What’s So Hard About Being A Man?
The Absurdity of Being a Man
In my conversations with other men, there is a common sentiment that being a man is never easy. In an age where masculinity is under siege, blamed for broken relationships, disparaged for showing vulnerability, and continuously confronted by contradictions, being a man is becoming a “dangerous sport”. Many men feel so misunderstood and their struggle in balancing some of the contradictory voices on what makes a real man is belittled. The same society that on one hand extols compassion, gentleness, and selflessness, on the other hand, admires and rewards a man who is ruthless, aggressive, and competitive. In a context where gender-based violence continues to wreak havoc, this contradiction in expectations presents a dilemma to men. While trying to steer away from misogyny, sexism, and other abusive behaviours, men are confronted with language that perpetuates an aggression or dominance paradigm of being a man. The effect of phrases such as “be a man” or “man up” which border on disrespect in that they destroy self-esteem and empower violent behaviour, is often overlooked. This article seeks to highlight the contradictions that come with the phrase “be a man” and its implications on how men relate to women.
The Bold and the Ruthless
For a man, nothing is as confusing as being told to “be a man”. It presents a dilemma where the very same man whom society expects to be non-violent, gentle, and selfless is often criticized for behaviour seen as too sensitive, emotional, feeling-based, non-aggressive, and therefore weak. The common practice of telling boys and young men to, “stop being so sensitive”, “stop overreacting”, “you’re being dramatic”, “stop being such a baby”, and behave like a man is damaging in many ways. As a man is reprimanded for being emotionally different, he is forced to disregard his own feelings, suppress his emotions and replace them with someone else’s. Related to this is the common practice of tagging a boy or a man with slang for a woman’s genitalia and using that word as an insult to mean weak, indecisive, unable to stand up for himself, and unmanly. This reinforces damaging stereotypes where women are seen as being inferior to men; and secondly, that men who exhibit female characteristics are inferior to other males. Not only is it demeaning to the woman, but sends conflicting messages on how men ought to view women.
As the phrase “be a man” often comes with notions of dominance and the ability to conquer whatever comes along one’s path, men find themselves attributing their success to an aggressive attitude that relentlessly subjugates everything. The call to be a man is often directed on men who exhibit traits that are considered feminine and beneath the definition of being a man. For a man to be aggressive means not taking no for an answer, believing that a “little” aggression and force will get him what he wants. Not only does it lead to feelings of shame and humiliation that can lower his self-esteem, but it also leaves the man vulnerable to depression which could trigger violent behaviour as an attempt to fit in. It is the ruthless, aggressive, and confrontational man who is celebrated while the one considered to be too caring, cooperative, too wimpy, or lacking the spirit of dominance over others is rewarded with contempt. In a sense, this perpetuates an aggressive type of masculinity that thrives on coercive and abrasive behaviour.
A Game of Thrones
Being a man often comes with a competitive attitude. This is why as men we like to push off against something or someone else to make ourselves stronger and to sharpen our skills. Along with the words, “be a man”, is a challenge for the man to compete and demonstrate control over everything that confronts him. Men tend to see everything as an object to be conquered, owned, controlled, or used for their gratification. Men who crave dominance will excessively manipulate circumstances and outcomes in order to win. Obsessive winning is often tied to outward, physical trophies, such as who has the best muscles, the hottest car, the hottest girl, the most money, or most noteworthy accomplishments. In these dominance contests, the thrill comes not just from winning, but also from someone else losing.
In moderation, competition is a normal, healthy human expression and way to strengthen oneself. But it is not uncommon for competition to be taken to extremes, and manipulated to feed a man’s ego. Unhealthy competition becomes a way to undercut the other person. To a competitive spirit, add misogyny and sexism, then the man will go to great lengths to exercise dominance over a woman whom he sees as an inferior version of himself. From an early age, boys are socialised to see girls as competition and thus consider it demeaning to see a girl excel ahead of them. Instead of seeing a woman as a complete human being, equal in intellect, to be loved, respected, and celebrated, men’s self-esteem is crushed by the extent to which women excel beyond him. So, the words, “be a man” are taken to mean a man who does whatever it takes not to lose to a woman.
Emotional Repression or Expression
From an early age, men are conditioned to believe that expressing their feelings is out of character with the male identity. Doing so can ruin their image of being strong and stoic. For men, being told to “man up” or “act like a man” is something they learn in childhood, and it stays with them into adulthood. Over time, men get really good at turning off their emotions or coping with their feelings in a way that is more acceptable for males.
When it comes to processing emotions, there are different expectations for men and women. Because women are often viewed as “sensitive,” it’s socially acceptable for them to express their feelings, like sadness or fear. But men, who are seen as strong and fearless, are not encouraged to outwardly express their emotions. Because of that, many men neglect to show their emotions because they’re afraid of the repercussions. They find themselves in a double bind whereby while society encourages them to express their feelings, when they do, their partners are often petrified. Many women want men to show their feelings, but only certain feelings, and only in doses they can handle. This makes men wary of women who implore them to show their true feelings. Consequently, men convert stereotypically feminine feelings, such as sadness or vulnerability, into feelings like anger or pride—feelings more socially acceptable for them to experience.
Just because men are told to hide their emotions, doesn’t mean they don’t have them but repress them because it’s not socially acceptable for a man to cry when he’s sad. This is why men’s feelings may take everyone off guard. Part of the problem for some men may be that they have silenced their feelings for so long that they haven’t developed resources for handling them when they do arise. Such unplanned, unexpected emotions can often prove overwhelming. So, many men are trapped in the confines of a socialisation process that tells them it’s unmanly to cry, to hurt, or to express the myriad other emotions we all experience as a result of living fully as human beings.
Traditionally the words “be a man” often ignite an expression of masculinity that hinges on domination and aggression. Whenever domination enters the picture, equality walks out and there can no longer be a relationship of equals. Any relationship defined and controlled by a power dynamic that pits one person against another is bound to become toxic. In a culture where respect is linked to dominance and violence, words such as “be a man” can be taken as the language of disrespect that triggers behaviour of disrespect. In whatever form, disrespect is always an attempt to diminish power in the other person which in turn leads to achieving dominance. Men respond to disrespect—either real or perceived—with threats and physical violence and use violence to enforce “respectful” (read submissive) behaviour, both from other male friends and women in relationships. Society needs to be aware and clear on the type of man it is calling for. By simply asking a man to “be a man”, it opens a myriad of contradictions that men continue to contend with. The fight against gender-based violence is never complete until we confront the language of disrespect we have normalised.