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).
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
Farrell, W. (1975) The Liberated Man, New York: Bantam.
Messner, M. (1997) Politics of Masculinities, Thousand Oaks, CA:
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,
(1987) ‘The theory of the male sex role identity’, in H.Brod (ed.) The Making
of Masculinities, Boston, MA: Allen and Unwin.