What is manhood?

Julie posted a response to my review of Gran Torino and  I began writing a response.  But the comment became too big, so I turned it into a full post.  Let the discussion begin!

Mars symbolThe topic of manhood is one that interests me a lot. For a very long time, I’ve been conflicted about what “manhood” is.   And as dumb a statement as that might seem, I believe it is one that can be very profound and layered.  The culture is not helping us men define who we are or who we should be.  There is much praise for the “rugged man” and the “alpha male”, while the lesser attributes are relegated to women.

I have come to believe that “manhood” is harder to define than mere “maleness.” If the criteria to define masculinity is merely “acting a little barbaric”, or owning testicles… animals can be men. I reject the notion that men must be defined rigidly along lines of stereotypical modes of behavior, such as:

  • minimal verbal communication
  • competitive nature
  • minimal emotional response
  • physical expression
  • sexual appetite

Women are usually defined neatly as the opposites of the above. I shy away from those definitions because in reality there are many men (myself included) that don’t fit neatly into all those buckets. And there are an equal number of women who do fit into some of those buckets.  So what are those people who find themselves caught somewhere in the middle to do?  In most cases, they are impressed upon to hide the offending traits, suppress the “effeminate emotions” (if they are male) or “butch tendencies” (if they are female).  It’s no wonder there is much gender confusion when those unlucky few aren’t fitting into their roles!

What troubles me the most is describing non-traditional male behavior as “wimpy” or “whiney.”  John Eldrige has done some harm in the culture war debate with his book Wild At Heart in judging men of more peaceful leanings. Throughout his book, he pushes the false dichotomy of putting men over here on the rough-and-tumble side, and women over here in the knitting, peace-loving side, and never the two shall meet. The implication is that expressing a viewpoint opposing war is to be “soft and nice.”  Martin Luther King, Jr.  was a radical pacifist, but would not be considered by most as any less of a man for being so.

Walt’s generation (and Walt’s character in particular) was arguably the “greatest generation” as Tom Brokaw wrote, though I’m troubled by the term.  It implies that the case is closed already.  There will apparently be no more generations of greatness. Theirs was the best. To be sure, it was a time of great struggle in abolishing despotism (WWII, particularly), but why should that be the gold standard for men to follow for all time?  I should hope that men could always improve.  Oh, would that future generations be even greater than ours!

As I said in my review, I can forgive Walt for saying the things he did, partly because he is from a different generation and social climate.  That doesn’t mean I condone what he said. For instance, I don’t believe that it’s a woman’s role to clean and cook (though many women love cooking).  I also don’t believe that it’s a man’s role to be the sole provider for his family (though many man happen to do so).

Nor do I believe in using female pejorative slang, like Walt does.  I don’t want my future son(s?) to grow up thinking that weakness in essential male identity can be expressed verbally with allusions to femininity {1}.  And I certainly don’t want my future daughter(s?) to grow up thinking that their essential femininity is somehow a fundamentally weaker sex.

If men are truly more powerful by nature, they have a loathsome track record in proving it.  Wars and violence, abuse and enslavement, bigotry and patriarchy… these may be the signs of barbarism, but not the signs of authentic manhood.  Might does not make right.

It’s a very strange thing to define oneself in terms of what one is not.  To ask, “What does it mean to be a man?”, is to wax philosophical.  It is an existential question.  It is getting at the essential nature of identity.  It is not begging a mundane answer.  To bog down that question with mere physiological answers (e.g., “It is being stronger than the woman.”, or “It is relating differently than the woman.”) is unsatisfying.  It is a hollow definition to only contrast myself with another.  In doing so, I’ve learned nothing new about myself.

As an example, a similar existential question would be in religion.  “What does it mean to be a Christian?”  How much meaning could I impart if I answered it only in terms of what a Christian is not?  “A Christian is opposed to the ways of the pagans and the atheists.”  “A Christian does not believe in the god of the Muslims.”  These answers are left wanting.  A better definition concerns itself with the essentials of what it affirms, not what it denies.  To be a Christian is to affirm the life and teachings of Christ and the mystery of salvation and resurrection.

I believe that a new language for defining maleness is in need.  I believe that previous generations of men would want better for ours.

Footnotes:

  1. e.g., to be a “wimp” is to be a pussy, being less than competitive is to “play like a girl”, to complain too much is to “bitch”, to show too much emotion is akin to “wearing a dress”, and the list goes on and on []

15 Replies to “What is manhood?”

  1. Well, I’ve got to think about how I want to answer this.

    Rob, you don’t exactly give your opinion of what a man is in your above statement.

    1. That’s because it’s hard to put one’s finger on a definition. That’s too easy, really, to define it. Both sexes could probably agree on “What is humanity?” But it always gets fuzzy when we define our gender in terms of differentiating from the other gender. I’m simply asking, “Why do that?” Seriously, what’s the point?

      Yes, men are different from women in fundamental ways. Organs, hormones, BMI. But when you start to categorize habits, interests, and roles… it’s not so easy. I don’t think there’s any value added to either side when we do the latter.

    2. Very simple James.
      Rob has good points, but his summary of the book “Wild at Heart” is completely wrong. I would encourage you Rob to actually read the book with an open mind instead of attacking with such illogical fallacies. No one ever said that men are seeking to put women in their place. I’ve seen that manhood is a dying breed because of the fact that we are dropping all responsibility. It’s no wonder women feel in charge and now support half a family because we as men have chosen “writing blogs” about being a man instead of actually showing that we are men. Women have the responsibility because we gave up. Why?

  2. Yeah, Julie and I were talking about this a little bit ago and neither one of us can put our finger on it either.

    What I think I’m going to try to do is just say why I think I’m manly.  Maybe each person does just have their own unique view on what being a man really is.

    My roles as a man in my family may be very different than it is in other families.  I’m the main bread winner in our family.  It’s a role I’ve had for our 18+ years of marriage.  When I struggle in that role I feel, to some degree, a level of failure as a man. 

    There is a book that just came out by Meg Meeker called “Boys Should Be Boys” and after this conversation now I really want to read it.  She wrote a book called “Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters” that I read last year and it was incredible.

    I haven’t read “Wild At Heart” and don’t really have any plans to.  I have so many other books I’m trying to get through right now.

    Being the crazy conservative that I am I do tend to want to lay out a man’s roles in society in a very pragmatic, black and white, way.  I realize that it’s not really all that simple.

    The Bible does make it clear who the spiritual leader in the home needs to be.  I’ve seen a lot of really rotten things happen in marriages when the man does not take his spiritual role.

  3. When I was using the term whiney that was not in reference to non-traditional male behavior. It was about me and the positive attributes my dad imparted to me. It’s easy for me to want to whine because things are very hard, but I have to remember the good things my dad imparted to me and cling to them. That’s where I am personally. I have to have some grit and stubborness in this life and my dad is a positive example to me in that way. Sometimes we have to tough out seasons of life. Instead of looking at my dad’s flaws I want to brag about his strengths and gleen from them.

    As for “nice and soft” those are opposites of being at war when you are fighting an enemy. It’s a harsh place to be. In an age of the buzz word tolerance, we -I- need to be tolerant toward my dad and try to see where he’s coming from and why he’s the way he is. What some of these men went through is truly unfathomable. I wish for all men to be “nice and soft” especially when it comes to their children. God the father is gentle and loving and I am grateful!

    I don’t think you can precisely define what it looks like to be a man or a woman. God gave each of us different tempermants, personalities, gifts and abilities. We each have a different call on our lives. To have fulfillment in this life I think we need to be where we are supposed to be, doing what we are called by God to do. James and I feel strongly that we are doing just that. We say we are going to faithfully stand at our posts until it’s obvious it’s time to move on to a new post.  In a world of the career minded, working woman it took me some time to completely feel comfortable with the fact that being a stay-at-home mom was my personal call. It’s not easy when people ask  what do  you do all day (as if you are a bon-bon eating, soap opera watcher), but I’ve come to the place where I can completely feel at peace with where God has me. I feel like that may be the key, my womanly self-worth needs to be based on how God sees me and who He created me to be.

    I know this is very biased, but my hubby, although barbaric at times (ha!), is my ideal man. He’s my hero everyday when he goes out to “kill something and drag it home” as he likes to say. He sacrifices everyday to provide for us. He’s not afraid to get in someone’s face (literally) and stand up for what’s best for one of his kids. He’s my personal warrior! He did that when we were  fostering Jessica. It made my heart swell. He LOVES the Lord and is a true worshiper of Him. I believe he is a good and giving friend to his fellow man. He is constantly studying to improve himself and his family. He cries very easily blotting his eyes constantly during church and sappy movies or when one of the girls says something sweet to him! (this is a D family trait among the men) He tears up easier than I do! James is a leader of men who humbly makes sure to spend time each week with other men who are much further along in life than him. He truly loves me sacrificially like Christ loved the church. This is the man James has allowed God to mold him into in order to fulfill the role or call that he’s been given. He’s perfect for ME (flaws and all ; ) ! Are you gagging yet? The title of your post made me immediately think of my man.

    Men tend to be more involved in the home and family than men from previous generations. At least according to my mom and aunts. I think the roles and expectations of men has evolved in a positive way, but balance is always important. We can’t let the pendulum swing so much the other way that we try to ‘feminize’ men. This country girl just can’t stand that.  I really, really enjoy masculinity!

    Oh, and with all due respect to those great men and women who have gone before us, I think our generation is the new greatest generation. I am an optomist!

    1. Excellent thoughts, Julie. You mention James being a crier (me too, buddy!). There was a time when that would be too “feminized” of him. So you have to admit that this whole notion of “feminized men” doesn’t have much meaning unless you’re talking about men literally wearing womens’ clothing. If you want to talk about buzz words, that’s one that the modern church loves.

  4. How funny! James and I were just talking about this last night. BTW, thanks for giving us something to talk about besides work and kids! Good post! James doesn’t think there is any feminization of men going on in our culture and he’s probably right. Maybe I have watched too many decorationg shows or I’m becoming paranoid living in a home FULL of girls! Ha! Or maybe I’m tired of political correctness! Buzzzz. . . As for the church, I have never heard anything like that at church. Our church is the most balanced church we’ve ever been a part of. It’s an amazing place!

    Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you. . .

    I believe that God can help us redefine or put into modern venacular what it mean to be a man or woman while clinging to that which is unchangeable, the Word of God.  Change the changeable and hold fast to that which is unchangeable!

    Rob, you have no idea how reeling it is for me after I express myself either in conversation or on a blog comment, etc. Unlike my husband, I am a more private person. I do need to express myself sometimes, I know it’s good for me,  it’s just very difficult. I’ve enjoyed this dialogue and I will survive! Hehehe!

  5. Do you think that’s what I’m talking about?  I’m not talking about a totalitarian dictatorship where the male dictates to the female on a daily basis how she is going to behave.  I don’t know a single couple where the man shakes his finger at his wife and dictates his wife’s actions to her.

    I’m talking about a Christ-like, unconditional love every born again MALE child of God is supposed to display for his family.  I’m talking about a male that makes sure his family is in a solid Bible believing church on a weekly basis.  I’m talking about a man that is not afraid to teach his kids about who Christ is and what He did for everyone on earth.  I’m talking about a man who will not except mediocrity within his family when it comes to the spiritual things of God.  I think there are a lot of women who crave those types of leadership actions from their men and don’t get it.

    In the 18 years Julie and I have been married I’ve seen a lot of families (my sister’s and my cousin’s to name two) who would have a completely different result today had the men in those families taken a spiritual role in the home.  In stead, those men decided to just please themselves for the entirety of their marriage and because of their selfishness those marriages have crashed leaving in their wake a lot of hurt and pain.

    I’m not sure how you got ‘patriarchy’ from ‘spiritual’.

    1. I wasn’t referring exclusively to totalitarian relationships either. Patriarchy is simply defined as:

      “A social system in which the father is head of the household, having authority over women and children.”

      That’s classical headship/submission theology. Now I don’t doubt that there is a spectrum of headship beliefs (some more egalitarian than others), but my use of the term “patriarchal” is pretty consistent with the mainline church.

      I have trouble with this definition and the supposed “third priesthood” concept. Why am I the gateway for Sarah to get to God? Because I’m male? That implies that she is inferior from birth.

      Why can’t a wife also “make sure (her) family is in a solid Bible believing church on a weekly basis”? Why can’t she also teach her kids about Christ? And she can certainly also help her family rise above mediocrity. Why must these traits be reserved for men?

      I don’t doubt that the two family examples you gave would have been better had the men been more spiritually active. But the same could be said about families where the wives were spiritually lethargic.

      I’m simply saying that a spiritually vibrant marriage could work with both spouses equally involved, and not require a hierarchy of roles.

  6. I think a lot of evangelicals get confused about the whole “spiritual role” thing because of what they have been told by the church.  I am convinced that it is the responsibility of both the husband and wife to raise their children according to Christ’s teachings.  This verse contradicts the modern evangelical view that the husband is the responsible party for his family’s spiritual life: “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5).  There are many verses in the NT that give a charge to men to “step up to the plate” in spiritual matters and how to treat their wives/children, but scripture repeatedly emphasizes that all Christians are priests (1 Peter 2:5,9), answering only to our High Priest, Christ.

  7. I’m not disagreeing with you here! :p

    I’ll try one last time to explain how I see my role in my family.

    I have never heard of a ‘third priesthood’ concept nor has any church I have ever gone to taught anything of the sort.  Of course Julie is also responsible for the spiritual upbringing of our children just as she is solely responsible for her own relationship with God.  She no more needs me for her relationship to her heavenly Father than I need a priest to get forgiveness of my sins.

    What I’m trying say that I have completely failed at is this…

    I’m not giving myself hierarchy of roles.  At no point have I said that.  I agree completely with the articles you referenced above.

    I’m talking about personal accountability on my part.  If my family is struggling the first place I’m going to look is myself.  I am going to take a look at my role as the head (as described in the articles you reference above) of this home and make sure I’m functioning as God would have me.  I’m responsible for the spiritual growth of my family.  The article you referenced lays this out very clearly.  I’m supposed to help my family grow.

    I understand perfectly what the NT means when it calls me the head of the home.  Just because I claim to be conservative doesn’t automatically mean I have some warped view of the male and female functions in the home.  Julie and I make ALL of our decisions together.  The times that I’ve been bull headed and done what I wanted have turned out so poorly that I’ve learned this the hard way.  If what you listed above was what the NT meant by ‘head’ of the home then an overbearing husband that tries to control every move of his wife would actually make a good marriage, but it doesn’t.  I think the results speak for themselves.

    The roles you list aren’t exclusively male.  I’ve never heard it taught that they were nor do I know anyone who believes they are exclusively male.

    I’m an evangelical but I’m not an idiot!  :p

    1. (how about this timely rebuttal?!)

      I don’t know man, it seems to me like you want it both ways. You say that you’re not disagreeing with me, but then earlier you say:

      The Bible does make it clear who the spiritual leader in the home needs to be.

      I’m talking about a man who will not except mediocrity within his family when it comes to the spiritual things of God. I think there are a lot of women who crave those types of leadership actions from their men and don’t get it.

      And I don’t completely agree with those statements. The examples I raised about husbands being dictators is only one area where hierarchy of marriage roles empowers that kind of behavior. There’s another area, that of women leadership in churches that is unmistakably affected by the traditional patriarchy of the evangelical church.

      I think it’s great that you have never been exposed to that kind of teaching. I find it surprising, since it seems to be the norm.

  8. I do have full authority over my kids.  If you don’t agree with that keep it to yourself!  I don’t need them getting wind of that!  :p

  9. Ok,  this article  is interesting but it doesn’t define what being a man is. I think being a man is growing up and being responsible for yourself. Being a man is not relying others all the time in other words independence. Being a man is also doing something for your society, not something small nor big but giving back to society for what you stole from it.
    The article says you have to raise a family to be a man. Uh, no you don’t. There are many man who don’t raise a family that are even better than the one with a family.
    In my opinion being a man has no definition and when a person thinks they need to define they obviously aren’t a man themselves. When you’re a man you’ll know it. When you’re writing an article about being a man you’re obviously confused as to waht a man is.
    On another note i think there is no such thing as reaching “manhood” i think that there is always something about us as a human that we need to improve on to finally reach “maturity” not “manhood”.
    Us men are so busy trying to be a man that we end up hurting ourselves. Just be yourselve and live life to the fullest.

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