Being Macho Is Not a Mental Disorder

Some psychologists are attacking the classic model of masculinity, claiming it’s an emotional disability. They were wrong before, about ‘female hysteria’ and sexual orientation – and they're wrong now

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Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin rides a horse in southern Siberia's Tyva region, Russia, August 3, 2009.
Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin rides a horse in southern Siberia's Tyva region, Russia, August 3, 2009. Credit: REUTERS FILE PHOTO/ REUTERS
Amos Prywes
Amos Prywes

The macho is under attack. In the name of gender equality or as part of the struggle of young men against the old elite, because of his aggressive, tough way of life, repressed puritanism or his shopping and self-grooming habits – even those who are willing to raise the banner of male rights won’t defend the “macho” male wholeheartedly. Instead they demand recognition that men have been attacked and suppressed by him for years. The representatives of the affluent classes dub him “ars” (roughly, “sleazebag”) in Israel and “redneck” in America, terms that link machoism with a lower socioeconomic status and cultural backwardness

These voices are now being joined by that of the psychological-psychiatric establishment. Its new claim is that the classic model of masculinity actually suffers from a psychic disorder. A document recently published by the American Psychological Association asserts that the patterns of behavior identified with traditional masculine education – concealment of vulnerability and weakness, refraining from public displays of emotion – are harmful to the functioning of many men and cause them mental distress. Men displaying these patterns, the authors suggested, should be viewed as suffering from “toxic masculinity,” and ways to help them should be considered. Forty-six years after it removed homosexuality from the diagnostic manuals, the establishment is now prepared to list machismo in its place.

The major argument against machismo is that it’s no more than a type of façade. The poet Dahlia Rabikovitch described the woman with a well-groomed appearance who hides open wounds that fester beneath it “like a wounded twig hanging by a tendril.” The macho image, it’s argued, works in the same way: It functions like a stereotypical, hard shell that conceals damaged and hurting places. The practical and simplistic terminology with which macho discourse addresses emotional complexity is perceived as the psychological equivalent of “putting on a bandage”; it is seen as being capable of offering only superficial comfort, leaving repressed and buried emotional pains below the surface.

Such claims can easily make us forget that throughout history, the macho image has helped many men to function even as they coped with disease, disaster and loss. Until not long ago, machismo even constituted an ideal of mental health. The frenzied maneuver of transforming the gnarled, silent cowboy from a culture hero into an emotional cripple, is more evocative of Freudian patricide than of a notion based on scientific knowledge.

In his book “Totem and Taboo,” Freud describes how the attempt to forge a new culture rests on a myth at the center of which a group of offspring conspire together to do away with the primeval father. The members of the group devour his flesh and divide up his property. This diverse coalition of forces that has come together in recent years in order to distance the macho father from the cultural space combines agendas and interests that turn him into all that is bad and inferior.

The perception of macho discourse as something that represses complex wounds ignores the benefit it can have in different contexts. Like the bandage that provides “artificial skin” that separates an injury from its surroundings while allowing it to heal, macho toughness provides support for the emotional covering that’s been breached. It maintains a stable framework within which healing processes can play out. This might explain why, despite the limitation and shortcomings of the macho image, many men throughout history have believed that it aids them in coping with life’s challenges, and why even today they insist on clinging to it and feel exposed and vulnerable without it. From the psychological viewpoint, it’s more correct to look at machismo not as a disorder, but as a type of defense mechanism: an organizing personality structure, intended to help in coping with anxiety about falling apart and with a flood of emotions.

For example, studies conducted in the past few years have shown that a patient’s re-exposure to a trauma-inducing place or stimulus immediately after the injury reduces the likelihood of posttraumatic disorder. This surprising finding challenges the accepted notion that it’s necessary to pause and devote time to processing an injurious event emotionally before returning to full activity. As a result, part of the conventional treatment of post-trauma in our time consists of taking soldiers who experienced combat stress back to the front for a few days before sending them to the rear, and of taking victims of a criminal offense to visit the scene of the crime.

Glorifying grit

This prevailing therapeutic approach converses with the image of the father who urges his child to get right back on the bike after a painful fall, or who gets him to reenter the pool quickly after he’d left it, coughing up swallowed water. The question is thus raised as to whether, beneath ostensible macho insensitivity lies an inherent understanding of the human psyche and of how it deals with hurts of a certain kind.

Forty-six years after it removed homosexuality from the diagnostic manuals, the establishment is now prepared to list machismo in its place.

The healthful and protective functions of machismo are also responsible for therapeutic coaching, one of the recent interesting developments in the field of psychotherapy. Whereas the psychological establishment maintains that macho behavior is rife with toxic elements and that its presence in the public domain needs to be reduced, its voice is actually being appreciated among some therapists.

In recent years the therapist-coach has introduced into the treatment room a style of speech that was previously the preserve of the world of competitive sports. Tales of legendary coaches such as Pat Riley in basketball or Alex Ferguson in soccer evoke a highly active, vigorous masculine presence that sanctifies ambition, glorifies toughness and grit, and creates a competitive climate in which humans test the limits of their mental and physical ability.

Similarly, such popular self-help gurus as Tony Robbins adopt a therapeutic tone of -that is confrontational, scolding and stenographic, which is very different, if not the opposite, of what we generally associate with psychotherapy. It’s a voice that falls receptively on ears that yearn for the organizing functions of machismo, which have been shunted aside in the cultural dialogue. The commitment of the macho voice to autonomy, its dissociation from victimizing thinking, and the way it channels aggression toward creative and competitive outlets render it especially valuable for contemporaries.

This paradoxical clash of approaches has always been characteristic of psychological treatment. The establishment often tends to fall into line with prevailing social trends and to validate social perceptions using medical terminology, as it has done regarding female hysteria, sexual orientation, addiction to computer games or toxic masculinity. On the other hand, the clinic serves as a place where it’s permissible to hear and utter forbidden voices that have otherwise been displaced from prevalent cultural discourse.

In the conservative, inhibited society of the late-19th century, Freud developed a therapeutic discourse that allowed the free and liberated expression of erotic fantasies. The rigid education in the British boarding schools of the early 20th century inspired such therapists as D.W. Winnicott to develop a therapeutic approach that gives expression to the authentic “inner child,” which does not take into consideration the demands of the surroundings. Accordingly, it is not surprising that in a period in which values identified with machoism, such as competitiveness, practicality and toughness are considered harmful, the field of therapeutic coaching is enjoying such great popularity. Like many repressed voices throughout modern history, machismo is finding refuge and expression in the therapy room.

Trump and Putin

The macho image has helped many men to function even as they coped with disease, disaster and loss.

The assault on the macho father, besides removing these ideas from the social dialogue, also encourages the emergence of destructive and grotesque characters at its expense. The liberal agenda doesn’t promote this offensive, but its opponents make manipulative use of its inclination toward that approach. The shallow condemnation of a complex psycho-social structure like machismo does not enhance tolerance, but supplies ammunition to those whose aim is to brutally breach the liberal discourse.

Donald Trump frequently depicts men as victims and masculinity itself as being under an institutional offensive. Vladimir Putin makes use of macho displays to signal his supporters that he is not yielding to the West’s new emasculating discourse. Thus, while the psychological establishment is busy formulating a diagnosis of toxic masculinity, one world power is being led by a person who brags of grabbing women forcefully and has proudly participated in a WrestleMania event, and the other by a person who has his photograph taken as he rides a horse and hunts bears bare-chested. There is nothing surprising about this counter-reaction when we consider that the only thing all of psychology’s streams agree on is that creative thoughts and content that a person tries to push away will ultimately resurface in a violent, unhealthy way.

In this connection, Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” raises some interesting points. It is set in a period when the macho ideal was still considered the model of ideal masculine behavior, although Tarantino indicates in the film that the time of his heroes and of the type of masculinity they represent is drawing to an end. As though to demarcate the violent, brutal past of machismo, he names his protagonists after notorious robbers and assassins from the past, but portrays them as being more ridiculous and touching than threatening. The protagonists hide behind a confident masculine exterior, a stuttering voice, fading careers and pervasive loneliness.

Brad Pitt, left, and Leonardo DiCaprio in Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood."Credit: Andrew Cooper,AP

Like the old action series that the movie half mocks and half idealizes, the comportment of the two leads is characterized by ridiculous dramatizing that no longer suits the spirit of the time. One of them persistently smokes and coughs; the other loses his job after challenging Bruce Lee to a fight. Both of them seem to be gradually losing their place in a world that increasingly belongs to a different type of man, one that is freer and more sensitive.

But at the end of the film an additional angle is presented: Tarantino places his imaginary protagonists in a house that’s next door to Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate – the actress who was murdered by followers of the Charles Manson cult in one of the most notorious crimes in American history. The director proposes reimagining the night of the murder and asks what would have happened if instead of encountering the pregnant actress and her friends, the cult members had run into the film’s two protagonists, their terrifying Amstaff and the flamethrower they keep in the storeroom. At the end of the film Tarantino shows that along with its old-fashioned, ludicrous side, machismo also has the ability to defend against threats of a certain kind and that there are moments when its presence is positive and required.

In the cultural climate in which Freud was active, too, the macho male was an icon of physical and emotional health. It’s not surprising that he himself drew on the macho world of images to describe psychological treatment. He likened the therapist to an adventurous archaeologist who digs into rock, or a surgeon who cuts through diseased tissue, and treated defense mechanisms like mental blocks – as something to be confronted and dismantled.

Freud’s daughter Anna, who became a therapist and brilliant writer in her own right, suggested a different universe of images. She argued that people need defensive mechanisms in order to regulate and organize their inner worlds. The therapist’s role, in her view, was to strengthen and streamline those defense mechanisms, not to try to penetrate them and break them down. The ideas put forward by Anna Freud, who had to learn by herself from an early age how to live with a domineering, macho father, offer a different angle of observation for that image and for the use different men make of it as a defense mechanism.

Clearly, the macho ideal can cause suffering in men who feel that there’s something not legitimate about the pain or the weakness they experience. But a sweeping labeling of machismo as “toxic masculinity” won’t help one to cope with those feelings. An approach that seeks to render more flexible certain aspects of the macho image, or to soften them, while at the same time preserving and even strengthening other aspects of them, can be a more congenial basis for the effort to formulate a healthy mode of contemporary masculine identity.

That’s also how Tarantino chooses to conclude his movie. In the final scene, the protagonist who has saved the day is invited to join the grateful Sharon Tate and her friends. He wipes from his clothes all signs of the criminals he set on fire, takes a deep breath and excitedly enters the party that he dreamed of being invited to for a long time, ready to try and find his place in the new world.

Amos Prywes is a clinical psychologist who works for the Triest-Sarig Institute, manages the psychological clinic for students at the College of Management and has a private practice.