The ‘Real Man’ Conundrum

In May 2013 Laurie Penny declared that we, as a society, need to talk about Masculinity: ‘The crisis facing men and boys [today] cannot be solved by reviving the tired stereotypes that oppress and constrain them’. In the fight to secure freedom from the oppression of patriarchy, have we gone too far the other way, totally excluding men from a conversation which is concerned with male power? Does patriarchy give all men power over all women? Are women the only people it oppresses? Interestingly, statistics show that more men than before are now earning less than their spouses; are staying home to look after their children whilst the mother goes out to work; and are no longer the sole breadwinner in the family. In a world that is rapidly changing, and traditional gender roles continuing to be radically challenged, where does that leave us? Is female independence actually men’s biggest worry right now? Or is the issue more to do with ‘identity’ and how men relate to men as well as how men relate to women? Alex Holmes explores this minefield, asking “What is a ‘real’ man?”,  and explains why this conundrum is a Feminist issue.

My dad’s a beautiful man, but like a lot of [Mexican] men, or men in general, [he has a problem with] the balance [between] masculinity and femininity, intuition and compassion and tenderness, and [tends to] go overboard with the macho thing.

Carlos Santana.

Like Carlos, many men ask themselves what makes a man a real man? Do real men even exist? If so, do they spend time thinking about women’s issues? Or are they more interested in having sex and dominating? Can men support Feminism and be accepted as Feminists? Do we have the capacity to actively engage in the rebirth of the Feminist movement and contribute positively?

Well the answer to some of those questions is ‘Yes’.

As men, we need to actively engage in the discussion that surrounds changing attitudes about the role of women – and men – in society. We need to become advocates of progress. Women’s issues should not just be the concern of women.

As a young boy growing up in the 90s, my sense of masculinity was more or less shaped by the ever-growing popularity of Classic Disney films, which were given to me by my parents. Of course, I received the more ‘masculine’ tales the franchise had to offer such as: Aladdin, Hercules, Peter Pan, Pinocchio and Robin Hood. These films, along with many others, were to mould my perception of manhood and consequently lead me – and possibly a whole generation of boys and girls – to have a warped sense of what a man should be. These films dictated that a man should be strong (like Hercules); witty (like Robin Hood); honest (like Pinocchio) but be willing to lie for the ‘right’ reasons (like Aladdin); and never ever grow up (like Peter Pan).

However, once we move into our adolescent years, our male role models are often found in pop culture as well as the male figures that surround us. Growing up, this played a crucial role in helping to define my own morals and identity. The hyper-masculine heterosexual stereotype is still the standard by which most men are measured, despite society’s growing acceptance of men who stray from this ideal. For example, we now live in an era in which ‘stay-at-home dads’ are far more common than before and yet, in extreme cases, a man who stays at home to raise his children may still find himself treated as a social pariah, or find himself subject to ridicule for not living up to the hegemonic masculine ideal.

Have you ever noticed how in so many sitcoms and television shows, time and time again, the male characters are the breadwinners of their family, having the final say in the home? The few storylines that do not adhere to this model inevitably opt to depict a troubled relationship with the wife or partner and a strange dynamic with their children. In Parenthood, Julia and Job’s marriage seems pretty much perfect – they have a beautiful daughter who Job stays at home with, whilst his wife Julia works; they live in a nice house and have nice things. However Julia lives for her career and therefore loses out on a relationship with their daughter. After constant barraging from his father-in-law, Job feels inferior and decides to pick up his tools and return to construction work. In Brothers and Sisters, this conundrum is also highlighted and the relationship ends in divorce because, supposedly, she wouldn’t let him ‘be the man’. In The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Philip Banks stands as the epitome of masculinity, earning and providing for his family. He holds all the cards and his wife and children live off his provisions. The list of examples is endless, but you get my point.

Society is telling us that men are simply here to do things, to provide, whilst the sole purpose of a woman is to feel things, to nurture. I recently read an article in the Voice Today about the need for men to be able to cry with each other. It told the story of a top barrister who lost his family (through divorce) and as a result, began to spiral into depression. He did not feel that he could tell his friends of his troubles because the sad truth is that the vast majority of men, particularly black and Minority Ethnic men, do not show or explore their emotions for fear of weakness. This often leads to mental illness and suicide. It seems that, ironically, men find themselves victims of their own position, with their dominance proving to be a heavy burden.

The fact is society moulds the man. There are too many different voices (male and female, young old, traditional and modern) telling young men how to be a ‘real’ man, never agreeing on what the definition of a ‘real’ man is, leading to much confusion, insecurity, and disillusionment amongst men. On the one hand, we are influenced by very capitalist and consumerist icons who boast of their hyper-sexuality, gluttony, and ego. On the other hand, the popularity of television shows like Made In Chelsea, TOWIE and Geordie Shore, has probably contributed to the rise of the ‘metrosexual’ male who takes longer in the bathroom than his wife or girlfriend and who indulges in luxuries that were once previously reserved for women. And then there is the vast spectrum of men who are somewhere in the middle.

Men, regardless of their interests, need to develop as human beings first, understanding and accepting that expressing one’s emotions is not a sign of weakness. We need to re-evaluate the meaning of masculinity and take comfort in our own understandings of the term, as loaded as it may be. Just as there are many different ways to be a Feminist, and to be a woman, there are many different ways to be a man and there are many different types of men: contrary to popular belief, we are not an homogeneous group either. The sooner men and women understand this, the sooner we can work together effectively to reach equality. As men and women, we need to be able to have a level of understanding that accepts that men and women are far more than the boxes we do or don’t tick and the baggage that comes along with those boxes.

Let’s embrace the changes and see what the story is in two generations’ time. After all, who said change always has to be bad?

4 thoughts on “The ‘Real Man’ Conundrum

  1. I think you raise some very interesting points, many of which I agree with. However, I feel that you do men a small injustice by suggesting that we don’t tend to express emotion because of the fear of appearing weak. True in some cases, but I reckon more than anything this inability is caused by social conditioning (some of which you described) which means that many of us develop a lone wolf, me against the world kind of mentality as we reach adolescence. As such, for a lot of men the idea of going to somebody for help is something that doesn’t even register as an option when they’re struggling and is less of a conscious decision not to do so.

    Also, in regards to how males are represented in the media, I agree that in the past men have often been depicted as the dominant breadwinners. However, have you also noticed that increasingly so men are shown as goofy, idiotic and womanizing? At best, the main male characters are funny and love-able but inept at relationships or fatherhood. You can probably think of some shows off the top of your head where this description fits but a few examples are: Malcolm in the Middle, Everybody Loves Raymond, Modern Family and even… the Simpsons (lol). There are also a number of movies (mainly American) that do the same. I know that they’re meant to be funny and entertaining but who’s to say that these depictions of men cannot potentially be as damaging.

    I guess it’s about having the right balance such that that we do not get an overwhelmingly one-sided view of what a ‘normal’ family dynamic is like. I don’t think we have struck the right balance right yet.


  2. I understand your comments @Crunchy Black.
    Yes it can be said that men on the whole develop a lone wolf mentality and I am almost certain this is down to social conditioning as I stated and as you conceded in your comment.

    It is concerning that men are made to feel that they cannot open up to their male friends about issues they are facing whether that be relationship/family wise and it’s a question of how we can tackle that as men to influence a new generation who can be open HOPEFULLY helping society grow for the better.

    With regards to the media…nowadays the role of men in cartoons such as Family Guy and the Simpsons is exactly what I had explained. They are the breadwinners and the family relies on them, although you do raise a point about both of the patriarch being a inept and I wonder is it somewhat shedding a light on the ‘real’ role of the father? To be a breadwinner but also to be able to provide comic relief for the family?

    This then begins to question the role of the mother. Does she have the right to be playful, or is she solely a nurturer constantly worrying? (like Lois, Claire and Marge)

    Cheers for your comments.

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