I grew up in the 1980s on a strict TV diet of alpha macho men; for me, it was Bruce Willis, Burt Reynolds, Arnie, and Sylvester Stallone. If they weren’t jumping off burning buildings, lassoed to a firehose whilst firing a semi-automatic weapon, then they were taking on armies of men single-handedly.
In many ways, they were my role models growing up and showed me everything I needed to know about what it meant to be a man.
You had to be strong, fearless, dominant, assertive, and independent; they were like walking billboards for masculinity. Whilst these traits are all virtues it didn’t leave much room for anything else.
Like many boys I didn’t measure up well to this modelling of masculinity and as a result became detached from any deeper sense of who I was, and what I belonged to.
Man 1.0 = Masculine
The definition I’d learnt of what it meant to be a man, and what it meant to be masculine, appeared to be the same thing. It’s a definition that’s been around a long time, let’s call it Man 1.0.
These two terms were inextricably linked because if you weren’t masculine then you weren’t a man. Showing any feminine traits was unacceptable and during my childhood I was shown repeatedly how this kind of behaviour wouldn’t be tolerated.
As a result, the cast within which I would grow had been set. It clearly wasn’t possible to exhibit masculine and feminine traits, you were either in (all masculine) or out (anything else). I was very much “out”, however, I pretended to be “in” for most of my life. Too afraid to express myself in a way that went against the social norm.
A design for man
As I grew up we were taught and conditioned to live up to this expectation of Man 1.0 as the “design for man” all boys and parents aspired to.
We were encouraged to display masculine traits and were repeatedly told what behaviour was and wasn’t acceptable. We learnt what to value and how we would benefit if we played along.
Any show of traits to the opposite was met, by many good meaning parents, with disappointment. No young boy wants to disappoint his parents, and so the game of fitting in began.
Some of the phrases I heard during my childhood were:
- “Be a man”
- “Boys don’t do that”
- “Eat this and you’ll grow up big and strong”
- “You don’t want people to think you’re a girl do you”
- “That’ll put hairs on your chest”
- “He’s a man’s man”
- “Boys don’t cry”
- “Don’t act like a girl”
The expectations were clear for all to see. The language demonstrated what was acceptable, what was not, and what rewards we would receive if we were good boys. The pressure cooker of emotions, once open and expressive in my early years, slowly began to close up due to the feeling of shame I felt for expressing traits not consistent with Man 1.0.
Thirty years on and I question how much has really changed. Yes, we are far more aware of the effects of treating boys like this, but many of the deep-seated beliefs still exist.
There’s still a very strong and clear message being shared in society about what we do and don’t value most of all in our boys and men. It’s the same masculine virtues, but the difference today is that the society and culture surrounding this has changed.
The reality today is that men are no longer needed to solely provide and protect as they once did. The masculine traits once owned by men, are now shared by all. Women are now able to meet many of these traditional needs themselves.
As a result, women and society in general are now demanding a whole new range of skills and behaviours from men. Skills and behaviours that are unknown to many men because they weren’t expressed within the constraints of their peer groups or the version of Man 1.0 they were taught.
It’s a threat
This threatens many men because it opposes how they have been told to define themselves. If they’re not the one fulfilling the masculine traits then they feel emasculated and will oppose and oppress those that do.
The problem with this is that if men choose to define themselves based on a version of the world that doesn’t exist anymore, then they will continue to experience problems in that world. They will live a life blaming others without realising that the game they have been playing all this time has changed.
The world still wants men who are masculine now more than ever. Men with strength, honour and integrity who can lead and stand up for what they believe in. The difference is that the world also wants men who embody feminine traits: compassion, empathy, vulnerability and patience.
We need to redefine how we see men in a way that allows them to realise that they can embody any of these traits. Being a man who is masculine does not negate your ability to be a man who is feminine as well. This is not an either/or scenario. Some of the most masculine men I know are also the most feminine too.
We need a change
As a result, it’s necessary to upgrade our definition of what it means to be a man that allows for the new world that we all live in. It’s very difficult to break free from our societal definitions and expectations that go back millennia, but we need to start somewhere and begin to change our expectations of men.
Defining what it means to be a man has a biological and physical element (yes I have a penis and yes I have a Y chromosome). However, there is a deeper dimension to it that that can be found in the expressions of masculinity and femininity.
Ideally, we would never need to define what it means to be a man, but men need to define themselves relative to the different social groups they are placed in. This is because they need to know what their role is so they can feel valued. This is no different to women, but the box men have been placed in has been more tightly defined than that for women.
As Margaret Meade once said:
“The challenge of the age is finding a role for man that is acceptable to him”
This quote feels as relevant today as the day she spoke it over 50 years ago. The role she speaks of is largely determined by how men choose to define themselves. Therefore we need a change to how we define what it means to be a man.
Man 2.0 = Masculine + Feminine
The new definition needs to be flexible to allow each man to define it for himself specific to his own unique experience. We need to give men space and authority to allow them to define themselves relative to both masculine and feminine traits.
Men need a non-judgemental society with whose help they can explore what is the truest expression of who they are. Let’s call this definition Man 2.0.
This is the place to come from in defining the modern man. A healthy mix of masculine and feminine traits and giving each man the support to find where he best sits on that spectrum.
How he chooses to express that is down to him, but I hope for the day when a man is able to express what it means to be a man as he sees, and not how he is directed. No one way is right or wrong, it’s about allowing each man to find his own truth.
That’s because being a man is about deeply knowing yourself. It’s about embodying and expressing this fully in your life without expectations, shame or guilt for what this means.
I hope this post was helpful. What do you think? Do we need to change how we define men? Let me know in the comments and please share this post with a friend if you enjoyed it.
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