As an undergrad, I was invited by a mentor to discuss my experiences with masculinity. Walking into the meeting, I expected to feel good about helping a friend with her graduate school work; walking out, I was startled at how busy my mind was. Masculinity, particularly the pressure to perform masculinity, had been a particularly pervasive force in my life.
In grad school, I based my thesis work around the topic of masculinity. My participants seemed equally startled by the volume of messages, of rules and codas, they were working to perform and uphold. So many messages about what ‘real men’ do.
Digging into gender performance is a little bit of a rabbit hole; once you’ve begun digging, you see a lot of assumptions and societal structures unravel a bit. Small things, like the adjectives we give to young boys and girls to bolster their self-esteem, become tainted by knowledge that we are reinforcing gender roles. (As such, I am constantly working to give my nieces adjectives like brilliant and headstrong and bright in lieu of pretty, which may or may not be unnecessary.) The toys we give children, the assumptions we make about unborn babies whose sex is known to us, the contrast between gendered greeting cards.
What ‘real men’ do. I think a good majority of the people I see on a day-to-day basis have been challenged to think about statements like ‘be a man’ and ‘man up’ before; it seems like these messages have analyzed on a pretty wide basis. (I know not everybody ‘drinks the Kool-Aid,’ but that’s another discussion.) Despite this, however, I still see messages like the following shared on a regular basis:
The message being portrayed here, in case the this isn’t clear, is that ‘real men’ get the car door for women. And there are many, many more:
Messages like these populate my social media feed on a pretty regular basis, and – to some extent – they don’t seem all that harmful. If we’re going to pressure men toward some behaviors, then actions like wearing pink for breast cancer awareness, doing laundry, and being faithful to girlfriends are certainly not the worst ones, right?
The trouble with ‘real men’ statements. First, the obvious: Not all men do laundry, not all men wear pink, not all men have girlfriends, and not all men who do treat the women they’re dating with love and respect. I get that the point of statements like these is to insult men who don’t take these actions by stripping their masculinity (implying they aren’t ‘real men’), which is worthy of some analysis on its own, but it also leads to accidental exclusions. Are single men not ‘real men’? Are men who have boyfriends not ‘real men’? And, say, if a man makes an agreement with his wife that she does the laundry and he does the dishes, is he not a ‘real man’?
Creating these rules, these checkboxes for ‘real man’ masculinity performance, also creates opportunities for men to feel at odds with society’s view of their masculinity.
What strikes me as equally, if not more, troublesome, however, is the dismissive nature of assigning negative actions to men who are not ‘real men.’ If men treat their girlfriends poorly, and we say this is because they are not ‘real men,’ then are ‘real men’ off the hook for improving the society we’re creating together? And who are these ‘non-real men’? My guess is very few men openly identify as ‘non-real men.’ So, then, who’s taking responsibility for these actions?
Because here’s the truth: Real men engage in sexual assault, and real men don’t. Real men bring violence into their relationships, and real men don’t. Real men have girlfriends, real men have boyfriends, and real men don’t have significant others. Real men are good fathers, real men are absent fathers, and real men can’t bear children. Real men are faithful to their spouses, real men are habitually unfaithful, and real men fail and get up in their marriages. Real men do laundry and don’t. Real men wear pink and black and leather and chiffon and capris and H&M and, sometimes, nothing at all. Because all men are ‘real men.’