This originally appeared on The Good Men Project. Republished here with permission.
Telling men to act “like a man” isn’t doing anybody any favors. So stop.
When I was a boy, I remember hearing “Walk Like a Man,” by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, on the regular rotation of my parents’ radio. I wasn’t alive when the song debuted in 1963, but it’s the music my parents listened to when I was young so, by proxy, I grew up listening to the same music they enjoyed growing up. I thought it was a fun, goofy song in spite of the irony I’d come to later recognize in how the singer claims he’s going to “walk like a man” although he espouses his determination in a catchy falsetto.
On Friday night, a friend of mine was mad at me and in an attempt to coax me into speaking with him, he told me to “talk to him like a man.”
Forty-nine years separate the release of that Frankie Valli song and my friend’s brash challenge, yet why does this masculine demand of doing something “like a man” persist? My copy of How to ____ Like a Man seems to have been lost in the mail so if there is a positive implication that accompanies this phrase, it’s lost on me. All I hear in that phrase are the rabid growls of embattled masculinity.
While I’m still unclear on how a man walks or talks it out, I do know that the connotation of such a phrase is that if you’re not doing something like a man, then you are something else. Something less, an Other. Like a woman? A ladyman? A pussy? To whichever of those less-than-man assignments the phrase points, the application of being something not-man is meant as a pejorative as well as an admonishment to behave based on the biologically defined role of masculinity (which assumes such a thing even exists). Simply, if I’m not acting like a man, I must be acting like a woman, and that is a bad thing for me to do.
Beyond what this corrosive definition of masculinity is teaching men and boys about women, one man accusing another man of not doing something “like a man” perpetuates the notion that there’s only one way to be a man. If you’re not behaving according to this ur-masculine philosophy, then you’re doing it like a not-man/woman and if you’re doing it like a not-man/woman, then you’re doing it wrong.
The specter of not living up to masculine designations pervades every aspect of our culture from grade school recess to national security. That men will try to use masculinity as a way to control other men is not constructive nor is it valid to defend this notion with questionable support from a Darwinist vantage. An argument that relies on such a paradoxically primitive notion to support masculinity doesn’t do much in the way of convincing anyone how humans are supposedly more evolved than orangutans and mockingbirds. However, if we’re truly that un-evolved, I imagine it will be acceptable in the near future for guys to start tongue-bathing their genitals in public. (I do not look forward to the subreddit cataloging these occasions.)
Recommending that a man do something “like a man” is anachronistic if it was ever really useful in the first place yet you don’t have to look far to see it still used. Living a life beholden to what is or isn’t masculine as prescribed by society begets a life of anxiety and anger. It will make you vulnerable, insecure, and easily provoked. If you allow yourself to play into this role, whether you are the accuser or the accused, there will always be someone else out there who is “more masculine” than you and the path to being genuinely comfortable in your own skin will only grow longer with each step.
The militarized image of what a man is supposed to do or say is so rigid that it obscures the primary qualities of what we should all be striving toward: being an emotionally intelligent human being. If the singer of “Walk Like a Man” wants to cry because a woman has rejected him, that’s OK. Heartbreak is hard. Being human is hard. But all of us, whether you are a single grown man or a father charged with raising boys who will one day be men, are subjects to compassion and depression and pride and loneliness, so don’t let threats to your masculinity deter you from those sensations.
Instead of being a man, just be you. Be decent and be kind. Be surprised. Be mad sometimes and be wrong sometimes. It’s all going to happen whether you like it or not. No action or reaction a man has should be contorted into some superficial expectation of what a man is supposed to do. If you’re a man, whether you’re walking or reading or fucking or praying, whatever you’re doing or feeling, you’re already doing what a man does. Let us agree that it’s time to not only retire but refute the regressive notion that there is only one way to be “like a man.”
Drew Bowling is a writer, erstwhile photographer, and highly decorated factotum living somewhere in the United States. His writing lingers on language, gender, mental health, and occasional raves about outer space. Keep up with his fancy musings over on Twitter.