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.