In our culture, masculinity is considered something you earn, while femininity is considered an essential quality. You just are a woman, while you have to work to earn the right to be a man.
I have a Google alert set for the phrase “how to be a man” because I recently published a short story collection by that title. Very rarely does my book come up, of course, but time and again it links to men testifying about their coaches or other father figures—who are very often not their fathers, a subject that deserves its own essay—and the difference these men made in their lives.
So I’ve been thinking a lot: In our culture, masculinity is considered something you earn, while femininity is considered an essential quality. You just are a woman, while you have to work to earn the right to be a man.
What comes up for a Google search of “how to be a woman” are mostly references to author Caitlin Moran’s book of that title, a “half memoir, half polemic” about modern-day women’s issues. What comes up for “how to be a man” are references to a new movie, a comedy, by Chad Harbold and then a bunch of advice columns in places like Esquire and WikiHow and other places.
The discussions surrounding how to be a woman are outwardly focused on societal women’s issues. The explorations of how to be a man, however, are inwardly focused, and this phrase is often said with a sort of bravado or anger: “How to F*#%ing Be a Man.” It’s also said as an imperative: “Be a Man!”
Think about it. From a very young age, boys are asked to prove themselves. They hold competitions to see who is the strongest or fastest or best at video games. Left to their own devices, they may play cooperatively, but they are often encouraged into fierce competition by their parents and coaches and other adults. Sports foster many great qualities, but we’ve all seen parents shout at coaches and refs. Kids internalize this attitude.
Sure, some of us are more competitive than others, and certainly I’ve known some women who are just as competitive as men. However, my nonscientific observation is that boys are encouraged in these rivalries to a degree that girls are not. Girls are encouraged to put their differences aside, subvert their selves, and enable others.
And so as a man you have no control over something you essentially are. You can only keep trying and hope that you’re good enough. But of course, you’re never good enough and so you go through ever-increasing convolutions to prove, once and for all, that you are indeed worthy to be a man.
This isn’t just an academic discussion. I’ve had more than one man, when I tell them the title of my book, say, “Are you trying to tell me something?” and then laugh nervously—as if I know something that they’re unsure of. Beyond that, the sheer amount of emotional angst and frustration this causes sometimes turns outward with violent consequences, as it did with Elliot Rodger, who shot six people because of his lack of success with women.
Since I’ve published the book, I’ve had a significant uptick in friend requests on Facebook, but they are almost exclusively men from across the globe. I get three or four a day and I bet only one a week are from women. Why? Is it just that they’re lonely? Or do they read the title of my book and want to connect with me because I might have an answer?
Because of my book, I’ve had men ask me: What’s a woman doing writing about men? What’s interesting about that is when I was younger I tried very hard to “be a man.” I grew up in Western patriarchal ranch culture, and the only way to have respect was to be male. So I studied men with the fervor of a spy in an enemy camp, not to mention my reading was mostly white men. And so the story, ironically, is not about how to be a man but instead about a woman who learns to accept herself as a woman.
Lynn Beisner has so eloquently made great points about how destructive all this is to men here, here, and here. Michael Kaufman, too, makes good points. And Role Reboot has taken this on numerous times. However, I would love to hear more from men in general on this—not just in the classroom and on gender forums but in the mainstream media.
We’re having an intense debate about what it means to be a woman in today’s culture. We need to have that same debate about what it means to be a man. We need to question our assumptions, and men’s studies needs to spill over from the classroom to the dinner table. Then, and only then, might men be able to stop questioning their right to exist and move beyond the angst and violence this question engenders.
Tamara Linse is a fiction writer and an editor for a university foundation in Wyoming. She is the author of the short story collection How to Be a Man and a forthcoming novel Deep Down Things. She also writes the blog Writer, Cogitator, Recovering Ranch Girl and captures the world’s beauty in a photo Project 365. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.