What's a "Real Man" Anyway?

"Why are men such girls?" my friends who are looking for a certain kind of dude might ask -- and it makes me throw up in my mouth a little every single time.
Publish date:
May 9, 2013
feminism, masculinity, changing culture

It keeps cropping up -- the concept of a "real" man. It's all over advertising these days and it comes out of the mouths of friends who are looking for a certain kind of dude. "Why are men such girls?" they ask -- and it makes me throw up in my mouth a little every single time.

While my relationship with mainstream white feminism is fraught, I do -- as you may have noticed, xoJaners -- take a certain passionate interest in talking about gender. The topic is not the sole territory of mainstream feminist conversation after all, so I like to talk to lots of people about gender whenever the opportunity presents itself. This is awesome, of course, because gender isn't one of those discussions that should only happen in the ivory tower of academia. We should be having it, for example, right here.

Regardless of venue, most of the discussions of gender in which I wind up embroiled center around women -- defining what women are and what women can do. In many ways, this makes sense because women are not the equals of men in our patriarchal society. Women are defined in opposition to men, by what men are NOT.

While some people hold fast to the idea that gender is inextricably linked to your genitals, for other people there is a growing understanding that gender can be and often is far more fluid than that; biological sex is one thing but gender is another -- and it is increasingly complex. Which is totally exciting, y'all.

So that's really two conversations going on: the strides multiple feminisms have made for women and the concept of genderqueer identity. Some folks are even discussing the idea that *gasp* white Western constructs of gender are not universal. (This should be a great big d'uh but, well.)

What I don't see discussed as much in "progressive" spaces, at least not outside of MRA spaces (men's rights activists -- Google it if you've got some spare faith in humanity to lose), is the idea that as other genders have broadened their own definitions, "man" and "masculinity" have not been so adaptive.

Maybe dudes are having these conversations in frat houses around the country. Maybe there's a drinking game -- take a shot every time one of your frat bros says something about traditional masculinity is "problematic." Tynan, can you confirm or deny?

But I also wonder if this conversation has kind of fallen victim to the "What about the mens?" whine that often kicks up any time women are discussing gender issues. Have we gotten a little knee jerk about dismissing this as a conversation because we're so busy defending the rest of our conversational space? I don't know.

Ed gets these emails from a site called the Art of Manliness. It's a blog that is dedicated to reviving the "lost art" of manliness. Sometimes he'll read me the emails -- or involve me in his quest to learn a new "manly" skill. I put "manly" in quotes there because the skills often seem to me to be a really good idea for anyone to learn.

I'm not alone in that thought -- the site's founders define manliness as the opposite of childhood, but that's also how they define "womanliness." Thus, being a man is being a grown man and being a woman is being a grown woman.

It's a little circular but I get what they're going for, with their Classical values like courage and loyalty.

But I do wonder how many men define "manly" in this way. My suspicion is that it isn't very many.

What I do see is a lot of men reacting defensively to people who identify as women and other genders "encroaching" on their territory -- men who are angry that "man" does not seem to mean what it used to mean. That's where the "when men were MEN" rhetoric springs from, isn't it? And now, because women can also change tires and earn a decent salary, men aren't REAL anymore?

In any given situation, when there is a privileged group, in order for things to equalize, the privileged folks have to give up a little bit of their comfort. This can seem like an attack, I'm sure, especially if you already feel like your position is precarious or hard-won. A specific white middle class dude might have worked incredibly hard to get where he is -- and being told his whiteness and gender probably played into that goes against the all-American bootstrapping myth that we are fed in the American school system.

But none of us exist in a vacuum. While specific individual men might not feel all the benefits of a privilege, the cultural trends are pretty clear -- it's still a man's world in so many ways. And I want to know what that means.

Here is my thought: "Man" doesn't mean penis. There are plenty of women (and other genders) with penises. Just as there are men with other genitals as well. Genitals generally indicate biological sex but that's about it.

Here is my other thought: "Man" doesn't mean mechanically inclined or aggressive or emotionally repressed or whatever other random activity/characteristic plucked from a 1950s stereotype.

Man doesn't mean those things any more than "woman" means "vagina" or "mothering" or "pink" -- those are attributes that strike me as being independent of gender. Strictly enforced gender roles have sort of arbitrarily assigned characteristics to "man" and "woman" but strictly enforced gender roles are also hella oppressive.

I am, by and large, a cultural constructionist -- that means I think we are hugely influenced by the gendered expectations of the culture we grow up in. But I do think there is a biological component as well; it seems like a combination of nature AND nuture, and I'm not sure why we want it to be strictly one or the other sometimes.

It's important to acknowledge that there's an innate quality to gender identity -- because otherwise you erase a lot of trans experience. When someone says they just know that their identity does not match their genitals, why would I even want to question their knowledge of themselves?

But all of that is just saying what "man" is NOT -- which is why Ed shrugged when I was talking to him about this and said, "Well, it's kind of a bullshit concept then, isn't it?"

(Ed's a smart dude.)

Maybe people who are more involved with traditional gender roles than I am have more insight into this discussion -- all I know is that my friends who identify as male are actually not really into defining "man" so much as they are into doing their own thing, defining their own lives however they see fit.

Ed and I take a walk every night, to stretch our legs and wear the dog out before bed. On last night's walk, Ed's question was why it couldn't be as simple as the definition provided by the Art of Manliness -- maybe being a "man" really does need to come down to being a grown-ass man. Responsible, loyal. Willing to get up in the middle of the night if the dog needs to go out. And if the definition of "woman" or "genderqueer" or anything else is the same (being a grown-ass *fill in the blank*), well. Is that really a problem?

Does the expansion of the definition of "woman" and other genders really take anything away from men?

What do you think, xoJaners? How would you define "man" and "masculinity"? Do you think this is an important part of the gender conversation?