Being a Man in the 21st Century (Part 2)
Earlier this week, I began a discussion of the way that manhood in American society is changing. Today, I want to revisit the topic with some of my own ideas about how these changes could lead to a more enriching and satisfying take on masculinity.
Before I do that, though, I want to say how thrilled I was at the response the first post got – I had never expected such lengthy, thoughtful comments and the depth of insight that you, Lifehack’s readers, have shared with us. I had intended to respond directly to some of the comments, but they turned out to be so rich and complex that any response I could give would hardly do them justice. If you missed that post, I implore you to go back and look at the comments.
I also want to point out that these changes are not limited to the American scene, though that’s the context I know best. Around the world, women are emerging as major players in the increasingly global economy. One sign of the role women are playing is the success of the microloan movement, many of whose programs lend primarily or solely to women.
I don’t claim that I have all the answers, by the way. In fact, despite the fact that I teach women’s studies for a living and have spent more than a decade dwelling on the issues I’m raising in these posts, I am as prone to chauvinistic thinking, objectification of women, and just plain dumb behavior as the next guy. It’s the way we’ve been socially and culturally conditioned — creating unconscious thought processes that aren’t always immediately apparent. The best I think we can hope for is self-awareness and growth, not the instant transformation of every man into a superhero overnight. It will be the next generation, the kids who grow up in a world where women are full participants in our public lives, that will show us best how to be men that embrace true equality – and I have no doubt that they’ll look on me as unkindly as I look on, say, the anti-Suffragists of the last century.
We are all feminists now.
Aside from a few hard-core traditionalists, just about everyone now accepts as a given that both men and women will have an education, a career, and a public life. Each and every one of us benefits daily from the greater participation of women in our society: we use medicines developed by women, we use products designed by women, we live by laws written by and voted on by women, and so on. By lowering the barriers that prevented women from developing to their fullest extent in the past, we have effectively doubled the pool of talent that we as a society draw on.
The idea that a woman can’t be this or that is falsified by the reality that there is virtually no job category that women haven’t entered and excelled in. Real men encourage those around them, male or female, to realize their fullest potential, regardless of their own or others’ preconceptions. That’s feminism.
There is no “men’s work” and “women’s work”, there is only work.
Sociologists estimate that there are as many as 2 million stay-at-home dads in the US right now. And fathers as a whole – stay-at-home dads or otherwise – spend almost as much time with their children as mothers do. Men do laundry, cook dinner, buy groceries, and drop the kids off at soccer practice. Meanwhile, women write legal briefs, run for office, work construction equipment, and direct corporate mergers. The idea that certain kinds of work are “feminine” or “masculine” is dead in the water. Although there are plenty of holdouts who are still inclined to fill positions based at least in part on gender, the most successful businesses work hard to focus their hiring on demonstrated talent. Likewise, the most successful families have found that splitting household tasks not according to gender but according to skill and available time. There are plenty of un-handy men around, and plenty of non-domestic women, and we all benefit when they’re encouraged to do the things they’re good at instead of the things their gender allegedly suits them for.
Parenting is fundamental.
The reason that so many men are choosing to spend all or a significant part of their lives elbow-deep in domestic parenting tasks is that we are finally learning how much we’ve been missing in our traditional 8am-8pm work+commute+overtime workaholic schedules. Whole generations of men have missed not only seeing their kids grow up, but seeing themselves grow up. Parenting is about so much more than financially supporting someone through their childhood years, it’s about tending to cuts and scrapes, putting a balanced meal on the table, and dealing with the scores of childhood traumas that mark our growth into personhood. It’s about sacrifice, hands-on responsibility, and struggling alongside our kids to make sense of the world. The stereotypical middle-aged man sporting a ponytail and a convertible is, I think, a product of the kind of selfishness that real parenting necessarily eliminates.
Passion is a priority.
Manhood in the 20th century was about financial success – working a job you hate because it puts food on the table. With both men and women supporting their families, though, some of that pressure is lifted. Of course, we still need to work, but just as important as earning a living is the passion that drives us to excel – even at careers that are not especially lucrative. We can see, for instance, the rise of “lifestyle entrepreneurs“, people who start their own businesses not so much in hopes of getting rich but in order to support themselves doing something they love, as an indicator of the way that income is giving way to passion as a measure of one’s manhood.
It’s becoming harder and harder to take people who rant about the difference between men and women seriously. For every generalization, we can point to a thousand exceptions – men who love shopping and women who hate it, women who whoop and holler over their football team’s victory and men who couldn’t tell you if the Cleveland Browns play in the American League or the National League*.
Traditional masculinity was about punishing any man who stepped out of bounds, whether it was because he was gay, feminine, physically weak, or in some other way short of the masculine standard. That simply doesn’t fly any more – there are as many different ways of being “manly” (or “womanly”, for that matter) as there are men (or women). And success doesn’t come in spite of those differences, it comes because of it – they create the diversity that allows businesses, organizations, and other endeavors to be flexible, to adapt to changing circumstances, and to innovate. In short, difference allows us to thrive, and we need to stop fearing it and embrace it.
And that goes for other kinds of differences, too – racial, ethnic, sexual orientation, religious, national, linguistic, you name it. Being a confident man these days means not being threatened by what we don’t understand, it means seeking greater understanding.
* Yes, I know. It’s funny, see?
It’s about us.
Though “being one’s own man” has long been held up as a standard of masculinity, it’s rarely been realized in practice. The eras of manhood that we look back to nostalgically as models of “when men were men” – I’m thinking, for example, of the Mad Men
The 21st century offers men a real opportunity to live up to the ideal of being our own men, though. The possibilities for personal development and self-expression have never been greater. It’s no longer about what women find attractive – freed from the need to find man to support and protect them, women are finding themselves attracted to a wide range of types that in the past might have been considered “unmanly”. It’s no longer about being “one of the boys” – that kind of conformity is poison to the modern workplace and to modern communities. No, manhood today is about us, about living our own lives as fully and satisfyingly as we can.
It’s about you.
Like I said, I don’t have all the answers, and I’m intensely curious about your thoughts. I’ve left some things out, too – most notably sex, but also fashion, personality, and matters of taste or style. These things have become so various that there’s no way I could do them any justice here. By and large, I think they fall under the category of embracing difference – of recognizing that in a society where diversity is a crucial value, men will find a huge variety of ways to dress, act, enjoy their leisure time, and make love. But maybe you have thoughts on those topics as well – the conversation in part 1 was brilliant, let’s see if we can keep it up in the comments here!
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