What Does it Mean to be a Man? Part 3

I’ve spent most of the week thinking about how to write this next post. I think that we’re coming into the most important areas of question in this. While strength is certainly emphasized when it comes to manhood, most people won’t argue that we should judge the ‘manliness’ of an individual based on his property, appearance, or inherent abilities. This is quite clearly ridiculous. However, I think it is worth pointing out here that we often¬†do judge an individual’s manliness on these qualities, and not just an individual’s manliness, but an individual’s worth. It is easy to dismiss a person as ‘not our type’ or ‘not the right kind’ based on how they dress, how they look, what they can do, or what they have to offer us, and I think we need to realize that this is a foundational element of American society. We judge one another on stupid things.

Admittedly, to some degree, in the context of romantic relationships ‘not my type’ is a justifiable objection. A strong romantic relationship requires physical attraction, and trying to date someone that you aren’t at least kind of attracted to is a bad idea. That being said, we often blow this one aspect of relationships far out of proportion, both romantically and in less physically important relationships. It really doesn’t matter if I’m attracted to my friends. In fact, if they are friends of the opposite sex, it is often better if I’m not particularly attracted to them. That way we can actually stay good friends.

However, I got a comment (still not letting any comments post, but I’ll always try to address the good ones) from a reader addressing a key message that men receive in American culture: Men “Gotta be strong, self-sufficient, never vulnerable, never fragile, never in need”. I think this is actually one of three major messages that American males receive on a regular basis. The second is that men have to be emotionally sensitive, fragile, and womanly to be acceptable. While the first message leads to the ‘man’s man’ stereotype, the second leads to the metrosexual stereotype, and neither of these men is a particularly good example of a healthy man. The last message I often see combined with both of these. This is that men are cretinous, stupid, worthless, and beastly. We live in a culture that repeatedly casts men as the villains, and if you don’t believe me try the following experiment. Go sit in a coffee shop or bookstore until you see both of the following scenes: an older man leading a young girl (5-6 years old) into the bathroom, and an older woman leading a young boy (same age) into the bathroom. Ask yourself which scene made you more uncomfortable and why. Then consider that there is a growing body of research arguing that sexual assault by female perpetrators, both on children and adults, has been grossly under-reported for decades, and that women are only slightly less likely than men to be be sexual predators. Lastly, consider that a relatively small portion of the population. Realize that, in 2011, there were just over seven hundred thousand registered sex offenders living in a nation of over three hundred million. Also realize that public urination can result in registry of the offender as a sex offender. We live in a culture that casts men as villains.

So, the majority of these messages have to do with the next category that I was going to discuss: emotions. Can we judge manhood based on emotions? I think the obvious answer here is in the negative. We all have emotions, and to be emotionally healthy we must recognize and deal with those emotions. This is just as true for men as it is for women, men simply often do this in a different way. However, there is nothing inherently masculine about being stoic, sensitive, etc. Being overly stoic and bottling things up, or overly sensitive so as to be incapable of functioning are both signs of emotional immaturity. So, the obvious answer is not necessarily correct. While emotional maturity does not ‘make one a man’ it is certainly a very important component of true masculinity. Rudyard Kipling’s poem,¬†If, emphasizes a mature emotional state that recognizes feelings but is not controlled by them. I think this kind of maturity may best be described as sensitivity combined with endurance. True men must embrace their emotional natures and understand what they are feeling when they are feeling it. However, they must also respond appropriately to those feelings. A boy refuses to acknowledge his feelings. A boy throws a temper tantrum. A boy tries to stand strong on his own when he is vulnerable and weak. A man recognizes his feelings, good and bad, and acts on them appropriately. He expresses anger well by calmly addressing the situation. He stands before those he trusts, admits his weaknesses, and asks for help. A man is strong precisely because he knows when he can’t stand alone and is willing to accept that and ask for help.

So, while emotions may not entirely define manliness, they certainly add something to our understanding of what a man actually is.