The New Masculinity
"Man up. What a cleverly disguised way to say shut up. Shut up, or fight back, or you deserved what you got." – Riley Redgate, Noteworthy
"Men in trouble are often in trouble precisely because they are trying to GET A GRIP or ACT LIKE A MAN"- Robert Webb, How Not to Be a Boy
Act like a man.
I have always loved language, often getting stuck on a specific word choice in a passage and using it as a springboard into deeper study and understanding. It is my default setting when I read, research, or even meet with clients. I believe that words matter. The words we choose to use have consequences and ramifications and can either build or destroy.
Act like a man.
Immediately I am hit with the problematic nature of the command, as it implies not only a prescribed set of behaviors but also a concrete worldview. What is also present is an implicit acknowledgment of choice. Act in this statement is a verb; verbs, by definition, imply choice and movement. I want to take a moment and explore the cultural definition of this sentiment, and then unpack the statement, before we discuss the proffered invitation to liberty.
Sex and gender can be confusing topics to discuss, mainly because we often conflate the two. From a sociological and anthropological perspective, the two can be best understood as this: sex refers to biology; gender is a concept rooted in standard roles and norms of behavior based upon biological sex. Basically, gender is a completely arbitrary set of ideas that culture has sanctioned as gospel. In short: we made it up.
Traditional American male behavior has often been understood as encompassing the following: toughness, self-reliance, stoicism (read: no emotions allowed except anger), and acquisitiveness. I mean, these qualities are great for tigers, given that they are mostly solitary, territorial creatures with amazing poker faces. But for actual human beings, I would argue this goes against what science tells us is necessary for human survival from infancy on connection, emotional expression, and working for the greater good.
You doubt me? Ask yourself how we, as a species, have survived all this time?
Answer: pack behavior sustained through communication, both verbal and nonverbal (aka community, connection, emotion).
This is a bit of an oversimplification, utilized to illustrate a point. I am certain social scientists and biologists reading this are absolutely appalled by how cavalierly I have reduced centuries of human behavior into three words. But honestly, I am a therapist! Themes are my bread and butter. So we will go with it!
Growing up in Western culture, boys are given all sorts of messages about what appropriate behavior is. Boys don't cry. Boys don't dance. Boys are better at math. Boys are better at sports. Boys will be boys. Ugh. It is no wonder that when those boys become men, they find it difficult to access their emotional intelligence. The only outlet available to them has been competition and an implicit awareness that they are ill-equipped to handle things like rejection and disappointment.
Given this poor cultural prepping, it is not a wonder that we deal with somewhat pervasive toxic masculinity, which I believe is just as harmful to the men themselves as those towards whom it is directed. To be clear, when I use the phrase "toxic masculinity", I am referring to those behaviors, attributed as masculine, which denigrate feminine qualities as weakness, and are rooted in an assumption of necessary dominance, be it verbal (mansplaining), emotional (aggression and/or suppression), or behavioral (violence, sexual competition, entitlement).
Mercifully, we are seeing a small shift in the masculine consciousness with the rise of what is best understood as modern masculinity. As opposed to traditional masculinity, this modern version values self-awareness, vulnerability, and authenticity. Adherents to this philosophy of masculinity realize that their worth comes from within and is not based on competing with other men. They emphasize personal growth and development over traditional toughness and acquisitiveness.
As non-conformists, they approach gender roles differently, understanding that there is no such thing as "women's" or "man's" work; we are all in this together, particularly in the home. These men have accepted the invitation to act like a man and made it work for them, and I would argue, the rest of us, too.
Modern masculinity is expansive. It allows for men to be open, experience emotional equality and health, and be in touch with their inner lives while becoming attuned to the world around them. As I said earlier, “act like a man” is an invitation, not just a command. Considering the shifting cultural understanding of what it means to be a man, there is more than just the one option available. There is a choice; there is a spectrum.
You may find yourself somewhere between the traditional and the modern; you may want to engage in some unpacking, even some unlearning. If that is the case, we can help. Regardless of where you find yourself in the discussion of modern masculinity, I hope you know that gender does not have to be destiny. You have a choice. Good luck on your journey!