Like a Man, Approximately

Telling men to act “like a man” isn’t doing anybody any favors. So stop.

When I was a boy, I remember hearing “Walk Like a Man,” by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, on the regular rotation of my parents’ radio. I wasn’t alive when the song debuted in 1963, but it’s the music my parents listened to when I was young so, by proxy, I grew up listening to the same music they enjoyed growing up. I thought it was a fun, goofy song in spite of the irony I’d come to later recognize in how the singer claims he’s going to “walk like a man” although he espouses his determination in a catchy falsetto.

On Friday night, a friend of mine was mad at me and in an attempt to coax me into speaking with him, he told me to “talk to him like a man.”

49 years separate the release of that Frankie Valli song and my friend’s brash challenge, yet why does this masculine demand of doing something “like a man” persist? My copy of How to ____ Like a Man seems to have been lost in the mail so if there is a positive implication that accompanies this phrase, it’s lost on me. All I hear in that phrase are the rabid growls of embattled masculinity.

While I’m still unclear on how a man walks or talks it out, I do know that the connotation of such a phrase is that if you’re not doing something like a man, then you are something else. Something less, an Other. Like a woman? A ladyman? A pussy? To whichever of those less-than-man assignments the phrase points, the application of being something not-man is meant as a pejorative as well as an admonishment to behave based on the biologically defined role of masculinity (which assumes such a thing even exists). Simply, if I’m not acting like a man, I must be acting like a woman, and that is a bad thing for me to do.

Beyond what this corrosive definition of masculinity is teaching men and boys about women, one man accusing another man of not doing something “like a man” perpetuates the notion that there’s only one way to be a man. If you’re not behaving according to this ur-masculine philosophy, then you’re doing it like a not-man/woman and if you’re doing it like a not-man/woman, then you’re doing it wrong.

The specter of not living up to masculine designations pervades every aspect of our culture from grade school recess to national security. That men will try to use masculinity as a way to control other men is not constructive nor is it valid to defend this notion with questionable support from a Darwinist vantage. An argument that relies on such a paradoxically primitive notion to support  masculinity doesn’t do much in the way of convincing anyone how humans are supposedly more evolved than orangutans and mockingbirds. However, if we’re truly that unevolved, I imagine it will be acceptable in the near future for guys to start tongue-bathing their genitals in public. (I do not look forward to the subreddit cataloging these occasions.)

If the singer of “Walk Like a Man” wants to cry because a woman has rejected him, that’s okay. Heartbreak is hard. Being human is hard.

Recommending that a man do something “like a man” is anachronistic if it was ever really useful in the first place yet you don’t have to look far to see it still used. Living a life beholden to what is or isn’t masculine as prescribed by society begets a life of anxiety and anger. It will make you vulnerable, insecure, and easily provoked. If you allow yourself to play into this role, whether you are the accuser or the accused, there will always be someone else out there who is “more masculine” than you and the path to being genuinely comfortable in your own skin will only grow longer with each step.

The militarized image of what a man is supposed to do or say is so rigid that it obscures the primary qualities of what we should all be striving toward: being an emotionally intelligent human being. If the singer of “Walk Like a Man” wants to cry because a woman has rejected him, that’s okay. Heartbreak is hard. Being human is hard. But all of us, whether you are a single grown man or a father charged with raising boys that will one day be men, are subjects to compassion and depression and pride and loneliness, so don’t let threats to your masculinity deter you from those sensations.

Instead of being a man, just be you. Be decent and be kind. Be surprised. Be mad sometimes and be wrong sometimes. It’s all going to happen whether you like it or not. No action or reaction a man has should be contorted into some superficial expectation of what a man is supposed to do. If you’re a man, whether you’re walking or reading or fucking or praying, whatever you’re doing or feeling, you’re already doing what a man does. Let us agree that it’s time to not only retire but refute the regressive notion that there is only one way to be “like a man.”

 

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Image credit: Alan, Lizixiang!/Flickr

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About Drew Bowling

Drew Bowling is a writer, erstwhile photographer, and highly decorated factotum living somewhere in the United States. His writing lingers on language, gender, mental health, and occasional raves about outer space. Keep up with his fancy musings over on Twitter.

Comments

  1. As a mom of a boy and life coach, I hope people read this and go, “Good point! I feel this is a dilemma that males are tasked with daily – sadly, society places so much pressure on how to be a “man” or a “woman”…I love the last bit “Instead of being a man, just be you.” Thank you for sharing this.

  2. “Simply, if I’m not acting like a man, I must be acting like a woman, and that is a bad thing for me to do.”

    Or, possibly, a child.

    “Act like a man” does have a sexist connotation, but it also has, for lack of a more accurate term, an “ageist” connotation.

    -Jut

  3. @Drew- nice name… & good article…
    “Instead of being a man, just be you”- OK so if that includes a swagger, aggressiveness, and awareness is it good or bad? In my book there are things I do that I believe men should be able to do- but then I have buddies who give a damn about the NHL and find me a bit lost as I could care less.
    I’m so confused… Your friend “talk to him like a man.” could have accompanied his request with a slap across the top of your head and that would pass for appropriate and usual male interaction in my book.
    “That men will try to use masculinity as a way to control other men is not constructive” so is it a negative if an adult attempts to control another adult? Seriously- what constitutes control? Where to eat, what team is better, Paul Ryan is a dick…..
    So are we at “Act Like an Adult”? Doesn’t this ignore the fundamental differences between men & women…
    My life was a lot easier before i found this site- I was perfectly happy on the tool blogs….

  4. Wonderful, thoughtful writing-it’s something that should be taught in schools. Thankfully, I’ve known a number of men over the years like you who see being a man in this way. My son-in-law is one young man who would never consider saying “act/talk like a man.” I don’t even think it’s a part of his vocabulary.

  5. Peter von Maidenberg says:

    If you’re not acting “like a man,” you’re probably acting like an individual. We used to be very, very scared of our own individuality. Individual thinking and – worse – individual action was thought to weaken morality, strength, society.

    That’s one way to understand the stigma of not being a man. It has very little to do with being a woman.

  6. I don’t understand what the issue is with a certain ideal of masculinity being set that is never attainable, but will always be striven for and motivates us to move towards it. I understand the issue behind having such a vague standard, but at the same time, it’s perfectly natural.

    Sure, if someone tells me to throw myself off a bridge and ”be a man” about it, it’s retarded. But if someone tells me to take care of my responsibilities with that same phrase, then its perfectly agreeable.

    It’s not necessarily insulting the other gender, but it is explicitly saying that you aren’t living up to what is expected of you and you are less for failing it. Your whole identity is put on the line. It’s a cultural thing that says you are excluded from this cultures definition of a man. It may be gender slanted, but what isn’t? Hey, I like equality as well. But at the same time I feel like in the pursuit of equality people are trying to completely avoid masculinity and femininity and make them mesh together in some strange way.

    Also, it isn’t so much a term that insults women as it is an indicator of pressure males are put under. I know how feminists like to miss the point completely and make it about a ‘male dominated society’. Which it is, no doubt, but that isn’t the point here.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] originally appeared on The Good Men Project. Republished here with [...]

  2. [...] In a prior piece for the Good Men Project, I wrote about the restrictive demand of telling a man to do something “like a man.” That turn of phrase has been around for the better part of half a century (if not a lot longer), [...]

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