Recently, Doug French touched on an issue at the new Babble Dads site that I’ve been mentally tossing around for a while now. One that is very relevant to this blog, and in some ways is part of why it was started:
What does it mean to be a man?
Of course, “be a man” is something every guy hears at some point in their lives, which is why it’s funny (or perhaps sad) that so few of us have any clue about what that actually looks like. As Doug rightly points out, it starts as a set of cultural must-haves: smoke cigars, watch sports, chase women, etc. But this is a pretty shallow view of manliness, and most – emphasis on most - guys at some point realize that there has to be more to being a man than that.
Figuring out what that is, however, has not been easy. Most of the media portrayals of men either fall into this stereotype, using this bounded set of cultural markers as a guide, or characterize guys as overgrown man-boys who are absolutely clueless about what it means to “be a man.” (Recent exception: Will Arnett’s character on Up All Night. Check it out.)
There is some truth behind these portrayals. Because there are few cultural guides to take us men beyond the “be a man” checklist, it’s no wonder anyone who’s smart enough to want to move beyond it is still clueless about how to actually do it.
The few well-meaning individuals who have tried to help move the conversation about “being a man” forward have, in my opinion, in some cases done more harm than good. They’ve tried to expand the cultural bounded set to include other “manly” activities or endeavors, and in the process they’ve turned being a man into a cultural caricature, and ironically made it less likely that men will be taken seriously.
So what is to be done if we really are going to change the conversation? What does a man really look like? According to Doug, if you want to know what a real man looks like, start with fathers. Fathers are biologically and emotionally required to move beyond the old “be a man” bullshit, if we want to actually be in the day-to-day trenches with our kids. Everything else, including learning to parallel park like a man, takes the sidelines.
And I think he’s right. I’ve even seen this conversation shift happen for myself on this blog, which was always about processing what it meant to be a father, but started off with shallower checklist-type explorations and has become, hopefully, something much deeper. Having a kid gives you three-dimensional vision. Suddenly the world seems much more complicated, much more emotionally charged. And you experience a joy that smoking a good cigar could never bring. (And I happen to love a good cigar, so that’s a painful statement to make.)
This isn’t to say that all is lost for non-fathers. I think we just need a new model, a new conversation for men that is a little bit more creative. Pretty soon I’ll explore some of my ideas for this, but in the meantime, what’s your experience been like struggling (or not) with this concept of “being a man”?