Every guy in America has, at some point, been told to “act like a man.” It’s a saying meant to inspire you to be tougher and less emotional. At least I think that’s the point—although I remember being a kid and thinking, “what the hell does that mean?!” And I know I’m not alone on this; most guys don’t know what it means to be a man anymore. Not really. We cobble together some vague concept of “a man” based on stuff we saw growing up. Some of these ideas came from our dads, granddads, or other influential men. Some ideas we picked up from movies and TV. Problem is, some of the stuff we learned are old ideas that don’t work anymore. This has led to what some experts are calling a “crisis in masculinity.” Using the word “crisis” might sound overly dramatic, but American men really are struggling to figure out who they are.
There are guys out there trying to address the situation, some more successfully than others. Most of the people who say things like “be a man” are full of crap, while others are just looking to sell you something. We can do better than that, guys. We have to.
According to our culture, becoming a man is not something that happens by itself. It is something that must be proved. Boys often get to an age when they feel a need to prove themselves. They need a challenge, to “prove” they are a man. Even at an early age you will notice boys trying to prove to their friends who’s faster, who’s stronger, who’s better at whatever game they’re playing. Some of us used sports to prove how manly we are. Some of us found other ways, like drinking, fighting or f**king. Anything that offered a challenge, an opportunity to prove ourselves. But it doesn’t end there. Once we prove we’re men, we need to defend our status as men. It is a difficult position to be in, especially if you are making it up as you go.
Most of us didn’t have someone to literally teach us to be men, we made it up based on a constant barrage of images and messages. We saw athletes and action heroes be physically strong, so we tried to be strong. We saw our dads and granddads work long hours, so we did that too. Whatever we did to prove ourselves, there were certain unwritten rules we had to follow. We needed to avoid anything that could possibly be seen as feminine, because we “ain’t homos.” We needed to close off our emotions from everyone else. Except for anger. We could freely express that. We needed to make lots of money and buy lots of stuff. We needed to have sex, a lot, ideally without forming deep emotional connections. Well, we tried to do it this way and for a lot of us it didn’t work. We worked long hours and bought lots of crap but found we could still be depressed in a big house. We had a lot of sex, but still felt alone. We tried to avoid all things feminine but found that women can do all the things men can.
What is left for men in that kind of world?
Feminism has the goal of equality for women, something that should be inarguable. A lot of gains have been made, but there is still work to be done. (I’m not going to give you all the stats. Stats can be easily skewed to fit any point of view. Do your own research. Think critically.) The feminist movement presented us with new challenges. The whole time we’ve been trying to establish ourselves as men, feminists were pulling to pieces traditional ideas about being a man. They highlighted all the things that were wrong with the old way of being a man. The #metoo movement put a big fat underline on feminist ideas. Giving us concrete and easily understood examples of how f**ked up traditional male sexual attitudes could be. The LGBTQ rights movement showed us that sexual preference does not imply mental deviance. That people in the LGBTQ community are like everyone else and should have the same rights. As a result, some old ideas just don’t fly anymore. Women are not inferior, homosexuality is not wrong, etc. Those ideas were wrong. What some of us heard was, “being a man is wrong.”
The “men’s rights” movement developed in direct opposition to feminism. You might have read other articles on this topic. Maybe on a website dedicated to the men’s rights advocacy (MRA). Maybe you haven’t. Doesn’t matter really. It’s mostly bs. These are the kind of guys that talk about feminism as castration. They’re a bunch of guys pissed off about their place in the world today. At their worst, they advocate violence against women and the LGBTQ community. At their best, they’re just ranting angrily. Anger is a defining theme to their “movement.” Things have changed, and they don’t like it. They spent a good portion of their lives trying to be something, live up to certain standards, and now the world has no use for that kind of man. In the face of this challenge, they revert to acting like boys. They kick and scream and throw a fit.
Like previous men’s movements, behind their complaints is a desire to return to a pre-feminist movement masculinity. A return to John Wayne as the model of manhood. (Nothing against John Wayne.) Trouble is, the world only moves forward. There is no returning to a previous time. These guys, they feel threatened by feminism, and they should. Women are realizing their power and exerting it, and that translates to increased competition. But let me tell you, brotha’… any man worth his salt welcomes competition. Competition, the struggle to achieve something, is a challenge. Challenge makes us better. Challenge is vital to manhood. By shrinking from the challenge, you shrink from manhood. Boys need a clear path to becoming a man. They need a challenge to face. Challenges allow a boy to test himself and become a man. Yet when faced with a monumental challenge, the men that should guide them to engage are instead acting like children themselves.
Our task as men is not to push for a return to the old ways. Our task is to blaze a trail for a new way to be a good man in the 21st century. We need to challenge our boys to grow into better men. Through the feminist movement, women have moved forward. It is time for men to do the same.
So what should this new man be like? I think there is a tendency to assume that all male qualities from the past are bad. That we need to toss it all out and start from scratch. Thankfully, that isn’t true. There are a lot of qualities associated with men that should be emphasized. The willingness to sacrifice for family, the ability to withstand pain and hardship, the tendency to help others. These are qualities we can be proud of. These are qualities we should develop in our boys. Other masculine qualities include incredible dedication, loyalty, and commitment. These are certainly things I encourage in my son, so he can be a man of grit. The way I see this New Man is that he will be assertive and logical, like his predecessors. He will also be empathetic and emotionally expressive. He will stand firm in his convictions yet be willing to apologize and make amends when he is wrong. He will be self-reliant and reliable, but also capable of intimacy and vulnerability. The New Man will be better than we are. He will be the father we wished we were and the husband we want for our daughters. This is a tall order. We have a lot of work to do.
Previously published on Medium.
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