On Being a Real Man

Disclaimer: Given that men and women are equal representatives of the human race, the qualities of a real man may be identical to the qualities of a real woman or simply, a real person.

I was raised in a culture that clearly defined what it meant to be a real man. As a male in this environment, the importance of achieving real manhood can not be overstated. This essay will evaluate the qualities of a real man as defined by my culture. I will rebut with my own personal views on what it means to be a real man. As a dyed in the wool skeptic and moral relativist, I would be disappointed if my opinions were interpreted by anyone as some universal definition of manhood.

Real Men are Brave:

If “brave” means “fearless,” I would have to judge one who claims this quality a liar. The fear response is hardwired into humans and most other animals, so fear is a given. True courage is the ability to do the right thing in spite of one's fear. If we use this second definition, I agree that bravery is necessary to real manhood. A real man has the guts to stand up for the underdog, the unpopular, and the underrepresented. Ironically, many of the characteristics of real men, as defined by culture, are rooted in fear and cowardice.

Real Men are Strong:

I place a high value on physical strength and put forth a good deal of effort to develop and maintain it. However, this quality can easily be dismissed as essential to real manhood. A frail and weak individual who puts himself between danger and someone vulnerable to harm would certainly meet the standards for real manhood. I would specify strength of character as a necessary component of real manhood.

Real Men Wear Prescribed Hairstyles and Clothing:

In my home town, this prescription includes short hair, with either khaki pants and boat shoes or camouflage and boots. While there is nothing wrong with enjoying the prescribed stuff, I consider one who fears to deviate from it, a coward. No courage at all is required to conform. Fear of being different is indicative of one who does not have what it takes to be a real man.

Real Men Take Care of Their Own:

This is an instinctual characteristic found in many lower animals. Real chimps, baboons, and bison take care of their own. A guy who demonstrates this quality has not distinguished himself beyond this level. I think a real man must set the bar higher. A real man should take care of all who are unable to defend themselves from abuse and exploitation regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender, political group, regional affiliation, socioeconomic status, or even species. One who only takes care of his own is less than a real man.

Real Men View Homosexual Behavior with Disgust:

If this were true, we would have to exclude Julius Ceasar, Alexander the Great, and Richard the Lion Hearted from the category of “real men.” A large research study tested attitudes about homosexuals in self-identified heterosexual men. The men were then divided into two groups, homophobes and non-homophobes. Both groups were hooked up to plethysmographs (instruments for measuring erections) and asked to view male, homosexual, pornographic videos. Only the homophobe group became sexually aroused. This response did not occur in the non-homophobe group. In other words, guys who have huge issues with gay people are often covering for their own homosexual tendencies.


Real Men Take Charge:

Yes, I would say that taking charge when the situation warrants is inherent to real manhood. However, one who wants to take charge in ALL situations is simply arrogant and self-deluded. Real men have the maturity to defer to a more qualified individual when one is available. An intelligence that exceeds the level of any single individual within a group emerges whenever a group of people cooperate and respectfully work together.

Real Men Express only One Emotion, Anger:

Unless damaged, all people experience the full range of human emotions. Which requires greater courage, to express emotions that show vulnerability or to hide them? Hiding is not a behavior I typically associate with being a real man.


Make your own.

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Comment by Daniel W on September 6, 2015 at 11:20pm

Ruth, this is an interesting conversation that is worth reviving.   I can't say that I have ever worried about what it is to be a "real man".  I don't buy that this is because I am gay.   I still live in the same culture as everyone else.

Edward lists the following traits -

Real men are brave.

Real men are strong.

Real men wear prescribed hairstyles and clothing.

Real men take care of their own.

Real men view homosexual behavior with disgust.

Real men take charge.

Real men express only one emotion:  Anger.

This does not describe my memory of acculturation.  Growing up in small town and on farm, maybe it was too subliminal.  Plus I didn't have any friends to speak of.  If I did, maybe I would have known what "real men" are supposed to do,  Some urban cultures may have that issue, as alluded to in the TED speech.  I think that when and where I grew up, the idea of worrying too much about what it is to be a "real man" would have been a sign of not being a "real man".  Midwestern stoicism, maybe.

When I was acculturated into my societal role, was as a soldier,  then in roles as student, academic indentured servant, student again, and ultimately professional.  My dad, more than any other definition of manhood, could be considered a mensch.  Which seems more than manly enough for me.

I think for me, the roles that were ingrained had less to do with being a "real man", and more with being an obedient and worthy son, a soldier, and a professional.

From  Edward's list -

Brave - A soldier does what has to be done.  A soldier knows fear, but does what has to be done anyway.  The way to manage fear is face the source and concentrate on what has to be done.  Doesn't matter if the soldier is female or male.  The idea of being brave is not relevant.

Strength - Being overly muscular, hanging out in a gym, lifting heavy objects - those are affectations and can be narcissism.  Strength means persistence.  Facing adversity and not backing down.  Doing what's right.  Getting the job done regardless of how tired one is.  That's also both women and men.

Clothing - A soldier dresses like every other soldier.  A professional does pretty much the same thing, with more flexibility.  There is of course gender division in clothing, with mean wearing less expressive and more conformist clothing.   Clothes can express something, but mostly they have a purpose.  For me, outside of professional life, they need to be tough, inexpensive, comfortable, and last a long time.

Taking care of your own - Most people do.  Unless they are a narcissist, or on drugs, or unable.  I do.  How far one goes, how much one does - those are variable.  Same goes for either sex.

Homosexual behavior - You got me there.  Whatever we call homosexual behavior.  If a man goes to war, faces the enemy, wears the uniform, and is in love or lust with a man, is that "homosexual behavior"?  Then who cares?

Taking Charge - having worked in multiple settings where women are predominant, I haven't seen a gender difference in being authoritarian.

Anger - I was / am ingrained with the idea that anger is never an option.  Rather, stoicism is.  Again, however, since most of my life is in the workplace - women can express anger.  If men do, we become scary animals that might go postal.  In my own case, when going through the deaths of my parents, a group of women in charge of my workplace saw that my expression was non-perky, with no expressions of anger at all, and with continued attention to professionalism, performance, and duty, and meeting all measures, and with no complaints, and decided that being non-perky meant I was about to go postal, and reported me to management.   This was manipulative, anti-male stereotyping by people with an agenda.  The repercussions were that I was out of that workplace in 2 months.  I demanded transfer, got it, and moved on.  For some of the responsible parties, their careers stalled, in 2 cases permanently, their workplace suffered, but none lost their jobs.  All because of their manipulative use of the "angry male" stereotype.

Edward seems to have moved on from the strictures of "real manhood".  In some communities and cultures, especially machismo-dominated cultures, the cultural concept  is real.  But I don't think anyone needs to be bound by that anachronism in today's mainstream modern western culture.

Comment by Grinning Cat on September 6, 2015 at 10:56pm

Those men look like cells in a Borg-like collective organism!

(Yes, maybe that's another comment on the effects of the "man box"!)

Comment by Ruth Anthony-Gardner on September 6, 2015 at 10:15pm

The "man box" as dance. Limited moves and affect are representative of the way men are molded and stunted by traditional roles.

Comment by Edward Teach on April 10, 2014 at 8:18am

Many thanks Grinning Cat. Great TED Talk too!

Comment by Grinning Cat on April 9, 2014 at 11:14pm

Tony Porter: A Call to Men

Comment by Grinning Cat on April 9, 2014 at 4:57pm

Thank you, Edward! It brings to mind Douglas Adams' satire of prescribed gender roles in The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, where he tells of a golden age of peace and prosperity when "spirits were brave, the stakes were high, men were real men, women were real women, and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri."

Also related: Tony Porter's "A Call to Men" describing the ubiquitous "man box" of aggression, dominance, strength, and misogyny that so many of us are socialized with, and challenges boys and men to break free. He tells some powerful stories from his own life, how the walls of the "man box" did real damage when he was a father of preschoolers, and previously when he was a boy.

This prescription of a "real man" requires men and boys to be unemotional (except for anger), aggressive, tough, controlling (especially over women), "not like a woman", "not like a gay man", be protective of one's own (viewed as subordinates if not property), and treat women as objects (especially sexual objects).

It deprives men of closeness with other human beings as equals. It's a symptom and perpetuator of the current, inherently destructive Dominator Culture.

We can do better!

Comment by Edward Teach on April 9, 2014 at 3:57pm

I'm with ya, Luara! Thank you Napoleon, waaaay cool!

Comment by Luara on April 9, 2014 at 12:18pm

I like the "real man" who is strong but doesn't use his strength to step on the weak or vulnerable.   Perhaps even uses his or her strength to help the weak or vulnerable :)

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