A Man, Just Not That Manly


“We’re all human and can embody any of the spectrum of gendered behaviors at any time,” argues N.C. Harrison.


Neko Case songs make almost anything better.  Pretty much anything, literally, in my experience.  I listened to “Maybe, Sparrow” when I had MRSA, in my left shin, and every second felt like when it used to get whacked my someone’s cleats and spears of pain lanced up and down my leg.  “I Wish I Was the Moon” was the last song I played on the guitar for my grandmother before she died, in December 2008, and it was the first song I played when I picked up the guitar again after six long months of barely being able to look at the instrument I had always loved and still do.  So, yeah… that’s another fiery redhead (along with Florence Welch and Alie Ward) who can make my days a bit easier to get through, even when I feel depressed.  A little of this depression cropped up, recently, because I’m unable to get to Birmingham to see her show in six days, but that was alleviated a little by getting to see her (and Kelly Hogan singing, in an extra special bonus) on Austin City Limits last week.


It’s no surprise, then, that the best song I’ve heard about manhood in ages—during 2013 at least—was “Man” from Neko’s new album, The Worse Things Get The Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight the More I Love You.  So what that she’s a relatively tiny, straight woman, Neko muses, why does that mean she can’t be a man, too?  It’s not what you are born as, necessarily, but something you identify as or become.  “I’m a man,” she hollers, “that’s what you raised me to be.  I’m not an identity crisis; it’s what I am.”  Neko explains further, in an interview, that she was raised a fashion where she was told that she could grow up to be anything she wanted to so why, once again, can’t she be exactly what she wants to be, what she believes she was raised to be?  The wild freedom and abandon with which she blares this idea, rather revolutionary even in the non-radio, alt country noir where this beast prowls, is manifested perfectly by her statement, to Rolling Stone, “Everybody wants to remind you that you’re a girl.  And I’m like, not if I don’t want to be.  I grew up in America, man.”

This idea is developed even further with her notion that “man,” instead of a gender label, is simply the kind of animal that she is.  The arbitrary labels which we place on things—masculine or feminine, straight or gay, right or left—don’t matter as much in the wild.  “Is a lioness not a lion, motherfucker?” she asks me, you, herself, the world at large.  They’re both the same beast with the same teeth, Leo africanus, representing the same dangers.  So are men and women.  A woman and man can kill you equally dead, kiss you with the same tenderness, solve the same equation or create similarly eloquent and sensitive art.


So, again, what is a man?  What is manly, or manliness, or masculinity?  I ask myself these questions a lot.  Superficially I look like I ought to be a scion of the male and the aggressive, in the popular imagination.  I am around six feet tall, hover near three hundred pounds and vacillate between having the wild, longish hair and beard of a Viking or Celtic warrior and being clean-shaven and almost bald.  My shoulders have trouble with smaller, old fashioned door frames and allow me to push press more than most people squat or deadlift.

And yet, in spite of this, I usually don’t feel very manly or pursue hobbies and occupations deemed masculine—often much less frequently than some of my more active female friends.  I’m much more nurturing than domineering, am pursuing a career as a pastoral and family therapist, and would rather make sandwiches for someone while wearing an apron than weld anything.  When I ran across a recent, rather wonderful article here on Good Men Project, “The Top 21 Manliest Stuff on Earth: Gay Edition,” I thought to myself, “You can have the manliness, breddah, with more power and godspeed to you, maybe you can bear it with grace… it’s a lot of stress and I’m pretty sure it gave my grandpas heart attacks.”  Most of this list are things I can endorse whole-heartedly—loyalty, being an ally to others, heck, being a bear—but the weight of being “manly” feels like too much standing tall…like Atlas with the globe on his shoulders, or like the time I squatted too heavy and my nose bled.

The arbitrary labels which we place on things—masculine or feminine, straight or gay, right or left—don’t matter as much in the wild.  “Is a lioness not a lion, motherfucker?”

Which is why I feel perfectly okay, just as when Neko mentioned in her cheerfully profane fashion that the lioness and lion are the same beast, being more associated with the home and hearth—traditionally female places and values—instead of the hunt.  If being “manly” is okay for Neko because she can be what she wants to be, damn it, and a lioness and lion are the same animal, then it’s okay for me to be more in touch with my feminine side, Alan Alda style, because we’re all human and can embody any of the spectrum of gendered behaviors at any time.  My personal favorite verse in the New Testament, Galatians 3:28, proclaims that slave and free, native and foreigner, male and female are all categories which mankind create, and that none of them mean anything in Messianic eyes, which operate on the level of pure Spirit.  I take comfort in that, being all right as long as I’m being the best version of myself that I can—or at least working towards that since I hope I’m far from the best me I can be.

“You didn’t know what a man was until I showed you,” Neko sings in the rocking last verse, after whimsically proclaiming herself drunk on pink perfume and the man in the moon.  I knew a little less, definitely, than I know now after learning from her fierce, flaming vision; I feel stronger going forward with the knowledge.



About N. C. Harrison

NC Harrison is a son, seminarian, strongman and brother, sometimes but not always in that order. He received his Master of Divinity in July 2013 and now wonders if he is ready to make his way in the world. He would mostly like people to remember his smoked shoulder, barbecued ribs and char-broiled burgers.


  1. Thank you, N.C., for your kind words. As a result of many conversations, here on gmp, which is full of some very bright people, as well as others I frequent, I’m beginning to form a scientific argument to better explain social structure in a frontier like culture where we are. And where we may be going. We’re all pioneers here. Thanks again. Mark

  2. N.C. Harrison says:

    Utterly fascinating! Thank you for your very interesting addition to the discussion; I appreciate it immensely.

  3. Soory for this long post, but I was just having this same conversation on anothe GMP post site. Here are my comments so I hope they are pertinent.

    I have been saying the same thing for so long now and still people aren’t grasping the simplicity of what you just said. If I have a penis or a vagina I am a male or a female. Not a man or a woman. If I have a penis and wear skirts, then I am a male who wears skirts. That doesn’t define me as a man or woman at all. It’s a qualifier of what I do as a male. As you said, a man or a woman is as individualistic as the number of peple on the planet.

    Sex is what is between your legs, or at the very least your chromosomes. Gender is how you feel inside and for most people it matches their outside. Sexuality is who you are attracted toand that is only relevant as an qualifier of who you are. And finally your expression of your likes rounds out the human sexual self. Are you a malw who also expresses sometimes in ways that the orher gender stereotypically would be expected to do? they are adjectives. A male or female who does this or that…

    We’ve confused alot whwn to be a man used to mean a species, and that had alot of meaning in our actions towards the other things on the planet. Woman is a descriptor of a man with a womb and conveys that same status to her as a caretaker of lesser species as does the male man. Now it just means how we dress and what we should like and do as a rigid set of expectations, that have no merit because they are all made up rules. My 2 cents if inflation has not cut into that.
    But in thinking abhout what I wrote before, I came up with a better nomenclature than I think may best explain this. It’s a wonder nobody ever really thought of this before.

    So lets start off with biological sex, and this becomes M for a male. Then we add our internal orientation and it is also M. Then our sexual orientation and that would be an S for straight. And finally, for our expression we’d have a gradient score from 0-100 for example. So If I was the manliest man out there, the absolute stereotype, I’d be an MMS100, or close to it I suppose. If I have feminine attributes in my expression, I might be MMS70. If I was a RuPaul, then in my female form I’d be MMG30, or something like that, and in my male presentation I’d be MMG50 for a mix of expression, such as a bit of makeup, maybe affectation etc etc.

    Females would be likewise categorized. FFS90 etc. This also explains transgender, as in MFS55 depending if you have a female brain, so having same sex with a man, you’re really a straight girl that hasn’t had reassignment. Or you might be still classified as gay just for that so it would be MFG45. This would also account for changes in cultural standards, fashion etc. So in the 1920′s you’d have FFS45′s because they wear pants and smoke and drink and cuss like a man, yet are just rebels. By the 90′s these same girls would be FFS90′s. Accounting for wanting and having jobs that men do.

    Personally I think this is a cool idea. It needs a bit more work, but you get the drift from being an all or nothing proposition. It would give a point of reference at anytime in one’s life as to their thoughts of themselves within a culture. In my case, I’d know I’m a MMS70 or so, because I have alot of characteristics, like communicating, shopping cooking etc that are traditionally in the feminine range of stereotypical behaviours, but I’m still a full man. But if I identified as a 70, and a girl only wants men say 85 and above, then she wouldn’t be the girl for me. Makes sense to me.
    Thanks Ken. As you say, it’s just a start. And considering we’re starting at ground zero with this concept, the first thing necessary would be to quantify male vs female stereotypical behaviors and likes etc so as to get to a meaningful number. That would be somewhat arbitrary of course, but one has to start somewhere.

    So I really didn’t mean to be locked into men’s and women’s jobs per se, but to use that as a starting point. My hope would be that we’d eventually start to drop away that as a means of measurement, and begin to use the activities to be the more common descriptor. So a 50 maybe be considered a more integrated number of a human being, able to be a man or a woman who balances each side of their makeup with both expression.

    Of course, the downside may be that each number may become a stereotype in itself. But I’d like to think, that like a sleep number bed, we’d get to know each other a bit better for who we are from the get go. so maybe a 70+ to maybe 90 man might be a great catch to the bg area of the bell curve to the women out there. And maybe a 50 woman would be most men’s dream mate.

    And when I self evaluated as maybe a 70, maybe it should be higher or lower for all I know, what I was thinking is that when I compare my self subjectively to our culture’s vision of men-drinking lots of beer and consumed with sports then in those two areas I come short indeed. I like to drink alot of wine, but beer vs wine is our vision of a man’s drink. Think of someone drinking wine and an attractive woman comess to mind. Our advertising professionals at work.

    Anyway, I think it has merit to start us off considering how integrated with the two genders we’d be. Thanks for your comments. mark

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