With gender roles in flux, we often hear people ask what it means to be a man or to be a woman. But while women don’t have to prove they’re women, men do have to prove they’re men.
Feminism worked hard to create a female identity that is not defined in relation to men. But society today doesn’t teach boys how to forge identities as men independent of women.
In the mid-twentieth century Erik Erikson described the stages of psychosocial development, and whatever you think of stage theories most of us would agree that the adolescent crisis of identity vs role confusion looms large. But with 69% of media portrayals of men being negative (men are either Homer Simpson or dangerous), more and more boys growing up without fathers, and boys falling behind in school and university, becoming a man can be a matter of trepidation rather than triumph.
Further, there seem to be plenty of men willing to play the villain role, as all too common shooting rampages illustrate. These shooters’ sense of entitlement looms large, and there’s no shortage of non-violent men with a similar sense of entitlement.
But what also stands out is that this sense of entitlement makes women the gatekeepers of male identity. Specifically, there’s no male identity apart from a man’s status with other men, and this status is gained first by achieving status with women via sexual prowess. Thus, if he is unsuccessful with women then he convinces himself that women are relegating him to a low male status. But actually, this construction exists only in his mind (even if he initially absorbed it from society).
On the other hand, women sometimes try to set themselves up as the gatekeepers of male identity. For example, some feminists want to redefine masculinity, and usually in terms of how men should treat women, what men should do for women, etc. In other words, the feminist redefinition of masculinity is really about women, not men. I’m concerned that the documentary The Mask You Live In will take this stance, but that remains to be seen.
Those who define something own it. This is why a feminist redefinition of masculinity is problematic. Only men have the right to define masculinity. And only a man has the right to define his own masculinity – other men don’t have the right to do that for him. As such, the queeniest gay man is as much of a man as the most macho heterosexual guy.
Identity will always include a reference to others – we are relational beings, after all – but to be solid one’s core identity must be internal rather than external.
A masculine identity independent of female expectations reduces a male sense of entitlement toward women because entitlement often follows from a perceived quid pro quo: a man who believes (correctly or incorrectly) that he has fulfilled female expectations thinks women should reward him. When women don’t, he feels wronged and believes punishing women is legitimate.
But a positive male identity, one with an internal locus that is not contingent on women’s expectations, has no quid pro quo: he owes women nothing, and women owe him nothing.
How does a man build a positive and independent masculine identity? For boys, the presence of the biological father in the home is of utmost importance. Unfortunately, the rise in out-of-wedlock births, the welfare state, and a high divorce rate which removes fathers from their son’s everyday lives serve to deprive boys of the men they need in their lives.
Addressing misandry (hatred of men and boys), which is real, unjustified, and very harmful to boys’ self-esteem, identity, and self-worth is also essential if we want boys to grow into healthy men.
In addition, philosophy is an important resource for men. I don’t mean esoteric musings on metaphysics or deconstructing reality. I mean philosophy about how to live a good life and develop character, which is illustrated not by self-image but rather by how one actually treats other people. The ancient Greeks and Romans were concerned with the cultivation of character, but by the 1960s Western culture had jettisoned character as old fashion. It was a great loss.
Certain Greek philosophies, such as Epicureanism and Stoicism, are greatly misunderstood and need to be rediscovered. Epicurus, for example, did not teach that you should rock ‘n roll all night and party everyday. Rather, he taught that pleasure is maximized through moderation (one drink is enjoyable, but several create a hangover), and that friendship is the greatest pleasure.
And the Stoics didn’t teach that we should all be like Mr Spock. Stoic philosophy is closer to the Serenity Prayer: change the things you can, accept the things you cannot change, and be wise enough to know the difference. The difference being that the only thing one can ever control is oneself. Nothing external can be controlled, and though influence is possible there are no guarantees.
More modern philosophers are also important. John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty articulates the right to live your life as you choose so long as you don’t infringe upon the equal liberty of others.
Religion can sometimes serve this role as well, though conservative religion’s treatment of women as subservient is a huge problem that demonstrates a lack of character.
A positive male identity is also about knowing how to do stuff. A man who knows how to fix things, or play a musical instrument, create works of art, and so on feels a sense of accomplishment. Cultivating a hobby, becoming an expert in something, volunteering with Habitat for Humanity or taking adult ed classes to learn how to fix and build things contributes to a man’s sense of who he is without reference to other people’s expectations of him.