the concept of masculinity. 

Conclusion and discussion

4.1. Conclusion

The topic of this essay is to show a contradiction of two archetypes of men, ‘the suffering man’ and ‘the strong man’. My method was to sketch an image of ‘the suffering man’ to compare these two archetypes. I used famous figures from different time periods to create a clear image of this archetype. With this comparison, I wanted to prove that masculinity as a social construct is one that was deviated from in every time period.

My method to create this comparison was derived from Foucault’s archaeological method. By looking at the characteristics of these men in an objective and analytical way, I noticed that those characteristics were a contradiction from the established behaviour patterns that comes with masculinity. Therefore, you could conclude that these men didn’t fit in this idea of masculinity. Interestingly, these men are role models and idolized by many, despite their lack of masculine characteristics. 

I used Nietzsche’s slave morality to argue that the current way masculinity is being portrayed is similar to masculinity in Christianity. ‘The ressentiment man’, thus ‘the suffering man’ is given a bigger platform through pop culture, and ‘the strong man’ is being portrayed as old and tired. What was stated in Matthew 20:16:So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen,” can be implied to pop culture as well. Furthermore, in the counter movement you can also see that these men can be portrayed as ‘the ressentiment man’, but are threatened in their masculinity and choose to be ‘the strong man’ instead, which they are not being praised for.

It is interesting to see where this need for maintaining masculinity comes from. I used Freud’s projection theory to argue that when masculinity is threatened, men will not acknowledge the flaws of this concept, but instead will repress their feelings and thoughts that aren’t acceptable within this established idea of masculinity, and will project them on women. This is mainly to protect the ego. This could declare why feminine behaviour patterns are the complete opposite from masculine behaviour patterns.

With this research I have shown that the image of masculinity throughout history is something that has always been deviated from. Moreover, the figures I used as an example for “the suffering man” has been praised for their vulnerable side, which can be seen as an act of rebellion against the construct of masculinity. Looking at the counter movement, it is shown that masculinity today is something that is being questioned, and, with upcoming artists like Lil’ Peep, is slowly changing.

4.2. Discussion

There are a few limitations to this research. I have looked at two men from completely different time periods, which could be an influence to the constructed idea of masculinity. I have also implied modern theories onto historic events and figures, which are not scientific correct compared to the time periods. However, I used this chronology to research a phenomena throughout history, which can be read as a cultural analysis instead of a scientific research. 

Furthermore, I have only looked at the changing image of masculinity, and have not researched the role of feminism within these constructs. The role of women has changed as well, and is currently shifting closer to masculinity behaviour patterns more than ever. However, I have noticed in a time where feminism is rising, the boundaries of gender constructs are getting more blurred.

There has been studies that link Christianity to different gender theories, for example “Women, Gender, and the Study of Christian History” by Elizabeth Clark (2001). Indeed, there has been many studies about gender, masculinity as a construct and feminism. However, there is no research that compare different cultural figures throughout history to create a new viewing of this construct of masculinity. 

My research is a literature review about masculinity throughout history, and how it is viewed today. For follow-up research it would be interesting to do a qualitative research to investigate what masculinity means for a new generation. With this data, you can investigate if masculinity as a social construct is really changing. 


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