The 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.