From Courtier to Modern Man: Snapshots of Gender Roles throughout Time

By Daria Haner

We can all agree that Western gender roles have changed vastly from generation to generation– from the proper Victorian lady of the house, to the stereotypical 1950s housewife, to the working woman today. However, I would like to explore how masculinity has developed over the generations, specifically in Europe and the United States. Was the stereotype of the “macho man” the norm throughout history? Or are there more nuances to explore? 

Some aspects of the Ancient Greek idea of the ideal man were surprisingly similar to today. In Sparta, courage and prowess in the battlefield was valued above all else, and physical strength like developed muscles and athleticism were valued highly. This is especially visible in Greek sculpture, which often shows lean, muscular men participating in vigorous sports. However, the philosopher Plato says in his work Symposium that loving young men is more noble than loving women due to the intellectual equality that could not exist between men and women due to educational limitations. This is very different to the modern day, where many cultures view male homosexual relationships as “effeminate”. 

In Renaissance Europe, the perfect man was exceedingly different than modern stereotypes for masculine men might suggest. In Book of the Courtier by Baldassare Castiglione, written in 1528, the ideal man is described as being well read, speaking elegantly, being a deft dancer, and humble. This reflects the change from the medieval era to the Renaissance– as the medieval world outlook was slowly replaced by humanist principles, the male code of chivalry was replaced by intellectuality and nobility. The “Renaissance Man” was not only someone who pursued many intellectual pursuits (like Leonardo DaVinci), but was also someone who could be an active and positive part of court life with their wit, humor, and athleticism. 

While male gender roles went through many fluctuations after the Renaissance, including a Victorian revival of the chivalric code, a major change occurred after World War II. During the war, women had to perform traditionally male roles because most men were away fighting. They took jobs and provided for their families, taking care of nearly everything until the soldiers returned. This female empowerment was a threat to traditional masculinity, so, then more than ever, men were called upon to be the sole providers of the family. This was not only to bring stability into the shell-shocked men’s lives, but also reinforced the part of masculinity that was useful in peacetime: being a breadwinner. This was also the main cause for the rise and growth of the nuclear family. 

Modern masculinity is still stuck in the past in many ways– toxic masculinity and emphasis on physical characteristics (like muscles, similar to the Greek tradition) to define it are still very prevalent. Even though mental health has become less stigmatized, many men still put up a stoic facade and do not allow themselves to be vulnerable for fear of being seen as weak. However, being a stay-at-home dad is becoming more and more common, as are genderbending fashion trends (see: that period when guys on TikTok were wearing maid outfits), so who knows what the future holds?

In all this, it is important to remember that this article only explores Western gender roles and masculinity. For example, the Khasi society in India is a matriarchal group where surnames and clan lineages are passed down through the mother rather than through the father, as it is in the West. Great diversity exists within male gender roles throughout time and place, and one would be mistaken to take the Western development as the only path. 

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