The blokes at MensStylePower give some serious thought to an important question.
Us guys over MenStylePower are in serious mode today. We’re thinking deeply. We’re tossing out (temporarily) our fashion related style notes and delving into the male psyche. We’re putting aside fluff and pulling off the gloves. We’re toughening up and we’re asking the big question: What makes a man…a man?
It all started after a long chat at the pub the other day, with a bloke I consider in good stead – a hardworking, self respecting young man whose initial impression on others is of quiet understated-ness. However the gloves come off pretty quickly once you get him talking over a beer.
And talk he did. The topic on the table? Men.
What makes a man? Who is a man’s man? And why is it that males today are struggling with defining themselves?
Yes. They are.
In conversations with men around the world we’re hearing as well as witnessing a cry for help.
Websites such as Psychology.com reports that we are experiencing a male identity crisis in Western Society, brought into sharp focus by the global economic downturn. First, we are seeing a significant shift in the nature of education and employment trends which will have a huge impact on male identities. Boys are seriously under-achieving in public schools in the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and Australia, according to several recent research studies. Men now comprise barely 40% of enrolled University and College students and graduates.
In a post-modern world lacking clear-cut borders and distinctions, it has been difficult to know what it means to be a man and even harder to feel good about being one. The many boundaries between men and women have been blurred, and men are groping in the dark for their identity. In Australia, around one in six men suffer from depression at any given time (Beyond Blue). In the States, depression reportedly affects about 6 million men each year (The Mayo Clinic).
Overwhelmingly, the portrayal of men and male identity in contemporary western societies is mostly negative. Men today are extensively demonised, marginalised and objectified, in a way reminiscent of what happened to women. The issue of the male identity is of crucial importance because males are falling behind in school, committing more suicides and crimes, dying younger and being treated for conditions such as ADHD more than females. There has been a rise in divorce rates where in most cases, child custody is granted to mothers. Continuous negative portrayal of men in the media, along with the feminisation of men and loss of fatherhood in society, has caused confusion and frustration in younger generation males, as they do not have a specific role model.
Back in 2005, a study spanning the globe – 13 markets, 45 focus groups and 2,000 men, conducted by Leo Burnett Worldwide, found that men in most parts of the world are unsure of what’s expected of them in society, with half of those surveyed saying they felt their role in society was unclear.
Which means we shouldn’t be surprised that drug addiction, alcohol or substance abuse, pornography, violent or abusive behavior, inappropriate rage, escapism, risky behavior and suicide are on the rise amongst men. It would seem that an alarming number of men are finding themselves, in one word, LOST.
The evidence is found, especially in the ‘macho’ intense culture of Australia (where MenStylePower resides), in the pubs, the watering holes, the backyards and the beaches…where men go to drown their confusion.
While gruff, tough, and hard yakka Aussie men may be the auteurs du jour in Hollywood (Russell Crowe, Sam Worthington, Hugh Jackman, Simon Baker, etc), the reality is that under that rough and tumble thick skin, many Australian men are floundering.
The so-called high priest of the Australian male confessional, Sam de Brito, has made a business out of giving away blokes’ deepest secrets. He pens men’s columns for Sydney and Melbourne newspapers, and runs a well-known blog called “All Men are Liars – Except Sam de Brito” and his book The Lost Boys, “takes the pulse of Aussie manhood”. In fact it does more than take a pulse. It is a fully invasive piece of investigatory surgery performed on all parts of the Australian male, most especially his ego. At the same time it stabs at woeful failings in the Australian culture to support the authentic male.
The idea behind de Brito’s work in general – including his nonfiction book No Tattoos Before You’re Thirty (2006) – is that the Australian male lives a life of duplicity…when he looks in the mirror, he never tells what he really sees.
Instead he delves into drugs, sex, driving at speed, cultural and racial attitudes, lying and cheating, loyalties and betrayals, laziness and masturbation.
In other words, he escapes becoming a man, because he does not know how to be one.
‘The Lost Boys’ is set in a Peter Pan land where boys never grow up. Bondi’s pub-defined Bermuda Triangle to be exact: “The Bergs, the Regis, the Rats. Three points on the map but blokes get lost in there for years.” Full of prawns, bread and beer, with chicks of all ages on heat at closing time, these boys never want to emerge. Feeling perfectly satisfied means they never see the need to take on adult responsibilities. Their lost-ness is their identity.
The Lost Boys is narrated by Ned Jelli, an ageing boy narrator binge drinking himself further into disillusionment. He’s a big drug user and alchoholic, a porn addict, a crook footballer, a moderately successful lover in his heyday, an OK surfer, a passable intellectual in his group and now he’s going to fat.
He is a 35 year old little boy lost.
Because no-one showed him the way.
Back to my friend at the pub. Himself a quintessential Aussie male, I asked him why he seemed to, unlike many of his floundering-into-manhood mates a la Ned Jelli, had his act together, kept his cool and had a history of making solid and wise decisions (the aforementioned man has his own business, bought a house, investing into business ventures and is highly respected by his peers, all before the age of 35.)
He thought about it a little.
“My dad – my hero – set benchmarks for me. He straightened me out when I was wrong, he counseled me on my life choices, he told me what a man of integrity looked like and he set high yet achievable expectations on me on what it took to be a man – one who was a great friend to himself – independent, risk taking, adventurous; a loving, loyal husband to his wife; a provider for his children; a mate who stands for his friends, shares mutual respect and provides unconditional assistance to them, a man who takes the tough knocks in life on the chin and still keeps ticking.”
“He initiated me into manhood.”
And therein lies what we, at MenStylePower, believe is the problem with manhood today.
Apart from good fathers, no-one, especially in Western Culture, is telling young boys and developing men what it takes to be a man.
De Brito himself says that “When a culture ceases to provide specific initiatory pathways, the individual male psyche is left to initiate itself.” In other words, many males don’t know what to do with themselves in the movement from boyhood to adulthood.
The “apparent” initiation rituals – being legally able to drink in a pub, get pissed (drunk) royally, drive a car and have sex – simply capture the boy, and stall him to remain a boy. This is the sad, hugely important issue de Brito raises.
What modern ‘initiation’ has forgotten to do, is to instil value into men, rouse within them adventure and wild abandon, yet inspire integrity and the power of choosing to do good and living a sacrificial life within them.
Unlike modern times, most ancient and tribal cultures (to this day) initiated their men into manhood, ensuring boys did not wander into adulthood confused about their identity.
The Maasai culture in Kenya initiated their young men by having them face their fears and overcome great adversity to kill a lion. Other African tribes like the Meru, gathered boys of similar age together (10-12 years old) in a group, circumcised them in icy river beds without pain relief, then sequestered them for 4 months at a time with the old, wise men of the village, to learn the mysterious business of becoming a man.
The truths these young men learnt were a large part of the initiatory rites that almost all men used to undergo in almost every culture in the world until recently.
Lament not. Author Stephen Biddulph provides help to those of us living in the West, in his rebuilt handbook for blokes ‘Manhood’.
Biddulph’s definition of good man comes down to just two words. “Backbone and heart”
“Backbone is the ability to stand firm, endure, be true to his word and sometimes put himself last, especially under circumstances of great need or stress.”
“Heart – the ability to be counted on, possessing compassion.”
Biddulph then contrasts the failings of the ye olde world stoic fathers of the first half of last century, with the sensitive new age guys of recent decades and finds them both lacking – because they went too far towards either pole – too much backbone, too much heart.
Biddulph stresses the need for balance, and then for initiation. “Initiation centers on the most pressing spiritual task of any culture – making the young wise enough, soon enough, that they may join the tribe as superb and contributory human beings.”
He also reveals what he calls “five awakenings, five truths” that young men need to confront, grieve over, and eventually celebrate as ultimate liberation.
These five truths of manhood, are:
1. You are going to die.
2. Life is hard.
3. You are not that important.
4. Your life is not about you.
5. You are not in control of the outcome.
Note that these five truths are pretty much the exact opposite of what we tell our young men today.
“When we fail to accept these truths, we become a culture of perpetual childhood,” writes Biddulph.
There is hope for boys wanting to become men. Initiation cannot be done alone. In and of itself, it demands that you are surrounded by other men. So dude, if you’re struggling with what it means to be a man, find a man in your world that you respect and spend time with him. Initiation doesn’t always have to be stated, it can be absorbed via following a good example.
My pub friend gave the example of tradesmen on a building site who routinely give a ‘hard time’ to new apprentice builders. The teasing, jockeying around and pushing them to the limits/testing their endurance, is all about toughening up soft boys into solid men. It builds bonds of strength between men, ensuring they can count on each other and themselves if and when things get rough.
The men you surround yourself with will either mean you grow into a man yourself, or conversely, retreat into ‘lost boy’ territory. Think deeper than just ‘wine, women and song’ and seek the narrow, yet rewarding journey of becoming a man of high regard … ‘a man for whom freedom, comradeship, a wide tolerance, and a strong sense of the innate worth of man, count for more than all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory in them.’
So what else did my pub friend have to say on what defines a man?
His brow furrowed, his eyes went to a far away place, then he leaned in, and so did I, eager to hear one more tasty morsel of deep male wisdom.
He took a deep breath, then announced with male certainty. “A man’s man … doesn’t wear scarfs.”
Originally published at ManStylePower.com