Feminism has re-defined what it means to be female.
But there’s still no consensus on what the ideal 21st-century man looks like.
This weekend’s New York Times “Room for Debate” asks whether today’s men are “manly enough”: “A-list actors are getting facials in Mansome, Morgan Spurlock’s newest documentary, and pumping their waxed chests in Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike, one of the summer’s most popular movies. But is all this exfoliated, chiseled perfection what women really want? And should men really be making it a priority?”
In Charles Mee’s 2001 play Big Love, one of the title characters delivers a soliloquy in which he bemoans the difficulty for men in living up to gender stereotypes. On one hand, men are expected to be civilized—calm, gracious, and sophisticated. But when violence is called for, and people—especially women—need defending, they expect men to be the rescuers, “going at the target like a bullet…with rage in his heart…with no breaks to hold it.”
The even bigger challenge is presented when the need for such violence has passed. After the conflict, men are expected to automatically revert back to calm, civilized members of society. Women, he argues, have the luxury of deploring the violence of men (because they can depend on that violence when they need its protection) without having to give in to such impulses themselves.
While the play is fictional, the idea that gender stereotypes adversely affect both men and women is very much a reality. I’ve witnessed this countless times from even my most feminist of girlfriends. They want men who are sensitive, who are considerate, who are emotional. But in only in very specific instances. Because at other times, they want the Alpha Male. The one who will fix the drain in the sink and protect them from rapists on the walk home. They want Don Draper.
They want a man who will take control, who is confident in his power, who will take care of the dead mouse in the kitchen, and make the first move in a bar. As Natasha Scripture put it, “The kind of guy who can build you a log cabin on a whim with his own bare, callused hands; who can lift you up with one enveloping arm while the other steers the lawn mower; who can shamelessly peel the meat off a spare rib with his maxillary lateral incisors, like some sort of ravenous primate.”
If you ask me, that’s quite a lot to ask of a man. How are they supposed to navigate all that? Plenty of women are downright offended when a man doesn’t insist on picking up on the check, when a man doesn’t make the first move, when a man doesn’t automatically assume it’s his duty to fix the flat tire.
Then again, plenty of women are like me, and don’t believe men should be pressured into picking up the check on a date, that doors should be held open equally for both sexes, and that exerting control is a sign of disrespect for a person’s agency.
Of course, simultaneously, women are encountering the same challenges. We’re supposed to be strong, independent, ambitious, and smart, but at the end of the day, we’re expected to act like ladies—to not challenge our men in public, or do anything to make it seem like they aren’t in control. We’re supposed to be smart, but not smarter than he is. Sexually experienced enough to know how to please our man, but not sexually promiscuous or slutty.
Pop culture references to this double standard abound: Usher’s hit 2008 song ”Yeah” claims “We want a lady in the street but a freak in the bed,” while the female characters in Emmy award winning writer Aaron Sorkin’s hit tv shows claim that women want this, too. The character Dana Whitaker, the epitome of this impossible dichotomy, says in one episode of Sports Night: “I used to mind being single. I used to mind not being with a guy after work. I don’t know, but that’s when I…you know, you’re the boss all day long, and you’re barking out these orders, and you just want—I don’t know—a check on your femininity.” [Shudder]
So do women want a man to take control because we enjoy being the submissive, protected, disempowered sex, or because centuries of gendered behavioral training teaches us that this is what our role is? This is the context of relationships as we’ve been made to understand. This is what relations between the sexes look like.
Feminist icon Gloria Steinem wrote, “Men weren’t really the enemy—they were fellow victims suffering from an outmoded masculine mystique that made them feel unnecessarily inadequate when there were no bears to kill.” When we talk about gender roles, we aren’t just talking about feminism and whether women can have it all or how we achieve work-life balance. We’re talking as well about the pressure for men to be all things to everybody, including themselves. We’re all casualties.
Advertising campaigns and the mass media are not helping (as usual). I think phrases like “Man Up” and campaigns such as “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls” are treading on tricky ground. While I appreciate that we want to stop violence against women and encourage men to be honorable, etc., implying that such traits are characteristics of masculinity—and masculinity alone—is concerning. It’s how we got here in the first place. We are trying to change gender roles by changing the definition of what it means to be a “real man” or a “real woman,” but aren’t we inevitably just alienating people who don’t fit into one idea or another? Besides, where does it end? As Australian feminist scholar Germaine Greer writes, “the tragedy of machismo is that a man is never quite man enough.” How do you measure success in this quest to be the perfect man or the perfect woman?
Maybe instead of forever talking in a heteronormative context of what masculinity means and whether women want one kind of it or another, we should be exploring our humanity. What does it mean not to be a Real Man or Woman, but an honorable person? Surely there are traits we should all ascribe to because they are the traits of good, moral people, as opposed to just fitting into the definition of one gender or another?
What does it mean to be a person of respect and dignity and compassion and capability and independence and responsibility and grace? Can we take the best of both gender stereotypes and all try to ascribe to them as a collective identity? One that celebrates what we value about the human race and that propels our society forward?
The things that unite us are supposed to be greater than the things that divide us. So maybe the question isn’t “are modern men manly enough?” but instead, “hasn’t the time for such questions passed?”