The most popular post of 2014: What is manhood? What does it mean to be a man?

Hello dear readers

This is my first post for 2015. I know I have been quiet for some time now but do not fret, this does not mean Carly’s Couch is fading away. I have big plans for 2015 and have a lot of new ideas for how to change the blog for the better.

One thing I know for sure, is that I want to focus more on answering your questions this year and would like to provide a platform for greater interaction between myself and my readers, and between readers.

I think the best way to do that is for you to help to generate content. The most popular post from last year was this post in which someone asked me a question about Manhood. It got a lot of traffic because I believe it is a question that touches each of our lives directly and also because it is not easy to answer but rather fun to debate.

I do not consider myself an expert but I do have certain biases. I enjoy discussing these kinds of topics with people who have different perspectives from me.

So, if you have any burning questions that you feel you want to pose to me, please send them through to onthecouchwithcarly@gmail.com or use the Ask Me Anything page and I will get the conversation started.

Ultimately, I want to create an online community here and so all these kinds of questions can become the focus of discussion. I therefore invite all of you to add your two cents. Please feel free to respond here using the comments section (which you can do anonymously) or via the email address given above or the Ask Carly Anything page.

Don’t be shy, and happy new year!

 

Hey Carly,

Thought I’d pop a question just to stimulate a bit of debate.

I guess this is something which is personally relevant to me, as a mid-20s male, and I’ve been enjoying asking various people their opinion on the matter. So I’d be interested to hear your thoughts: “What is manhood? What does being a man mean to you?”

It’s taken me a while to respond to this question. At first I felt like I was not capable of responding because I am a woman and it is not my place to speak of the markers of masculinity or manhood. I have been letting the question percolate in my mind and after days of contemplation I have decided to give it a go anyway. But I think it is one of those things that needs to be debated, thrashed about. I don’t think one answer from one source will suffice. I considered going out into the streets and asking random people what they thought…perhaps I will still do that. Watch this space.

But to begin…
In answering the question “What does it mean to be a man?” I weirdly felt the need to refer to an ancient text. I am by no means religious but I felt a strong desire to consult the Old Testament, to ask a Rabbi or another religious or spiritual leader. Perhaps you will find that helpful yourself? There are probably loads of examples of this on the Internet.

It is always a risky business consulting a so-called “authority” however. Firstly, the very notion of masculinity is a politicized one. The markers of identity – gender, race, class, etc. – are socially constructed and therefore have been imbued with certain inherent power relationships. We cannot think of masculinity, therefore, without thinking about sexism and patriarchy. Thus, any reference to a former model of masculinity that was thought up pre-feminism will inevitably fall short of what I believe you’re after.

The Answers You Don’t Want:

1. Equating Masculinity With Strength

The phrases “Cowboys don’t Cry” and “Man up!” instantly come to mind. When looking over a few of the answers given on Reddit, for example, I saw some of those familiar topics again and again. It would seem that we are still perpetuating this myth. But this is not what you’re looking for, is it? You don’t want to hear again about this cardboard cutout caricature cowboy who has entered all of our consciousness at one time or another. You don’t want to measure yourself up to that one-dimensional role model. Anyone who is asking about the definition of manhood in 2014 is looking for something a bit more real, a bit more substantial.

My Answer:
Strength is an ideological construct. It does not exist solely on a physical plain. It exists in our minds and in our hearts. If I tell you that a real man must be strong, stronger than a woman and stronger than other men then I am instantly disqualifying men who do not embody these physical traits from laying claim to the title of “masculine”. But in actual fact, some of the greatest men I know of – both alive and dead – were not particularly physically strong or big or tough. If the adjective “strong” were ever used to describe them it would be to describe their strength of character, their emotional strength, or their strength of integrity.

2. Equating Masculinity with Power

Again, it takes a very superficial search of the Internet to discover that the good ol’ power dynamics that have shaped our distorted world are still very much at play. It is very hard to conjure up images of the masculine archetype without the word power coming up. But within a split second of playing the word association game, images of power turn into images of domination, of abuse, of violence and rape. Unfortunately for your quest, it is still difficult to find alternative descriptions of masculinity. So now we know that the notion of power is at the root of many of the injustices of the world. And we know that a 21st century definition of masculinity should somehow transcend the reifying of these socially constructed definitions. But where do we find these alternatives?

My Answer:
As a man today, not only do you have un-answered questions but you have to be the answers. Young men may be in crisis because there is such a shortage of balanced and substantial definitions of masculinity out there. And there are also so few role models to follow. We all need leadership but I believe men even more so. We are at a loss for good leaders. Our religious leaders are bigoted, our spiritual leaders are dead, our fathers are either absent or disappointed us, and our politicians are corrupt. If we look around us at those our age we see the same lost eyes we see in the mirror. There is a crisis. So we have to take it upon ourselves. Each and every person has to actively negotiate and then perpetuate the beliefs and behaviours they wish to find in role models. This sounds almost like an impossible endeavor. Perhaps it is. Can you decide what kind of a man you want to be and then be that man every day? Can you force history by choosing to depict masculinity in whichever way you choose regardless of whether it fits with the status quo?

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3. Masculinity as in opposition to Femininity
Along my cognitive journey whilst I was contemplating the meaning of masculinity and more importantly the right to discuss such things as a woman, I found myself returning again and again to the concept of man versus woman. As we know, any social construction is formed out of the need for separation and distinction between us and them. Since the beginning of time, we have chosen to identify ourselves using markers that signify belonging to one group whose very definition involves the distancing from another group. We are English because we are not Scottish. We are Tutsis because we are not Hutus. We are Men because we are not Women. You get the drill. If you don’t believe me, there is a daily ritual amongst religious Jews to pray each morning and “thank god for not making me a woman”. This shit is real.

So any discussion around masculinity, therefore, automatically references how femininity is socially constructed as well. Again, if we were to take the traditional route we would spout rhetoric about the differences between masculine and feminine biology, about gendered roles in the work and home, and about child-rearing practices. I think we all know how we are supposed to think about these issues. On the one hand, the traditional viewpoint will have you think sexist, imbalanced thoughts about the differences between men and women. Phrases like “Barefoot in the Kitchen” come to mind. The usual tropes of masculine success, at least by capitalist standards, also pop up. Big cars. A nice suburban home. A 9-5 job in the city. All bought and paid for by the man of the house. These are markers of modern masculinity, no? For many of us this just doesn’t cut it. But then what are we left with? On the far end of the spectrum we see stay-at-home dads, metrosexuals and society drop outs. But does that answer our question? In a post-modern world you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Fed up with the socially constructed reality we’ve all bought into, we search for meaning beyond the classic signifiers but do not find the satisfaction we are looking for. So perhaps the Old Testament will have some answers after all?

My Answer:
If you are asking the questions then you are okay. The very fact that you, as a young man, are asking about others’ definitions of masculinity and trying to form your own conclusions shows me that you are one of the guys that we need more of in this world. The older I get, the more I realise that the search for answers is more important than the answers themselves. Because there are so many alternatives. Depending on who you speak to on which day, you will get a different answer and ultimately it is up to you to decide for yourself what feels right for you.

In addition to this cop-out of an answer I have this to share with you. I actually think the question you’re asking speaks to the very crisis I referred to earlier. Male leadership is lacking. The world leaders are still perpetuating the stereotypes, still reifying the traditional gender roles, and embodying the fucked up power relations that continue to make this world an unequal and down-right cruel place to live in. Ironically, the “oppressed” are actually more free to express their identity than the “oppressor”. Thanks to the ongoing efforts of Feminists, women have new ways to identify themselves, new systems to align themselves with and new battle cries.

But perhaps it is now time to start re-defining masculinity in terms of feminist ideals? Historically, liberation movements are intent on unifying forces and in doing so “the oppressed” are strengthened via their shared suffering and their shared passion for change. Along with the actual changes we have seen since the rise of feminism in terms of women’s roles in the workplace etc., women have reaped other benefits. We now have access to a whole range of identities that we were once denied. Our choices have increased along with our liberty. But what about men? I am by no means saying that things are in any way equal or that women are no longer oppressed. But I am saying that for those fortunate enough to have those choices, we have way more access and more freedom than men do.

To sum up:
• Asking about masculinity is the same for me as asking “What does it mean to be a good person?”
• If we can step away from the idea that masculinity and femininity are in direct opposition to one another, can we also not simply equate this question with the human quest for meaning. We are all searching for the answers and perhaps we will come to them through these kinds of discussions but not by perpetuating the gendered ways of thinking that we know are social constructions anyway.
• If you are searching for answers than you are already on the right side of history. Whether you are a man or a woman, the fact that you seek to understand your identity and your place in this world shows a level of consciousness that looks like its heading along the road to enlightenment.
• If you really want to define manhood as separate from being a human, then I would suggest consulting feminist writing. If there is one thing we know, it is that men can and should be feminists too. By consulting a feminist framework you will most likely have to choose to embody a lot of NOTS but I think that’s probably a good place to start.

A lot of my thoughts on the matter are shared in this article, which may or may not be helpful for you. From a starting point, it will at least give you insight into some of the “nots”.

Showing 116 comments
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  • Daniel Sher
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    Wow Carly, thank you for putting so much thought, energy and wisdom into this post. I couldn’t have hoped for a better response.. And I couldn’t agree more about the need to conceptualize masculinity from a feminist perspective.. I think that’s what has made this whole subject so complicated for me..My own staunch feminist ideals so often seem to be in tension with other important sides of my identity in this debate (for example, the prescriptions offered by Judaism and by my grandfather, both of which I respect greatly but cannot accept entirely).

    Sigh – it’s not easy to work out one’s identity in this crazy, fragmented, leaderless post-modern world. But I guess that’s just part of the trip. At the end of the day, this really resonated with me: “There is a crisis. So we have to take it upon ourselves. Each and every person has to actively negotiate and then perpetuate the beliefs and behaviours they wish to find in role models.”

    • Carly
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      I’m glad it worked for you! I think the Facebook comments were also really interesting 🙂 Thanks for asking such a great question, I really enjoyed the process of grappling with it 🙂

  • T.
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    Hi Carly,

    what a question… When we puzzle about “meaning”, we do this about cultural artefacts like texts, paintings, music or terminology in philosophy books. Asking for “meaning” in things occuring in nature, like frog legs, or the no. of eyes in ants, or for the “meaning” of having an appendix, is just nonsense. Take yourself as exemplification: Do you think, your above average number of ears “means” something? I guess you just “have them”. Yes, you wear them in modesty and courage with dignity … but do you think much about them? 😉 .

    However that may be, asking about “the meaning” of something which is a part of one self surely indicates something, like a trail of blood indicates a hidden crime: A separation and division within one self. A self-alienation. To stay at the example above – van Gogh showed us how such things end in the case of ears, at least when combined with absinth…

  • T.
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    … and a very nice video version of Stanislav Lem’s thoughts on such themes 🙂 : http://vimeo.com/50984940

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