“Be a Man!”: Has society broken true masculinity?
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Over the next five articles, we will embark on a brief exploration of the complex and often overlooked topic of being male. The articles will be reflective and open to discussion, so please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below. Be mindful of one another’s struggles – or their difficulties in speaking about them – and do all you can to encourage each other and to lift each other’s spirits.
Article 1: “Be a man!” To begin with, we will look at some of the confusion around what it means to be a man today. Do we cling to narrow, old-fashioned images of masculinity? Have we become too soft? Are we lost in the clamor of society’s gender debate, unsure how to respond? Who or what currently influences our idea of masculinity?
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Article 2: Being a man. In this article, we consider the things that have shaped our own experiences, struggles and beliefs around growing into a man. We reflect on whether we can change what has influenced us in the past.
Article 3: Becoming more manly. Here we will reflect on ways of understanding and reaching authentic manhood.
Article 4: Beholden to other men. It’s important to learn from the experiences of others. Here we will discover some good resources, writers and role models that will help to develop our understanding of masculinity.
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Article 5: “Behold the man!” Finally, we will contemplate the person of Jesus Christ as the embodiment of authentic manhood and masculinity.
“Be a man!”
Before you read much further, try a couple of quick experiments. Type the words “be a man” into the image search of any search engine. What comes up? My results were largely a mix of muscle pics, beards, and quasi-inspirational quotes. Oh, and publicity shots for rock hell-raiser, Duff McKaggan’s, book on being a man. Not the most profound selection of resources.
Now do the same for a standard web search. Anything useful? Top of the list for me was Robert Master’s book, To Be A Man. A Guide to True Masculine Power. It looks interesting but has a slightly aggressive title. Still, I might read it sometime. Next was IMBd’s summary of the 2013 film, How to Be a Man: “former comedian Mark McCarthy … hires a young, impressionable cameraman to document his crude and comical lessons on what it means to be a man for his unborn son”. Nice.
There then followed a list of links with titles like Genuine Ways to Be a Man (Wikihow), Characteristics of the Ideal Man (Esquire), and Traits of a Real Man (askmen.com). I clicked on that last one, just to see if I had any. Cue picture of a handsome beard and a list of eight revelations: #8 A real man can defend himself. Really? Ok, I’d like to think I could, but I’ve never had the opportunity to try. Let’s move on. #7 A real man keeps his house in order. Ha! Have you seen my house? I have four kids. And on sunny days, half the neighborhood’s juveniles traipse through the house to see the chickens in the backyard, leaving permanent and indeterminate stains in the hallway. Does that make me less of a real man? #6 A real man takes care of his appearance. So where does that leave my wife? She takes care of her appearance too. Come to think of it, my pet rats spend more time grooming than I do. Does that make them real men? I didn’t realize that care for one’s appearance was a characteristic only inherent in real men. I can’t be bothered to read #5.
What next? The Guardian appeared to have the answer in 2015, with How to Be a Man in 2015. I read it carefully, worried I’d missed the boat: Being a guy used to be easy. Now it’s just confusing. Are you an ultra dad or a lumbersexual? And who’s the better role model – David Beckham or Louis CK?
I can’t say I’ve ever asked myself those questions, but carry on.
Basically, … no one really knows what masculinity is, or is for, these days …. It feels as if, as the traditional ideals of the 20th-century man – strong, stoic, repressed – begin to fade away, nothing has stepped in to replace them. In today’s pop-culture landscape, there’s no single archetypal ideal that we’re supposed to emulate.
Great. Thanks for nothing!
Finally, I checked out an article from the Huffington Post, entitled, Why I Never Tell My Sons to ‘Be a man.’ The writer takes the line that, because small boys have no understanding of the concept implied in the phrase (i.e. toughen up), it’s frivolous to try to impose it upon them, especially since the likely outcome is stunted emotions. And, in any case, “They will figure out what being a man means to them, apart from any senseless commands my wife or I force on them.”
Oh, really? Will they?
Coincidence, then, that just as I was about to click away, something rather unnerving caught my eye: a letter written to The Guardian only a few days ago. Here’s the title and the essence of what was written:
I want to be a ‘man’ but at the age of 32 I still behave like a selfish boy
“I worry that I don’t have the knowledge or the will to be a man yet, and then additionally I worry that I won’t mature at all, or it will be too late before I realize that I’ve messed it all up. Can you help me make the leap from boyhood to manhood and be happy about it?”
This stopped me in my tracks. This made me suddenly and intensely sad. Not only does the all-powerful internet have no answers, but the questions are getting more gut-wrenching, more desperate, more bewildered. And downright embarrassing. Clearly men can’t simply “figure out what being a man means to them”!
But this represents the truth of the situation. As men, we no longer have any clear archetypal ideal that we’re supposed to emulate. Not only that, it’s messing us up like never before. Take the recent documentary, The Mask You Live In, for example:
“[The film] follows boys and young men as they struggle to stay true to themselves while negotiating America’s narrow definition of masculinity. Pressured by the media, their peer group, and even the adults in their lives, our protagonists confront messages encouraging them to disconnect from their emotions, devalue authentic friendships, objectify and degrade women, and resolve conflicts through violence. These gender stereotypes interconnect with race, class, and circumstance, creating a maze of identity issues boys and young men must navigate to become “real” men.”
Some of the strongest scenes in the film come during an after-school discussion on masculinity led by Ashanti Branch, an assistant principal in Oakland who works to help his male students build an “emotional tool box.” Branch asks the group of teen boys to take out a piece of paper and, on the front, write the image of themselves they think other people see. The teens write down various responses: funny, tough, strong. Then, on the back, Branch asks them to write what people don’t see. The responses are almost all the same: anger and isolation. As Branch makes clear, teen boys will don a mask of invulnerability, one that often cuts them off from connecting with the people around them.
So, we appear to have two extremes of masculine identity. On the one hand, a real man is the strong, silent type, but with the propensity to be emotionally restrained and physically and sexually aggressive. On the other hand, a real man is one who is in touch with his emotions and connected to others around him, but still appears distinctly confused as to whether he is really a man or not. Most of us, I suspect, are at points along the spectrum between these two extremes and, if we’re honest, just as uncertain as where the boundaries actually lie. A final article from the UK’s New Statesman, called How to Be a Man, sums up our current predicament:
There is nothing inevitable about men oppressing women, being full of aggression, or clamping down on other men who don’t conform to a rigid concept of masculinity. Being a man can mean being inclusive, open and accepting. Masculinity is fluid and its future is up for grabs.
Take some time to think about the following questions. Find a pen and notepad and jot down your answers. These questions consider the things that influence our understanding of masculinity as we grow up. They also link to our next article in the series.
- As a boy, did you have posters on your bedroom wall of male superstars? If so, what did you admire them for? Do you currently admire any male celebrities for any reason?
- Which male figures had a positive influence in your life as you were growing up? What did you admire about them and learn from them? Which male figures had a negative influence in your life as you were growing up? What did you dislike about them and what would you choose to do differently?
- When have you felt most manly? When have you felt most uncertain about what it means to be a man?
- Overall, who, or what, has taught you the most about being a man? What was it you gained from this person or experience that made you feel you were developing as a man?
- Using the previous questions, sum up what it means for you to be a man. Do you struggle in any way to be that man? Is masculinity really ‘fluid and its future up for grabs’?