“The improbability may henceforth be taken for granted of finding in Nature a sharp cleavage between all that is masculine on the one side and all that is feminine on the other; or that any living being is so simple in this respect that it can be put wholly on one side, or wholly on the other, of the line.” ~ Otto Weininger
“Man up” and “Be a man” are phrases often used to socialize young boys into manhood, but what exactly do these missives mean? Last fall, my partner and I embarked on a qualitative research project that examined how men remember being acculturated into manhood. Our study revealed that these “memorable messages” are statements that are consistently relayed to an individual and have significant influence on them throughout their life (Knapp, Stohl, & Reardon, 1981). To explore this phenomenon, we conducted in-depth conversations with 11 men of various ages, races, religions, orientations, and upbringings. We found that, regardless of their background, these men received similar messages about what it means to be a man.
What we learned from these discussions was both fascinating and disturbing. There are messages of honor/chivalry that are communicated to men which seem positive in nature on the surface, such as conducting yourself with “strength” and “conviction”. However, the more insidious, often implied messages are routinely related to domination and intemperance, and suggest that anger is the only acceptable emotion, and that masculinity is invariably tethered to heterosexual cis-gendered manhood, and the need for perfection and certainty.
Among these messages, the call for a sense of perfection and all-knowingness is a great concern to me. Such messages imply that men should and already know all; but how can knowing happen without learning? And as many of us know with learning, there needs to be room for error and missteps along the way. Noted author, Ryan Holiday, who penned the book, The Obstacle is the Way (2014), states that it is usually the trial that leads to our triumph. Likewise, unless men have the ability to notice that there is a problem, that struggle is, in fact, needed for growth, they will be unable to experience emotional breakthroughs that lead to bigger and better performances. For in the obstacle is the opportunity. Conflict and struggle offer chances to do something new and creative in ways convenience never can.
To be a man, according to these messages, is to be more than human, which, like being less than human, is still inhuman. One of the men we spoke to stressed these unrealistic standards by saying, “Superman is who everyone strives to be. It’s not a reachable goal. It’s not even a real place.” Superman is not a man in a holistic way. He is less than human due to his performance of perfection. Today’s men often struggle with manhood because they are being held to fictional and impractical standards of manhood. They are feeling the weight of being perfect, but are not being taught how to express the angst associated with such pressure.
When Batman and Superman find one another as adversaries in the comic book universe, Batman normally wins. He wins because he is human and Superman looses due to his inescapably flawed performance of perfection, which is rooted is his inextricably linked Whiteness, maleness, and near physical invincibility. Individuals and institutions must follow suit and reject this toxic pursuit of masculine perfection in our culture. We need to teach future generations that there are men who can model a more positive form of masculinity through vulnerability, compassion, fluid identities, and tranquility, that humanity and masculinity can go hand-in-hand. It is the person who is willing to own that they are wrong first, who is the most often right.
Rowdy Duncan is a Senior Advisor and Trainer for Diamond Strategies, LLC, a diversity, equity, and cultural competency firm that inspires, achieves, and celebrates inclusion. He is also the Founder and CEO of RowdyDuncan, LLC. and an award-winning community engagement and conflict resolution specialist. His work can be followed on Twitter at @RowdyD and @dstrategiesllc.