Be a Man!

My daughter is a massive fan of Disney’s Mulan.  If you are not familiar with the film, it’s an animated tale set in China in which a young woman impersonates a man in order to help her father escape being conscripted into the imperial army.  Instead, she takes his place and the army seeks to make a man out of her (and the other conscripts).

The high point of the film is the track ‘I’ll Make A Man Out Of You’ fronted by Donny Osmond.  It’s a cracking track to which nearly all the family know all the lyrics, thanks to my daughter singing it nearly constantly.  The refrain in the track is Be a Man!

That has set me thinking about manhood and manliness.  It strikes me that we live in an age in which there is a curious tension.  There is still widespread gender discrimination in favour of men across Britain, and indeed internationally.

One significant indicator of this fact is the persisting pay gap between men and women. Typically, across a wide variety of industries, men still manage to be paid more than women for doing essentially similar jobs.  This pay gap has proved curiously resistant to the efforts of legislation.

Despite this we also live in an age and culture in which manhood and manliness are an easy target in popular media. It is now not merely commonplace, it is fast becoming a stereotype to portray men as socially inept in ways that programme makers simply would not dare to portray women for fear of being labelled misogynist.

The Wall’s talking dog advert in which men are portrayed as being unable to say to the women in their lives how grateful they are that they have provided them with a Ginster’s product (because they’re just a bloke really) is a case in point.  In addition, I suggest that, certainly in Britain, a number of our models of manhood are outdated or unhelpful.   Moreover, there is a vacuum in public discourse around what it is to be a man in the 21st century.

For women there has at least been some public discussion around what it means to be a regular woman, or an impressionable young girl, in an age of size zero supermodels, increasing eating disorders, a reckless sexualisation of young women, and glossy mags which present unrealistic airbrushed images of unattainable female perfection.

However, there has been a deafening silence rather than a corresponding public discussion of what it means to be a man. Combined with the on-going deterioration of the stereotypical family, the appropriate ‘norming’ of ‘girl power,’ the fact that in an age of ipods and iplayers children spend shockingly little time in the presence of their parents, the limited number of inspirational male role models, and the increasing feminization of early education (when was the last time you met a male primary school teacher?) we live in a society in which many men are bewildered about what it means to be a man.

I suspect that this is one of the reasons (apart form being high quality) that many television shows set in earlier times have such appeal. The male characters in Mad Men or Boardwalk Empire display little of the conflicted self-esteem issues which plague postmodern man.

Up to a generation or two ago, I think that men thought they knew what we were for. We were providers and protectors, leaders and fathers. We were the stronger sex with responsibility to care for the weaker sex.  That such men were often misogynist is hardly in doubt but they did at least assume they knew what it meant to be a man.

And it is precisely a lack of confidence about having an answer to that question in 21st century British culture which I think leaves a generation of men floundering for identity.  Whether gay or straight, I am convinced that men want to be men.  We just aren’t sure what that means anymore.

Let me be clear, I am not hankering for the good old days when men were in charge and women knew their place. Nonetheless, I do wish that men had a clearer idea of what they think it means to be a man.

So what are the essential characteristics of manhood?  Is there a check list that those who want to be or make a man might tick off?  This is not just a philosophical question for me.  As the father of a boy on the cusp of his teenage years I have a vested interest in learning how to make a man.

I reckon there jolly well ought to be a checklist of ideal characteristics of manhood. At the very least, greater public discourse about manhood and reflection on what it means to be a man is long overdue.  This is not just of interest to men.  I am pretty certain that women would be grateful if they had men who had greater se;f confidence about being men.  Frankly, women have vested interests in there emerging some clearer idea of what it is to be a man.

So in an attempt to contribute to that public discourse that I so desire here’s my suggestion of 7 ideal characteristics of a man.  I don’t pretend that these are in some way exclusively male.  Nonetheless, I think that I would want to argue for an understanding of masculinity shaped by these ideals.

  1. Strong:  A man should be strong.  This could well be hard coded into our DNA or perhaps its just the result of relentless socialising but you can see it in little boys who want to grow up to be big and strong.  Physical strength is important.  Somebody has to be able to open the jam jars.  However, mental and emotional strength are perhaps even more so.
  2. Responsible/Faithful:  A man should be responsible.  You know you can rely on him.  Call me old fashioned but his word should be his bond.  When he looks you in the eye and says you can count on him you can.  He’s faithful to his word, even if to do so is costly.
  3. Courageous:  It’s not for nothing that epics of heroes remain popular. I am certain that men are filled with testosterone because courageous acts are part and parcel of what it means to be a man.  It’s why we’ve felt the need to slay dragons, climb mountains, and traverse oceans for no other reason than that they are there.  Courage, of course, is not the absence of fear but the capacity to follow a course of action despite being afraid, very afraid.
  4. A Warrior:  Courage and strength are all well and good but the ideal man needs to be able to use them. He can fight and is prepared to do so if necessary.  To the death if need be.  This warrior impulse is nearly entirely socially unacceptable in civilised society (apart from when watching sporting fixtures.  Or in response to being mugged). Nonetheless, the ideal man is not someone to rouse to wrath. He can be an implacable adversary.  It is in this role that a man can be a protector of all he loves.
  5. Wise:  A man ought to be wise.  Without wisdom his strength and courage, gentleness and faithfulness are undirected.  Moreover, his confidence comes not from these things but from his wisdom.  A wise man has discovered the importance of both the beautiful and the spiritual. Having figured out what is important he elevates the important over the immediate. A wise man can nurture and develop potential in others and is not threatened by the success of others.  He is self aware, has self-confidence and self belief but is wise enough to know his limitations, and thus able to admit when he is wrong, or needs help.
  6. Gentle/Self-Controlled: The corollary of strength and what makes it non–threatening: Because he is wise he has learnt self–control and understands the importance of gentleness.  He can be angry without being destructive. He can be patient, both with himself and others. He can cope in times of pain, whether physical or emotional.
  7. Loving:  That a man is a warrior does not mean he is not also a lover.  A good man loves people, deeply and selflessly. He is a good friend. Love can make difficult decisions, challenge the inappropriate or unjust as well as build up the object of one’s love.  Importantly he understand that it is as important to be loved as to love.

What do you think?

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