According to a 2014 study, 73 percent of all arrestees in the United States were males. This number increases to a whopping 80 percent when accounting for violent crimes. Brent Staples outlines the tendencies of his friends and relatives to become ‘thugs’ in his essay ‘Just Walk on By’. He attributes this trend to the idea of the ‘male romance with the power to intimidate’. To understand what is meant by this statement, we must first explore masculinity itself. What are its origins? What does it mean to be ‘manly’? What effects do these ideas have on males in society?
Origins of masculinity can be traced back to our earliest ancestors, the hominids. The actions of these early humans were based on the most basic biological drive, self-preservation. Their goal was to protect and sustain their bloodline. In order to produce the strongest descendants, hominids engaged in a type of natural selection called sexual selection. Simply put, males competed for mates. The male who was able to drive away or kill their rival succeeded in the opportunity to continue their lineage. Obviously, the ways in which we choose mates has evolved but a pivotal notion still exists; the strongest male is one who can intimidate those who seek to challenge him.
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So, what exactly does it mean to be manly? As defined by society, men are self-sufficient, tough, and aggressive. Weakness of any kind is discouraged. Men are expected to figure out personal problems without reaching out for help. They are encouraged to always fight back, using violence when necessary. Males also fall prey to strict gender roles such as the expectation to be the financial providers for their families and to be indifferent to household upkeep and childcare. The key stereotype that begins this love affair with intimidation is that of toughness and aggression. Staples writes: “It is, after all, only manly to embrace the power to frighten and intimidate”. Instead of being taught the age-old mantra ‘violence is never the answer’, it is more commonly taught that boys are to protect their image by any means necessary, including violence. If a male does not follow these guidelines, he is likely to be cast out and labeled negatively by his peers.
It is these societal stereotypes that have made males more prone to aggression and violence leading to a disproportionate likelihood of criminal activity. If a male is placed in a situation where he is being challenged, by another person or law enforcement, these lessons tend to manifest in toxic ways. As mentioned by Staples, “We are to be valiant in the face of hostile forces”. If these cultural lessons are not followed, the fear of being shunned by his peers enforces his intimidating behavior in order to be triumphant. In my personal experience, I have seen this trend repeat itself constantly throughout my high school experience. One boy feels insulted by another; the immediate reaction is anger. His friends provoke a physical altercation, “you should beat his ass for saying that!”. The boy has two options: engage in a confrontation or refuse. If he refuses, he risks being dubbed as weak which is unbecoming for a man. It is a double-edged sword, wisdom or acceptance? Unfortunately, the ladder is often chosen since a man is expected to be tough not wise.
In conclusion, the origins of masculinity, the cultural lessons taught to males, and the effects those lessons have on them all influence Staples’ idea of the ‘male romance with the power to intimidate’. Historically, dominance among males is based on the ability to subdue challengers. This in turn supports the idea that overt aggression is required to be a man. If a male chooses to ignore the status quo, he chances rejection from his cohorts. Ultimately, it is these societal factors that encourage violent behavior. Therefore, explaining the irregular patterns of incarceration and crime among males and continuing the ever-present cycle of toxic masculinity.