Why We Talk About What It Means to “Be A Man”

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Photo by ralphbijker via Flickr
Photo by ralphbijker via Flickr

No one has ever asked me what it means to be a woman.

I realized this recently, after two of my brothers began debating what it means to be a man. One of my brothers wrote out his thoughts after seeing the trailer for The Mask We Live In, an upcoming documentary that focuses on the pressure boys face to “be a man.” Among other things, he wrote that a man “protects the weak.” Another brother challenged him on that one, pointing out that it’s not gender-specific.

Hmmm, I thought.

That’s when I realized that no one, ever, has asked me what it means to be a woman. And that I’d never, ever spent any time pondering what it means to be a woman.

Keep in mind that I’m an extraordinarily introspective person. If there’s an interesting thought to think about, I’ve probably turned it over and over in mind, polishing the rough surface of the thought down to a smooth, nearly gem-like shine with my ponderings. I think about gender a lot. I write about gender a lot. Even before this month, I’d written lots about what it means (and doesn’t mean) to be a man.

But I’d never thought about what it means to be a woman.

So I thought about it for a few minutes. The first things that came to my mind — about motherhood — were quickly rejected, because, after all, you can certainly be a woman without having children. So I thought about it some more. What else makes me uniquely woman? What makes me a woman?

And that’s when I realized that I’ve never thought about it because I’ve never faced any pressure to be a woman. 

My status as woman, as female, has always been an innate, not-open-for-debate kind of thing. I’ve never questioned my femininity or right to be female, and neither has anyone else. It’s just who I am, in a fact-of-biology sense. Who I am, in my mind and society’s mind, has little to do with whether I’m woman or not. I’m a writer, a caring and compassionate person who connects with others. I use words and emotions to forge relationships, and am deeply concerned about others. Some would argue that I’m that way because I have a female brain and was raised in a society that expects females to be nurturers. That may be true. But the fact is that I have never felt limited or confined because of my gender. I’ve never felt pressure to behave in a certain way just so I can prove my claim on the title “woman.” 

Boys (and men) don’t have the kind of freedom here in 21st century America. Here, we seem to have arrived at a national consensus that a woman can be or do anything — and still be a woman. A girl who wears pants will not be told derisively to “be a woman;” a  boy who wears a skirt, or a shirt with glitter, might well face derision and taunts of “be a man.”

Perhaps it’s because we, as a society, are not quite sure what men’s and boys’ roles should be in our new, more equal society. We have been shifting, over the past 50 years, towards a more egalitarian society. Women have moved into the workforce and leadership positions; men have taken a more active role in raising children. But for some reason, and on some level, we’re not comfortable with men (and boys)  moving out of the box of traditional masculinity. As boys and men increasingly take on and do things that were, in the past, only done by girls and women, there’s a backlash, a pressure of some sort, on boys and men to prove that they are indeed masculine enough.

This is the world our boys are living in. On the one hand, they are encouraged to become more rounded human beings, to fully participate in family life and to explore whatever hobbies and interests they desire. On the other hand, they are expected to prove their masculinity, according to some very strict, very outdated standards. No wonder our boys are confused!

My hope is that we someday get to the point where a boy’s masculinity is never in question, just as my femininity is not a question. My hope is that future generations of boys and men won’t spend nearly as much time pondering what it means to be a man, because they’ll be too busy simply being whoever they are.


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