As odd as it might sound to some, the question of what it means to be a man has been with me for a while. It’s a question that I believe needs some reflection. For many men, there is a desire to discover who they really are. The journey of discovery is, however, challenging (one doesn’t “grapple” with something, as the title implies, without struggling to subdue it). How do I know this? Well, I spoken to many men, asked questions, and have also considered the voices of women. I have also sought advice from people who have asked the same questions as I have.
It is quite clear that much of the confusion stems from popular culture which no doubt has a profound influence on many of our lives (1). The music we listen to, the films we watch, the magazines we read, and the video games we play all influence how we perceive reality, especially when it comes to the roles of men and women. The sad thing is that popular culture doesn’t care about you and me. It only cares about building up power and making money. And that we need to be open and reflective over the negative issues foisted on us by popular culture doesn’t necessitate that we are anti it. I think that it does have its place, and it often provides a much needed relief from the stresses of life.
We are brought up in a society that confines men and women into rigid boxes, a fact popular culture no doubt helps. According to the influential feminist writer Judith Butler, “The act that one does, the act that one performs, is, in a sense, an act that has been going on before one arrived on the scene. Hence, gender is an act, which has been rehearsed, much as a script survives the particular actors who make use of it, but which requires individual actors in order to be actualized and reproduced as reality once again” (2). These “binary scripts” become standardized as society passes them on from generation to generation, and we become the “actors.” This is just the reality we find ourselves within.
Feminism, thankfully, has a lot to say on this topic though we can engage feminist thought in some more detail elsewhere; however, I find that feminist writers and philosophers have been quite helpful in examining the prevalent issue of toxic masculinity. Though I have an upcoming article on this very subject, toxic masculinity refers to the socially-constructed ideas that the masculine gender role is unemotional, violent, and sexually aggressive. Toxic masculinity isn’t an attack on masculinity, or a personal attack on men.
However, many men within our society have bought into this type of masculinity that tells them to “Man up,” “Don’t be a sissy,” “Don’t cry,” “Talk like a man,” “Act like a man,” and so on; all things that boys would have heard before. I remember when I was still tiny, a kitchen cupboard door knocked hard against my head. I cried, and my grandfather, still alive at that time, leaned down to grab my wrist, and subsequently informed me that “Cowboys don’t cry!” Confusingly I thought, what had cowboys to do with my sore head?
To be a man, I was taught, is to be someone who is always strong emotionally and physically. Being strong means suppressing emotions associated with weakness, and as such crying, and expressing hurt was for women and girls. One soon begins questioning himself. If, for example, I am weaker than the next man, or more emotional, or less intelligent, then am I less of a man than he is? According to concept of what it means to be a “real man” imposed by popular culture, yes. To even ask the question of what it takes to be a “real man,” as so many do, is to assume that many men aren’t actually meeting this standard of what it is to be a man. It is no wonder that so many soon begin to doubt their “manliness” or see themselves as less man than another male. According to Michael Kimmel, a sociology professor, “The more you subscribe to traditional ideas of masculinity, the harder it may be today to construct a healthy idea of masculinity or to navigate this current world” (3).
But it goes beyond just boys; girls are hurt too. On this definition of what it means to be a man, at its very core, demeans the value of women. According to this narrative, women are not only seen as inferior (“don’t cry like a girl,” or “you hit like a girl,” etc.) but they also quickly become little more than objects, things for men to win. Many girls are brought up believing this, that it is not their intelligence or other traits that matter but rather their physical appearances (4). This is enforced by popular culture, and it is hardly surprising that so many young girls end up preparing themselves since youth to look attractive to men in hope that they can win their affections (5). Yet, on this narrative, women are mostly just good for sex, and if that desire fades then men should seek after other women. The pain this brings is significant because as human beings we all have feelings and emotions; we become attached and we end up loving each other. Cutting that bond brings a great deal of pain. The pendulum thus swings both ways. If a man is neither of these things that popular culture affirms he ought to be (powerful, strong, wealthy, successful), then he is less of a man. For a women, if she doesn’t meet this standard that popular culture imposes on her too, then she is less of a woman.
I’ve been driven to reflect on this. How, as a man, or just by virtue of being a human being could I not? In all honesty I cannot provide an absolute answer, though I’d begin formulating one through deducing what a man isn’t. I felt that being a man is not about what material things he possesses. It is not about his finances, the woman he has under his arm, or the big home he lives in. It is not about how many thrills he has had in his life or how many adventures he has been on. Being a man is not defined by his strength, speed, agility, or stamina, or how many sports he likes to play and/or watch. Being a man is not about having the deepest/gruffest voice, or being the most intelligent person in the group or the room, or having more power than any other. Nor is being a man decided by how many women one has had sex with, will have sex with, and how many relationships he will be in.
To believe that such things define what it means to be a man is to look externally to oneself, and I think that is the problem. We define what we are by what others think of us, or how popular culture says we should behave and look like. Rather, the importance lies in looking within ourselves. Being a man is about coming to know oneself, and though we can look to other men for guidance, these other men are only guides.
Coming to know oneself is about understanding and accepting our limitations and struggles, as well as celebrating and nurturing our strengths. Being a man is also about inner maturity. It is growing up from childhood and learning how to think, act, and speak maturely. We must reason wisely; we must engage others thoughtfully and respectfully; and we must behave ethically and consider our decisions before we act. Being a man is also simply about being human; to be a man, as one writer so eloquently put it, is simply to “be human, and to treat everyone else, regardless of sex, race, religion, age or sexual orientation, as such. And what a wonderful world that would be” (6).
1. Taylor, J. 2009. Popular Culture: Too Much Time On Our Hands. Available.
2. Butler, J. 1988. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,” in the Theatre Journal. 40 (4): 526.
3. Krasny, J. 2015. What Does It Mean to Be a Man? This Professor Might Have the Answer. Available.
4. Szymanski, D., Moffitt, L., & Carr, E. 2011. “Sexual objectification of women: advances to theory and research,” in The Counseling Psychologist. 39 (1): 6–38.
5. Rasicot, J. 2008. Why Do Teen Girls Dress the Way They Do? Available.
6. Haltiwanger, J. 2015. What It Means To ‘Be A Man’ In Today’s World. Available.