Give love advice to dudes for long enough and eventually you come up on the question of “What does it mean to be a man?”
At first, this question may sound like basic Philosophy 101 material, the same sort of intellectual masturbation that we think is, like, soooo deep after a couple of joints or bong hits at 3 in the morning in your dorm room. The first instinct is frequently to give a flippant answer and move on. “Being a man means being able to fold a map and never stop for directions.” “Being a man means getting yelled at for forgetting to put the seat down.”
Then you start to realize that, no, this is a serious question. For the last several decades, society has been grappling with this nebulous sense that somehow, we as a culture have “lost” what it means to be masculine. Sociologists, pundits, and writers – male and female, feminist and otherwise – have been wrestling with the idea of what makes a man, whether we’ve lost sight of it and if we have, whether this is a good or a bad thing.
The anxiety about what manhood manifests itself in myriad ways. As the economy crashed, news media began to run breathless articles about the “man-cession” – the struggle for men to find or keep work while women outnumbered them for the first time in the workplace. Universities were thought to have reached a point of crisis as male attendance began to wane and the performance of male students flagged behind women. Pop culture brings us shows like Mad Men wade into the nostalgia of a lost era when “men were men” while fantasy series such as The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones externalizes the concept of masculine power versus feminine in a realm where the rules as we know them have been tossed aside and every day is a literal struggle to survive. Movies celebrate the overgrown man-child and what it means to grow up. Men, desperate for an external source to help quell the insecurity and nagging feeling that something is missing turn to groups that promise to restore that feeling of “manliness”, whether it’s the Promise Keepers or the Pick Up Artist community.
Society tells us that we’ve lost something… but nobody seems to knows what, exactly, that it was, or how we lost it. Some blame women for stealing it from us, or for convincing us to give it away. Some blame our culture and how it’s evolved. All we know is that something is off, but we don’t know why or what to do about it, so we’re casting about for answers.
The idea of a growing “masculine crisis” is a popular one; it externalizes the feeling of angst about who we are as men and what we’re supposed to be doing. Now instead of a nebulous feeling, it’s something we can understand: it’s a threat, a problem… something we can take action on rather than sitting around and worrying about it. Of course, to do that, we’d need a better idea of just what the issue is… but never mind that! Crisis! Rawr!
So… let’s talk about it. What does it mean to be a man in the 21st century? Strap yourself in, this is gonna be a long one.
Where Have All The Good Men Gone?
Being a man used to be simple; he was a leader, a beacon of strength and order in a chaotic world. Men were strong. Men were the rulers. Hell, men made the rules. The world was a large and scary place and it required power and strength to beat it into shape. Issues felt clear and simple; we all had roles given to us by virtue of biology and reinforced by society. There were clear sign posts on what was masculine and what was feminine and we had these rules handed down to us from father to son for generations. It was a simpler time and a simpler society1
Then society done went and changed on us.
Now, roles are murkier and role-models are fewer and far between. More and more men find themselves cast adrift as traditional gender roles have been upended and formerly tolerated behaviors are considered to be taboo or boorish. The concept of “man as patriarch” is increasingly uncommon; in fact, more and more children are raised by single mothers – approximately 9.9 million households according to the 2009 census. The typical “ideal look” for men – as evidenced by pop culture and advertising is increasingly youthful with less muscular definition, softer features and markedly less body hair; that is to say, more feminine than the 70s and 80s when the masculine ideal was considerably more mature and hirsute.
Moreover the concept of “man-as-provider” has been overturned; previously, the traditional role of a man was not just the head of the household but as the one who was singularly responsible for it’s financial security. A man’s identity was tied intimately to his career; what you did was an integral part of who you were. Today, the concept of the “career man” is almost non-existant; a man can expect to be an economic nomad, working one job for approximately 3 to 5 years before moving on. Worse, a man who wants to raise a family can take it for granted that – unless he has either been born to privilege or manages to strike it rich in some way, shape or form – it will almost certainly require a two-income household to provide an equivalent lifestyle to what his parents or grandparents enjoyed.
Men today feel as though they’ve been cast adrift, caught in a maelstrom of confusing and often contradictory indicators and messages. With fewer distinct role models in their lives to provide guidance and society in such flux, economically and socially, men are frequently flailing about for meaning and definition.
Now, let’s be clear: when we’re talking about the change in the definition of masculinity, we’re talking about within the last 40 to 50 years; you aren’t going to find many people agitating to get back to the days of pre-Enlightenment Europe, and even the hardest of the hard core SCA participants will freely and cheerfully acknowledge that they’re celebrating a fantasy version of history. In post-World War 2 America, the world was black and white. America had just emerged as a new world power following a morally “clear” war. The engines of commerce and industry were churning along at full speed as the we shifted away from a wartime economy and back to “business as usual”, bolstered by technological advances. For (white) men, the world was their oyster. It felt like success and prosperity were well within reach; all that was needed was a willingness to work hard and you could give a better future to your children. Men were men, women were women; men knew their purpose and women knew their place. God was in His heaven and all was right in the world.
Which, of course, meant that things were about to change.
A short answer is: The 60s.
A slightly longer, more helpful answer is that it was a mix of societal adaptation to greater financial and personal security and the advancement of technology.
Society and culture does not exist in a vacuum; everything about our culture is shaped by exterior influences. The post-World War II America was experiencing unparalleled growth and economic success. Pent up frustrations lead to increased consumer demand for goods. Housing sales surged, buoyed in no small part by cheap and easily-acquired mortgages and the advances in aviation or electronics connected us to the world in ways that were never possible before. It also lead to the population explosion known as The Baby Boom.
When a society enjoys increased prosperity and safety, social roles adapt. The increased prosperity allowed for greater civil change, especially in a generation growing up connected to the world at large in a way that the previous hadn’t been. Cultural borders were starting to melt and blur thanks to telecommunications. Increased social awareness across the board was leading towards the fight for civil rights for minorities.
And in 1960, the FDA approved the Pill for use in contraception. Suddenly the ability to discretely and conveniently control their reproductive system meant that women had levels of opportunities that they never had before. Being able to control their fertility meant that women could delay marriage and opt instead for education and careers. In fact, female enrollment in higher education spiked sharply in the years following the approval of the Pill. In addition, having the freedom to engage in sex without fear of pregnancy permanently altered female sexuality; women now had the same sexual freedom that men enjoyed and were looking forward to exercising their newfound agency.
((The Pill may well also have had a hand in changing the sexual ideal for men. Women who are ovulating are drawn to men with indicators of higher levels of testosterone – thicker brows and jawlines, heavier musculature and deeper voices. A woman in her infertile stages of the menstrual cycle are drawn to more feminine men – ones with less masculine faces and builds. Because the Pill mimics pregnancy and flattens out a woman’s hormonal cycle, it can influence what types of men a woman is attracted to for as long as she takes it. When you consider that the Pill is the single most popular form of birth control, it does make one question its effect on the masculine sexual ideal in our culture.))
Add to that the publication of The Feminine Mystique and the birth of the Second Wave of Feminism, which focused on pushing back against sexism and discrimination in society. Women were fighting for equal social footing with men and forcing a cultural dialogue on the role of women socially, sexually and politically. This, incidentally helped change the definition of “marriage” by leading to changes in divorce law in the US, making it easier for men and women to dissolve marriages without interference from an opposing partner.
The cumulative effects of all of these events set us on the course to where we are today. Socially, women are closer to full equality than they have ever been before; men, on the other hand seem to be reeling from the sudden changes.
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 “girly” and “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.
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!”
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.
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 discrimination2 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.”
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.
- or so we like to think; we have a tendency to romanticize the past and smooth over the rough edges. This is why as far back as Plato’s time you will find people complaining about how kids today don’t respect their elders and run wild, not like it was in the good ol’ days. [↩]
- which does still exist, by the by. See also: women’s pay relative to men’s [↩]
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