Tuesday, April 23, 2013

To Be a Man

I discovered an interesting show recently. “James May’s Man Lab,” a British show starring Top Gear’s James May, where he builds manly things, gives manly advice, and resurrects various old manly pursuits such as how to serenade a woman, how to polish boots, and how to solve conflicts by dueling. He makes the argument that men have gone from capable beings making progress in science and art to incapable idiots who lack the discipline to solve their own problems. In many ways, it reminds me of my time in Scouting- I was taught how to shoot, handle, and be safe around firearms, how to build a shelter out of sticks, and how to recognize edible plants not because any one of those activities would make or break my life, but because the culmination of that education would grant a level of self-discipline, self-reliance, and a proactive attitude that simply made better men.

And so May is setting out likewise to teach skills and help men to be men again, but what I love is that his definition of manhood is just so... British. According to May, men should be able to play a musical instrument, invent and build whatever he is in need of, be versed in history and etiquette; heck, he even has a butler that blows a horn to start challenges. To him, manhood means intellectuality, self-reliance, and innovation.

Compare this definition of masculinity to the one usually found on internet man-rule lists or celebrated in American ‘Man show’ shows, (yes these are made for humor, but unfortunately humor is normally based on truth:)

*When out with the guys, never accept a call from your girlfriend—unless she's dying or trapped under a burning fuel truck, and if that's the case, make it quick.

*It is permissible to drink a fruity alcohol drink only when you're sunning on a tropical beach... and it's delivered by a topless model and only when it's free.

*We've all heard about people having guts or balls. But do you really know the difference between them? In an effort to keep you informed, the definition of each is listed below:
"GUTS" is arriving home late after a night out with the guys, being assaulted by your wife with a broom, and having the guts to say, "are you still cleaning or are you flying somewhere?"
"BALLS" is coming home late after a night out with the guys smelling of perfume and beer, lipstick on your collar, slapping your wife on the ass and having the balls to say, "You're next!"

A call to ignore your girlfriend, a description of ‘girly’ things to avoid at all costs, and permission to be a jerk. Not the most rousing call to arms.

As a father of 2 boys I think about masculinity a lot, and how to many masculinity isn’t much about what one does, but rather what one doesn’t do, and when people think of what men are actually supposed to do, it usually revolves around food, sports, booze and sex. Kenneth Maton, who did a survey of psychological studies of masculinity over the past 30 years, concluded that men are confined by traditional stereotypes that they should reject  “anything stereotypically feminine, to be tough and aggressive, suppress emotions (other than anger), distance themselves emotionally and physically from other men, and strive toward competition, success and power”

In some ways, this is simply the natural result of feminism. Masculinity used to infer a take-charge attitude, leadership, problem-solving, but these were the very qualities that feminism attacked as leading to patriarchy and the belittling of femininity, and thus along with all the good feminism has done for the world, it also had the unfortunate side-effect of tearing down masculinity in its efforts to build up femininity. As Elwood Watson states in his book Pimps, Wimps, Studs, Thugs and Gentlemen: Essays on Media Images of Masculinity, in the face of feminism and the changing role of women, and the converse effect these things have on men, many men find themselves “frustrated, disenfranchised, and confused... fewer men are attending college, and increasing numbers are dropping out of society altogether.”

Now I’m sure any and every feminist you ask will say it isn’t the goal of feminism to destroy manhood, and any marriage-seeking woman will tell you the attractiveness of those proactive masculine qualities, but also that it’s getting harder and harder to find men who possess them. In essence, it’s not that feminism destroyed masculinity, but rather that after the redefining of masculinity that feminism necessarily brought to the table, no one stepped in to fill the masculine gap with something new and better. If the plight of women is there are too many messages in society about what a woman should be like, the plight of men is they’re not getting enough of them.

Personally, I think this is the reason why comic books, high fantasy, science fiction, video games, and tabletop roleplaying exploded so much among men when they were invented. It’s not that sports were the only acceptable pastime for a man, but that most everything else carried a stigma of femininity and emasculation. As soon as someone invented a new activity that didn’t have that stigma, men flocked to it like desert travelers to an oasis.

However, there is hope. There are those who are questioning the definition of masculinity we currently teach and are looking to improve it. My wife, Rachel, is currently working on a paper to hopefully publish about the Brony movement: the 20-something, straight, college-educated, male fans of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. These men are attacked on news programs and comedy shows as being nothing short of a group of gay-pediphile-losers, but the Brony Study has recently concluded that all evidence shows Bronies have no higher levels of feminine behavior, homosexuality, unemployment, mental illness, or any other ‘answer’ people like to give for the movement’s existence. Bronies are completely normal for their age and demographic. So after months of research, she found 2 factors that most directly account for the existence of Bronies:

1. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is simply a very, very well-made show.


2. When men realize fact #1 after watching a few episodes, they also realize that their initial aversion to the show was simply based on the fact that it’s feminine. But why? Why should they be afraid of something just because it’s feminine? They don’t fear femininity, they don’t hate women, so why stop watching one of the best written shows on the air just because the show was initially targeting girls?

Many Bronies even take this a step further, turning the show into something akin to a lifestyle. When faced with a well-written show that sets about teaching good life-lessons, they started taking those messages to heart, using them in their personal lives, artistic endeavors, and interactions with others. These men aren’t embracing femininity, but rather are using a show that celebrates femininity to find the aspects that also apply to them (the best personality traits, after all, are usually gender neutral.) These Bronies are redefining, strengthening, and celebrating masculinity through their love of the show, and as such find uniquely masculine ways to incorporate the show into their lives, from Dusty the “Manliest Brony in the World,” to Living Tombstone the celebrated Brony electronic music artist.

Here's one of my favorite examples linked below, just because it's the internet and I can.

Just in case you didn't get it the first time around, Discord is the name of a villain from My Little Pony season 2.

I know there are people who heckle any time someone brings up the plights of men or white people or any other so-called ‘dominant group,’ but as a father of two small boys I’ve done quite a bit of thinking on the subject, and I honestly believe that it’s time we started worrying about men and masculinity as much as we do other things. Whenever I hear sociologists talk about gang and crime problems or feminists talk about the continued troubles women face, all I can think is “if we just fixed the messages we send boys about what a man should be, we’d fix just about every one of those problems in a generation.”

What follows are simply musings of my own about what I believe this new definition of manhood should entail. Some could point out that this isn’t a set of guidelines but rather personality traits, and traits that are bent toward the straight, probably white and middle class man, but these aren’t supposed to be a set of guidelines. Much of our understanding of gender comes from the influence of icons on our lives, and this is simply my take on what the most relatable iconic man of the 21st Century would probably be like, if he were to appear in life, film, or literature.

The Iconic Man
  • The Iconic Man is physically fit, and has at least a basic competency with boxing, martial arts, and firearms. He knows how to handle himself in a fight, and he makes others feel safer just by being around.
  • The Iconic Man doesn’t fear ‘womanly things’. He can enjoy Broadway musicals, ballet, My Little Pony, and well-written chick flicks because he knows his manhood isn’t so flimsy that a breath of femininity would blow it away; he knows that masculinity and femininity aren’t in competition with each other, and should never be treated as if they were.
  • The Iconic Man knows how to take care of himself. He knows how to cook, clean, and do laundry. He isn’t a baby who needs a mommy to cook his meals and clean up after him.
  • The Iconic Man is caring, compassionate, and sensitive to other’s feelings. He knows these attributes are the basis of personal strength.
  • The Iconic Man is a good father. He can play with kids, take care of their needs, and teach them things without feeling overwhelmed.
  • The Iconic Man is disciplined. He can follow directions, hold his baser human impulses in check, and be a self-motivated individual.
  • The Iconic Man is brave. If someone’s in danger or something must be done quickly, he keeps his cool and does what he can to help. He is not, however, reckless, and doesn’t put himself or others in danger in search of some cheap thrill.
  • The Iconic Man is a leader. He can take charge of a situation and make sure things get done. He can delegate and council well with others.
  • The Iconic Man is a follower. He knows when another is more qualified than he and how to support them in their work. He is a good team player.
  • The Iconic Man is responsible. He takes responsibility for his actions and mistakes, he follows through with assignments, and he can be depended on.
  • The Iconic Man is artistic. He has at least a basic competency in either singing, playing an instrument, artistry, or some other creative endeavor, and he can understand and appreciate art and beauty for its own sake.
  • The Iconic Man is articulate. He does not need to speak often, but when he does he knows how to speak well and clearly. He can express himself in person, prose, or poetry with at least a basic competency.
  • The Iconic Man is respectful of others. He does not enjoy angering others, and even in debate over charged topics, he does his best to be understanding of his opponent. He does not physically or emotionally abuse or manipulate.
  • The Iconic Man is morally strong. Even when being considerate, he does not back down from his beliefs, does not balk principle, and while he doesn’t enjoy angering others, he refuses to be wishy-washy.
  • The Iconic Man does not need to be in the military, but he has the mental, physical, and emotional fortitude that he could do it if it were required of him.
  • The Iconic Man is humble. He knows he does not know everything, and he acknowledges the points of his opponents in a debate, even when discussing politics or religion. After all, he is still learning himself, and he knows only a fool thinks he has nothing to learn from another’s views.
  • The Iconic Man is romantic. He knows how to please a woman and make her feel special, not as part of some ‘pick-up technique’, but because he genuinely wants her to feel that way.
  • The Iconic Man is responsible with sex. He is not a slave to impulses, and he is too responsible to risk a pregnancy outside of the time and place of his choosing, with a woman he wants to start a family with. He would never, ever, ever touch a woman in a way that was unwelcome. He treats both sex and the person he is having it with with the utmost respect.
  • The Iconic Man is intelligent. He doesn’t need to be college educated, but he does regularly read and know how to use a computer. He enjoys good discourse, and never stops learning new things.
  • The Iconic Man is an authority figure in his own home. His children love him and know he loves them, but they also respect him and know he cannot be manipulated or intimidated, and that his word is law. He not only makes them feel loved, but also makes them feel safe.
  • The Iconic Man treats his wife well. He knows that while he may be an authority figure to his children, he is a partner to his wife, and gives her respect and support, just as he expects to receive it from her.
  • The Iconic Man knows how to dance. He need not be excellent, but he knows how to move well and how to lead a woman through a waltz without embarrassing himself.
  • The Iconic Man is helpful. When disaster strikes another, he doesn’t say ‘that sucks,’ he says ‘what can I do to help?’
  • The Iconic Man is attractive. He knows how to dress well, how to care for his clothes, and how to clean himself up. He owns a suit and feels comfortable wearing it.
  • The Iconic Man is honest. He doesn’t break his promises, and as such doesn’t make a promise lightly. He’d rather be honest, even when it reflects badly upon himself, than lie to get ahead.
  • The Iconic Man is good with his hands. He’s physically strong, and he can change a tire, work with basic tools, put furniture together, etc. He can at least make an attempt at a repair job before calling in the professionals.
  • The Iconic Man is adventurous. He loves excitement and cultivating new experiences.
  • The Iconic Man is friendly. He has many close friends and is welcoming toward others. He isn’t afraid to be emotionally close to other people, be they spouse or friend.
  • The Iconic Man knows history, both the world’s and that of his own family. He respects his parents and his ancestors, and seeks to build upon the good things they have already done.
  • The Iconic Man is good with money. He need not have a lot of it, but he can stay out of debt and take care of himself.
  • The Iconic Man is patient, and has perspective. He knows how to wait, he knows when to let go of unimportant things, and he never lets things get him down for long.
  • The Iconic Man doesn’t put inappropriate value on material things. Stuff is stuff, nothing more.
  • The Iconic Man is proactive. He doesn’t whine. He doesn’t let his mistakes get him down, but instead learns from them and keeps on going.
  • The Iconic Man doesn’t let those who depend on him down, and cares about their happiness.

Does it sound to you like I’ve distilled every good virtue in the world into one list? Like I’m asking men to strive for some sort of personal perfection in an unending battle to become better people?


That’s Manhood.


  1. An iconic man hugs his mother.

  2. Hi. I wandered over here via Kiki Tayler's Deviant Art page. Wanted to see what kind of people she'd be working for.

    Intelligent, articulate, and introspective ones, apparently. This is an awesome post. Thanks for taking time to write it, and congrats on the fabulously successful Spheres of Power kickstarter.

    --Nancy Fulda