Masculinity is one of those topics that every man (and woman) thinks they instinctively understand, yet most people know practically nothing about.
Isn’t it fascinating to see how easy it is to control someone simply by demanding that he “act like a man!” If you’re a woman reading this, don’t bother hiding that guilty little smile… we know, already, honey. We know.
What exactly does it mean, then?
Here lies the “downward spiral of manhood” that dooms most men. This has nothing to do with “men’s rights” and everything to do with a man’s choices.
The Downward Spiral of Modern Shame-Based Masculinity
The spiral begins somewhere near the beginning of adolescence. The first boy in a peer group starts to show signs of sexual maturity: he has a growth spurt, perhaps, or his voice naturally deepens as the usual male sex hormones take their effect in his bloodstream.
He becomes taller, strong. and more muscular, maybe even more assertive or aggressive. Other boys (and girls) take note. Then other boys also hit puberty, and thus the race is on to Become A Man. As with other socialized aspects of our lives as animals, our physical attributes become conceptual: a man isn’t just a human with androgenic hormones and visibly male genitalia. A man is someone who has to walk, talk and behave a certain way. If you don’t measure up to the standards of masculinity as defined by your peer group, you’re not yet a man.
Are Rappers and Thugs “Real Men”?
One of the inspirations for this entry was randomly watching a series of rap battles by well-known street lyricists (what else to call them? They’re neither poets nor musicians, really). The vast majority of the rappers’ maybe-improvised rhymes were either bragging about themselves (my guns, my money, my “bitches”) or denigrating the opponent’s right to brag about his own manhood.
If you step back for a moment, you might recognize an incongruity. We can accept for a moment — one-trick pony popstars like Iggy Azalea notwithstanding — that rap music embodies a certain facet of African-American culture. That facet is essentially centered around poverty and criminality born from a background of systemic repression and lack of opportunity. Given these facts, “masculinity” in the rap music world means being poor, living in between prison sentences, and being denigrated, otherwise mistreated or outright ignored by everyone in mainstream society.
That’s what it means to “be a man”? That seems like the opposite message from all the hypermasculine, “Alpha ape” posturing so desperately glorified by rappers (and rapaciously marketed as an entertaining fantasy to the middle-class masses). The hip-hop version of a man is the opposite of what any intelligent person not trapped in the “thug life” would ever aspire to be.
Much of the interpersonal heckling that passes for humour in battle-rap centers around the combatant’s sexuality. If you want to insult a rapper, call him a “faggot”. Call him a “weirdo” (code for “faggot”). Tell the audience that his whole crew is gay.
Outside of rap music, being “outed” as gay can also lead to marginalization from one’s own family and in society at large.
In that case, is a real man inevitably also a proudly homophobic straight man?
Is heterosexuality the Gold Standard of Manhood?
In functional terms, manhood could likely be boiled down to two broad criteria: greed and lust. Lust is where we’ll find a clue to the “hetero male = real man” question.
Greed: If a guy gets rich, he automatically can wield a certain amount of power. Power is manly, right?
Interestingly, the stereotypical gay man is limp-wristed, effete, weak — he receives sex rather than gives it. He is essentially powerless, much like the stereotypical woman.
Well, unfortunately for worshippers at the Altar of Manliness, nowadays we see that women no longer need men to make millions. Women are perfectly capable of becoming CEOs of multinational corporations and making valuable (and profitable) contributions to science and society.
In other words, women are just as greedy as men. Greed is not a sexual or gendered trait.
Lust: If a guy has lots of sex, he must be a real man, right?
Women like sex just as much as men. Our species would have a major problem if one gender didn’t want to reproduce. And gay men may enjoy even more sex partners that straights do (think of what might happen in a room full of guys who all want sex — from each other. Answer: lots of sex. For every bottom, there is a top).
Lust (hetero-, homo-, or bisexual), then, also has nothing to do with being male, or being a man.
Do You Have To Act A Certain Way In Order To Be A Man?
Another fascinating attribute of “masculinity” is how it varies between cultures and across time. From ancient Greece to feudal Japan, athletes and warriors were known for both honor-bound culture and ritualized homosexuality. In some cases, a relationship between two men was seen as the purest form of love, and this was, for them, simply the normal way of things.
In modern-day world pop culture, you might still see a Japanese rock star and mistake him for a woman. The stadiums full of screaming fangirls have no such difficulties, though. As recently as the 1980s, American popular culture was full of cross-dressing musicians who personified the term, “get laid like a rockstar”. Boy-band members and emo guys wear eyeliner and hipster dudes sometimes sports girls’ jeans. Even male R&B stars pierce their ears and style their hair in flamboyantly colorful ways.
You might be amazed to peruse the back-catalog of greatest artists and musicians from the past hundred years and note how many of them were, in fact, either bisexual or gay. If you idolize Marlon Brando or James Dean as paragons of “toughness” or “rebelliousness”, then darling, there’s something about them you really ought to know…
Once again, the number of women swooning over sexually liberated cultural icons could point to some secret that women could share — if only you knew how to ask.
Do women know what it means to be a man better than you do?
In online dating (and elsewhere), women will almost immediately put your identity to the sharp end of this entry’s titular question: are you a real man?
The next in the mating dance is so predictable, it’s practically choreographed: So you say you’re a real man, huh? Okay. Prove it.
What do women seem to believe constitutes a real man?
A real man, as we know, is rich and powerful. An obvious example of the “expensive man” archetype has been brought to life in a massively popular novel-turned-movie. Although practically everyone agrees that Fifty Shades of Grey was trash in paperback form (derived from a Twilight fanfic, no less), it has also been a worldwide wreckingball at cash registers. Hollywood further capitalized on the phenomenon with a smash-hit movie that made instant global megastars of two relatively unknown actors as well.
Make no mistake: the customers who ate up the (not really) sadomasochistic “mummy porn” (that’s “mommy porn” for you Americans — porn for plain-vanilla bored moms) were women, women and more women. Their clueless boyfriends and husbands came in a distant second as soon-to-be-misused “kinky” sex toys flew off the shelves after every midnight showing of Fifty Shades.
For the millions — perhaps billions — of women who devour romance novels that are really instruction manuals on how to find a rich guy, “stacking paper” (as a battle rapper might say to mean “making money”) is the shortcut to manhood, and the easy way to a woman’s gold-digging heart.
There’s only one problem with that requirement, though.
Reaching the Deep-End of Masculinity’s Downward Spiral
The vast majority of men, are not, and will never be, rich and/or powerful. The nature of scarcity-driven societies throughout time is essentially this: the ruling few sit at the top, and the masses suffer in ignominy below. When machines replace humans as slaves to the elite, the common man and woman will surely not benefit much more than they do now.
In other words, if you’re a guy who relies on becoming anything like Christian Grey, note also that you’ll almost certainly be living a lie. A woman doesn’t need superhuman “empathic intuition” to tell a real rich guy from a fake. She can take a quick look at the labels on your expensive-looking shirts while you sleep. She can inspect your social circle and check the zip codes of your closest mates. She’ll immediately slot you by your parents’ social status just by asking what they do for a living. Innocent-seeming “getting to know you” chat almost always has a deeper meaning when you’re dealing with a “significant other”.
An easy way to see this is to test her in return. Give silly answers to her “Twenty Questions” interrogation game. See if she gets upset, or rolls with it and engages you in role-play. A woman who demands “serious” answers is probably both a bore and a social climber of the lowest order. Note that if you fall into her trap by giving real answers, you’ll have failed for reasons that I may tell you more about some other time. Suffice to say that if you’re a man of average means, you’re more likely to go broke chasing tail as a “pickup artist” (in terms of both time and money thrown away) than find true love with a female player.
The Shame Game
If you’ve ever been in an argument with a woman, what’s the first card she’ll probably pull? Yes, of course. It’s the “act like a real man” card. But if you’re not a super-rich member of the falsely-named “upper class”, you’ve already lost. I’m glad you’re reading carefully so you guessed it already — this is the Shame Game at work. The fact that most men never clearly examine the definition of masculinity means that they’ll forever be manipulated by anyone who has something that they want. The essence of Girl Game is that men want sex and love from women. The entire game is gendered, hence it’s also a tangle of stereotypes and ever-shifting demands based on acting like your desired mate’s version of “man” or “woman”.
This is why “How Exactly Do You ‘Act Like A Man?'” is a trick question. Gender is physically nonexistent. Gender is a socially constructed consensual fantasy engaged in by two or more people in a particular place, at a given time.
From Shame to Freedom
If you allow someone else to define the meaning of gender for you, you’ll be a slave to other peoples’ definitions for the rest of your life. In that light, “be a man” means exactly the opposite of what you probably thought prior to reading this entry. Finally, then, what is a real man? A real man can at any moment make his own choice to define the word for himself, and live by that definition without fear of anyone else’s attempts to shame or limit his intrinsic value as a human being.
Until you internalize this understanding, you are not yet a man (or a woman, for that matter). To the extent that you do, you have earned one more degree of social freedom.