Ken Anderson tackles that tricky question and also wonders…is there really a simple answer?
In bygone years, the simple answer was “a penis” and “a vagina” were what made a man and a woman, respectively. But there never really was a simple answer to those questions.
Recently, I was in deep conversation with some people younger than myself over the question: “What makes a woman?” I was a bit shocked that among the answers was “the ability to grow a life inside a uterus.” When I asked about women who were born unable to conceive, or women who had been raped and had their reproductive organs damaged, the answer was still the same. “How unbelievably cold,” I thought to myself. This was supposed to be the generation of compassion and tolerance. What about people who dress as women and have gone as far as to have sex reassignment surgery to turn their penis’ into vaginas, or vice versa? Do those people not deserve some level of respect? What do you call them? Certainly, they are one or the other! While there may be more than one way biologically to label them, our common pronouns are man/woman, he/she, him/her. How do you identify a male-to-female transgendered person? You’d likely call this person a “him,” identifying this person as the biological identity he’s born with, or you’d identify this person as a “her,” respecting what she wishes to be identified as.
But this is not about transgendered persons. True, they’re a piece of this puzzle, but I’m going to concentrate on what it really means to be a man and a woman, beyond the body, because it seems that nobody has the same definition of these words.
I was a failed man, myself. I failed at marriage. My ten-year relationship is filled with memories (including the two years I spent torturing myself after it ended), and I see so many of the mistakes I made. At the time, I was mad; but now I see it was just as much my fault as hers. One of the reasons our marriage failed was that I was unable to give her a child. This was not a mistake; it was a fact. By the standards of yesteryear, I am a man because I have a penis. By the logic of one of the girls in my recent conversation, I am not a man because I cannot make a life. That hurts, especially since all I’ve ever wanted out of life is a child (a daughter, specifically, to spoil rotten). On the outside, though, I look and I act like a man.
I am massive. I am muscular and fat. I could lose a few pounds, but I never let my weight stand between me and my goals. When I was 16 I wanted to be a police officer, but my high school was a cruel place to be a fat guy. Some kids told me I’d never be a cop, and I set out to prove them wrong. Unfortunately, at 16 you can’t be a cop because you can’t carry a gun until you’re 21, so I decided to do the next best thing: I joined a volunteer fire company. I became a firefighter, then an Emergency Medical Technician. Towards the end of my volunteering career, I was an EMS Lieutenant. I did all that because I wanted to prove to somebody—somebody I don’t even remember—that I was a man. I made some great friends while volunteering, and I even saved a few lives.
But to me, being a man is a lot more than being able to control stressful situations and save lives. Being a man is being able to figure out what to do when it counts. It’s also about being able to find solutions. But that’s my criteria. That probably isn’t yours.
I can put out a fire and I can do CPR – I’m proud of my honest-to-God save. I even taught CPR for a while. I can build furniture; I can do repairs on a roof; I can install new flooring. I can change the oil in my car, I can change a tire, and I can shoot a gun. Pretty typically manly activities, I think. But it doesn’t stop there: I can hem my pant legs; I can wash my laundry and press my shirts and pants; I can sew curtains; I can vacuum the carpet; I can crochet and knit; I can plant flowers, grow a garden, cook meals; I make my bed every day even though I’m the only living being who ever sees my bed (I’m still a single divorcee) and I cry during sad movies… sometimes louder wails and more tears than any woman I know. The first 15 minutes of Pixar’s Up? I cried like a newborn. And am I still manly? I certainly think so.
Some women are doctors, and some men are nurses. Some women are firefighters and police officers, and some men are interior designers. Some women make more money than their husbands, and some men are stay-at-home dads. Some manly men are firefighters and police officers, and they go home to their husbands. Some women are waitresses and other women fight for our country in the military, and some of them love other women. Some women are sterile, and cannot have children. Some men are too.
The concept of “men” and “women” reminds me much of the “American dream.” My American dream consists of me having an education and a high-paying job, with a wife and lots and lots of kids. I want to buy woodworking tools and make all my own furniture. Eventually, I want to start my own custom fine furniture company and also sell homemade bath products, things which can be done at home. I want to have a huge garden, small fruit orchard and vineyard. I want to make my own beer and wine to give away as presents to family & friends, and maybe even turn all that into a business, too. I want my house to be in the country with plenty of land, and make enough money to build houses and rent them out. I want to home-school my children because I want them to be ahead of the curve before going off to college.
My American dream is huge and it will keep me super busy now while I work to earn it, and it will keep me super busy well into retirement. Maybe your American dream is to retire at 40 and move to a condo on Miami Beach with your beautiful husband or wife, living the relaxed beach-bum lifestyle and eating at classy restaurants three times a day until you die peacefully in your sleep at the age of 110. Maybe you want to travel the world and send your kids to Harvard or MIT. Maybe you just want to be comfortable. My point is, everybody’s American dream is different, just like everybody’s definition of “man” and “woman” is different. These terms are abstract, relative, subjective; they are opinion. They are also as unique as you and me.
So what makes a man or a woman? I think, the truth is it all depends on what each individual person wishes to identify him/herself as.
Maybe you disagree with everything I say here. That’s the beauty of my argument though: since I believe everybody can have his or her own opinion of the definitions, whatever you believe is essentially correct. Like I said, being a man is about figuring out what to do when it counts. This counts; and I have figured out how to take hate and insensitivity out of the equation. Isn’t that what’s really important?
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