Recently, President Trump tweeted at Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon to “Be a Man.” I’ve heard this phrase and others including “man up” or “be a real man” my entire life. I never fully understood what was being demanded of me.
The men in my life were either non-existent or abusive. My biological father celebrated my birth with his mistress. My mom came home the next day to empty champagne bottles on the table and confetti on the floor. She held me with one arm, the other she used to clean up the mess. Mom packed my dad’s bags and set them outside. They divorced soon after. My dad drifted in and out of my childhood. I was 10 years-old the last time I saw him. I lived in San Diego and he flew down from Seattle to take me to Disneyland. We were supposed to spend a week together at the Magic Kingdom. He brought me back after a day, the stress of parenting was simply too much. I spoke to my father on the phone every Sunday. One Sunday he didn’t call. I dialed him and got no answer. I never heard from him again. I was 12. My father died in September 2016. I learned of his passing from a Facebook post by a relative. No one invited me to the funeral.
My stepdad once flung me into a sliding glass door because I’d supposedly given him a dirty look. Another time he picked me up and slammed me against the wall for “talking back.” My stepdad is a complex figure. He taught me how to change a car’s oil and how to frame a house. My stepdad is a Navy veteran and spent much of my formidable years out to sea. His work provided a stable income but a paycheck isn’t real security. Then again, I felt safer when he wasn’t around. I was a short, scrawny kid who hid in my 6 foot 4 inch, 220-pound step dad’s shadow. He regularly called me “stupid” or “dumb.” On more than one occasion he grabbed my shirt collar, pulled me close and threatened to beat the hell out of me. He was eventually sentenced to anger management and probation.
Which of these is the real man? Should I strive to be a womanizer who abandons his family or an emotionally stunted abuser who terrorizes others?
In Trump’s worldview “being a man” means being tough, unapologetic and devoid of feeling. This desiccated idea is not only outdated, it’s also dangerous. Researchers examining the masculine overcompensation thesis found men who were told they had feminine qualities responded by showing more support for war and homophobia. A separate study looked at gender, date rape and sexual coercion. Results showed that men who felt their masculinity was challenged tended to blame the victim and not the perpetrator in instances of date rape.
Does “manning up” mean I support rape? Am I supposed to hate members of the LGTBQ+ community?
The president is a burnt steak-eating man’s man. His most avid supporters insist he’s a straight shooter who isn’t afraid to speak his mind. Unfortunately, what comes out of his mouth is typically awful. Trump is telling it like it is, or rather, how he sees it, when he advocates for grabbing women by their private parts, calls for political opponents to be jailed, taunts US allies, casually refers to his penis size or insults an entire nation of people.
Indeed, it doesn’t stop at Trump’s words. His policy decisions reflect his distorted version of masculinity whether that’s separating children from their families or limiting the rights of transgender Americans. It feels as if Trump’s entire presidency is a response to a supposed “masculinity crisis” whereby those who’ve traditionally held power in this country (heterosexual white men) feel under attack.
I’m not a man based on any of the above definitions, and frankly, I’m glad. I’ve never cheated on my wife nor have I physically, mentally, or emotionally abused my two sons. I thought nothing of it when my oldest wanted to paint his nails, because why should I? I’m not a “man” which means I’m not governed by rigid ideals of who I am and who I want to be and I don’t want that for my kids either. I do the housework in our home. I also know how to use a drill. Still, I admit that my wife is better at fixing things and that doesn’t bother me at all. I’m more concerned with helping my sons learn and grow. I’m trying to raise boys that will not be the kind you think of when someone says “boys will be boys.”
It’s not surprising that men like Trump—men raised to see themselves as preordained to greatness—responded to the masculinity crisis as they have. The fact that women, people of color and other marginalized groups are demanding equity is scary to them because it challenges their assumed superiority. Trump is “being a man” because he knows no other way but there’s still hope for us and for a nation of boys. Let’s stop telling them to “be a man” and instead implore them to be a good man.
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Photo credit: Dikaseva