What Does It Mean to “Be a Man”?

When I was in high school, there was a year that I needed to take a summer gym class to fulfill my physical education requirement. When I missed a couple days because of some other obligations, I had to work with school administration to figure out what could be done to finish out the requirement.

The compromise was to register in a workshop called Bigger, Faster, Stronger: a CrossFit-like boot camp for high school athletes, almost entirely male, preparing for the fall season of their sports. Even though I was a varsity soccer player, I got my butt kicked by the relentless weight training, field exercises, and agility tests. It was probably the most machismo thing I have been part of. Every guy in the room was comparing himself against the apparent strength and ability of the others. I’m sure some of the soreness I felt at home each night came from pushing myself to make sure I wasn’t too far behind other guys in weight and reps, times, and other measurables.

Using comparison to scrutinize our identity has probably been part of being human for as long as we’ve been here. We often look at others and archetypes as a way to figure out our own place in the world. But when it comes to gender, what we’re comparing ourselves against as the standard for “being a man” or “being a woman” are extreme and incomplete ideals.

As a man, I can only fully relate to the experience and norms of masculinity, which is why I was happy to discover that the makers of 2011’s Miss Representation, a documentary exploring hyperfemininity and its consequences, recently released a complementary film regarding hypermasculinity, The Mask You Live In.

Prevalent throughout much of American society (and perhaps elsewhere), what it means to “be a man” amounts to putting on a mask of athletic ability, financial success, and sexual conquest, while hiding and suppressing weakness, emotion, empathy, and intimacy. “He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it…,” opens the film–a quote from George Orwell.

As boys, males are handed this mask early and encouraged to grow into it often. From parents, especially fathers. From coaches. From all kinds of media. From peer groups.

Whichever of these guiding sources it comes from, boys are too often discouraged from crying, talking about their pain and weaknesses, and cultivating open relationships. Such things are perceived to be unmanly, and, therefore, subordinate. It leads to an implicit hierarchy. At the top are men who are fast, strong, steely, powerful, and rich. Everyone and everything else fall below.

This hierarchy perpetuates sexism and homophobia. As a man of the mask, you dehumanize people who are not at the top. A male who doesn’t embody the ideal is shunned as “gay.” Women are categorically inferior and seen to exist primarily for sexual objectification. Any woman who tries to be strong or rich or powerful is breaking rank. She’s a “bitch,” an “annoyance,” or a “lesbian.”

But time after time, when men and boys are given space for self-reflection and to speak freely without potential humiliation, they talk about pain and weaknesses; about a desire for honest closeness with other men and women; and about suppressed empathy. The vulnerability and longing behind the mask are essential to being a man.

They’re essential to being human.

Because, perhaps surprisingly to some, men and women are actually quite similar. As long as people are around, there will probably be endless debates about gender (as social construction) versus sex (as biology) and femininity versus masculinity. We’re good at getting caught up in differences. But women and men are far more the same–far more human–than they are different.

Emotion, empathy, and intimacy are vital whether you’re a woman or a man. These are not “inferior” traits of “inferior” people. They are crucial aspects of humanity that contribute to being a complete person, and, as The Mask You Live In concludes, “everyone deserves to feel whole.”

Men deserve to feel whole–free from the distorted view of masculinity they’re often given. Women deserve to feel whole–free from the sexism of that same skewed version of masculinity.

We are all human. Be human. Reject the mask.

 

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