What Makes a Man? Thoughts on Non-toxic Masculinity and Why We Need It

I am a man.  I am a white, heterosexual man.

In 2016, this is no longer something to be proud of nor a set of labels that define much in terms of positive contribution to society.  The term "toxic masculinity" has replaced "masculinity" and trying to find anything beyond simple decent human traits to grasp onto is increasingly difficult.

Why is it important to define "masculinity" in any sort of positive light?  I'd argue that there are an awful lot of me out there and to leave it up to either the Far Left or Far Right to define us is a grave mistake.  If the only characteristics to being a white, heterosexual man are left up to the fringes of ideology, we have no one to blame but ourselves for the confusion and zealous adopting of either complete emasculation or complete aggression handed to us by popular culture.

For now, let's focus on the "man" part of my labels and cover the "white" and the "heterosexual" for another day.

The defining characteristics of what makes a man have changed as has our understanding of manhood. In my lifetime (1966 - 2016, thus far) the role of the man in society has changed dramatically. In 1966, the definition of manhood was suddenly contradicted from what had been established during WWII. A man in the 1950's was one with a family, a wife who stayed at home and tended this family, who served (or had served) his country, and who was a productive part of the industrial machine.  And, while we don't much talk about it, it is likely that if this 1950's man had served in the military, it was highly likely that he had killed another human being in defense of his country.

With the baby boom came a youth culture that by the mid-1960's was overwhelming and, with it's size and diversity, began to unravel the traditional definitions of manhood as well as a man's role in society. A man was sensitive and lived life independent of allegiance to a corporation or even an ideology. A man was also a traditionalist, still clinging to the 'isms' of the 1940's. Yet another definition was that of the active rebel, challenging all definitions and trampling the ideas of conventionality.  This generation was thrust into Viet Nam and were a part of a war defined more by atrocity than heroism.  Men were split between those who fought and killed, those who refused to fight and kill, and those who were irrevocably scarred by the experience of that horror.

As the definition of what a man was splintered, the definition of what a woman could be began to evolve rapidly. Possibilities for women opened up in ways unimagined, with the burning of brassieres becoming analogous to the throwing down of the shackles of bondage forced upon them by society's mores.

As I was growing up, my male role models were all caught in this crossfire. My Grandfather was a machine gunnery sergeant in Patton's Army, an oil rigger, a southern gentleman and a take no prisoners man. My father (who was only in the picture until I was four years old) was the sort of man who believed the world owed him - he went to Viet Nam and came back with a monkey on his back. After the stability offered by dear old dad came Dennis (stepfather number one) who was into style, a fashion hungry wife beater who exerted his manhood by terrorizing and brutalizing those less able than he. He beat my mother and I until we stole away in the middle of the night with our worldly possessions stuffed into black Hefty® bags.

By the time mom, my little sister and I split at 3AM from 2525 Wildwood Lane in mom's brown Gremlin, I was done with the male role models mom was choosing for me. I was nine years old and my Grandpa was the Man. He was everything a man should be, in an Ernest Hemingway sort of way - bluntly honest, dependable, hard working, funny, true to his word; angry, scarred, and every ounce a bona fide MAN.

While my Grandpa was the primary male influence (thus sealing my fate to be defined at least in part by the mores of the 1930's male), I was raised by my mother. From her I developed an unmanly sensitivity to smaller creatures, an unrestrained ability to cry, an artistic side, and a flair for the dramatic (although my Grandpa was the storyteller - the yarn spinner - I got that from him, I'm sure).

In the 1970's, the archetypes of manhood were as diverse as the dancing John Travolta, the sensitive Phil Donahue, the heroic Han Solo, and the homicidal Travis Bickle. The 1980's gave us the greedy Gordon Gecko and the chipping away at the warrior persona the Army had proliferated since before WWII. The 1990's offered the ultimate male role model for men of my generation - Bill Clinton - an intelligent, kind hearted, sensitive, ambitious, self-interested womanizer.  2000 + has garnered us Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellon, Barack Obama, Steve Rogers, Jon Stewart, Luke Cage and Donald Trump to name just a few.

Further, as we are entering full-force into a time where self identification is the New Rule, where simply declaring an identity makes it so (unless, of course, you are Rachel Dolezal), having some sort of concept of what a man is or strives to be is important.  At least to those of us born cis-gendered and happy about it.

According to Planned Parenthood, words commonly used to describe masculinity are:

  • independent
  • non-emotional
  • aggressive
  • tough-skinned
  • competitive
  • clumsy
  • experienced
  • strong
  • active
  • self-confident
  • hard
  • sexually aggressive
  • rebellious

Which is pretty much completely useless in trying to define the thing.  I suppose, should we accept these adjectives as specifically masculine, then it is easy to conclude that there are plenty of non-masculine men as well as a host of very masculine women out and about.  And we're still no closer to anything resembling a useful list of qualities.

Checking in with AskMen, we are told that a Real Man:

  • Can defend himself
  • Keeps his house in order
  • Takes care of his appearance
  • Makes his own fortune
  • Strives to be a role model
  • His word is his bond
  • Doesn't gossip
  • Is focused

Nice stuff but, again, missing the point.

Just as unhelpful is the idea that we should all of us, with no regard to gender, follow a simple set of basic principles and then we could lose gender as a label altogether.  Which is a crock of shit with a locking lid.  We will never be a genderless society and the fact is that we wouldn't want it to be.  Human beings like to fuck too much and gender is a large part of what turns most of us on.  (With nods to the 0.04% of society who get turned on by Crayon Boxes and poop, knock yourselves out but this conversation isn't about you...)  Further, in the revolution to be televised, eliminating the concept of manhood is ridiculously naive and impossible to boot.

Redefining the concept, however, is both desirable and doable.

I asked a few female friends how they would define manhood to get a sense of the feminine perspective on the question:

"The mind is like a parachute: It only functions when it's open. There is no one right answer, so rightness does not make others wrong. Think critically, not narrowly. The gender binary is a social construct. Each of us should be able to be weak or strong, forceful and yielding, protector and protected."

"I think more in terms of masculinity/femininity, which is different to me than man/womanhood. more room to explore/be free, less of a definition based on opposites or against The Other. I think about gender as personhood, and however you express that is your twist. Also, I chew on this quote a lot: 'There is no doubt in my mind that it is easier for females of any age to learn the art of loving than it is for their male counterparts. It is easier because our interest in love is not questioned.'--bell hook"

"Having complete manhood is Exemplifying all the traits of the idea of what a man is. For me, it's the whole reason why [my son] went to live with [his father] when he was 13. As much as I felt I knew what it took to be a man, I knew I could never show him how to put that into action. I couldn't show him how to use it in his position of gender. Does that make sense?"

The easier question is what a man is not.  The easier answer is to list all the things a man should NOT be or aspire to but without a specific positive, the negative is unhelpful.  And the answer of simply eliminating the MAN part, while admirable and perhaps a goal for society, is asking thousands of years of instinctual and societal programming as well as simple biology to be ignored.

A few years ago, I came up with the following list:

  • A man protects those in need of protection.
  • A man is not petty.
  • A man is a source of safety in an unsafe world.
  • A man makes mistakes, admits them, and learns from them.
  • A man is not selfish or filled primarily with self interest.
  • A man picks her up at the airport without being asked to.
  • A man asks questions about others and follows up by LISTENING.
  • A man will fuck you but make sure you cum, too.
  • A man never throws the first punch and NEVER hits a woman.
  • A man holds open the door for everyone.
  • A man trains those younger than he to replace him.
  • A man treats every woman as he would have others treat his mother and treats everyone the way he would expect to be treated himself.
  • A man tips well.
  • A man is rarely offended by personal slights or insults.
  • A man takes responsibility for what he does and says.
  • A man (especially one living with white privilege) fights for the equality of all and especially takes responsibility (which is not the same as blame) for the messes created by his brethren and forefathers.

Again, a nice list.  Maybe even a good list.  Certainly a list to work toward.

What do you think?  What makes a man a man?