[UPDATE 9/1/11: Welcome and thank you to new readers coming in from Mom-101 and The Good Men Project. I wanted to invite you to check out and participate in the comment discussion going on at GMP's reposting of this essay (under the title "How to Be a Man," lol). My favorite comment so far calls me "whiny, cry-baby" and "incredibly pretentious" [heh] and tells me to “Geez, quit your crying and man up!” so please click over and chime in! Also, please check out this piece from my archives about gender stereotypes and toys which is included in the new Rad Dad anthology, on sale now.]
The following is a list of stereotypical traits, interests, preoccupations, aptitudes, abilities, and roles, both silly and serious, trivial and not, historically associated and correlated with masculinity, manhood, and maleness via both societal mores and popular culture, which I, in my 37 years of life as a straight male, have totally and utterly failed to adopt, incorporate into myself, and live up to:
- I do not enjoy playing, either physically or via virtual statistics-based fantasy league, or watching, via televised broadcast or in person, sports , including but not limited to: football; basketball; golf; wrestling; boxing; hockey; bowling; NASCAR; tennis; bull riding; ultimate frisbee; curling; street luge; competitive rowing; and squash.
- I am not, and have never been, a “handy” or “D.I.Y.”-type person. I did not do my own kitchen remodel or snake my own sewer line to unblock the tree roots which used to cause my toilet to overflow every winter. I will not be building my kids a handmade playhouse or wiring my own surround-sound system so as to avoid nail punctures and self-electrocution. The last time I worked with tools to craft something with my own hands was my Pinewood Derby car when I was a Boy Scout, and even that was with my dad’s help. [Did I mention that he has a garage full of tools and table saws and whatnot and that he built my childhood home's deck? And that he played high school football?]
- I am not what you would call a “car person.” I do not have memorized the features and statistical details of my fantasy sports car or truck or SUV, because I do not have a fantasy sports car or truck or SUV. I do not know how the car that I do drive works, and I do not know how to fix it if it stops working. [See the item above about not being a D.I.Y.er.]
- I do not drink or like beer. Any beer. I am not a teetotaler by any means, but I’d rather have a cold hard cider or a rum and Coke or a chilled glass of Riesling (yeah, not a big red wine drinker either) than a pint of trendy microbrew or a can of commercial swill. And if all you have is beer, then, yeah, sorry, I’ll go non-alc, but thanks for offering.
- I don’t hunt, I don’t like guns, I can’t shoot a bow or wield a knife or take someone down with a move gleaned from a UFC cage match. Sorry, but rifle class at Boy Scout camp (and yeah, I’m an Eagle Scout) didn’t help much. Not so much with the roughhousing either.
- I’ve had two brief careers as a high school social studies teacher and as a online journalist and community manager. In neither of those jobs did the salaries even approach the expected earnings of my wife, who is a physician, and we knew that would be the case going in, when we got engaged as college students and she was on the road to becoming a doctor and I thought I’d be a teacher for the rest of my life.
- Even before kids, I did more if not most of the cooking and laundry in our household, and since we became parents, I do almost all the cooking and laundry. [Growing up, my father the teacher did all the cooking while my mother, who stopped teaching for health reasons, did the laundry.]
- I am the stay-at-home-father of two amazing daughters. I am an at-home-parent by choice, and know that my family is lucky, economically, to be able to have that be a choice, rather than a financial impossibility or a forced situation.
Now, I know, and have already preemptively acknowledged above, that these are all stereotypes, some of them cruder than others. Before people start freaking out, I know that “football + cars + beer = masculinity” is a vast oversimplification veering on a bad joke. I know that. I’m not being totally serious here. And I’m not even saying that I don’t regret some of the above—sure, I’d love to be the kind of person (not guy, but person) who can fix stuff around the house without calling in the professionals. And yet…
And yet… Every single one of the examples above has been used, implicitly and explicitly, in seriousness and in jest, interpersonally and via mass media generalization, to question and cast doubt on my masculinity, my manhood, my maleness, my de facto membership in a real or imagined brotherhood of men. And taken all together, well… Why am I bringing this up? I certainly had no intention of plunging either headlong or reluctantly sideways in to the internet debate over redefining manhood and the “plight” of modern men. Then again, I’m already in the middle of it, aren’t I, just by self-consciously calling myself a “dadblogger” and writing about stuff like “involved fatherhood” and being a SAHD.
And then, last week, I was reading a blogpost, by, like most blogposts I read, a fellow parentblogger (in this case, a momblogger). It was a list of lessons she wanted to teach her sons. It’s inocuous and heartwarming enough, full of things like love and learning and responsibility. But it starts with this: “1) Decide who you want to be. Decide what kind of man you want to become. Everyday behave like that man. You will fail often, keep going.”
Number eight is what stopped me up short: “8) It’s OK to be a man. If you want you can be loud, you can play sports, you can hunt and be rough. You don’t have to act like women no matter what is politically correct at the moment. In fact, try to always be politically incorrect. Political correctness kills truth and the ability to think for oneself.”
And I know she was just talking to her own kids, from her own experiences and her own beliefs, and not necessarily trying to tell anyone else what to do or think or be or feel, but… I couldn’t let this go, couldn’t get it out of my head. If we are empowered to decide what kind of men we want to be, then why does it feel like we’re still being told there’s a definition, out there, of what a man is that we’re supposed to measure up to? Or even further, that there’s a (good old, traditional) definition of a man that we can and should be in opposition to and because of other newer, different, less masculine, more feminized versions of “man” somebody is forcing upon us?
Again, I’m not saying the writer is saying any of this, only that this was my reaction, coming from my life experiences. It’s OK to be a man. But what does that mean? It’s okay to be loud, and play sports, and be rough—echoes of the traditional image of what a man is supposed to be—but what about the opposite? Is it OK to be quiet, and hate sports, and be gentle? Is that still being a man? If that’s the kind of man one chooses to be, is that OK? Does that still count? [And I'm not even going to get into other thornier issues of things like belief and sexuality vis-a-vis definitions of manhood, though you can probably guess where I stand.] Even amongst the diverse community of dadbloggers there’s a feeling of, yeah, look at us, we change diapers and cook and we parent-not-babysit-dammit but we still hang out and watch the game with the guys and a cold one. Well, what about those of us who are into the former but not the latter? Or is it just me?
I am not a father of boys. But I was a boy, once upon a time, not too long ago, or at least I like to think so. And I’ve already told you what kind of boy I was, and what kind of man I grew to be. And I taught plenty of teenaged boys, hurtling toward their own definitions of adult manhood, when I was a high school teacher last decade. And even now, when I volunteer at my oldest daughter’s elementary school or just observe as I walk across campus, I don’t see some entrenched “p.c.” culture war being waged, successfully or not, to turn boys into, well, me. I still see those traditional roles and ideas normalized, reinforced, lionized, on the playground, on the sidewalk, in the classroom, by their peers and adults alike. And for boys whose definitions of young manhood are different, who don’t play ball on the field or blacktop or act in “boy” ways and do “boy” things, well, I don’t see them. I’m not saying they’re not there, but just like me at that age, in that situation, maybe they’re off somewhere else, doing their own thing, not calling attention to themselves, because everything they’ve imbibed about what it means to be a man tells them to avoid that attention or suffer the consequences.
The day after I read that list, I read Hugo Schwyzer’s Good Men Project column on gender as performance in which he writes, “[M]en who long for a vanished world of all-male preserves are making a fundamental mistake about masculinity. They think that the opposite of ‘man’ is ‘woman’ and that in order to prove oneself the former they must do (perform) things that no woman can;. But it makes good sense to suggest that the better antonym of ‘man’ is ‘boy.’ To ‘perform masculinity’ isn’t about doing what women don’t. It’s about doing what boys lack the will or maturity to do.”
Obviously, it’s not just men who conceive of acting like or being a man as the opposite of acting like or being a woman. And it’s a false dichotomy, one which serves only to perpetuate stereotypes and unnecessary gender(ed) roles and to make outcast and abnormal those who stray from those tropes. And it’s a falsehood that I don’t want to teach to my daughters.
So who am I? And what does it mean, then, for me, to be a man?
It means that I’m a feminist. And an anti-racist. I’m an activist, and an educator, and a father, and a partner, and a person of color, standing for change, working for justice. And I know that my definitions of all of those labels may be different from yours, and hell, they may be different from mine in a year or two. And that’s OK, because identity is process.
Ultimately, I am who I need to be for my children, my partner, myself and our communities. And all of that is what makes me a man.