Hey, can we talk about something, dear reader? Can we talk about manliness? About being a man–a real man–and all that goes into it?
Ok, good. You start. What does a man look like?
Are you picturing Clint Eastwood? James Bond? Frank Sinatra? The Most Interesting Man in the World? The Marlboro Man?
What does a man need to know? Must he be able to change a tire? Cook his own food? Hunt and clean his own food? Deliver effective pickup lines? Tie a tie? Make a decent cocktail? Grill a steak? Shout really loudly at the referee from the comfort of his armchair?
I’ve noticed something of a trend lately, guys. There are a lot of people out there trying to tell us how to be men. Some want us to adhere to outmoded social norms because our grandfathers were real men, back in the days when men were manly and wore suits every time they left the house. Some want us to drink a certain type of booze, because our grandfathers weren’t just real men, they were real drunk men, and sure as shit they weren’t getting drunk on some artisanal craft brew bullshit beer that actually tasted good. Some want us to lift weights and train our bodies to peak performance, because it is absolutely essential in modern society that a dude be able to press a Buick over his head. And our grandfathers probably did that, too. Hell, I’m pretty sure that when our granddads hit the ol’ ball over the fence (which they inevitably did, because they were all Joe DiMaggio), they just played catch with whatever cars were parked nearby. And those cars, by the way, were made out of steel, not some pansy-ass plastic, because back in your grandpop’s day, even the damn cars were real men. Papaw would roll over in his grave if he saw you in that glorified bumper car you drive.
I say lately, but this really isn’t new. I was a kid when Fight Club pointed out the insecurity of a generation of men who felt soft and sheltered and purposeless–in a word, emasculated. I think everyone in my generation remembers that scene: Tyler Durden asking whoever Ed Norton’s character was why “guys like you and me know what a duvet is,” followed by his speech on how they have “no Great Depression, no Great War.” So they engage in pointless violence, knocking the crap out of each other (well, other dudes, I guess, since they were actually the same guy and all) to reclaim some sense of virility, of masculinity, of control over their own lives.
And here we are, twenty years later, letting ourselves be marketed to using that same insecurity. Want to sell something to men in 2017? Put a mustache on it, or advertise it with one of those old-timey bare knuckle boxers (with a mustache). If that fails, try a viking. Vikings are manly as hell, bro.
Some of these things are admittedly and self-consciously (I hope) kitschy. My sister-in-law recently bought my brother-in-law an actual crate full of “manly” stuff like personalized whiskey glasses and a decanter, built around the very silly idea that manhood begins with a strong drink. It came with its own little crowbar to open the crate. These folks seem to be having fun with the idea of packaged masculinity. Others take themselves seriously to a fault, couching survivalism in viking imagery and relentlessly pushing the idea that real men will be fully prepared to live when, at some point in the foreseeable future, the entirety of civilization just gives up and craps out and we’re all suddenly forced to revert to hunter/gatherer tribalism. (Pro tip: you are not a viking, unless you actually get into a longboat every summer and go raiding.)
Dear Reader, I mustache you a question.
Whom are you prepared to let be the arbiter of what you must be in order to consider yourself a man?
Allow me to offer myself as an example. A study in contradictions, perhaps. I am, it would seem, a pretty manly dude. I have this great big beard, and I like dark, malty beer, bourbon, and cigars. I listen to and play big, dumb, heavy, riffy music. As a kid, I was a Boy Scout, a camper, a hunter. In college, I joined the boxing team for a few semesters. I can change a tire, start a fire, grill a decent steak, and even throw a well-practiced punch.
A lot of those kitschy “manly” marketing tactics appeal to me because of things I genuinely enjoy and think are fun or cool.
But in many ways, I fail to stack up to what I’ve heard a man is supposed to be. For starters, I’m a little guy. At 5’2″, I’m nearly always the shortest man, if not the shortest person, in the room. As I’ve mentioned, I don’t like sports. In high school, I eschewed athletics for theater (but I was on the swim team, because girls). I also dabbled in “goth” fashions and occasionally painted my nails, dyed my hair, even tried a bit of makeup but just couldn’t make it work. I like old muscle cars and used to drive one, but I don’t know jack about engines and car parts and how to fix them (plus mine had an automatic transmission, so I’ll just go ahead and hand over my man card). I’m not much of a handyman at home, either, and I really suck at yardwork. As a teacher, I work in a career field dominated by women. Before our second child came, I was not the primary breadwinner for my family (and it didn’t bother me one bit). And a lot of those kitschy “manly” marketing tactics fall short with me because of things I simply and sincerely do not enjoy or care about.
And here’s the thing, guys. As an adult, as an actual functioning man in modern society, I have found that absolutely none of those things affects my ability to successfully do what I need to do. I guess sometimes I have to get creative to get things off the high shelves at Home Depot, but I haven’t started a fire in years. I haven’t punched anyone. I’ve changed tires, sure, but I also have a AAA membership, which I used when that old muscle car suffered a blowout because hell if I was going to change a tire on the shoulder of the Jersey Turnpike if I didn’t have to.
See, all these markers of masculinity that we men strive so hard to meet (or feel so deflated when we don’t meet) are sort of silly and arbitrary, and very few of them have any bearing on our success and survival in the real world of the 21st Century.
I’ve actually blogged about this topic before. I think my point there bears repeating:
Most importantly, don’t ever, ever, let anyone else tell you that you’re not who you should be or that you’re not a man because of some arbitrary bullshit that has absolutely no real-world, applicable value. Because the pendulum’s gonna swing again, because it always does and always will, and the truest mark of a man, or a woman, is staying who you are no matter what this decade’s “Queer Eye” tells you you should be.
So what the hell does this have to do with parenting? I’m glad you asked.
My dad is a pretty traditional dude, and certainly meets a lot of those markers of masculinity we just talked about. And he once had his face printed on golf balls, so put that in your pipe and smoke it.
All my life, my old man was tough, both physically and mentally. He grew up in Louisiana and worked his way through Texas oil fields to Wall Street by being smart, relentless, and a real man’s man. I can say without hesitation that he taught me how to be a man. Where I must hesitate, though, is in trying to recall a single instance when my father ever told me what a “real man” was or should be. There was one time when my brother and I were teenagers that he got a little drink in him and told us that from now on we were going to “talk like men” at home, but that was just because he likes to cuss. Don’t you?
As a father myself now, to a little boy who will one day be a man and who will look to me as his greatest example of how to do that, I see my dad’s silence on what “makes a man” as one of his greatest lessons. Because true adults, man or woman, shouldn’t be wasting time trying to qualify or quantify their gendered-ness. There are too many real adult responsibilities facing us, and what our children need to learn from us–and what I have observed lacking from many of the teenagers I’ve taught–is how to confidently handle those responsibilities, how to do what needs to be done to keep ourselves and our families safe and secure in the world we actually live in, here and now. You can’t buy that in a box.
I guess what I’m saying is we don’t need to man up, guys. We just need to grow up.