What is masculinity?
And what does it mean to be “a real man”?
These questions might seem easy to answer at first glance. After all, there are some obvious personality traits that are very much linked with being a man:
– Being competitive.
– Being in control and in command of any situation.
– Not showing emotions such as sadness, fear and pain.
– Achieving high status and success.
– Being good at sports.
– Having high sex drive.
– Being tall and physically strong.
– Being muscular.
– Being good at fighting.
– Not showing vulnerability.
– Willingness to take risks.
– Being a provider for the family.
– Having great confidence in yourself.
If you happen to not not fit into enough of these descriptions, you are likely to be judged as “not a real man”. Sure, the personality traits above can all be positive, or at least they are not necessarily negative. But what if a man is shy, kind and gentle, interested in fashion and cooking, likes taking care of children but doesn’t have a high sex drive and isn’t particularly interested in or good at sports, doesn’t wish to spend most of his time working to advance his career and making a lot money? These are also positive or at least not necessarily negative personality traits. Yet such a man would probably be judged to be very feminine. And in our society, for a man to be judged as “feminine” is generally considered shameful and emasculating – in other words, not a “real man”.
Boys and men are boxed in to a quite narrow field of definitions on how men “should” look and act to be considered as “masculine” or as “real men”. Success within at least some of these definitions – be it in terms of a high status and/or well payed job, sexual conquests or sports/physical prowess is extremely important to men – because it will to a huge extent determine their status and value as men in the eyes of our society. This leaves very little room, but lots of negative pressure, for men that have different personalities, talents and physical characteristics. I would argue that this negative pressure results in a lot of destructive and often violent behaviour among men, who feel like they don’t live up to these norms and expectations of masculinity.
Like most people I took these facts and values more or less for granted and didn’t really question or think about this issue. I just accepted that this is basically just “how things are”. I really only started reflecting seriously on the subject after I met my wife – a woman who happens to be a professional martial arts instructor. I (predictably) found out that because of her expertise in martial arts techniques, I stand no chance against her in a hand to hand combat situation, despite being significantly bigger and stronger than her. Especially in the beginning, I felt rather confused by finding myself in this situation. After all, according to the general definition of masculinity, being outclassed by a rather small female (like my wife) at fighting and wrestling was rather shameful and should make me less of a man. I remember, for example, one of my classmates (we were both 19 at the time) being teased, mocked and asked to “hand in your man card” after losing to a girl in a track & field competition. But I really don’t feel at all like less of a man just because my wife is better than me at fighting/wrestling. I can see no reason for that and this didn’t pose a big problem for me. But maybe that is in large part because I fulfil enough of the other traditional expectations of male traits…
I don’t have a clear answer to the questions I posed at the top of this blog post. But I’m sure the generally accepted definitions of manhood and what means to be “a real man” need to be much wider and much less constrained by stereotypes. On average, men and women are different – both physically and mentally. It would be ridiculous and counter productive to deny that. But we need to recognise and embrace that, as human beings, we are all unique individuals.
At least where I live, girls and women are constantly encouraged to express their personalities and be who they really are, even if that doesn’t conform to the traditional stereotype of how a woman should be – which is great. But I think much more work is needed to support boys and men in expanding the male gender role.
How do you define masculinity? And what do you think characterises a real man?