Death, Masculinity, and Hegemony

“At the center of the symbolic order is the abhorrence of death,” writes Odile Strik in the conclusion of her short essay The Symbolic Order of Life and Manhood. The “symbolic order” of the title connects death and masculinity, and (supposedly) structures the way most people understand reality. The essay is terse and almost poetic, and only presents a rough sketch of this symbolic order, but it deals with a number of important themes – such as masculinity, life and death, and cultural hegemony – and it deserves credit for bringing those themes together.

This article is a (long) commentary on Odille’s (short) essay. It consists of three main parts, but the first two of those have further subsections. Part two is the “real” commentary – that is, it is my attempt to analyze the various themes in The Symbolic Order of Life and Manhood by cutting up that text and commenting on its claims and arguments. A proper assessment of the essay, however, requires some theoretical background, and that is the role of the first part of this article. The final and shortest part tries to wrap everything up by pulling together the various threads that run throughout this commentary.

Gender and culture

The main, explicit themes in The Symbolic Order of Life and Manhood are masculinity, life and death, and a “symbolic order” that structures the understanding of reality of most people. These are not independent themes. Rather, as the title of the essay suggest, masculinity and life/death are the key elements of the symbolic order. The most influential writer about something like Odille’s “symbolic order of life” (ignoring “manhood”, for now) is Ernest Becker. For that reason, I will briefly introduce his book The Denial of Death as well as Terror Management Theory, which is largely based thereon, below.

The discussion of Becker and Terror Management is followed by four subsections that focus on aspects of masculinity (and femininity): male/female dichotomies and conceptual associations with the male and the female, cultural masculinity, hegemonic (and toxic) masculinity, and finally, the hegemony of cultural masculinity. Perhaps, the relevance of some of this will only become clear in the next part of this commentary that focuses on Odille’s essay, but as mentioned above, I believe that this background is necessary for a proper discussion of the essay’s claims and I will return to various aspects of this background in that discussion.

Becker and Terror Management

In The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker argued that humans (as well as other animals) need an instinctive fear of death, but that we need to control this fear to avoid being consumed by it.1 The “terror” of death is a potentially debilitating fear and our primary tools to control or suppress that terror are our belief systems. Our belief systems allow us to participate in “immortality projects” and thereby to “deny death”. One of the terms used in reference to these immortality projects is “heroism”. In an interview with Sam Keen, a few days before his death, Becker explained that “to be a hero means to leave behind something that heightens life and testifies to the worthwhileness of existence”.2

Becker’s ideas lead three social psychologists – Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszcynski, and Sheldon Solomon – to develop Terror Management Theory (TMT) in the early 1980s. TMT is mostly a more systematic and testable version of (most of) Becker’s ideas, and many of the central hypotheses of TMT (and thus of Becker’s theory) have been tested extensively and confirmed repeatedly. In 2015 the three published a book reviewing almost three decades of research. In that book they summarized the core idea of Becker and TMT as follows: “the awareness of death gives rise to potentially debilitating terror that humans manage by perceiving themselves to be significant contributors to an ongoing cultural drama,” and “reminders of death increase devotion to one’s cultural scheme of things”.3 While Becker and TMT almost completely agree in their main claims, they differ in their terminologies, and I’ll (more or less) adopt the TMT terminology here.

A key element in TMT is self-esteem. Jeff Greenberg and Jamie Arndt write that “effective terror management is faith in a meaning providing cultural worldview and the belief that one is a valuable contributor to that meaningful world”.4 Self-esteem is that belief. To have high self-esteem is to believe that one is a valuable contributor to the world according to one’s belief system or cultural worldview. Since we rely on our worldviews and our self-esteem to control or manage the fear of death (or for “terror management”), reminders of death (i.e. increases of “mortality salience”) lead to “worldview defense” – that is, they lead subjects to bolster their worldviews, but also to strengthen their self-esteem either by self-deception or by trying to contribute more to the world according to their worldview. This hypothesis is called the “Mortality Salience Hypothesis” (MSH), and is the most extensively tested part of TMT.5 The converse relation also holds – that is, strengthening someone’s self-esteem leads to less (subconscious) thoughts about death. The negative corollary thereof is that weakening someone’s self-esteem (by marginalization, for example), leads to more death-related thoughts, increasing mortality salience and thus necessitating more worldview defense.6

Because reminders of death raise mortality salience requiring worldview defense (etcetera), it is less stress-full for the unconscious mind to just avoid reminders of death. Unfortunately, there are too many potential death reminders. One of the most fundamental is what Becker called our “creatureliness”, the fact that we are a creature or animal among many. Anything that reminds us of our animal status (or creatureliness) indirectly reminds us of the fact that animals die, and thus that we die. It is for this reason that all cultures separate humans from animals, and it is for the same reason that many cultures repress our bodily natures. Our spirits are what make us human, while our bodies are our animal parts. Reminders of our bodies are, therefore, reminders of our creatureliness and thus of death. Thus, the body must be covered up and/or decorated – it must be brought under control. And sex – if seen as a mere bodily act – must be hidden and plastered over with taboos. In the aforementioned interview with Sam Keen, Becker explains: “all humanly caused evil is based on man’s attempt to deny his creatureliness, to overcome his insignificance. All the missiles, all the bombs, all human edifices, are attempts to defy eternity by proclaiming that one is not a creature, that one is something special.”7

Becker and TMT argued that because we depend on our worldviews for “terror management”, awareness of death raises religious and other cultural identification and strengthens belief in (or consent to) religious doctrine, but also increases negativity (and even hostility) towards other religions and cultures.8 There is one exception to this general rule, however, and that exception may be an important one in the present context: if tolerance is a key value in a worldview, then an increase in mortality salience leads to an increase in tolerance, rather than an increase in hostility, among the adherents to that worldview.9 The other side of the coin is that if a worldview is already intolerant, competitive, and/or aggressive, mortality salience, awareness of death will make it even more hostile and intolerant.

Much of the above sketches what in TMT is called “symbolic immortality”. Symbolic immortality is – more or less – the attempt to live on in one’s culture or society by strongly identifying therewith. The stronger that identification, the stronger the (subconscious) conviction that as long as the society/culture you identifies with survives, you – at least in some sense – survive. Mark Johnston made a similar argument in Surviving Death, but attempted (unsuccessfully, I think) to broaden the scope: by genuinely identifying with the whole of mankind, one could survive personal death.10 “Symbolic immortality” contrasts with “literal immortality”, which is the most literal form of death denial. This kind of denial of death can take different forms: from treating death as an extension of life (as in ancient Egypt and ancient China), to postulating an immortal soul (common in almost all religions), or even attempts for “cure” death (as in ancient Chinese alchemy).11

Gender and binary thought

Most cultures and societies organize core aspects of their social thought (and often also of their social institutions) in pairs of opposites.12 Where this tendency of dualistic or binary thought comes from is not know exactly, but it is very old. Anne Baring and Jules Cashford trace it to ancient Babylonia (18th-6th centuries BCE), which is a plausible source for the shared characteristics of binary/dualistic thought in the ancient Greek, Persian, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic cultures and their successors, as well as other cultures (such as those of India) that were more indirectly influence by Babylonian thought and mythology.13

The Babylonian binary opposites were related to a mother god who was associated with nature and who was ultimately subjugated by a conquering father god. From this pair a chain of conceptual associations followed, and many of these associations as well a their mutual opposition remain very influential on Western thought.14 The following table shows the main oppositions and their associations with the male and female. Vertically, the table groups concepts that are associated; horizontally, it shows opposites. Thus, the male is associated with mind, spirit, order, light, and civilization; and the female is associated with body, chaos, darkness, and nature.

male/masculine female/feminine
spirit/mind body
order chaos
light dark
active passive
reason passion/emotion
culture/civilization nature

One thing that is important to notice here is the association of the male with mind and spirit and the female with body. This is directly related to the father and mother god figures in Babylonian mythology, but is has more important implications if it is seen in conjunction with the foregoing subsection. Therein it was explained that the body – as our animal part – is an indirect death-reminder, while spirit and mind are closely related to the idea of an immortal soul with is the main death-denying belief in most religions.15 Hence, there is an indirect conceptual link between the female and death and between the male and survival (of death).

While this Babylonian is extremely widespread, it is not universal. The Chinese developed another scheme of binary oppositions, and there may very well be cultures that have threefold (or even fourfold) basic classification schemes. The Chinese yin 陰 – yang 陽 dichotomy is very old, but originally these two characters just referred to the shady and sunny sides of a hill or mountain.16 From this contrast a north/south distinction developed, which survives in many place names. According to Joseph Needham, the philosophical use of the pair of characters dates to the 4th century BCE,17 and it is very unlikely that some of the more “philosophical” or cosmological associations with the two terms are older than that. Hence, while the Babylonian opposition started out as a male/female opposition, in case of yin/yang, the female/male opposition was appended much later. This innovation is also of a much later date than the Babylonian mother/father god myth (which dates to approximately the 20th century BCE). However, it is unlikely that the Chinese yin/yang scheme was influenced by the Babylonian scheme. Although Needham rejects a direct connection,18 he left open the possibility of an indirect connection in the assumption that ancient Chinese astrology was influenced by Babylonian astrology. David Pankenier has recently shown that the similarity between the two astrologies are merely superficial (and partially due to mistranslations even) and that Chinese astrology developed in isolation.19 Most likely the same is true for yin/yang thought and its incorporation of the female and the male.

Similar to the table above, the following table shows the yin/yang opposition and its conceptual associations. And like the table above, the vertical dimension leads further and further away from the roots of the opposition. Hence, while the previous table started out with the male/female distinction, we find the same pair of concepts here at the bottom.

yin yang
shady side (of a mountain/hill) sunny side (of a mountain/hill)
north (of something) south (of something)
moon sun
dark/shady light
cool/cold warm
wet/damp dry
hidden/cover/secret open/overt
passive active
negative positive
feminine/female masculine/male

Despite this fundamental difference in orders of association between the two classifications schemes, there are some interesting similarities as well. Both associate the male with light and the female with darkness, for example. And both conceive of the male as active and the female as passive. Nevertheless, it is important to not let such similarities overshadow the differences. Despite these similarities, these are different conceptual schemes – they group and classify things differently (even if the difference is subtle). The most important implication hereof, is that schemes like these are not universal. The differences point out that different classifications and associations are possible. And as mentioned above, it may be the case that there are cultures that didn’t or don’t award such a fundamental role to classification in pairs of opposites at all – perhaps, some cultures think or thought fundamentally in threes rather than twos.

Cultural masculinity

The term “masculinity” has a number of related, but importantly distinct meanings, and this and the next subsection discuss two of the most important notions of masculinity. The masculinity/feminity contrast was introduced as a cultural dimension by Geert Hofstede in 1980.20 To distinguish masculinity in this cultural sense from other notions of masculinity, I will use the term “cultural masculinity” to refer to Hofstede’s dimension.

Hofstede sometimes uses the terms “tender” and “tough” to capture the essence of the feminine/masculine dimension. Feminine cultures are more cooperative, more focused on care, more tender; masculine cultures are more competitive, more focused on strength, more tough. The labels “masculine” and “feminine” were adopted in reference to the fact that many of the core values of feminine cultures are considered stereotypically feminine in very many cultures, and the same for the masculine end of the dimension. Moreover, the dimension can be measured for individuals as well (or actually, a country score is just an average of individual scores), and in most countries women score higher on femininity than men. Extremely feminine cultures form the exception to this rule: in those, men and women score the same on this dimension. From that endpoint, the more masculine a country, the more masculine (in this sense!) both men and women, and the more the two genders diverge.

The masculine/feminine has been criticized by many and is (or was?) almost taboo in masculine business cultures, but its existence (as a measurable and observable dimension of culture) has also been confirmed many times, and it explains a great number of cultural differences. It is often overshadowed by the individualism/collectivism dimension, but I have gradually become convinced that the masculine/feminine dimension is by far the most important of Hofstede’s cultural dimensions. That it is relatively neglected is probably due to two factors: it doesn’t correlate as obviously to economic factors as some of the other dimensions, and much of the research on Hofstede’s cultural dimensions is focused on the role of culture in economic behavior. And secondly, American masculinity has become the de facto standard. As Hofstede observed, “because most English-language publications on gender issues are produced in the United States, the dominant gender role model in the psychological literature is American; gender roles in other countries, if different, are supposed to develop toward the U.S. model.”21 I’ll return to the dominant (or hegemonic) role of American cultural masculinity below.

In Hofstede’s original measurement the most feminine cultures were found in Scandinavia and the Netherlands, while the most masculine cultures included the English- and German-speaking countries and Japan, but more recent measurements have shown significant shifts in some countries.22 Listing countries isn’t the best way to illustrate the nature and importance of the masculine/feminine dimension, however. A more useful illustration can be provided by describing some of the attitudinal differences associated with the dimension’s two poles.23

Masculine cultures primarily value material wealth, money, and things. Feminine cultures value care, people, and relationships. In masculine cultures men are supposed to be tough, assertive, ambitious, and strong, while women are supposed to be modest and tender. In feminine cultures everyone is expected to be modest and tender. Masculine cultures sympathize with the strong and with winners (whom, therefore, should be celebrated and supported). Feminine cultures sympathize with the weak and the losers (whom, therefore, should be helped). Conflicts are resolved on the basis of strength in masculine cultures: the best man should win. In feminine cultures, on the other hand the aim is generally to solve conflicts by means of negotiation and compromise.

There are various important differences with regards to the roles of men and women, how they relate to each other, and what they expect from each between feminine and masculine cultures. For example, women in masculine cultures tend to have different personality preferences in boyfriends and husbands, while in feminine cultures women want the same in a husband as they want in a boyfriend. In masculine cultures, men expect women to be modest, caring, gentle, and passive. In feminine cultures, women (and men) expect men (and women) to be modest caring and gentle, and men expect women to be active, decisive, and ambitious. In masculine cultures, men prefer virgin brides, while women don’t expect virgin bridegrooms. In feminine cultures this doesn’t really matter. In masculine cultures the man decides family size and abortion is a threat to the “natural” order. In feminine cultures, men and women decide family size together, and abortion is primarily seen as the woman’s decision (and often even as her right). Masculine cultures strongly separate the sexes and strongly enforce gender stereotypes and are, therefore, intolerant of intermediate genders and other kinds of “deviations” such as homosexuality. In feminine cultures there is no (equally) strong gender separations and homosexuality and intermediate genders are accepted as a fact of life.

These differences in gender roles and expectations also strongly influence sexual behavior. In masculine cultures, women are expected to be passive during sex and are not really expected to enjoy sex. For men, on the other hand, sex is a competitive achievement. Because of this, sex is often exploitative in masculine cultures, and often experienced as such by women. It is only a very slight exaggeration to say that the model of sex in masculine cultures is rape. In feminine cultures, in contrast, women are expected to be active during sex and to enjoy it, and as a consequence, in feminine cultures women actually do indeed more often enjoy sex and experience orgasms much more frequently and more easily. Furthermore, in feminine cultures women rarely experience sex as abusive. If there is a single keyword capturing the role and nature of sex in feminine cultures it is “intimacy”. Sex is most of all an extension of physical and emotional intimacy between equal partners. Perhaps, this is the starkest contrast between masculine and feminine cultures – sex as rape versus sex as intimacy – and this contrast captures and reflects many of the other differences mentioned above. (It is no coincidence that sexual harassment is a bigger problem in masculine cultures, by the way.) Even if sex doesn’t involve a partner, the two poles of the masculine/feminine dimension differ, moreover. In masculine cultures masturbation is associated with guilt and disgust, while in feminine cultures it is primarily associated with pleasure.24

Even feminism is strongly influenced by the masculine/feminine dimension, but only a minute of reflection on the foregoing should make that obvious. Feminists in masculine cultures think that women’s liberation is fulfilled when women can have the same jobs as men. Feminists in feminine cultures think that women’s liberation is fulfilled when men and women share the burden of homely tasks and duties.

Before proceeding it is worthwhile pointing out that some of the associations with the male and female in Babylonian as well as Chinese binary/dualistic thought and their modern descendants are much more typical of masculine than feminine cultures. In both dualisms, passivity is associated with femininity and activity with masculinity, and this indeed is typical of masculine cultures, while in feminine cultures, both men and women are expected to be active. More in general, the sharp contrast presumed by these dualisms is itself a characteristic of masculine cultures. In such cultures gender is an absolute dichotomy: black or white, with nothing in between. In feminine cultures, on the other hand, there is no similarly strong opposition between the genders. Of course, the genders are distinguished, but the distinction is gradual more than absolute – it is no dichotomy and it accepts various shades of gray. In fact, in comparison to the black-and-white perspective on gender typical of masculine cultures, feminine cultures only recognize shades of gray.

Hegemonic and toxic masculinity

The concept of “hegemonic masculinity” was introduced by R.W. Connell to refer to the idealized form of masculinity or manhood that is traditionally used to legitimize male dominance (or hegemony). Hegemonic masculinity is associated with violence and toughness, and with the bread-winner role in the family (or tribe). In addition to violence and toughness, characteristics and keywords of hegemonic masculinity include aggression, courage, strength, risk-taking, competitiveness, achievement, emotional restraint (showing no emotions except anger).25

Hegemonic masculinity is a paradigm of manhood, but it competes with other (less paradigmatic) perspectives and experiences in the lives of actual men (and women). As a paradigm it operates mainly through the formation of exemplars of manhood. These exemplars have authority over cultural ideas of what it is to be a man, even if very few (if any) men can live up to the ideals they embody.

Hegemonic masculinity is “hegemonic” in two senses. Firstly, it is hegemonic in the more ordinary sense of “hegemony” as cultural dominance. Hegemonic masculinity is the dominant perspective on what it is to be a man. Well, … supposedly, because the previous section suggests that this is yet another example of the dominance of (American/Anglosaxon) cultural masculinity. Hegemonic masculinity is typical of the perspective of masculinity in (very) masculine cultures, but not of the perspective that characterizes feminine cultures. But even the latter are strongly influenced by hegemonic masculinity for reasons discussed in the next subsection.

Secondly, hegemonic masculinity is “hegemonic” in the Gramscian sense of that term, although here to there is occasion for critical reflection. But let’s introduce Gramsci’s notion of hegemony first. I have written about that topic before, and it is easiest to just quote myself.

Antonio Gramsci argued that the state’s or ruling elite’s control over the people can be maintained by two and only two means: coercive power and hegemony. Hegemony is the people’s spontaneous consent to and adoption of the values, desires, ideas, beliefs, perspectives, knowledge claims and so forth that serve the interests of the state and / or ruling elite. . . . In the simplest possible terms, Gramsci’s . . . idea is that Jane can make John do what she wants him to do by two and only two means. Either John accepts Jane’s power/authority and follows her instructions, or Jane forces him by means of violence or the threat of violence. The first of these is hegemony. Hence, hegemony is the (spontaneous) acceptance of (and / or consent to) the socio-political status quo – that is, of the existing power/authority relations.26

Hegemonic masculinity doesn’t serve to maintain the control of the state and ruling elite (or ruling class), however, but of the ruling gender. It does so by spreading a number of values and beliefs that serve its interests, values and beliefs that make it seem “natural” that men are in charge, that men should be in charge, because they are stronger, smarter, more rational, less emotional but also more aggressive, and so forth. Paradigmatic or exemplary manhood is the standard of what it is to be a man, and (as such) the symbol that legitimizes male control over everything else.

But there is an interesting twist. Hegemonic values and beliefs are hegemonic (in the Gramscian sense) because they serve the interests of the ruling group (i.e. the ruling gender in this case), but it is not obvious that hegemonic masculinity actually does that. Surely, it serves some male interests, namely the interest of social and cultural dominance. But the other side of the coin is what is sometimes called “toxic masculinity”: the exemplars of manhood of hegemonic/toxic masculinity pressure men to conform to toxic “ideals”, to “be a man”, to “man up”, to bury emotions (except for anger), and so forth. Hegemonic/toxic masculinity hurts men by causing increases in depression and social isolation among men, as well as bullying and other traumatic experiences and higher suicide rates. (And hegemonic/toxic masculinity hurts women by normalizing and justifying “rape culture” and gender discrimination.) In other words, it is rather doubtful that hegemonic masculinity is really in men’s interests.

As already suggested above, hegemonic and toxic masculinity are not unrelated to cultural masculinity. Masculine cultures much more strongly adhere to traditional male/female dichotomies like those described above (i.e. the “Babylionian” dualism and its derivatives), and therefore, tend to adopt essentialist stereotypes of masculinity and femininity. Hegemonic/toxic masculinity is really nothing but the logical conclusion of such stereotypical masculinity (in opposition to equally stereotypical femininity). Consequently, one might expect that toxic masculinity (as the negative counterpart of hegemonic masculinity) is especially problematic in masculine cultures, but Terror Management (TMT – see above) may somewhat complicate the picture.

In masculine cultures, male/female dichotomies and stereotypes of masculinity and femininity are essential parts of the cultural worldview. If that worldview is perceived to be under attack, or perceived to be weakening, then this threatens the terror management of its adherents. Those rely on that worldview to control their fear of death, and thus they will respond to any perceived threat or attack with “worldview defense”. Hegemonic masculinity as a radicalization of the stereotypical masculinity of masculine cultures may be such worldview defense – that is, it may originate in a perceived threat to traditional gender-related values and perspectives. Such perceived threats can have many forms including cultural change (i.e. a small shift towards a feminine culture), changing social roles of women, changes in the public discourse about gender roles, and so forth. If this is right, then hegemonic/toxic masculinity would be strongest in countries that had very masculine cultures but that are experiencing social and cultural change. (The United States might be an example of such a country. It had a very masculine culture, but more recent measures show a decided shift towards feminine culture,27 and there have been obvious discursive changes and changes in the public roles of women as well. I’ll return to this issue below in the subsection “Hypermasculinity”.)

The hegemony of cultural masculinity

Hegemonic masculinity is a hegemonic notion or stereotype of masculinity that is (loosely?) related to cultural masculinity, but cultural masculinity is hegemonic as well, and in the same two senses of “hegemonic” as hegemonic masculinity. It is hegemonic in the second sense mentioned above because making masculine culture the effective standard serves the interests of masculine countries. But much more importantly, it is hegemonic in the first sense – that is, it is the dominant (or standard) point of view.

Examples of this dominance have already been mentioned above: in the English-language (scientific) literature on gender roles, the psychology of gender, and so forth, it is nearly always assumed that the gender roles, gender relations, and gender stereotypes that are typical of masculine cultures are universal (rather than culture-specific). Even some schools of feminist though have fallen prey to the same hegemony/dominance of cultural masculinity. The Ethics of Care, for example, is a feminist theory of normative ethics that is based on an acceptance of a strong male/female dichotomy, differing only from the traditional view in prioritizing the female rather than the male. Compare this with feminists from more feminine cultures (like Simone de Beauvoir, for example) who reject such sharp, dichotomous gender contrasts, and it becomes clear that the Ethics of Care is a product of “masculine feminism” – that is, of a variety of feminism rooted in masculine culture. That hegemonic influence of masculine culture remains mostly invisible to the feminists operating within it, however, which is a perfect illustration of how hegemony works. Hegemony works by limiting what is perceived to be normal, natural, and/or possible, it shapes common sense (and simultaneously determines its counterpart: nonsense), and therefore, those under its influence rarely come to realize that influence.

The dominance of hegemonic values and beliefs is not the result of some kind of planned process or a conspiracy, but rather of a more or less automatic process. Because the dominant group(s) provide(s) the paradigms of success and prestige and are, moreover, the most visible in the media (and other products of the culture industry), the values and beliefs of (or associated with) that/those group(s) gradually become the common sense values of all. It is primarily the political, economic, and scientific-discursive hegemony of the United Status – that is, the role of the US as the paradigm of success and prestige – that created the pathway to the hegemony of cultural masculinity.

There are, however, some related cultural pathologies that may also have played a role in the rise of hegemonic cultural masculinity, although it is at least equally likely that hegemonic cultural masculinity created the fertile soil for those pathologies. These related cultural pathologies are the “epidemic of narcissism” diagnosed by Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell,28 and my own suggestion that “cultural psychopathy” has become hegemonic.29 Narcissism and psychopathy share characteristics with hegemonic masculinity (but not necessary with cultural masculinity in general) such as risk-taking or thrill-seeking behavior, violence and aggression, emotional restraint except for anger, and more. This overlap in characteristics facilitates the spread of one through pathways created by another. Furthermore, both cultural masculinity and cultural psychopathy are closely related to neo-liberalism, which is equally hegemonic. Neo-liberalism (and neoclassical economics) promotes and is sustained by the extreme egocentricity and callousness typical of psychopathy, but neo-liberalism’s focus on competition (rather than cooperation) and subjugation of nature (which is associated with the feminine, by the way – see above) are also extremely masculine.

And like the other two cultural pathologies, the epidemic of narcissism and the hegemony of psychopathy, hegemonic cultural masculinity is harmful. Or actually, cultural masculinity is harmful. Cultural masculinity helps those who are already ahead and further tramples down those left behind. Cultural masculinity leads to discrimination of women and to toxic masculinity. And cultural masculinity ruins sex (and intimacy in general) – for men by making sex stressful, and for women by making sex unpleasant. This last point may seem like a minor complaint, but such a judgment would not do justice to the importance of sex and intimacy in many people’s lives. Considering the importance of intimacy in relations and the importance of relations (and intimacy itself) for people’s happiness (or “subjective well-being”) it probably is no coincidence that people in wealthy feminine countries are on average happier than people in wealthy masculine countries.30 My point can be made much shorter: cultural masculinity produces suffering (much more suffering, at least than cultural femininity) both for people within those cultures as for outsiders. Assuming that (causing) (undeserved) suffering is inherently bad,31 this implies that cultural masculinity is bad. And that conclusion makes its dominance (or hegemony) even more problematic.


Odile Strik’s essay The Symbolic Order of Life and Manhood addresses all of the above themes, albeit not all explicitly, and perhaps also not all consciously. But when I read her essay, I read it against the background of Terror Management Theory, concept dichotomization, and these various masculinities, and that is how – in my opinion – the essay should be read (regardless of whether it was intended as such).

In this commentary I will cut up Strik’s essay into six parts. The separation into parts follows more or less the thematic organization of the essay. The original text is not cut up in this way, but this approach makes discussing the essay’s rather terse arguments and claims more manageable, and the results of that discussion more readable. The essay proper is preceded by a short preface and followed by a postscript, and I will start there. Except for this preface and postscript, I will quote all parts of the original essay in full (with permission of the author) before commenting on them.

Preface and postscript

This is a sketch of the Symbolic Order of Life and Manhood. It is a schema for structuring the understanding of reality that is applied, to varying degrees, by many past and present people of any gender. I do not claim or believe that it is universal . . . but I do believe that it is ubiquitous in most of today’s societies, particularly the ones that wield power on a global scale.
. . . [the essay itself] . . .
If this seems like a caricature, bear in mind the following: this is a sketch, and caricatures are often sketches, too. No one person will live by the symbolic order sketched here to the letter, for it does not exist as such. I argue, however, that many people’s worldviews are informed by parts of what is sketched here. . . .

The so-called “symbolic order of life and manhood” is a worldview, a conceptual scheme, a schema for structuring and understanding reality. It is not universal, and thus a cultural worldview in the sense intended by, for example, Ernest Becker and Terror Management Theory. Although it is not universal, it is “ubiquitous”, it “informs many people’s worldviews”, and it is associated with globally powerful cultures/societies. In one word, it is hegemonic.

There is some friction between the rejection of universality claims in the preface and postscript and the text of the essay proper, however. There is no hedging in the main text. Rather, every claim is written as an absolute and universal claim. This wouldn’t be a problem if all of those claims would be explicit claims of the “symbolic order” itself, provided that that symbolic order assumes its own universality (in the way cultural masculinity tends to assume its own universality – see above), or in other words, if the worldview of the symbolic order would merely be described from the inside or as it sees itself. But that isn’t the case, some parts of the essay clearly take a more external perspective, and consequently, the friction remains.

Life, survival, and masculinity

The circle of manhood is at the center of the circle of life, which is bound by death. Life is survival: the taking, killing, and devouring of other things to prolong one’s own existence. Our instinct tells us this is good and necessary. Any doubts we might have about the rightness of this process will weaken our resolve and must be controlled and repressed. A man’s life is about control, and hence, power. The power to take what we need and what we want from the circle of life, and make it our own to do with as we please. This is what gives us pleasure. Every time we succeed at taking something is a confirmation of our position within the circle of manhood. A man is defined by his ability to control and not be controlled. A man that allows himself to be controlled or even influenced too much is at the outskirts of the circle of manhood at best, and beyond it at worst: at the level of women, babes, and animals.
When a man becomes a man, he is drawn into the circle of manhood by other men. No more does he belong to the outer circle that is the realm of children, women, and other possessions. He is now a man among men, who compete, cooperate, and together sustain the circle of manhood by drawing in men, and casting out non-men.

The first things that should be noticed in reading this passage are its predatory view of (human) life, and its Nietzschean overtones. “Life is survival: the taking, killing, and devouring of other things to prolong one’s own existence”, writes Strik, and surely this seems an accurate description of the life of a predator. But humans are not predators. Humans (sometimes) hunt, of course, and eat meat, but that’s insufficient to classify us as predators, and moreover, throughout most of human history meat was not the main part of our diets (and it still isn’t for most people). Assuming that we’re just talking about human life, although the text doesn’t say that literally, we could as well – or perhaps, even more appropriately – conceptualize life as gathering, growing, and nurturing (rather than as taking, killing, and devouring). These two conceptualizations of life seem to reflect two different ways of viewing our place in or relative to nature. The predatory conceptualization pits us humans against nature, while the “other” conceptualization places us within nature. This, as well as the aggressive versus gentle tones of the two conceptualizations, reminds of the Babylonian gender opposition and its associations. The predatory conceptualization of life is a very masculine conceptualization, while the other conceptualization is much more feminine.32 Strik offers no argument for the predatory/masculine conceptualization of life and just assumes it. Perhaps, this is an (accidental/unconscious?) example of the hegemony of some notion(s) of masculinity.

Doubts about the rightness of “the taking, killing, and devouring of other things to prolong one’s own existence” “must be controlled and repressed”, she claims next, but I see little reason to believe that this is true. While the predatory/masculine conceptualization of life may be dominant in some social circles, it is far from universal and I can see no systematic attempts to repress variants of the other, more feminine view. In the contrary, it seems to me that it is that other, more feminine view that has been promoted most actively.

Nietzsche would almost certainly agree with the assertion that “a man’s life is about control, and hence, power”, and much of the first paragraph could (almost?) be an explanation or illustration of Nietzsche’s notion of the “will to power”. Power and control are also key terms in Nietzsche’s distinction of master morality and slave morality, however, and that distinction is of particular interest here.

In Beyond Good and Evil distinguished two approaches to morality that run as red threads throughout the history of moral thought. (He developed the idea further in On the Genealogy of Morality.) These two threads are master morality and slave morality. The first is the morality of nobility – it values strength, power, control, self-control, self-reliance, and “natural” instincts. The second is the morality of the common people – it values humility, cooperation, meekness, compassion, submission, friendliness, and it generally revalues “natural” instincts. The values of master morality are closely related to stereotypical characteristics of masculinity, especially of notions of masculinity typical of masculine cultures such as hegemonic/toxic masculinity. The values of slave morality, on the other hand, are much more reminiscent of the stereotypical characteristics of femininity, or at least, of what is generally expected of women in masculine cultures. It is no coincidence that the Ethics of Care (a product of feminist thought developed against a background of cultural masculinity) has been compared to slave morality by early critics.

The two conceptualizations of life are related to Nietzsche’s two moralities. The predatory/masculine conceptualization is how life is perceived by the “masters”: it is life as aimed at control, power, being in power, being in control, taking, killing, being judge and executor, and so forth. The other/feminine conceptualization is a more humble, cooperative, and submissive view on life, it is the ideal view for the herd from the master’s point of view because it makes it easier to control that herd, to make them cooperate and submit. And that’s the point of slave morality – facilitating control – which is why religions tend to expound values typical of slave morality, for example. That is what makes religion useful to the “masters” – it makes the masses meek, accepting, and easy (or easier) to control. And it is for this reason that I believe that the more feminine, more cooperative, and less aggressive/predatory conceptualization of life has actually been promoted throughout much of human history rather than repressed. Nevertheless, I think that Nietzsche is right: both threads – including both conceptualizations of life33 – run through human intellectual history.

Control and being controlled is what separates the master from the slave and the male from the female in extremely masculine cultures. Masculinity is identified with control, as Strik points out, but without noticing this culture-specificity. The association of masculinity with control is an important one, however, and closely related to the active/passive association with men/women which is characteristic both of the Babylonian and classical Chinese (yin/yang) dualisms. In case of the Babylonian dualism, the feminine is associated with nature, and thus human control over nature is conceptually related to male dominion over women, but also to the predatory conceptualization of life, which pits men against nature. Climate change threatens man’s control of nature (as well as its justification), and consequently, one would expect there to be a relation between kinds of masculinity that emphasize the traditional male/female dichotomy (such as hegemonic and cultural masculinity) and climate change denial. Recent research has shown that there is such a link indeed: climate change denial is masculine.34

Life, death, and control

The self is what is alive, that which must survive in order to live as a man lives. That which is other, that which is separate from the self, may be controlled, manipulated, consumed, or cast away, provided one has the power to do so. Every act of control, every assertion of power over others, puts a man closer to the summit of the mountain of manhood, further away from its circumference, and hence from the boundaries of the circle of life, beyond which lies death. Death is the antithesis of life: death is the ultimate uncontrollable force, over which a man holds no power, for direct power can only be wielded in life. Not content in the face of this insurmountable force, a man chases ways to stave off death as long as possible, and various forms of immortality.
Man is the taker and the maker. He manipulates other things and beings to shape the world in his own image. He sows the seeds of the future. He imposes order upon chaos.

A minor point that I would like to make here is that Buddhism (at least in principle) emphatically denies the first claim. Or more accurately, it denies that there is a self in this sense. With this rejection of the self comes a rejection of much of the Nietzschean “will to power” that permeates the first paragraphs of Strik’s essay. Of course, this only matters in restricting the universality of the worldview or “symbolic order” sketched.

If (a man’s) life is control, then death is the loss of control. “Death is the ultimate uncontrollable force, over which a man holds no power”, and therefore, death is the ultimate threat and must be controlled as much as possible. This is a theme that is developed in much of the remainder of the essay. According to Ernest Becker and Terror Management Theory (see above), the fear (or “terror”) of death is a biological/evolutionary necessity which must be controlled. Strik suggests that this fear of death is really a fear of losing control. I’m not sure whether that suggestion makes sense, however. The fear of death seems too instinctive, too primitive, and too widespread among animals to be dependent on something like a fear of losing control. Certainly, women, whose life according to the “symbolic order of life and manhood” is about being controlled rather than about control, fear death as much as men. On the other hand, even in an extremely masculine society women have at least some control over their lives and death would terminate that. Moreover, it seems plausible that the more control over one’s life someone loses, the more that person would despair or even suffer, and perhaps even long for death.35 These last considerations do not necessarily imply an identification of the fear of death with a fear of losing control, however. Rather they suggest that losing control might (in extreme cases) be even worse than death.

Notice also the last short sentence: man “imposes order upon chaos”. Order itself is male in the Babylonian dualism, and chaos female. Imposing order upon chaos is, therefore, conceptually related to male dominance over women.

Women, life, and death

Women are the fertile ground that lies in wait for the man’s plow and seed, eager to bring forth new life. Girls are almost women. Barren women do not exist; they are nothing.
But women are an enigma. Their wombs bring forth life where before there was none, and hence they are at the very boundary between life and death. In some mysterious way, then, they hold a power over life and death that men do not. This makes it imperative for men control the process of life-bearing as closely as possible. By controlling women, their position as bridges between life and death is, indirectly, also controlled. This is the best men can do at keeping death in its proper place, at the edges of life, away from the circle of manhood.

The statement that “barren women do not exist; they are nothing” may sound hyperbolic, but the far right former governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, once said that “old women who live after they have lost their reproductive capacity are useless/wasteful and are committing a crime”.36 Hence, as an expression of a sentiment that may be part of the worldview sketched in Odille’s essay, this apparently hyperbolic statement may actually not be far off.

The main argument of the quoted passage is that women bring forth life from death, and because men need to control death, they need to control that process. The idea that women “hold a power over life and death that men do not”, however, depends on an implicit identification of two distinct states: before-being and after-being. Death is normally understood as the non-being that follows life (or as some kind of afterlife), and not as the non-being that precedes it. But the argument depends on the assumptions that not yet being born is the same as being dead, and that the word “death” to refer to both states – or “non-states”, perhaps, as they are defined by non-being. This is either a conceptual confusion or bad metaphysics, unless a good argument is provided to support that identification, but there is no such argument in the essay. While women may hold a power over life respective to before-being,37 this doesn’t imply that they hold a power over life and death. And that men need to “control the process of life-bearing as closely as possible” for this reason is, therefore, very implausible.

Nevertheless, it is true that in masculine cultures men are typically (expected/expecting to be) in control of family size, and thus that (in masculine cultures, again) it is “imperative for men to control the process of life-bearing”. I doubt that anything like Strik’s suggestion explains this, however. It was mentioned above that there is a very indirect association relation between death and the female,38 but it is probably much too indirect to play any significant role. At least, as far as I know there is no empirical evidence for this association (contrary to, for example, the association of sex with death). But even if this association would play a role it would only associate women with death, while for Strik’s argument to work, there needs to be an association of death with birth (and of after-being with before-being).

Masculine cultures are patriarchal: the man expects and is expected to be the master of the family and the master of his wife. He controls all affairs of the family (except what he decides to leave to his wife’s control),39 including – or perhaps, even most of all – the size and composition of the family. Death (or controlling something like death) probably plays no significant role in this.

The male/female dichotomy

For this reason, the separation between men and women is vital, and must be solid. While there is a soft border between boyhood and manhood that must at some point be penetrated, the border between manhood and womanhood is hard as a stone wall. Men are born boys, on the men’s side of the boundary, and they grow up to be men. If a man is unmanly, he is cast over the wall, for he is not a man.
Anyone who challenges the boundary between manhood and womanhood, who threatens to gnaw at the foundations of the wall, must be controlled, or – if they cannot be controlled – erased. Chiefly, this concerns people who say they are neither women nor men, or those who climb over the wall or want to tear it down. When this happens, the wall must be fortified, the assailants chained down or eliminated.

In masculine cultures the separation between men and women is essential indeed. As remarked above, male/female dichotomization is much stronger in masculine cultures than in feminine cultures. In feminine cultures men and women are not (as) strongly opposed and intermediates are much more accepted, while in masculine cultures intermediates are perceived as a threat. They are a threat because they appear to deny one of the central tenets of the cultural worldview, namely the male/female dichotomy. However, none of this can be explained as it is in Strik’s essay. She suggests that this dichotomization follows from the male need to control women’s life-giving process because that process gives women “a power over life and death”, but that premise – as shown above – is implausible.

Furthermore, it may be the case that there really is no explanation for male/female dichotomization in masculine cultures, aside from a historical one – that is, this tendency to essentialize the Babylonian binary opposition may be a primitive feature of masculine cultures that explains many other aspects of such cultures rather than that it is explained by it. That is, male/female dichotomization may be the root of cultural masculinity, but if that is the case, one would expect resistance to anything that appears to threaten this most central aspect of that cultural worldview to be especially strong. Perhaps, it is, but only further research and reflection can tell.

That the “symbolic order” sketched is not universal also becomes especially clear in this passage. It just isn’t the case that all cultures feel the need to erase or repress “anyone who challenges the boundary between manhood and womanhood”. In the contrary, there are and/or have been many cultures that recognize(d) third, fourth, or even fifth genders. In many cases these third etc. genders were marginalized (as is the case for the hijra in India, for example), but this is/was not generally the case,40 and even if a third etc. gender is marginalized, its recognition in itself already contradicts a suggestion of universalism in this regard.


Men chase immortality mainly in one way, which is the perpetuation of the collection of things they amassed during life, after they die. For this reason, men seek heirs, sons who will inherit the things their father gathered during his life, and add to that their own conquests. In this way, the evidence of their deeds lives on beyond their time. Also for this reason, control over women is vital, for they are the means of reproduction. They must be available to bear sons, who are the key link in the chain: possessions of their father, yet eventually possessors themselves. And of course, a man must be certain that a woman bears his sons, and not another’s, or there is a risk that his chain will be broken.
In addition to this, a man seeks a more abstract inheritance: the memory of his deeds, which live on, not just among his children, but among his peers. Amassing memorable glory and manhood means being remembered beyond one’s lifetime, so that one can be a man, even in death.

The first claim in this passage is false. Men and women “chase immortality” in a number of ways, and “perpetuation of the collection of things they amassed during life” is not even among the most important of those. Much more important are death denial by means of a belief in an immortal soul, and “symbolic immortality” by being/becoming (or convincing oneself to be) a valuable contributor to the world according to one’s worldview. The latter is – more or less – what Strik mentions in the second paragraph: “the memory of his deeds, which live on, not just among his children, but among his peers”. All of this was already explained above in the subsection on Ernest Becker and Terror Management Theory, so there is no need to go into further detail here.

Nevertheless, the association between private property, inheritance, and masculinity is an interesting one. As far as I know, the first to suggest something like this was Lewis Morgan in his Ancient Society, published in 1877. Friedrich Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, which is probably better known, was published in 1884 and is based on Morgan’s work to the extent that it is almost a rewriting of Ancient Society through a Marxist (i.e. historical materialist) lens. Engels emphasized the role of private property and claimed that patriarchy is more or less a consequence thereof, and that private property itself originates in agriculture. The “invention” of private property made it necessary for men to control inheritance (and thus child-birth). Morgan’s work and Engel’s interpretation thereof are somewhat speculative, however, and based on particular interpretations of the limited evidence they had available. Engels’s argument doesn’t seem implausible, but to what extent he was right, and to what extent this can actually be shown (given that we don’t have a time machine), I don’t know.

The symbolic order

At the center of the symbolic order is the abhorrence of death. It threatens to undo all that a man strives to achieve. The symbolic order is the armor and the shield a man deploys to keep death at bay, as well as and for as long as humanly possible.

This is a rather poetic – but also quite accurate – summary of Terror Management Theory.


The ancient Babylonian opposition of the male and the female as well as their respective conceptual associations (spirit/body, civilization/nature, and so forth – see above) permeates most cultures,41 but this doesn’t mean that it plays the same role and/or has the same form in all cultures. In masculine cultures the opposition tends to be more dichotomous, while in feminine cultures it is somewhat more fluid. It is important, however, to not exaggerate or essentialize this latter contrast – that would result in a dichotomy of masculine and feminine cultures, and thus be a kind of “meta-masculinity” (i.e. masculine concept dichotomization and thus cultural masculinity applied to itself).42 Some cultures are more feminine, others are more masculine, and many are somewhere in between. Furthermore, country scores are themselves averages. Within countries there usually are more culturally masculine and more culturally feminine populations. And many countries have experienced shifts in their (average!) levels of masculinity/femininity over the past half century. By implication, any distinctions between masculine and feminine cultures in the foregoing should be interpreted as contrasting shades of gray on a spectrum, not as black and white.

For those who see the world in black and white, however, shades of gray are a threat. The cultural phenomenon that Odile Strik sketches in The Symbolic Order of Life and Manhood may be a response to such a perceived threat: a black-and-whitening in response to a perceived graying of social reality. That, at least, is the hypothesis I will defend in the following, final section of this commentary.


“Hypermasculinity” is where all the threads distinguished above come together: binary thought (or concept dichotomization), terror management, cultural masculinity, hegemonic/toxic masculinity, and so forth. The cultural phenomenon described by Odile Strik is a radicalization of cultural and hegemonic masculinity due to a perceived threat to a masculine world view.

People depend on their cultural worldviews for “terror management” – that is, for (unconsciously) controlling the (unconscious) fear of death. Their self-esteem depends on the validity of their worldviews and on their beliefs that they are positively contributing to the world according to those worldviews. Reminders of death, reductions in self-esteem, and/or threats to someone’s cultural worldview all evoke (more or less) the same response: worldview defense. Worldview defense is a strengthening of someone’s worldview, or an attempt to become a “better” contributor to the world according to that view, or often both.

Cultural worldviews are not rational and do not respond rationally. A rational argument showing a cultural worldview to be factually wrong is – correctly – perceived as a threat to that worldview by its adherents, who respond by world-view defense. Hence, their response to the perceived threat is to believe in the worldview even stronger than before, and to reinforce its core tenets. Typically, a worldview radicalizes in response to threat.

One of the defining aspects of the cultural masculine/feminine dimension is a tendency on the culturally masculine end of the spectrum to strictly separate and strongly oppose the male from the female, contrasted with a much weaker differentiation and more fluid or gradual view on the culturally feminine end. The male and female elements in the gender contrast, furthermore, carry different associations going back to Babylonian mythology. The male is associated with mind/spirit, order, reason, activity, and civilization/culture; and the female with body, chaos, emotion, passivity, and nature.

For cultures closer to the masculine end of the spectrum – let’s continue calling these “masculine cultures”, as I have done thus far – a strict gender distinction is a core element of the worldview. In that worldview – that is, in the culturally masculine worldview – there are two genders with nothing in between, and the two genders have essential features that are closely related to the aforementioned Babylion binaries. Men are minds. Men are active. Men are rational. Men are – and must be – in control. Women are bodies. Women are passive. Women are emotional. Women are – and must be – controlled. Most cultures are (on average) somewhere in between the two extremes on the masculine/feminine dimension, and – in normal circumstances (whatever “normal” means exactly) – there probably are moderating influences and phenomena that steer cultures away from the extremes. Circumstances aren’t “normal”, however.

In many respects, the globally dominant culture is (US) American culture. Movies, music, TV programs, and much other entertainment consumed worldwide is produced in the US from within an American worldview. (And even many non-American entertainment is heavily influenced by American worldviews.) If you look at Hofstede’s original data, the US was a very masculine culture, but a measurement from the 2000s shows that it moved to a much more central position on the masculine/feminine dimension.43 This probably doesn’t mean that the whole of the US became more feminine, however. What it means is that US culture on average became more feminine. The US is not culturally homogeneous, and an average shift away from cultural masculinity can be due to cultural changes in some sub-populations only, or to a shift in dominance from a more culturally masculine sub-population to a more culturally feminine one. In either case, there would be a large sub-population that adhered and adheres to some kind of culturally masculine worldview that used to be closer to the average and, therefore, more dominant and/or influential, and that has been losing ground. For that sub-population the shift away from cultural masculinity would be a threat.

That the worldview of cultural masculinity is under threat is hard to deny. It is threatened by the changing social roles of women, for example. Powerful women, intelligent women, independent women, non-submissive women, women who dare to speak and have an opinion, and so forth, all are a threat to cultural masculinity. But there are many other threats. Abortion, for example, clashes with cultural masculinity, and so do climate change and environmental policy. In the culturally masculine worldview, human civilization (which is associated with the male) is destined to control nature (which is associated with the female). The admission that (male) human control over (female) nature is a form of destructive exploitation that may kill everyone is effectively admitting that that control was wrong, and thus that the worldview was wrong, but that is something a cultural worldview can never admit.

A worldview under (perceived) threat responds by radicalization. In case of the culturally masculine worldview of a substantial part of the American population, “hypermasculinity” is this radicalization. Hypermasculinity is nothing but a retreat to the hard core of cultural masculinity, while simultaneously further reinforcing that core. Thus, the culturally masculine tendency to inflate gender difference and its associated gender stereotypes and gender expectations become (even) more extreme in hypermasculinity. The most toxic forms of hegemonic masculinity are the results of hypermasculine gender stereotypes and expectations. And hypermasculinity demands repression and/or erasure of anything that threatens those stereotypes and the inflated gender opposition. Hence, transgender identities, other kinds of gender-non-conformity, homosexuality, and other deviations from the dichotomous norm are threats to a core belief of the culturally masculine worldview, namely that men are (and should be) “men”, women are (and should be) “women”, and that there is nothing in between.

As a response to threat, hypermasculinity forces itself in the center of attention, and there it mixes with other social movements and phenomena. The rising far right, for example, shares much of its worldview with hypermasculinity, and so do climate denial, ultra-conservative Christianity, the “incel” movement and misogyny in general, cultural psychopathy/narcissism, and so forth. These various trends and movements infect and feed upon each other, strengthen each other, and facilitate the spread of their shared values and beliefs. It is this that has lead to the high visibility and apparent dominance (or hegemony) of hypermasculinity.

Unfortunately, worldview defense (i.e. radicalization) is rarely harmless, however, because usually it does not just involve a reinforcement of core values and beliefs, but also an attempt to make some kind of contribution to the world according to those values and beliefs. This can take many forms – from transferring a few bucks to a charity to political activism or even terrorism – but in practice it tends to be an attempt to make the world align more to with one’s worldview and/or to force one’s worldview onto others. Discrimination, sexual and other kinds of harassment, picketing and other kinds of activism (against abortion or transgender kids, for example), threats, and (terrorist) violence are all possible ways in which worldview defense can (and, unfortunately, does) express itself. And hypermasculinity is especially dangerous because it celebrates aggression and violence (for males).

There is no easy way to defend against this danger. As mentioned above, cultural worldviews are immune to reason, and radicalized worldviews are especially immune. If they respond to counter-argument at all, it is by further radicalizing. Perhaps, the only defense is in raising awareness of the phenomenon, and – most of all – raising awareness of its true nature. Even if confronting the “symbolic order of life and manhood” radicalizes its adherents, it might simultaneously mobilize some of its opponents by showing that there are other views and other ways.

As Odile Strik writes: “No one person will live by the symbolic order sketched here to the letter, for it does not exist as such. I argue, however, that many people’s worldviews are informed by parts of what is sketched here.” And this is probably true. Hypermasculinity dominates the airwaves (partially due to American hegemony, partially due to male hegemony, partially for other reasons) and because of that very many people’s worldviews are influenced by it. The best way to counter that is probably not to fight it, but to unmask it, to show what it is, namely one particular worldview among many, to show that it doesn’t have to set standards of what it is to be a man or a woman or something in between or something else entirely, to show that other and better views exist.

If you found this article and/or other articles in this blog useful or valuable, please consider making a small financial contribution to support this blog 𝐹=𝑚𝑎 and its author. You can find 𝐹=𝑚𝑎’s Patreon page here.


  1. Ernest Becker (1973). The Denial of Death (New York: Simon & Schuster).
  2. Sam Keen (1974). “The Heroics of Everyday Life: A Theorist of Death Confronts His Own End”, Psychology Today, April 1974: 71-80, p. 72.
  3. Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, & Tom Pyszczynski (2015). The Worm at the Core: on the Role of Death in Life (New York: Random House), 211.
  4. Jeff Greenberg & Jamie Arndt (201). “Terror Management Theory.” In: P. A. M. van Lange, A. W. Kruglanski, and E. T. Higgins, Handbook of Theories of Social Psychology, Volume one (London: Sage), 398-415, p. 403.
  5. A meta-analysis covering 164 articles on 277 experiments concluded that the Mortality Salience Hypothesis “is robust and produces moderate to large effects”. See: Brian L. Burke, Andy Martens, & Erik H. Faucher (2010). “Two Decades of Terror Management Theory: a Meta-Analysis of Mortality Salience Research”, Personality and Social Psychology Review 14.2: 155-195, p. 187.
  6. I have written before about the role of such “worldview defense” in radicalization and terrorism. See: A Note on the Psychology of Radicalization and Terrorism.
  7. Sam Keen (1974). “The Heroics of Everyday Life”, p. 71.
  8. This isn’t just true for religious worldviews, of course. A-religious worldviews also tend to radicalize under the influence of mortality salience.
  9. Jeff Greenberg, Linda Simon, Tom Pyszczynski, Sheldon Solomon, & Dan Chatel (1992). “Terror Management and Tolerance: Does Mortality Salience Always Intensify Negative Reactions to Others Who Threaten One’s Worldview?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 63.2; 212-220.
  10. Mark Johnston (2010). Surviving Death (Princeton University Press).
  11. For an analysis of these various kinds of death denial – including Johnston’s – see: Lajos Brons (2014), “The incoherence of denying my death”, Journal of Philosophy of Life 4.2: 68-89.
  12. David Maybury-Lewis (1989). “The Quest for Harmony”, in: David Maybury-Lewis & Uri Almagor (eds.), The Attraction of Opposites: Thought and Society in the Dualistic Mode (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press), 1-17.
  13. Anne Baring & Jules Cashford (1991), The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image (London: Viking).
  14. A central theme of my PhD thesis (published in 2005) is that the opposition between culture and economy (and some conceptual correlates) in social science is ultimately rooted in this same dichotomy. See: Lajos Brons (2005), Rethinking the culture – economy dialectic (Groningen: University of Groningen).
  15. And which is also the main source of symbolic immortality through civilization and contribution thereto.
  16. This etymology is also shown in the characters themselves. Both have the radical for “hill” on the left. The right part of yin means something like “shady” or “cloudy”, and the right part of yang means “sun”.
  17. Joseph Needham (1956). Science and Civilisation in China. Volume 2. History of Scientific Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 273.
  18. Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, Volume 2, p. 278.
  19. David Pankenier (2014). “Did Babylonian Astrology Influence Early Chinese Astral Prognostication Xing Zhan Shu?”, Early China 37.1: 1-13.
  20. Geert Hofstede (1980). Culture’s Consequences, First edition. Second, revised and updated edition: 2001 (Thousand Oaks: Sage).
  21. Geert Hofstede (1998). “Masculinity/Femininity as a Dimension of Culture”, in: Geert Hofstede and associates, Masculinity and Femininity: The Taboo Dimension of National Cultures (Thousand Oaks: Sage), 3-28, p. 12.
  22. Vas Taras, Piers Steels, & Bradley L. Kirkman (2012). “Improving National Cultural Indices Using a Longitudinal Meta-Analysis of Hofstede’s Dimensions”, Journal of World Business 47: 329-341.
  23. The following is mostly based on the chapters by Hofstede in: Geert Hofstede and associates (1998), Masculinity and Femininity: The Taboo Dimension of National Cultures (Thousand Oaks: Sage).
  24. Japanese philosopher Masahiro Morioka wrote an unusually honest and open book about his own sexuality over a decade ago, causing a bit of a stir in Japan. The book became a classic of Japanese men’s studies and was recently translated into English. Japan is a very masculine country, and Morioka’s book confirms much of the above – that is, (much of) his attitude towards sex is very typical for a masculine culture. See: Masahiro Morioka (2017). Confessions of a Frigid Man (Tokyo: Tokyo Philosophy Project).
  25. See: R.W. Connell (1987), Gender and Power: Society, the Person and Sexual Politics (Cambridge: Polity Press); and: R.W. Connell & James W. Messerschmidt (2005), “Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept”, Gender & Society 19.6: 829-859.
  26. Lajos Brons (2017). The Hegemony of Psychopathy (Santa Barbara: Brainstorm), pp. 35-36.
  27. Vas Taras, Piers Steels, & Bradley L. Kirkman (2012). “Improving National Cultural Indices Using a Longitudinal Meta-Analysis of Hofstede’s Dimensions”, Journal of World Business 47: 329-341.
  28. Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell (2009). The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement (New York: Atria).
  29. Lajos Brons (2017). The Hegemony of Psychopathy (Santa Barbara: Brainstorm). See also part 4 in the “Crisis and Inertia” series.
  30. Willem A. Arrindel (1998). “Femininity and Subjective Well-being”, in: Geert Hofstede and associates, Masculinity and Femininity: The Taboo Dimension of National Cultures (Thousand Oaks: Sage), pp. 44-54.
  31. For an argument for the inherent wrongness of suffering, see Derek Parfit (2011), On What Matters, Volume 2 (New York: Oxford University Press), 565–69.
  32. The use of the term “other” to refer to the feminine perspective here is no accident. As Simone de Beauvoir pointed out in The Second Sex, from the male perspective, woman is (the) other.
  33. Which are not strictly speaking Nietzschean themselves.
  34. Jonas Anshelm & Martin Hultman (2014). “A Green Fatwā? Climate Change as a Threat to the Masculinity of Industrial Modernity”, NORMA: International Journal for Masculinity Studies 9.2: 84-96.
  35. The most influential definition of suffering is Eric Casell’s: “the state of severe distress associated with events that threaten the intactness of the person”. Losing control could deteriorate the intactness of a person. See: Eric Cassell (2004). The Nature of Suffering and the Goals of Medicine, Second Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
  36. In the original Japanese “女性が生殖能力を失っても生きているってのは無駄で罪です”. He said this in 2001 in an interview with Shuukan Josei 週刊女性.
  37. Although men obviously play a necessary role in this as well.
  38. See the subsection on Ernest Becker and Terror Management Theory.
  39. That in practice the wife may have significant control over many aspects of the family doesn’t matter here. Practice is rarely the mirror image of a cultural ideal.
  40. The Buginese people of Sulawesi in Indonesia recognize five genders and stress harmony between these genders, for example.
  41. The main exception is East Asia in which the male/female distinction is associated with yang and yin instead.
  42. In practice, masculine cultures tend not to be meta-masculine in this sense, however. They do not inflate the contrast between masculine and feminine cultures, but rather deny that the latter exist. Or in other words, they tend to assume that cultural masculinity is universal. See the subsection on the hegemony of cultural masculinity above.
  43. Vas Taras, Piers Steels, & Bradley L. Kirkman (2012). “Improving National Cultural Indices Using a Longitudinal Meta-Analysis of Hofstede’s Dimensions”, Journal of World Business 47: 329-341.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *