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How to Be a Man: a Father’s Day Reflection

June 13, 2014

My students recently showed me this tweet from “GuyCodes,” with a picture of Lohanthony (I didn’t know who he was either), captioned “When your dad never teaches you to be a man.”

WTF?

If your dad never teaches you to “be a man,” then you’ll be flamboyantly effeminate?

If your dad teaches you to “be a man,” then you’ll end up a beer-guzzling, grunting, emotionally-unavailable, women-objectifying Neanderthal?

This comes on the heels of a trailer for the film The Mask You Live In, I showed my students a few weeks ago when we were discussing the Friar’s and the Nurse’s reactions to Romeo’s grief at being banished:  “Art thou a man?  Thy form cries out thou art.  Thy tears are womanish” and “Stand an you be a man!”

In the trailer, experts talk about how the three most damaging words you can say to a boy are:  “Be a man.”

Because what do we mean when we say that?

Be tough.  Don’t feel.  Don’t talk about feelings, or your innermost thoughts.  Don’t think too much.  Man up–which means harden your shell.  Keep it all inside.  No pain, no gain.  Tough it out.  Brush it off.  Don’t show fear.  Be prepared to fight to maintain your reputation or status.  Provide financially for your family.  Value your bros above all else.  Eat bacon and lots of meat.  Love time with your power tools or your grill or your sporting events more than time with your family.

This is not the definition of “being a man” that I have witnessed in my life.  The best men I know–my husband, my dad and grandfathers, my brother, our kids’ godfathers and others–are sensitive, sympathetic, generous hearts.  They have integrity and honor.  They are compassionate and advocate for those who can’t advocate for themselves.  They are hilarious.  They cry.  They feel and express the entire human range of emotions.

Sure, they love sports.  They have “guys’ night out.”  They drink beer, love power tools, value courage and resilience.  But that alone is not what being a man is.

I have long defined myself as a feminist, and that does not mean I think women should be more like men, or vice versa.  It does not mean I hate men, or see women as “higher” or “better” than men.

It means I think that male culture needs to be really honest with itself about how males view themselves, how they view the women closest to them, and how they view women in general.  (It also means I think female culture needs to be honest with itself.)

In Daring Greatly, Brene Brown describes a group interview in which a girl described her experience of self-consciousness about her body image in relationships, and a young vet interrupted her that most men don’t focus on a woman’s physical flaws.  Confused, she said that her ex-boyfriend was “always criticizing my body”; the young man responded:  “That’s because he’s an asshole.  It’s not because he’s a guy.”

There’s a new hashtag floating in the Twitterverse:  #NotAllMen, a response to the horrific misogynistic violence of the UC Santa Barbara shooter.  Of course not all men are rapists or harrassers or abusers.  But it is culturally acceptable–often even expected–for guys to be assholes.

This is what I want my son and my nephew and my students to know:

Being a man has nothing to do with what you wear.  It has nothing to do with what you like, which may be theater, football, poetry, video games, gardening, pubs, cooking, hunting, dancing, golf, yoga, cars.  It has everything to do with who you are.

  • Can you treat everyone with respect?  Can you respect yourself?  Can you sacrifice your own ego and compromise?  Can you share equally in responsibilities at work, at home, in your community?  Can you consider parenting a partnership rather than acting like an assistant?
  • Do you rate or rank women according to their attractiveness?  Do you assume responsibility for your and your male associates’ actions, instead of assuming that women’s attire or behavior invites violence?  Do you call out other men who demean women?
  • Can you be honest with yourself?  Can you find at least one person in the world with whom you can be vulnerable (friend or romantic partner)?  Can you commit to self-improvement?  Can you cultivate tenderness and gentleness without sacrificing your masculinity?

This is what being a real man is.

Happy Father’s Day to all the men who show the children in their care what being a real man is.

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