Based on a Google Books search, the word masculinity in written publication appears to be a century-old phenomenon, rising from almost zero frequency in the late 1800s, then doubling and tripling each decade of the 1900s. But at its pinnacle in 2000, masculinity begins a decline in frequency. I am interested in why this drop in frequency has occurred, especially given a recent increase in masculinity studies, a jump in men’s rights activity, and an intensity of political hostility over gender. Here are some speculations:
- Shift in Ideology. Today, academics are more wary of using sexual identity language that might sound reductionist. But that was not always so. It appears that throughout the twentieth century, masculinity had growing currency because of its usefulness to science and social science (as did femininity). Of course, both masculinity and femininity were associated with gender roles in popular culture as well. But as can be seen in the contrast between manliness and masculinity, as manliness fell out of use in the twentieth century, so did the focus on strong and virile qualities in men. So during much of the 1900s, masculinity had wider acceptance in the sciences as the representation of a sex type biologically. By the 2000s, the impact of the Left’s cultural ideology on college campuses raised questions about masculinity. So as the term became critiqued by social science, masculinity began to signify social and political privilege granted to men (almost exclusively through language). As a result, language-oriented social constructionists appropriated science’s masculinity for political ends, bringing a chill to academic classrooms interested in considering sexuality in a scientific or objective manner.
- Shift to Negativity. From 1985 onward, the feminist war against men took a decided turn and began using negative qualifiers attached to masculinity. One of these is toxic masculinity, which skyrocketed in frequency through the 1990s and after. During this same time period, the men’s movement also rose and fell in usage – a movement associated with Robert Bly and others. Clearly, gender discourse saw the phrase toxic masculinity gain in frequency as the phrase men’s movement fell in frequency. This shift to negativity may also account for the falling off of masculinity as a positive or even appropriate representation of sex or gender.
- Conflation of Terms. Another possibility is that masculinity has been conflated with more pejorative terms critiqued since the 1960s and the rise of the Left. Terms such as macho, machismo, jock, and tough guy have all risen in use since the 1960s, suggesting an overdetermination to parody and satirize the performance of masculinity. In this way, the higher frequency of these words has increased the view that masculinity is unduly aggressive and dangerously overconfident. Prior to the 1960s when men were called to war and work in much higher numbers, one would have expected these terms to be more prominent as they would reflect the actual life of a typical male. However, exaggerated word forms used in greater frequency probably reflect the opposite, as they seem to in this case with hyper-masculine words better suited to the Left’s campaign of misandry.