Love him or hate him, people pay attention to Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady. So much so that when he recently posted photos showing affection to his 13-year-old son (with the caption “love this boy”), people had a lot to say about it.
Many people praised Brady for showing his love for his son with a kiss on the cheek. Others expressed some discomfort. The mixed reactions are a stark reminder about differing views on masculinity and the roles of fathers today.
Brady is, in many ways, a classic “manly man.” He plays football. He’s conventionally handsome. He’s a seven-time Super Bowl champion. That’s part of why when it comes to his parenting style – he’s affectionate and is frequently emotional when talking about his children and fatherhood – people grow uncomfortable.
Brady shows that masculinity is complex. What if “real men,” in fact, do cry?
“People tend to have certain expectations for what behaviors are typical and expected of men and women in U.S. society,” says Sapna Cheryan, professor of social psychology at the University of Washington. “Women – and not men – are expected to be the nurturers and caregivers. When someone violates these expectations, it can be surprising and draw attention.”
Where did fatherhood masculinity norms come from?
Think back to a 1950s “Leave it to Beaver”-style of parenting that left most of the housework to the mother. As women entered the workforce, slowly expectations for fathers began to grow.
A decades-old theory called the “essential father” hypothesis suggested that a father played a central role in the family meant to model masculinity and heterosexuality for his sons, says Ronald Levant, professor emeritus of psychology at The University of Akron and co-author of “The Tough Standard: The Hard Truths about Masculinity and Violence.” Research has debunked this idea.
“The research on parenting indicates that what’s most important is parenting,” Levant says. “There’s no gender to it. It’s getting your children up in the morning dressed and off to (school), picking them up at school and getting them settled in their homework.”
Still, the “essential father” hypothesis lingers. If fathers are too affectionate with their sons, does that feminize them?
The same questions don’t come up for women. “In the case of girls and women, there’s a lot more societal support for displays of affection, displays of emotion,” says Chris Reigeluth, assistant professor and child psychologist at Oregon Health & Science University, and author of “The Masculinity Workbook for Teens.”
Stereotypes and breaking the rules
Many feel males must conform to norms like playing sports and not showing their emotions.
“What happens to boys and men who break those societal rules is their masculinity gets policed,” Reigeluth says.
But research on early childhood shows that boys crave affection in their younger years up to adolescence before societal expectations discourage this behavior. “As a society, we can change dominant teachings that are given to girls and boys and also other kids as the gender spectrum gets embraced more and more about how they should be, and about what we think is appropriate or important for them,” Reigeluth says.
Yet gender norms are shifting as time goes on.
“Opinions on masculinity are changing because the stigma of men seeking therapeutic support is changing,” says Benjamin Calixte, founder at Therapy For Black Men. “Men are becoming more emotionally expressive than ever. The trope of ‘men don’t cry’ is a thing of the past, which is a complete paradigm shift.”
Cheryan thinks Brady’s photos could change hearts and minds.
“The more people see nontraditional forms of masculinity in the world, the more likely they are to change their beliefs about what is typical and expected from men,” she says. “Having men take on more of the nurturing and caregiving in the daily lives and the jobs they choose may be an effective way to open ideas about what masculinity entails.”
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