What Does It Mean To Be A Man?

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The Masculinity “Crisis”

The crisis that supposedly surrounds what it means to be masculine in this day and age is at least partly of our own creation; men as a cultural group have fallen behind in adapting to the new, complex social realities. The lives that were sold to us as the ideal as we grew up – family, job, kids, 2 cars – are increasingly out of reach thanks to our current economy. We have fewer male role-models as the traditional definition of “family” has changed to acknowledge the reality of single-parent households. The economic difficulties that come with those single-parent families mean that guidance and advice is harder to come by; often our parents are just too goddamn busy trying to keep the power turned on and food on the table to spend much time trying to explain just what it means to be a man.

Sexually, one would think that greater gender equality and sexual agency in women would be a good thing. However, men are often deluged with mixed signals; male sexuality is both lionized and mocked. On the one hand men are still told that their value as a man is in part reliant on the number of women they have slept with; in the same breath a man who attempts to improve his ability with women – especially if he’s bad at it – is mocked. A man is supposed to be aggressive and make the first move, but not too aggressive for fear of offending her and risking being accused of harassment.

Men are told that the modern ideal for masculine beauty is a more feminine look; finer features and less body-hair, reduced secondary sexual characteristics that correspond with lower levels of testosterone . Modern men are supposed to be more secure and in touch with their emotions and willing to show vulnerability, yet those who cross some vague and undefined line are mocked for being too “girlyand “sensitive”. Anyone who grew up in the 80s got used to hearing names like Alan Alda and Phil Donohue as epithets, traitors to the male cause who ultimately endorsed an emasculated man as the new modern man.

You lied to us, man! What the hell?

Traditional realms where men could assert themselves and “prove” their masculinity have changed to the point of irrelevancy. A man’s ability to provide used to be a core component of his manhood; part of his rite of passage, if you will. And yet now a not only is it virtually impossible to provide for a family on one’s own, but the economic power has shifted to women. Women are working as hard – if not harder – than men and providing for themselves. A man’s participation isn’t the necessity it used to be. Moreover, the demographics have shifted; women 25-44 are the desired consumer demographic. Men – despite the fact that they still earn more than women and are recovering from the recession faster than them – feel increasingly irrelevant.

Please notice carefully that I said “feel” irrelevant.

As a result, we have hordes of men who have no idea what it means to be a male. The old rules – where success was directly proportional to hard work, our expectations were simple and felt attainable and – most importantly, men felt necessary. Men feel a void left by the role models they no longer have and lack sign-posts by which they can measure or establish their manhood. We end up getting stuck in the trap of nostalgia for a world that never really existed, when men could be “men”, all the while refusing to grow up because… well, why fucking bother? If we have no real definition of how to be a man anymore, why not stay a man-child instead; who needs responsibility and ambition when it doesn’t get you anywhere? Why bother struggling through a dead-end job that doesn’t pay enough when you’ve got weed and video games, man?

And if you’re feeling that void, that emptiness inside… well, shit, let’s go with what we know! We’ll look at Don Draper or Sterling Archer and say “Hey, there’s a guy who gets to do what we want to do but can’t get away with! Let the id run wild man! Fuck those bitches that keep telling us what to do! Let’s get drunk and fuck complete strangers! Ignore all of his glaring flaws and focus on the surface! Call Kenny Loggins man, ‘cuz he knows where we’re goin!”

Daaaanger zone!

And hey, there’s an industry out there custom made for men today, making a profit out of our confusion. Lad mags teach us to fill that void by appealing to our most immature and basest instincts by telling us that happiness and fulfillment can be found through the pursuit of mindless sex and shiny gadgets and toys that will distract us for a while. Self-help groups will provide organized rituals appropriated from other cultures – for a reasonable fee – to reaffirm your manliness even as they lament with you about how hard men have it today. Men’s Rights groups will provide a handy scape-goat (women and/or feminists) who stole our masculinity from us.

What Have We Really Lost?

Not goddamn much to be perfectly honest. Men just have been slow to adapt to the realities of the world, trying to hang on to standards that developed when the most powerful man in the world was Ghengis Kahn and refusing to acknowledge that now the most powerful man in the world is Mark Zuckerberg. The information age has reduced the physical differences between men and women to relative insignificance outside of professional sports.

"Hey, in 500 years, maybe 2% of the population will have MY DNA!"

Most of what has changed is that being an asshole to women is frowned upon by the general culture. A culture of sexual harassment and rampant discrimination1 are hardly something worth mourning the loss of no matter how smart the suits were or how awesome it was that men were allowed to smoke and drink at work.

If confusion remains, it’s because we are still unused to the fact that women are increasingly our social equals. It’s incumbent upon us to catch up to the moment, rather than waste our time scapegoating others or looking for answers to a past that has increasingly less relevance to our present and future.

What Is A Man?

Because  we’ve lost our traditional definitions of masculinity – physical dominance, social importance, financial achievement – then it’s time to strike out on our own and define a new masculinity that acknowledges who we are but also the world to which we were born.

A Man Is Not Defined By His Possessions or His Career. A Man Is Defined By His Accomplishments and His Purpose.

If you were to die tomorrow, what would you leave behind? What would you leave behind for people to remember you by? Will you have just treaded water, mistaking earning a living for having a life? Or will you be known for your adventures, for the dreams you chased down and for the deeds you’ve accomplished? Will you live a life that’s full or will you allow yourself to be the sum total of your possessions? A man is someone who makes accomplishments in his life. What those accomplishments and deeds are depend on the man – but they are a mark of his ambition and drive, not his willingness to let life just happen.

To quote a wise sage: “You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your fucking khakis.”

"Assuming you don't miss the point of the entire goddamn movie..."

A Man Does Not Fear Failure

Failure is not to be feared or avoided. To fail, one must first try; to avoid failure means to avoid trying the new. Failure is how we learn. When a man fails, it only means that he must take what he has learned and apply it, then try again differently.

A Man Does Not Make Excuses

Excuses are reasons why we allowed ourselves to be persuaded not to make the attempt. Excuses are how we rationalize our fear of progress or our unwillingness to change. If a man truly desires something, then he strives for it; obstacles are only hinderances to a goal, not reasons to never try in the first place.

A Man Takes Responsibility

To take responsibility means to take ownership of our actions, for the good and for the bad. If we are the authors of our own success, so too are we the authors of our own failures and a man must acknowledge them. A man faces the consequences of his actions and doesn’t shirk them or attempt to pass them to others.

A Man Has A Duty To Become His Best Self

All too often we allow ourselves to lose sight of not just who we are but who we want to be. It is seductively easy to sink into our current identities and say “This is just who I am. This can’t change.” Doing so means giving up and settling for being less than the best we could be, even as we acknowledge that we are never finished improving, growing or learning.

A Man Acknowledges His Limitations, Even As He Strives To Overcome Them

Everybody has their strengths, just as they have their weaknesses. It is part of what makes us human. Having a limitation does not mean that you are somehow less; only letting yourself be ruled by them. Your weaknesses are not what define you; they are part of what you work towards overcoming.

A Man Is At Peace With His Emotions

Our emotions aren’t something to be feared, nor are they something to repress. By the same token, our emotions do not make us special or rule us, nor do we wallow in them. We acknowledge that we have them and we allow ourselves to feel how we honestly feel. If we are angry, then we allow ourselves to be angry. If we are sad, then we allow ourselves to be sad. Emotions in and of themselves are neutral; it is how we react to them that defines us.

A Man Does Not Define Himself or Others By Sex

The number of sexual partners a person has is irrelevant to their worth as a person, male or female. A virgin is no better and no worse than someone who has had many partners; the only difference is in the levels of experience. Similarly, a man does not ascribe value to one’s sexual orientation; whether one prefers men, women or both makes no difference so long as everybody is of appropriate age and consents.

A Man Has Respect For Others

The default assumption is that everybody is worthy of respect. It’s only through their actions as an individual that merits lowering that level of respect for them.

A Man Welcomes Equality

A woman’s rise to social and sexual equality is something to be welcomed. A man doesn’t fear a woman’s social stature or the upending of traditional social roles because he knows that privilege does not have to be a zero-sum game.

A Man Accepts Who He Is With Honesty and Integrity

There is no profit in a man lying to himself about who he is. Part of being a man means acknowledging who you are in totality rather than trying to deny aspects of yourself in hopes that by doing so you can make them disappear, or to pretend that you have parts to your life that do not exist. We are who we are, with the good and the bad, the beautiful and ugly, the parts we wish we had but do not and the parts we desperately wish would go away. It’s only in accepting ourselves in total that we can work to improve ourselves and build the lives that we ultimately want.


  1. which does still exist, by the by. See also: women’s pay relative to men’s []

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