To be a man is to forget that you are human, or to depreciate the humanity of everyone else–especially other men. The things that make us human, like the breadth of our emotional spectrum that allows us to feel things and endure those feelings to a degree that no other animal can (arguably and presumably), and the complexity of the character of every person, are often attributed to women and children and associated with weakness, as opposed to strength. But men, despite their humanity, and by American ideals at least, do not get to enjoy all the luxuries of feeling; in order to be a man, one must lose a part of his character and maintain the construct of two dimensions imposed on him, and in turn, impose those same constructs on his sons, daughters and significant others so that the cycle can continue.
The thing with, and arguably the primary flaw of, manhood and masculinity is that they are obtained; men are not born men. I don’t mean this in the sense of aging. Men must earn the title and treatment of a “man”, through their actions and perception. Often, masculinity, as a concept and description of male social behavior, is the means by which men measure themselves against other men. As children, they equip themselves in one way or another with an idea of what a man is (usually dictated by society), and as they get older, they use this idea as a baseline to define for themselves what a man is or isn’t. Then, they adopt the behaviors of men that they identify as “men”, behaviors that are often imitated and not inherent. As many of us are aware, measuring oneself against others almost unavoidably leads to insecurity, which, ironically, is not supposed to be a trait of “men”, but insecurity is part of what makes a man a “man”.
These man-to-man comparisons can relate to where the individual stands vis-a-vis other men in area, field and industry: level of athleticism in sports, position in the hierarchy at work, amount of income, sexual prowess, etc. These factors can also influence a man’s own perception of his ability to provide, first for himself and then for his family, and when this comes into question, so does his manhood. To cope, a man will either try to defend the manhood that he earned, or measure himself against other men to tend to his ego or help decide what changes to make. The goal of masculinity, in light of the ideas and connotations of it, is to be the leader in area, field and industry, whether the conditions of that leadership are based in talent or finance, physical or mental, or otherwise. This notion attributes strength to manhood and masculinity, but covertly and cleverly markets it as lack of weakness. The undertones of American ideals of masculinity don’t necessarily speak to a desire to crush the manhood of and assert one’s strength over other men in order to establish one’s own, but to protect your own earned manhood so that you do not seem weaker than other men. Unfortunately, however, we tend to achieve the latter by the means of the former, which lowers the likelihood of experiencing the trauma of having our manhood challenged in the first place.
This weakness that men are expected to lack is instead attributed to women, who are expected to fall within the antithesis of American ideals of masculinity and manhood, creating a complex within the ghost of those same ideals. You do not want to seem weaker than other men because women occupy that position, suggesting that if a man fails to meet or comply with the concepts and expectations of manhood that he becomes more woman than man. Once we come to this point, virtue of physiology goes into the gutter along with the masculinity that he worked so hard to earn–if a man is perceived as a woman is, he is less worthy of the title and treatment of a “man” from other “men”, contributing to his masculine insecurity as it forces him to compare himself to other men. This gives rise to the concept of “hypermasculinity” that many of us are familiar with, as men struggle to preserve their manhood and masculinity by means of overcompensation.
These things set men up for loneliness. The ideas and implications of manhood and masculinity often prevent men from building strong, healthy relationships with both men and women, as relationships, especially romantic ones, require a kind of vulnerability that compromises all that a “man” has “worked” for; and this is where it gets even more complex: Relationships are personal and exist between two parties, but despite the exclusive nature of them, society’s ideas of who men are as “men” are internalized and persist through a perpetual fear of having one’s manhood challenged, even when no one else is involved or the other person is someone who the man feels secure and comfortable with. We end up carrying this idea of the “man” in our back pockets, and theoretically, we risk the compromise of that sense of manhood every time you interact with another person, and just as ironically as the circumstances under which masculine insecurity manifests, this kind of unwavering mindset is a trait of “men”. This is why people often complain that the men in their lives are cold or closed off, and men never seem to understand the meaning behind their complaints, because the ability to be steadfast, straightforward and logical beats the ability to be vulnerable and the desire to be as human as women and children.
Things get even more complicated when women have to adopt, and more often accept the notions and behaviors associated with masculinity, not only to support themselves in certain contexts, but also since those notions and behaviors demand that those around a “man” adapt to him, and that it is in everyone’s best interest that they do so. The “man” is unwavering, in protection of his manhood, and if anyone wants to avoid being dominated by the him they must develop a means to challenge his dominance and therefore, his manhood itself, resulting, at times, in a power struggle, and contributing to masculine insecurity. In the effort of seeming as much as a “man” and as little as a “woman”, concepts of masculinity sustains itself by perpetuating gender roles; for example, women being in charge of maintaining the home and children, as “masculine” behavior doesn’t entail the emotions and tenderness that are often key aspects of those duties and relationships.
But more often than not, women, whether single, married or in other kinds of romantic relationships, don’t find themselves in positions where they are able to live without having to work, especially if they have children and don’t fall within the upper middle class bracket (God forbid they make more than their man!). This particular scenario poses a melee on masculinity and manhood as it becomes compromised because:
- He again has to compare himself to other “men” who succeed in an area where he fails.
- Her needing to work suggests (by American masculinity concepts) that he isn’t “man” enough to support her, and
- Her ability to support herself to the degree that she’s able to can devalue his own sense of manhood, as she, in essence, and sometimes literally, can and does the same things as himself.
And the “man” must again try to preserve the manhood that he earned. As the cycle wants to continue, the omniscience of hypermasculinity becomes so deep-rooted in our relationships, especially romantic ones, that parents often end up teaching their sons the same things–so much that even boys who grow up without their fathers often develop many of their father’s qualities, despite learning from their mothers.
Fortunately, we live in a time where men and women alike are realizing that these standards and definitions are half made-up, half gender-neutral, but society’s ideas of manhood and masculinity are persistent. Maybe it’s in a man’s best interest that he adapt to himself, and remember that he is only a man, and it’s ok.