What is a man?
Updated: Aug 31, 2019
Photo by Dominic Nazeri
Men are changing. I first noticed how quickly, 10 years ago, when the responses to the ‘What makes your heart sing?’ question changed. The answers were generally: work, children, family etc. The ‘what’ hasn’t changed as such: it’s the expansion of focus and the authentic energy in their voices. Men are no longer shy of admitting they want a more holistic life and ‘Self’ as portrayed in ‘My Tree of 3 Commitments’.
Cascãd’s March's blogpost 'When We Show Up’ https://www.cascad.co.uk/single-post/2018/03/06/When-We-Show-Up was about/for women. This one is about men and what it's like being a man in our ‘now’ world. I interviewed five men on this theme and here are their responses:
1. As you reflect on your father’s/grandfathers’ generations, in your experience what are the key differences for men now and how they identify as men?
“How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?”
Tyler Durden, Fight Club.
My heritage has in many ways impacted my experience as neither of my parents are from the UK. I’m sure my Dad had a vastly different experience of what it’s like to be a man, due to different societal structures and gender expectations from his own country. Now, however, people are less reliant on old structures and ways of thinking and instead we are forging our own different paths of gender identity.
We are opening up and leaning towards self-expression and a much more individual experience, even regardless of gender. With the advancement of technology, social media, cheaper and easier travel this will only continue to grow. Who you are as an individual and what sets you apart appears to be a valuable currency in today’s society, whether that’s your heritage, language, fashion, music taste, skillset, experiences etc. It’s whatever sets you apart from others. You are more defined by yourself than what has come before you or where you have come from. This is not to generalise people’s experiences but rather to acknowledge a shift, however small, is happening. The answer to ‘What is a man? 30 years ago is certainly not the same today.
The frame of reference has changed. The blueprint for being both a man and a woman has fundamentally changed and is open to new ways of being. The pillars of our fathers/grandfathers’ generations are being publicly dismantled in politics, religion, financial markets, the 'establishment' and is deeply disorientating to many. This means today’s men have the liberating, yet daunting opportunity to follow their own compass instead of following the mandated map of yesterday. I could argue that in today’s world, men face more of a fundamental game changer than women which will give birth to some amazing new leaders.
The past has always seemed simpler than the present. We look back and apply a neatness that probably wasn’t there at the time. Questioning one’s identity – along gender lines or otherwise – is nothing new, so I doubt very much that on a personal level my father and grandfather challenged their perceptions of masculinity any less than I have mine.
What I think has changed is the outside world’s influence on this internal process of self-examination. Men experiencing doubts about masculinity used to look outward and see a clear (if unattainable) definition of man looking back at them. The opposite is now true. Any internal dogma one feels about gender is immediately challenged – and rightly so – by the outside world. Our male heroes rarely fit the Marlboro Man mould, and many of our villains have earned their reputations through actions that society used to forgive (often even applaud) as “naturally male”.
The result isn’t less certainty. Men have never been certain of anything. The result is the externalisation of a process we used to keep bottled up with the lid screwed on tight.
I can’t speak for my own generation entirely, nor my dad’s or grandad’s, but from a personal perspective, the key difference between my own identity as a man and that of my dad’s and grandad’s ties in with my ethnicity. I am a man of mixed-heritage and therefore my own gender identity is inextricably linked to my ethnicity, whether I choose it to be so or not. I would say a key change that has taken place amongst black men since as recently as when I was at school, is the increasing diversity of identities that are dealt to us by mainstream media. Every time I go to the cinema and watch films like Moonlight or Black Panther, I feel as though my identity has gained a new richness which wasn’t as easy to access when I was younger.
2. What are the benefits and also some of the challenges of being a man in 2018?
“We’re a generation of men raised by women.”
Tyler Durden, Fight Club.
I’ve always had a leading example of a capable, talented and fun woman in my life as it was mostly my mother who raised me. It gave me experience and understanding I needed early on to realise that there’s more to being a man than just the single…and frankly limiting…definition of ‘strong men are ones who don’t show their emotion’. Fast forward to 2018: I think being a man is a much more interesting and complex subject. Now more than ever people are able to express who they want to be. Yes, there are still barriers people need to break or overcome but it seems the world is moving towards a more general understanding that simply one definition isn’t a size that fits all. In 2018, the biggest challenge of being a man is making sure that it’s understood there are many different definitions, many different interpretations and many different experiences men have had that formulate their identity, and expecting there to be a single or ‘grouped’ definition simply isn’t true anymore.
A benefit of being a man in 2018 is having the ability to not conform to the traditional "man stereotype" but instead create what they believe a good man should be. A particular challenge is all men being seen as the same species with little differentiation.
We live in a golden age of gender. As traditional lines blur, many have written about a “crisis of masculinity”. The opposite is true. Enlightenment starts with the admission of ignorance.
Galileo didn’t claim to know more than the Church. He claimed to know a lot less, but that what he knew he could prove.
Male privilege takes countless forms, most of which aren’t new. What is new is the privilege of being a man at a time when we are assuming less and openly questioning more.
I doubt it would be news to anyone when I say that Western notions of masculinity have had toxic effects in the workplace and home - see Harvey Weinstein, rates of male violence per capita, etc. Now, I would hardly say that founds a position of benefit, in that we have to react to that inherited history. Though I feel is a responsibility - and, in that, a sense of pride - to embody these important discussions and impart their lessons on the next generation. I can’t help but think of a clean slate - that there is hope for a new start. In that, perhaps, lies a benefit.
I think the challenge is finding the wherewithal to parent oneself. I call it parenting because I feel the values that define my being a “man” are founded in my experiences with family and community. For me to change myself, then, will take a journey of relearning certain values and, hopefully, being a better person to others. It’s one thing to understand there are problems, but entirely another to see the roots in yourself, irrespective of whether you’ve contributed in demonstrable ways to the problem. That to me sounds like the challenge of parenting, which all men today should have to engage in.
My dad has always been my main role model, but as I mentioned, there’s some things about my own identity that he simply can’t relate to. Fortunately, there’s an abundance of positive black men who I can and have turned to for guidance – both contemporary and historic – in books, or very often through music who have helped me navigate manhood. For women, sadly, these much-needed role models are often much harder to find. Most of the challenges I faced as a young man were at high-school. I went to a state-school, which I loved, but academic excellence always came at the expense of social acceptance among my peers. And so, I often pursued the latter and struggled to recover from this approach to life for years. Anti-intellectualism is a challenge many state-school educated young men still face today and must overcome.
3. What’s it like being a man currently as women express themselves in the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements?
“It could be worse. A woman could cut off your penis while you're sleeping and toss it out the window of a moving car.”
Tyler Durden, Fight Club.
It’s an all empowering movement. It’s vital that issues that should have been talked about or seen light of day are now getting the attention they need. People think the #MeToo movement is about women, but it’s about both genders. It’s about men taking a stance too for what is right, and standing with women in a shared movement. Outside of the entertainment business, I think #MeToo is asking both men and women of any industry to consider that what is normal is perhaps not normal, and should be re-thought so that no one abuses their power or gets abused by someone else’s. When you consider the #MeToo movement is both a male and female movement, it becomes less about being a man or a woman and more about human beings trying to be better for each other.
For the men who believe that the most important part of being a man is to be a good human being, these movements are as empowering for men as they are for women. The consensus vote is swinging towards men who rebel against the pressure to conform to what "guys do" and to "be a man". What is sometimes not understood is the social pressure for men to act in ways which do not conform to their own beliefs but are expected amongst peers. This is not purely a woman’s movement, but a movement for those that believe in doing the right thing.
The global movement of women speaking up against toxic masculinity is the catalyst men need to start probing their own identities. It has done us a world of good. That said, it isn’t always easy to see the role we ought to play within it. The trap that good men fall into is the assumption that it isn’t our fight, but a fight between women and monsters.
We see the protagonists of #MeToo as scumbags, men who consciously abuse their positions of power to undermine women. Measured against that yardstick, many men understandably consider themselves innocent and don’t question what they’ve contributed to the patriarchy themselves. There are many shades of grey between equality and Weinstein, and even the most self-aware of us have hovered somewhere within that murky spectrum.
It’s all very well to sit on the side-lines, safely criticising these movements’ demons. Men who consider themselves feminists need to live up to the name by examining their own behaviour too.
A friend, being a young, white college graduate, recently moved to a historically low/middle income neighborhood to take advantage of its advantageous rent rates. One day she was surprised by a local resident shouting obscenities that conveyed their displeasure with her presence. While she understands gentrification is a net negative experience for those who are priced out of their long-time homes, she didn’t see herself as being the perpetrator. I explained that the system works via her, even though she’s not its primary agent. And for that she should understand and empathize with the system’s victims. To illustrate my point, I pointed towards my feelings in the #MeToo movement. I’ve realized my responsibility is to vocally understand the problem, empathize with its victims, and understand my role as a man in the system that these movements (#MeToo/Time's Up) seek to change. My first reaction to the movement was, well that’s not me. I’ve since learned a broader view; I don’t have to be a primary agent in order to enable that system.
Hearing some of stories about the abuse women have suffered at the hands of men can be harrowing. However, the power of these movements to change society is inspiring and this goes some way beyond the high-profile cases we hear in the news. I’ve always found some of the manly ‘banter’ in pubs or even at work uncomfortable at best, but these movements are beginning to challenge what was widely-considered to be acceptable behaviour as men, and we’ll all be better off for it.
4. How do you think your sons will be? What would you hope for them?
“Listen up maggots! You are not special! You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake! You are the same decaying organic matter as everything else! We are the all singing, all dancing crap of the world!”
Tyler Durden, Fight Club.
I’m optimistic in that I think they will grow up in an environment where they can feel comfortable in themselves and not be wrongly judged for who they are or who they want to be. I suspect the landscape of society will have changed. We’re already seeing a huge shift in simple things like roles in the household being reversed, and positions of power being flipped in industries. But it’s not just about men doing things women usually do or the other way around. It’s about feeling comfortable in your own skin whatever your gender and approaching life in the way you want to.
In writing this, I’ve realised, that really, I hope that they have the same values in their upbringing as I did. That is granting them the space to explore themselves, to grow into their own person free of anyone else’s pressures or values, and to respect other people who are trying to just do the same thing. I’m sure I’ll do what I can to ensure that happens!
I would hope that my sons have a deep rooted respect for both women and men based on their own self confidence and ability to love. I hope they have the foresight to understand that to receive love, they must first love those around them. I feel excited about the opportunities this dislocation brings them in not having to conform to the old way but to instead have the ability and courage to create a new way.
I’d simply hope that they feel free to be whoever they truly want to be without hurting anyone. Attempting to shape them any more than that would mean imparting the same dogma which this generation is fighting so hard to shake.
I have a simple hope, that they will feel loved and secure, and able to provide the same the same for the people in their life.
I feel as though my own identity is as important as ever. However, I take great pride in its fluidity: I am at the same time White and Black, British and European, African and Jamaican. Should I have a son, his own identities will undoubtedly be even more complex and I can’t even begin to imagine the world he might have to grow up in. My main aspiration for him would be that he has every opportunity to explore his identity and take pride in who he is.