Real Men

How policing masculinity helps no one.

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

Picture, if you will, an encounter with the resident coffee snob in your life as you are coming out of your local coffee shop, brew in hand.

They, the snob, an eyebrow quizzically raised, ask the dreaded question,

“What did you get?”

You, with an inward sigh of dismay, tell the snob what you have, which you know is never going to be pure, dark, or earthy enough for them.

They respond with, “Ugh. When are you going to try ‘real coffee’?”

While it is not a new phenomenon for human beings to find some justification for making themselves feel superior to other human beings, as is the case with the coffee snob, there is an interesting version of this dismissive superiority complex in patriarchal, masculine culture that deserves discussion.

Photo by Bess Hamiti from Pexels

Psychologist James Garbarino writes in his book “Lost Boys”,

“Where and how do boys learn what it means to be a man? They seem to learn it all too often…. from the most visible males in their community, particularly their peers. Boys’ friends are the arbitrators of what is masculine and what is feminine, so resilience among the boys in a community depends upon changing macho attitudes among male peer groups and broadening their concept of what a real man is and does.” (Emphasis added)

This policing of masculinity by male peers during boyhood and beyond is a norm across the United States. On courts, fields, and playgrounds across the country young boys are learning that “blue is a boy color”, that wanting to play jump rope with the girls is “gay”, and the only way to survive is to “man up”. As these norms proliferate, there is a disturbing message being sent about what it means to be a “real man”, as if any boy who would rather paint or read than play basketball or football is a wooden Pinocchio puppet, or worse, “A Girl!”

As these young boys mature, they don’t grow out of this policing. They simply add more pieces to the puzzle of what makes a man “real”. The disinterest in all girls and “girly” things instead becomes a myopic interest in how girls and young women can be used for personal sexual gratification. Sexual domination of women becomes as attached to status as athletic prowess, which has now moved out of the playground and into the stadiums and gymnasiums. These norms perpetuate a lack of emotional connectivity and a pursuit of superiority. Moving up the masculine hierarchy becomes an all-consuming imperative, and the victimization of others is seen a necessary casualty of status.

Young men who never climb this hierarchy to gain popularity or social standing in their adolescence and beyond are still affected by these patriarchal definitions of masculinity. They are sold the same message only in slightly different packaging, which can lead to frustrated isolation. They develop their own version of “real masculinity” that is built on the same ideas of hierarchy and domination, though in realms outside of the perceived mainstream.

Instead of the football field, nerd masculine culture is built on prowess and domination in realms of intelligence. Here, a boy’s ability in video games, science, and math determine his status as a “real man”. The same drive to be sexually dominant abounds in nerd masculinity, and it creates the same level of detachment from any sexual partners whether virtual or in person.

When it became clear that I was only going to be average at sports for my entire life, I confess that I found refuge in this “counter” masculinity. I thought at the time that I was subverting the system and “being my own man”, but looking back, I simply repurposed the norms that I looked down on to give myself the smug satisfaction that I was superior to the “dumb jocks”. I was not alone in this. Efforts to subvert patriarchal masculinity often have the effect of perpetuating the very norms they are trying to counteract.

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This is the case even in feminist circles. Efforts to broaden ideas of masculinity are still relatively young. Early feminist thinkers and writers focused primarily on broadening definitions of femininity so that women could gain access to institutions, professions, and spheres traditionally controlled by men, and rightfully so, but now, decades later, most mainstream, liberal feminists have recognized that a core component of combatting men’s violence against women, workplace harassment, and campus sexual assault is engaging with men and theories of masculinity directly. Unfortunately, the efforts to engage men have often reinforced patriarchal masculinity rather than offering helpful alternatives.

The masculinity policing that gave us phrases like, “Real men don’t cry.” has now been repurposed to discourage male violence against women in the form of “Real men don’t hit women.” While this may initially sound like a positive shift in dialogue, it actually has several drawbacks.

The first of these drawbacks is that it lets patriarchal masculinity off the hook for creating emotionally repressed, anti-social, and violent men. It makes the argument that a few bad actors are simply, “going off script” when they perpetrate violence, instead of addressing and challenging the patriarchal script itself that has been creating violent, entitled, emotionally detached men for millennia.

Similar to the “Not all men!” argument, which I have written about before, the language of “real men” allows men who feel that they are not a part of the problem to absolve themselves from being part of the solution by giving them the perception that their masculinity, like their particular favorite coffee brew, is superior. After all, they are one of the “real men” who doesn’t hit women, so they are superior to those who do.

To be absolutely clear, Not beating up women (or anyone) is the literal lowest of bars.

No man in this country should ever be able to pat himself on the back for meeting this bare minimum standard of basic human decency.

Second, it perpetuates ideas of a male savior culture and chivalry. “Real men” who insist that their role is to protect the women in their lives are often just experiencing feelings of ownership masquerading as protectiveness. This masculinized repackaging of genuine care, connection, and nurturance can create unhealthy relationship dynamics because it infantilizes women and perpetuates ideas of male dominance.

Neil Peart wrote of the sometimes-damaging effects of protectors when he said,

“Sometimes the fortress is too strong
Or the love is too weak
What should have been our armor
Becomes a sharp and angry sword”

If feminism as a movement is to engage men effectively in efforts to curb male violence against women, or any group, it must be careful not to encourage them to become the male saviors who don their armor and ride off to rescue the damsels in distress because any time those power dynamics are introduced, the potential for further abuse increases. It might not be physical abuse, but it will nonetheless create lasting harm and continue to perpetuate gender inequality.

Finally, “real men” messaging continues to support the idea that there is one “real” masculinity. As the quote from James Garbarino pointed out, creating more emotionally and socially whole boys and men requires a broadening of definitions of masculinity. This necessarily means a refusing to use rhetoric that delineates between “real men” and “other men”. “All men are real, and all forms of masculinity are real” has to be the message if efforts to reduce male suffering and the violence that suffering causes are ever to gain real ground.

It is important to note that this broadening masculinity does not mean that every form of masculinity is healthy or helpful. Any form of masculinity that is based off of patriarchal notions of power, control, and domination should be discouraged. More importantly, masculinities that prioritize healthy social and emotional connections should be reinforced and encouraged. This can’t be done if every boy and man is constantly being told that there is only one “real” form of masculinity.

Photo by Tim Bogdanov on Unsplash

Our efforts to introduce healthy alternatives to masculinity must be built on an entirely new system. This necessarily means redefining our collective understanding of maleness, which includes changing the way we use the language of maleness. If we want more emotionally engaged fathers and husbands, we need to expand our use of the word father to include nurturing, caring, and loving. If we want to end male violence, we must find ways to speak about male love. If we want to encourage cooperation and connection in masculinity, we must leave behind rhetoric that equates maleness with domination. If we want to empower men to be whole and grounded in their own identity, then we need to build larger frameworks that give space for those men to express who they are without fear of ridicule or ostracization.

This work of redefining, broadening, and reinventing has to be conversational, and we cannot afford to leave out any voices simply because they are not “real” enough.

Intersectional feminist social worker. Creator of feministmasculinity.com. Advocate for survivors of intimate partner violence.

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