There are times when it can feel like being a man is difficult. We’re constantly presented with ideas of what it means to be a “real man”… and that usually includes things that we’re somehow lacking. For a lot of men, there’s a sense of emptiness or ennui, a belief that we’re missing something vital. It’s easy to “golden age” the days past when “being a man” was apparently simple and easy. In fact, it’s hard to go online without hearing constant tirades about how we’re in a “masculinity crisis” and how men – especially cis, white, hetero men – are no longer “real” men but some effete neuter. Yet, even knowing that the world revolves around you, it’s possible to still feel marginal, unhappy and ultimately unfulfilled.
It’s this sense of lack and loss that alt-right groups like the Proud Boys rely on. The glorification of a rough-and-ready form of masculinity is presented as a lost ideal – and it’s an appealing one when it seems like you’re coasting along with a vague sense of your own mediocrity.
At the same time, however, we also hear constant criticism of being a man. Society in general has begun to emphasize the damage that toxic masculinity – violence, unchecked aggression and sexual predation – can do. When it seems like everywhere you turn, there’s a new story about men’s bad behavior or a parade of hot takes about men being the worst, it can leave otherwise well-meaning men feeling put upon simply because of their gender. To make matters worse, that natural tendency to want to protest that you aren’t like that is bound to trigger an avalanche of #notallmen comments.
Wanting to be proud of being a man can feel somewhere between aligning yourself with MRAs and feeling like you need to apologize for your gender.
So how do you bridge this particular gap? When you’re stuck feeling damned for following the manhood script and damned for not, what can you do to be proud of being who you are? What are the masculine ideals that we can aspire to live up to? What positive things can a man do that he can point to, things that he can be proud of as a man?
Ditching The Toxic Masculinity Script
Part of why men experience this conflict so keenly is because we often feel lost and adrift in a world where “maleness” seems less and less needed or even relevant. But is it, really?
One of the issues is that as society has matured, we’ve begun to recognize and address how damaging many of the toxic tropes of masculinity are. It’s easy to hear the phrase and assume that it’s a blanket condemnation of being a man in general. In fact, quite a few people do just that; it’s one of the fastest ways to try to delegitimize discussing the traits. Toxic masculinity doesn’t refer to maleness or gender as a whole, but to behaviors and beliefs that are encoded as being good or “natural” aspects of being a man that are, in fact incredibly damaging – both to the individual and to society as a whole. It’s a social script that most men have heard from birth: that being a man means being violent, emotionally closed off and sexually predatory… and these are all good things.
It crafts an incredibly narrow range of behaviors, beliefs and attitudes that men are supposed to conform to, while actively punishing and marginalizing those who fail to live up to it. The tropes of toxic masculinity treat behaviors like unchecked aggression as a virtue, for example, despite the damage it causes to society and relationships. At the same time, choosing to not be violent or aggressive is treated as weakness – something to be punished or taken advantage of. It’s not surprising, for example, that alt-right figureheads like to laugh at and dismiss the murder of a protester in Charlottesville while portraying themselves as “being more capable of violence”.
It’s a way of trying to position themselves as “real men”, unlike the pussified masses who believe in things like equality and civil rights. In mythologizing their readiness to commit violence ((Not exactly “blood in, blood out”, is it?)), they try to seem cooler and make joining them more appealing. The message is “you too can be a real man, if you join us.”
It doesn’t help that the social script of an aggressive form of masculinity is quite literally sold to us, and one that is aggressively defended from criticism by the people who are most dependent on it. After all: one of the surest ways to shore up your own manly bona fides is to attack someone else’s. Nor is it surprising that the go-to insults for anyone who questions the tenets of toxic masculinity are sexual. Calling critics manginas and cucks is intended to reinforce the “real men” vs. “fake girly men” divide. The state of manhood in such cases is so fragile that it dare not be questioned.
In fairness, however, it can be hard to let go of the script. It has been drilled into the culture so frequently and so often that men often feel lost without it. If we don’t live up to being Brad Pitt in Fight Club, then what are we?
Well… better men, to start with. We get lost in the trappings of “ideal” masculinity and lose track of how little it benefits or appeals to the rest of the world. To use Fight Club as an example, it’s easy to forget that Tyler Durden doesn’t exist. Marla can’t see him because he’s imaginary. She’s been banging Ed Norton’s doughy ass. His appeal isn’t in being carved out of wood with abs like woah, it’s in his drive and passion. His violence disturbs her.
The things that make being a man something to be proud of have nothing to do with looks or violence. It’s about purpose and passion, community and contribution.
What Is Your Purpose?
“We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives.”
Part of what leaves so many men feeling empty is this belief that we have no reason for being. We – in theory – have no true struggle. We don’t have a driving force to unify us, temper us or measure ourselves against. Unlike the mythologized Greatest Generation, we have no Great War of clear moral purpose. Our economy is in shambles, but Millennials are viewed as being lazy and irresponsible; there’s no tragically noble poverty of the Great Depression to eulogize. There is no great cause waiting for us, no spiritual quest to strive towards.
Except none of this is true.
The problem isn’t that there is no unifying cause, it’s that men are waiting for it to be given to them. But it hasn’t been. And so… we wait. We wait for the clarion call to arms. And as we wait, we start to feel ourselves rot away from the inside. We don’t feel like we matter. Our jobs increasingly leave us feeling meaningless and unimportant. Our economy has moved further and further away from building and making things as machines take over for us. As a result: we don’t have things that we can point to and say “This was me. This was my work.”
More and more of us have nothing to show for our labours at the end of the day except having moved numbers from one column to another, if that. We get all the satisfaction of pushing a button over and over again to watch the numbers change.
And as the things we rely on get “disrupted” and our labor is shifted further and further towards gigs and makework… we feel more disconnected. Couple that with that sense that the old guideposts of manhood have been revealed as being hollow and we feel that lack of purpose gnawing at us like a hunger.
But it’s not the lack of purpose that’s the problem. It’s the waiting for one to be revealed. It’s easy to declare something your great cause when it’s been forced upon you. Having to find your own way? That’s trickier.
In no small part, the issue is that we think too big. We assume that our purpose, our goal needs to be something enormous and monumental, but it doesn’t. It just needs to be something you are passionate about. What it can’t be, however, is something you consume. Consumption is passive. It can be enjoyable, yes… but you’re the end of the chain, not its genesis. Building your life around what you consume is no small part of why you feel so empty inside. It’s not something you can point to, something about which you can say “this will be the mark I left on the world”.
Instead, you want your purpose to be something that you can build and create with your own two hands – metaphorical or literal. Your purpose may be to build a family and be the best possible father you can. It may be a life of service – to your family, to your god, to your country. Your purpose could be as simple as doing things that your family wished they could have – whether it be travel, getting an education, starting their own business or simply pulling yourself up the economic ladder so your kids can do a little better.
It can be as big as wanting to build the next Google or as small as wanting to learn as much as you can on a particular topic. But whatever it is: it needs to be the thing that drives you. It’s what gives your life direction and meaning. It’s what you want to build your life around.
Yeah, choosing your purpose can feel less valid, less legit. How could, say, wanting to program smartphone apps compare to liberating the camps at Auschwitz or standing arm in arm against violence in the name of equal rights? But that’s the thing: it’s the life you’ve chosen. It’s the goal that speaks to your heart. And that’s all it needs to be. Your purpose is your purpose.
And discovering that you answer to your heart and not to others’ opinions? That’s a big part of being a man.
But while we’re at it:
Build Your Community
Remember what I said about how we don’t build things any more? The fact that we don’t doesn’t mean that we can’t. However, that doesn’t mean that the things we build need to be physical. In fact, one of the most important things that you can build as a man has no physical presence, yet its impact on you and your world is immense:
You can build up your community. And in doing so, you can help ease one of the greatest maladies affecting men right now.
Men as a whole are almost cripplingly lonely. Our generation has fewer friends over-all than previous ones. Men, in particular, lack meaningful emotional connections with people – especially other men. We feel disconnected, not just from society at large, but from our peers. One of the most common complaints from men dealing with depression is a sense that we don’t have a place where we belong. We desperately crave that feeling like we’re part of something bigger than ourselves, but end up isolating ourselves. We turn to substitutes, using passive consumerism as a substitute for community. Part of why “gamer” became an identity rather than a hobby was that it was marketed as being part of a larger whole; by buying this, playing that, consuming this other thing, you become a member of a community.
But a community that’s based on consumption is handing one’s identity over to a third party. It’s no longer part of who you are; it just makes you someone whose sense of self is sold to them.
And we need that sense of belonging, that community of like-minded individuals who make us feel like part of a whole. This is a need so profound that cults and hate-groups rely on it to recruit others. “Join us,” they say, “and we’ll be your family. We’ll give you direction and meaning.” The Proud Boys, for example, sell themselves as a “social club”… that just happens to derive its identity from hate and violence.
But needing a community doesn’t have to put you at the mercy of people who’d cynically exploit that need. You can be the one to build that community. Finding people like yourself and bringing them together is one of the greatest things you can do – for yourself and for others. This doesn’t mean that you need to build your own personal Project Mayhem. You don’t need to start a fraternity or a club. All you need to do is find people like you, who share your interests and create a reason to come together. A monthly get-together to drink or eat, to talk and share and just connect with one another can be the foundation of something amazing.
It can be small – even just a couple of people. It can be simple. But in bringing people together, you’re creating a network. You’re showing people that they’re not alone, that there are others like them. It forms bonds of trust and brotherhood, a reminder of the ways we are united, even if we’re different. And even that little bit of communal connection can make an amazing difference in their lives… and yours.
Which brings us to our next point:
Make the World Just A Little Better
If you want to make being a man something to be proud of, then you need to ask yourself: what are you doing to improve your community? Not just your close friends, but the world around you?
I don’t think I need to point out that life right now is hard and chaotic. We’re living in a society that seems determined to rip itself apart. Turning on the news or going online treats us to a deluge of anger, hate and fear. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless. It’s even easier to give into despair. And that’s why it’s so important now to do what we can to make the world even a little better.
Being willing to give a helping hand or to reach out and improve even just a part of your world creates immense benefits for everyone.
And it doesn’t need to be big or flashy – it just needs to be something that you can do that makes things a little brighter, a little more hopeful. And ideally? You do it in person, not just online.
You can organize a toy drive for local underprivileged kids. Alternately, you might raise funds to pay off the overdue lunch fees of children in your schools. You can volunteer to help refugee families in your area. Organize a book drive to send books to soldiers stationed overseas. You can join political protests or help organize political action at your local level. It may be as obvious as volunteering at the local soup kitchen every month or as simple as helping walk dogs at your local no-kill animal shelter. You can volunteer at conventions and make them an even more enjoyable experience for your fellow geeks. Organize a clean-up crew to help neighborhoods that’ve been hit by disaster. Hell, you can even get first-aid and CPR certified, just to make sure that if shit goes down, you’ll be able to help.
You can also help by taking active roles in your community. When we hear about sexual assaults at conventions, cat-calling and street harassment and the way women are treated in nominally “safe” cultural spaces, there’s that temptation to apologize, to #notallmen the conversation. But performative sorrow doesn’t actually help. Standing up does. Being the person to actively speak out, to call out that behavior as it’s happening and to make it unacceptable is what makes the difference.
Even with the cries of “it’s not that bad” or the people who’ll call you a cuck or white knight. If you despise what’s being done to others, don’t just feel bad about it, remember that you’re a man and stand the fuck up for others. A lot of people will only take the issue seriously if the complaint comes from a man, so use that. Call it out, be the witness and the support. Be somebody’s back-up if they need it. Being a man means walking the walk, not just putting on a show.
The thing to keep in mind is that whatever you do doesn’t need to be a massive undertaking. You’re not trying to make yourself into a martyr in the name of being a hero. The point isn’t the glory of assisting others or even how it makes you feel. It’s simply about giving what you can to make things better for others.
Because sometimes being a man is about being the kind of person Captain America knows you could be.
Make Being a Man Something Worth Aspiring To Be
It’s easy to feel like being a man isn’t something to be valued, especially if you don’t fall within the narrow script of performative manhood. But it’s worth remembering that there are many, many values that are masculine-coded that are things that everyone should aspire to. Honor, community, leadership, charity and generosity, self-improvement and self-sacrifice. Drive and ambition, protection and guidance, fatherhood and nurturing… these are all powerful, positive masculine values that are worth reaching for. These are some of the core traits that make you a man.
You don’t need to be a giant slab of beef to be a man. You don’t need to be a stoic statue either. Your capacity for violence and eagerness to threaten others with it doesn’t make you more manly than someone else. Any idiot can pick a fight. Any moron can get in someone’s face and scream.
Being a man means community. It means generosity and charity. It means having drive and purpose. Find what you’re going to live for and make it yours. Build the world you want to live in. Be a trailblazer if that’s what it takes. But if you can bring hope and help to others? If you can reach out and give comfort where it’s needed? If you can make the world a better place?
That’s when being a man is something to be immensely proud of.