What is a “Real Man”?

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Earlier this year I was on Eric Poulin’s talk show The Soapbox on WMPG. The topic was “What is a real man?” and it served as a response to recent meditations on the fall of the “real man” put forward nationally by Camille Paglia and locally by Susan Dench. I formed an essay out of some of my responses to Poulin’s questions, and you can hear the entire interview here.

When punditslocal and otherwisestir up these lamentations of supposed death of the “real man,” I don’t believe they are seriously discussing the actual phenomenon. I don’t fundamentally believe that they are doing much more than engaging in performance art as a means of stoking public fears and upping page views.

These nostalgic cries for the resurrection of so-called “traditional” manhood are often rooted in the idea that there is one kind of woman with one set of needs from the other, which is in this case the man. There is this pan suggestion that is like, “We all are lamenting this idea of the loss of masculinity and the traditional man as we all knew him. Why can’t we have that?”

To begin with it starts with a false pretense. Every individual in search of their “other,” whomever that might be or however they might identify, has a very particular set of needs. Some are looking for someone who is very masculine, some are looking for someone who is particularly feminine. Some are looking for a mix of the two and a number of other factors so this entire conversation starts on this false nostalgia for a time that never actually existed in the first place. This lionization of what was once available yesteryear fundamentally ignores the fact that this time was riddled with abuse, limited-to-no options for the abused and it was defined by its lack of options for women and men who did not identify as straight.

The idea of being a “good man” is does not mean anything to me. I live out in Cornish and I have spent a good deal of time living in Portland, New York, Boston, Vermont, and have traveled to a good number of places. My male friends have tended to be effete and intellectual and now I am living back in the town I grew up in and my friends who live here are these strong, “traditional” male types I went to high school with. I love these guys and they bring a great deal to the table. There are, however, strengths in the sorts of men who couldn’t change a tire if their life depended on it or couldn’t win an arm wrestling match or do any of these “masculine” things that some are forcefully trying to remember men for being. With their intellect and sensitivity, they have as much to bring to the table as my friends out here who work with their hands.

Another friend comes to mind. Andrew is engaged in craft. He brews his own beer, he makes his own whiskey, he is always working on restoring his old truck. That is something I admire from the perspective of understanding that we as a society have lost our relationship to tactile craft. I don’t miss it because I think men in particular need to be that way. I like that he is how he is because I think it is neat that he does things with his hands. Some wrongfully conflate all of this. There are some very real things to lament about modern society, but to lump them all into one place and say that some ways should belong to a particular sex or gender identification is wrong.

Since I was a teenager I have identified with the concept of being queer. In some occasions, I refer to myself as “straight,” particularly when I don’t have an additional 500 words or 20 minutes to explain to people not “in the know” about what it means to identify as such. I have long found the idea of “straightness” by way of sexuality or gender to be ridiculous, especially when it comes with a series of the sorts of “real man” expectations discussed above. The the notions of what “real” men or “real” women, which are particularly unmanageable and sometimes laughable expectations for modern people, are being broken and it is a good thing.

It is arbitrary to talk about how to be a “good man.” Why aren’t we just talking about being good? The reason is because the idea of the collapse of “traditional” ideas of femininity and masculinity is terrifying to particular people and there are pundits capitalizing on that fear.

Over the course of the past century we have seen, through the ascent of feminist victories, a feminization of an otherwise hyper-masculinized world and that is very much a good thing. We need more of it, in fact. People pooh-pooh the show, but the idea that Glee could exist and where boys and girls can get around this campy musical is a sign of this. Or for a more recent example of the inverse illustration, the fact that a kids’ movies like Frozen bent over backwards to subvert the ways we imagine love and femininity is an indication of how things are shifting. The existence of popular culture like this shows that these “traditional” ideas are broken and they are on their way out. We have begun to embrace the notion that there is a place for every sort of identification. There remains a struggle, of course, but no amount of conservative pontification about how society is falling apart is going to change the way it was. Once a system is opened, it is nearly impossible to close it again.

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Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.