Friday, 4 November 2016

What It Really Means to ‘Be a Man’

The trouble with "what it means to be a man"

Most men can likely remember being told at some point in their lives to ‘be a man’ or to ‘man up’. These phrases are much more than mere words and they hold a deeper and very disconcerting meaning to the young men they’re directed towards. Whether it’s because of the stoic, rugged and individualistic characterization of men in mainstream media or the raising of young boys to grow up to be ‘real men’—the concept of ‘being a man’ has always equated to a very constructed and often destructive identity.

The idea of a ‘real man’ in the media and in our culture constitutes a very narrow idea of what it really means to be a man. According to this construct, ‘real men’ are expected to be strong, independent, athletic, rugged, intimidating, serious and tough. Men are expected to be casually and consistently confident and always in control of any given situation at any given time. To be a ‘man of value’ is to be wealthy, sexually active, and dominating and for many men, self-worth is determined not through physical and emotional health but by physical strength and a strict disciplining of one’s own emotions.

And during times of adversity, when the difficulties of the world are so overwhelmingly frequent and it seems like everything is just one step forward and two steps back, men are, more often than not, expected to ‘man up’ and carry the burden of whatever may be thrown at them. As a ‘real man’, you simply cannot admit that everything may not be okay because you’re ‘a man’ and you should be in control of your life. To show emotion is apparently to show weakness and as a ‘real man’, you must never under any circumstance show any weakness. You’re expected to be strong and therefore you should be strong enough to overcome your problems and your emotions on your own.

But this pre-determined path of solitude and mental toughness that men are expected to take leaves many men leading their lives behind a mask that may be hiding how increasingly lost and scared they may feel at times. When admitting to personal issues or shedding a tear are seen as things that may make you ‘less of a man’ or could potentially label you within your friend groups as a ‘pussy’, seeking support for struggles can feel as isolating as being trapped on a deserted island.

It can especially be a difficult thing for a male to admit to and find help for mental illnesses and disorders. Many men might choose to push through these circumstances in a solo effort rather than seeking the right support and care—as that is what a ‘real man’ would do. But the reality is, choosing to push through these mental health problems is like trying to pull yourself out of quicksand; struggling endlessly to stay on top yet ceaselessly being sucked down below without stop.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, suicide rates for men are four times higher than that of women. This encouraged and often praised repression of emotions is literally killing young men. We cannot continue socializing young men to mask their emotions, allowing them to sink into fragile, insecure and helpless states of minds for the sake of fitting into a narrow and very two-dimensional characterization of what it means to be a man.

We must abandon this masquerade of false masculinity. Young men need to be taught that what it means to be a man isn’t to be rugged, stoic or tough. What it really means to be a human being. And to be a human-being means to be alive with a plethora of different emotions and passions. Being vulnerable doesn’t mean you’re weak; it means you’re full of life.

There is simply no room to grow in this small box of masculinity. Men need to have the freedom to be a more complete version of themselves. We must begin looking at all those rugged images and stoic portrayals of men in media and entertainment not as reflections of reality but as constructed caricatures. And we have to understand that telling that young boy who sheds a tear to ‘man up’ has a devastating impact not just on him but on all of us.

I believe that this is why men should care about gender equality as well. The fact that men are choosing to live in pain rather than getting help because of their gender exemplifies how men don’t have all the benefits of equality yet either. Just as women should be free to be strong and assertive, men should be free to be emotional and sensitive.

Emma Watson once said that, “if men don’t have to be aggressive in order to be accepted, women won’t feel compelled to be submissive. If men don’t have to control, women won’t have to be controlled.” We must remember that these prescribed gender roles which affect both men and women are inextricably linked. If we identify and understand these old, skewed perceptions that affect the both of us, then perhaps we can begin to work with one another on a path towards a time when we will not be defined by our gender but by our own specific values, passions, and endeavors. Both men and women should be free to be vulnerable or assertive or however way they may choose to define themselves because it is not until then that we will have true gender equality.

Jeremiah - YouAlberta Contributor

Jeremiah is a 2nd year political science student minoring in English. Originally from Canmore, he currently serves as a Residence Assistance in Lister Hall. A loyal Toronto Maple Leafs, he has a keen interest in literature and human rights and hopes to work in a field where he can be involved in social justice. In collaboration with his friends, he's created a social media anti-discrimination campaign called the World Mosaic Project.

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