Be a Man: a Discourse on 21st Century Masculinity
The Gillette Advert has, for reasons I do not fully understand, caused a sensation. There are people who are praising it for sending out the right message on toxic masculinity, and there are people condemning it vociferously for portraying masculinity as inherently evil. The fact, however, is that an advert really matters little—they are ultimately paid promotions of products, not vehicles of social change, and the people who are quick to heap praise or criticism on it (especially in this case) are either pretentious or simply b*tthurt. Yet, even in what I consider to be an overreaction about a simple advert on shaving products, there’s a deeper discussion that is going on. For more than a couple of thousand years, men across the world have been told that they are stronger, better and smarter; it has been their job to be responsible for ‘their’ women and ‘their’ children; it has been their duty to die first in battle and it has been their job to take charge without shedding a tear and without ever doubting oneself. But now, in these feminist times, assumptions about masculinity are not only being challenged but also being designated as evil—and for a good reason. But with all of this change, masculinity is being radically redefined. The question is what should it be redefined into?
One has to appreciate the difficulty of this question to even begin to answer it. There are so many issues, from the plain-fact biological to the unwittingly socio-cultural, that one does not know what to address first. This means all thoughts about what masculinity ought to be cannot be discussed in the abstract, for we simply do not know what the source of masculinity as a social or perhaps natural construct really is. All we can try to do is pragmatically accept its existence and move on to see how we can mould it to suit our times—in both a moral and philosophical sense. And that again reinforces the fact that instead of some grand theory of what it must mean to be a man, we must develop more specific guidelines on what it should mean to be a man.
A fairly good place to begin would be in the surprisingly simple but controversial question of who should pay for a date between heterosexual couples. One can easily see why “old-world masculinity” would always make the man pay: Men were supposed to have the financial resources which they would use to ‘woo’ women. With women possessing little financial independence (or any independence, really), and depending on men for nearly everything material, men paying for dates made sense—even if it was due to unjust laws and the fantasies of the patriarchy with regard to its own benevolence. But all of that has changed now and women are (at least on paper) not denied basic rights like the one to property, a voice and to work. So, the idea that men should have an obligation to pay for food and alcohol as a projection of their ability to give a damn when seeing someone seems morally bankrupt, not to mention unfair as well. Yet, a change of the rules to equal sharing seems ham-handed. It does not take into account that sometimes people are feeling rich or bound to old-school values for no discernible reason. More importantly, it simply denies agency to people, instead of letting them negotiate it with each other. A better kind of masculinity that truly involves an end to male presumptions of power and responsibility cannot simply say: Thou shalt split the bill for thou art equal. That is only a sign of compromising pride; it is a technical solution to a psychological problem. The rules on dating must be an expression of true cooperation, and they can only begin to be so when people recognise that independent, equal individuals decide matters among themselves. To say that people must split the bill all the time is to mould a masculinity that need not actually listen or cooperate, for it feels that there is a simple rule in place. But to say: there are no rules, you must exercise self-respect and empathy when negotiating who pays, re-enforces a most important aspect of what modern masculinity should be. It symbolises an attempt to outgrow the need for the patriarchy itself as a balm to one’s self-esteem. A contextualised, no overarching rules approach encourages real interaction, it forces both men and women to actually ask the question of what is fair when two people, equal in dignity, decide to strike a settlement for mutual benefit.
Masculinity is undeniably linked to how good men feel about themselves. I don’t know if there is something biological to it or if it is purely cultural, but the male to female ratio of suicides is proof to me that men not feeling good about themselves has some serious consequences. Many people identify the root of this problem to be toxic masculinity, but that only addresses the surface of the issue. Of course, a man being forced to bottle all emotion save aggression is bound to be attracted to suicide in the face of life’s sh*t. But conversely, without a feeling of independence and strength in the face of one’s fears, they’re not bound to feel very good about themselves either. The old patriarchal notion of masculinity is not entirely wrong in wanting men to weather things stoically. It is simply important for both men and women to try and take control of their lives when in crisis, rather than near-constantly crying about it. The only thing a new masculinity needs to do is stop emasculating an expression of emotion, whilst certainly rewarding personal fortitude and the ability to skilfully (and quietly) manage one’s misery. Without this positive change, masculinity risks either being dependent on the fragile male ego of being ‘hard’ or being a source of emotional release that does not provide courage. This new notion of male self-belief tells us that boys should cry, that they should not be unwilling to admit to sadness and dejection. However, it cautions us that crying should not replace men’s self-worth by perpetuating avoidance and self-doubt. In other words, modern masculinity must give men a better way to cry: it must tell them they must be “man enough” to be able to do so, and “man enough” to be able to overcome the urge to only do so.
With the crying bit set aside, the more difficult questions put forward by the #metoo movement need to be addressed. It is clear that old-world masculinity has either failed to deal with an oppressive culture in the workplace or in enforcing rules of consent. The problem is obvious: the patriarchy does make women objects. But that misses the forest for the trees, for it does not ask the difficult question of why society decided to have the patriarchy in the first place. I would contend the answer to that question is tantalisingly simple. As Devdutt Pattanaik, a popular Indian mythologist contends, human beings have “the patriarchy” verily because nature doesn’t consider males to be that important. In nature, all that a whole pride of lionesses requires is one (perhaps two) male lions to produce the next generation of cubs. Human society is entirely different, even if it has polygamy or polyandry, it tries to value every virile male as a prospective husband or partner for his ability to care for and produce human offspring. Practically speaking, this translates into the notion of the patriarchy, where a literal race for being an alpha male is replaced with the notion that every male who can find a female(s) has rights and obligations in relation to that female—which other males are restricted from having. This creates some kind of social order, but it makes men, whether fathers, brothers, husbands or lovers, believe that they can (and must) control what happens to the females associated with them. And this leads to the inevitable manifestation of the patriarchy that the #metoo movement has so clearly exposed. Men will (if they choose) assert what they consider “sexual rights” over the women who are associated with them because they believe their association with them, whether at the workplace or inside a marriage, gives them that right.
The cultural paradigm so described is the source of all problems discussed in the previous paragraphs, it is this fundamental insecurity of not being an alpha male that leads to men wanting to own, protect and control the women they have around them. They have to do so, there must be rules that enforce so, otherwise all of us ‘inadequate’ men will be naturally selected out. We must ensure “our property” understands who they belong to, whether it be through non-disclosure agreements or entertaining our putrid pick-up lines at the workplace. One can combat the patriarchy as a construct, but that hardly addresses the fragile male ego that underpins this socio-cultural construct. To combat that, men need to be told that their honour and their power doesn’t reside in their control of the women around them. Men need to be reminded that it is okay if they feel inadequate, that they must never seek subjugation of women (or anyone) as a therapy for low self-esteem and an absurd “will to power”. How does one crystallise that abstract notion in a practical context? Simple: to quote a friend, we must remind men that “life is an embarrassment, and we’re going to die anyway”. So, if we find ourselves being unable to get the women we want, it really matters little. The fundamental mortality and absurdity of life mean that our need to define our self-worth through our power over women (or anything) is futile—for we’re already inadequate, to begin with.
In fact, that is the existential reality that stares at us men every time we discuss what it means to be a man. We men already realise, deep down, that we are pathetically inadequate. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t have to construct so many fallacies to make ourselves feel better, whether they be rules that project our wealth, rules on not crying, or rules that state: “boys will be boys”. My conception of masculinity expresses a core desire to do away with all those stupid rules that are completely unfit for a most egalitarian age. A new kind of masculinity must rely on fostering an inner strength that lets men outgrow our base fears. Self-esteem, in any moral or philosophical sense, cannot come from the outside; it cannot come from protecting or subjugating others. Self-esteem or the belief in oneself must be exuded, it must be a source of impregnable strength from within. A modern definition of masculinity must reflect this deep truth, it must seek to give men the ability to outgrow their weaknesses (and, therefore, the patriarchy) and to embrace a more complete personality that is a result of true internal self-belief.
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