Have we stereotyped the male stereotype?
“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” ~ Chimamanda Ngnozi Adichie
A few weeks ago, an old friend asked me to join him for a couple of drinks to catch up. Since we were more interested in being able to actually have a conversation, we ended up in one of the area’s nicer cigar lounges. The conversation rambled on about the usual topics that could be expected; randomly shifting from family and kids to work and being overworked, his life post-divorce and my life as a long-term married man. It would be frequently peppered with intermittent comments about cars, single malt versus double malt and the loss of the cigar culture, thanks to vaping. Half way during the evening, I noticed how my friend’s attention had become divided between our conversation and an elegant woman who sat down a couple of tables away.
I’m not sure if it was the ambiance, or the topics of conversation, or the second scotch on the rocks, or the Cohiba we were smoking, or maybe the fact that I went automatically into wingman mode that made me realize how this entire scenario couldn’t be defined anymore stereotypically of what we call a “guy moment.” Had I seen this scene play out in a movie or a book, I would have probably blamed it on bad writing and lazy authors. I would probably have found some post condemning the episode as promoting gender stereotypes and toxic masculinity.
As I stepped into my car after having completed my wingman obligations and heard the engine rev, did I suddenly become self-conscious of the whole affair? For a brief moment I got a sense of guilt and shame for carrying on as the embodiment of every single male stereotype that is condemned as society seeks to redefine the modern man. There I was, happy with my life for an instant, having enjoyed a good scotch and cigar with a man I could call my brother, while grinning over the anticipation of a nice traffic-less drive home, and the next instant I’m thinking there was something wrong with it.
It’s funny how life tends to make a lot more sense to me after an aggressive drive down the open highway while listening to loud music. I came to a simple realization. We, in our zeal to challenge the traditional stereotypes of what it means to be a man, end up stereotyping any behavior typically associated with men as falling into the social construct we condemned. We have replaced one limiting construct with another one, just as limiting.
Modern masculinity is about challenging the notion of what’s traditionally viewed as “being a man.” It’s about being so secure in your own skin that you step past the trappings of machismo and what has been commonly known as the Man Box. And this is a very noble endeavor; allowing men to be themselves without the social expectations placed on the shoulders of men. But as we keep pushing to break free from that gender stereotype, have we gone so far that we now hold men back from even simply liking things thought of as stereotypically manly?
We know about the kind of damage phrases like “men don’t cry” or “men need to be tough” cause. We have fought to create an embracing space where men can show frailty and can express their emotions openly. The collateral damage of this fight is our inability to allow men to hold back their tears if they deem it necessary or our open condemnation of any man wanting to “tough it out.” “Not all men are into cars or sports” has been pushed to the realm where men are told they shouldn’t like cars or sports simply to prove they haven’t fallen into the trappings of the male stereotype. Doesn’t this attitude create a new set of chains for men, a redefined Man Box just as toxic as the one it replaced, as we stereotype what the modern man should be?
We can’t move past breaking male social limitations by defining a new set of male social limitations. We can’t judge all actions a man takes by viewing them from our own personal perspective of the male stereotype. Pushing a boy to play with dolls is just as damaging as pushing them to play with cars. Sometimes owning a sports car isn’t compensation for anything other than a love for sports cars.
Masculinity shouldn’t be defined by what limitations it imposes on men, but by what it allows. And the first thing it should allow is a man to be himself. As we create a modern masculinity, we must be careful not to fall into the same limiting mentality that turned certain aspects of traditional masculinity toxic. The challenge is doing this redefining while recognizing those toxic aspects that were previously imposed on men so we can avoid them as well.
There isn’t an absolute right path to being a man, just as much as there isn’t an absolute wrong path. That’s the beauty of masculinity; it’s all about being comfortable with being a man. We need to allow men the space needed to grow and to evolve, something that’s impossible by establishing limitations. We need to allow men to define their own masculinity, one that allows them to be proud of being a man; whatever that means to each of them.
The biggest challenge though is to respect each man’s path, as what works for one, won’t work for another. We need to learn from each other, what inspires others. We take what works for us and discard what doesn’t, as we flesh out our own construct of masculinity, one that is flexible enough to let us grow. It’s quite liberating knowing the only person to whom I need to prove my masculinity to is me.
So with that in mind, till the next time I head out for another night of fast cars, rugged cigars, and dimly lit bars, I’ll spend my evening with another of my manly hobbies. There’s this new cupcake recipe I’ve been dying to try out before the PTA bake sale.
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