manning up

[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]
  • 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.


About Jason Sperber

Jason Sperber is a stay-at-home-dad of 2 daughters, a writer, and a professional ice cream taster in Bakersfield, California. Once upon a time, he was an OG dadblogger at daddy in a strange land and co-founded Rice Daddies, the seminal group blog by Asian American dads. He is a co-founding writer of, and is the resident hapa Trekkie at, The Nerds Of Color. Follow him on Twitter at @dad_strangeland and on Instagram at @jasonsperber.
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29 Responses to manning up

  1. Rachel says:

    Great post! Well said.

  2. chicago pop says:

    You’re writing more lately, and I’m enjoying it! Great topic.

  3. I think the most important word in #8 is ‘want’. “If you want you can be loud, you can play sports, you can hunt and be rough.” That does come from our experience as a family. Too often in elementary schools boys are looked at as defective because they are often louder and messier than girls. Of course, there are always exceptions. My message was that it doesn’t matter what is politically correct at any time period, it’s OK to be who you want to be and do what you want as long as your priorities are in the right place.

    Being a man is about being honorable, thoughtful, responsible, loving, doing good, and making one’s own decisions.

    Great post. I appreciate the feedback! 🙂

  4. Lisa says:

    Lately our little guy likes playing with his sister’s “girl” toys and my husband gets all paranoid when I document/photograph it. Thing is he isn’t really the stereotypical manly man either from his body type to several other factors. I think this is a good articulation of why it is OK. I want tO embrace our kids for who they are.

  5. Such a thoughtful response, Jason. I wish every man (and woman) would read this post.

  6. Yeah, the post you refer to touched a nerve for me for lots of reasons. I left this one alone in my comment, but I’m glad you addressed it here. For what it’s worth, I’m SO ok with my sons growing up to be a man like you.

  7. boylouie says:

    Very inspiring. You make me want to be a father!

  8. I love your point about doing what boys don’t have the will or the maturity to do. Such a great post, Jason.

  9. JaeRan says:

    Such a great post Jason. I also must say the one about choosing wives well is assumes that her sons will be heterosexual and marry women, which for my son I would change to something more along the lines of choosing partners well.

  10. Pingback: How to Be a Man — The Good Men Project

  11. superha says:

    You are all those things you claim in your second to last paragraph. You da man, Jas!

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  13. Mom101 says:

    This is one of the most beautiful things I’ve read in a long time. I think what you just did was as manly as it gets — standing up for yourself, not backing down, no matter what. I’d have a glass of white wine with you any time. But I’m more an Albarino gal.

    (Oh shoot – is that womanly? Should I have said White Zinfandel?)

  14. Mike says:

    As a dude who loves nothing more than practicing UFC moves while listening to Idina Menzel, who appreciates a well-sewn bodice as much as a delicious near-beer, I really enjoyed and appreciated this. Just perfect. We are vast, multitudes-containing beings, us men.

  15. Stefania says:

    Late to this party, but reading this makes me less worried about raising a son after having two daughters. It’s good for me to know (and will be good for him to know) that there are plenty of men he can look up to in this world. Men who live our values and are still men. (What else would they be?) Thanks for being one of them.

  16. So well written and so spot on.

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  18. Nicole says:

    Popping in from Mom-101 to say I think we should be best friends. That was a great read, and I think if my own husband blogged he would say the same thing. There is nothing sexier than a man who proclaims proudly that he is a feminist. To me, it simply demonstrates an intelligence and self-awareness that is sadly lacking in our country these days.

  19. Jason, beautifully said!
    I could have written this post, except that I can do my own wiring and build rudimentary stuff out of wood, and I became the primary breadwinner by default when my career took off bigger than my wife’s, so she got to stay home w/ the kids. I’m the better cook, she does the laundry, and our division of labor is based on who likes to do stuff, versus what our gender roles required. She, on the other hand, is the sports fanatic, while I’m with you on the inability to name NFL players (or even care)…
    What’s different is that I am 55 to your 37, and my babies are all grownups, and I can see what a difference it makes for kids to have a feminist/”non-typical” dad. My eldest daughter is a doctor in a men’s field, and my other daughter studied law enforcement, helped me build our deck, and has always loved a good demolition project. My eldest son majored in gender studies in college, is a fabulous cook, and his wife — who can’t cook at all — married him for his culinary wizardry. My youngest is climbing up in the corporate world and appears to have no bias whatsoever regarding the gender of his boss, peers, or direct reports — all he cares is that they are competent (a more objective standard).
    I guess what I’ve learned is that, by being who I was, I created a set of kids who don’t really have a sense of gender “correctness” — they are just being who they are.
    so, Go, YOU!

  20. From a Radical Housewife to a Rad Dad: I love this! LOVE IT LOVE IT LOVE IT! You say you’re not a father of sons, but I kinda wish you were. The feminist movement needs a new generation of boys who understand the ways that gender stereotypes hurt them, too. There are resources aplenty for me to help my daughter to embrace her strength, but there is little out there to help my son embrace his vulnerability. Happily, he has a role model in his own father–and now, the Rad Dads! I’m off to order the book!

  21. Jack says:

    Well said. I am a man and I share many of these same traits, or lack thereof, and I have never doubted my masculinity and anyone who has simply did not know me or know any better. You dont have to be a stereotype to be a man.

  22. SoulSnax says:

    I am a lot like you, except that I like beer so much that I’ve resorted to brewing my own. I used to think my  lack of sports ability was due to my dad’s neglect or because of his lack of interest in sports.  I recently discovered my dad is secretly addicted to basketball, and totally nurtured my little brother’s interest in hockey, tennis and fishing. I guess my dad was just helping each of his sons to just be themselves!

    My own son, on the other hand, loves football, basketball, cars, construction equipment, being loud, and roughhousing. So… the challenge for me will be to encourage him to be himself and nurture all those qualities I never had!

  23. Trista says:

    This is exactly what I want to tell my son. And you would be someone I would want my son to be able to look to and speak with as he grows.

    Thank you for this.

  24. tanya says:

    great post!

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  26. Love this! As the mom of 2 boys, laundress and with the husband that does most of the cooking I can totally relate. I remember when my oldest was a toddler and I shared with my co-workers that we were getting him a play kitchen, I was not expecting the wrath! They couldn’t believe that I would allow (yes. allow) my son to receive an kitchen as a gift. I calmly explained that in a house where Dad does most of the cooking it’s totally normal for a kid to want a kitchen and really, who the hell cares. Everyone comes in different packages, styles and personalities so what’s the big deal?

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