What does it mean to be a man? This is a constant question, not just for college men still forming who they are at their core, but also for researchers, parents, and college administrators. Is there one answer, one definition of masculinity, or is a person’s gender identity and expression one that is fluid, defined by that person, a post-modern “what you believe is right” answer? It would appear that the latter is becoming the more accepted answer on campus, but what consequences does this have for men on campus and in life? And, if the former is accepted, what culture provides the model for masculinity, in a society made up of many cultures?
Let us begin by unpacking the idea that there is one cultural definition of masculinity. This is to say that each group of people, each tribe if you will, has set up an expectation of masculinity and male behavior and traits; this will differ from tribe to tribe. While primitive cultures are highly gender-segregated in rights, roles, and privileges, studies of them have shown that they have some success in initiating boys into masculinity and teaching them the cultural expectations of men.
David Gilmore paints scenes of this initiation in his book “Manhood in the Making”, offering descriptions of rites of initiation that include boys being taken from their mothers, taught the expectations of men in the society, and being returned triumphantly to their tribe once their initiation is complete. After this initiation, these men are now held to the standard of masculinity of the tribe. Of course there is often gender discrepancy and inequality in these tribes, but it appears that men and women generally respect and care for each other, with less of the abuses and struggles that one might expect.
Is this possible in a melting pot society like America? Given that such a society is one nation, it would seem that providing a similar tribal initiation and male definition would be easy. However, encompassed in that one nation are many different tribes, coordinated and defined by nationality, religion, and other factors. Each of these tribes will have their own definition of masculinity, some close in similarity to others but many quite distinct. With many definitions of masculinity come many ways to teach and initiate young males into manhood, thus making it hard to provide a meaningful initiation. What happens if another culture does not recognize your masculinity, your initiation? Are you less a man?
Obviously there is some difficulty in allowing for culture to define masculinity. Even though it may work in primitive cultures, the divergent beliefs and representations about masculinity in a melting pot society may cause men to always have their manhood in question unless they always remain in their own “cultural bubble”.
One solution to the difficulty of culturally defined masculinity is individually-defined masculinity, the post-modern approach. This allows males to say “This is what I believe being a man is, this is how I will behave, and I am secure in this belief.” No one is forced into a box with this, at least not openly. One could argue, however, that if a person believes a man is X, then they will judge people who do not conform and try to put them into “their box”.
The problem with this approach is that we must consider what the purpose of defining masculinity is. Is the purpose individual or societal? An argument can be made that it is both. Individual definitions, then, may not meet the societal purpose. Additionally, Michael Kimmel in “Guyland” speaks to the innate need of males to be initiated, to have their masculinity affirmed and confirmed. If they do not receive it from elders, they seek it out from their peers. Thus, their definition of masculinity may never be solely theirs but rather is sculpted and verified by those around them. Finally, this need for initiation and affirmation of masculinity, if not met, may have harmful consequences down the road, as middle-aged men begin to have a crisis of gender and confidence.
An option that is less talked about in answering this question of what makes a man is a combination of these two. Michael Kimmel, in “The Gendered Society”, argues that the differences between men and women are small, but the differences between men and other men can be quite large. It is not about differentiating men from women, then, but men from boys, the mature from the immature.
Imagine a definition of masculinity that did not include what a man does, but rather focuses on how he does something. In this definition, masculinity and the quest for manhood becomes about character and maturity. The opposite of manhood stops being womanhood and starts being boyhood. It requires effort and maturity to be a man, not fitting a certain role. In our melting pot, this seems to makes sense. Granted we are trading defining one attribute (masculinity) for another (maturity), but it seems that maturity and the characteristics that come along with it are much less disputed and more applicable to a wide range of gender behaviors. In this approach, we allow for expressions of masculinity to be defined by an individual, but also allow society to express expectations of maturity (which exist for all genders).
There are pros and cons to every approach to a definition of masculinity. I think Norman Mailer said it best…
“Masculinity is not something given to you, something you’re born with, but something you gain. … And you gain it by winning small battles with honor.”
Perhaps allowing masculinity to be won with honor, with character, will make it a more developmental and meaningful process. And perhaps this will decrease the questioning and challenging around manhood, allowing our men to embrace masculinity as they want, but as mature males.
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