What does it mean to be a man today? What makes a guy a guy? Muscles? Brain? An instinct for leadership?
It sounds like such a simple question. Men are men, of course. Why do you ask, are you having doubts (chuckle-chuckle)? We build stuff, we fix stuff, we blow stuff up. To be a man is not to wonder what a man is.
Still. I caught myself wondering about this question after a guys’ night watching a superhero movie, the latest Iron Man. The hero and the bad guy were really, really powerful. I drove back home with a temptation to speed the car and smash people with my own force too.
My next thought shifted to the movie’s audience. A generation of teenagers and young guys is feeding from movies like this. Throw in some car-chase movies, kill-the-terrorist movies, horror movies, and then some shoot-the-zombie and steal-the-car video games, and then some sexually-charged song clips at MTV, and then some subjugate-the-girl porn, and that’s a lot of visual power. It is a generation of men fascinated with power, domination, and supremacy. “In other words: egomania and erotomania,” in the chilling words of Malcolm Muggeridge, “the two ills of our time – the raised fist, and the raised phallus.” It feels like a prophetic fulfillment of Friedrich Nietzsche’s vision of the übermensch, who left weakness and limitations far in the past: a world of heroes, warriors, and semi-gods.
Except that, well, ours is a generation so fragile and tender. I wonder if we’re so enamored with being powerful because we actually feel so powerless and impotent. As women have (rightly) gained in prominence and equality in society, the workplace and the home, we guys have become anxious about our own place. No longer the breadwinner in a patriarchal society and seeing women equalling or exceeding men in almost everything (except maybe in weight-lifting and doing stupid things), guys today are uncertain of what a makes a man a man.
There are a number of answers being proposed. On one end of the spectrum there is a return to the animal roots: to be a man is to be dominant. Fed in part by evolutionary biology, in part by the worst of mass media, it is the stereotype of superhero movie, macho jokes, ultimate fighting and its variations. A real guy dominates. A real guy inspires fear and respect.
A more sophisticated, but at the end similar, answer is given by those who defend that men have a natural (some say God-given) instinct for leadership. To be a man is to take initiative; to be a woman is to accept initiative. Man’s natural environment is public: it is society, commerce, politics, church leadership. Women’s natural environment, meanwhile, is private: the home and the family. Defenders of this view strive to distinguish it from patriarchy; others are not quite convinced.
On the other end of the spectrum are those who defend that there is nothing that distinguishes men from women. In fact, we are free to choose to be whoever we want to be and love whoever we want to love. Nothing distinguishes the sexes, they are just cultural artifacts.
I’m not convinced by any of these answers. But I’m on a hunch and I gather the courage to put it out there. A proposal has been growing on me (not sure here, let me know your thoughts, folks!) that I believe honors the heart of mature masculinity without succumbing to Nietzsche’s übermensch, patriarchy, or gnostic sexuality. My tentative, egalitarian proposal is: to be a man is to make the women around you flourish. It is to honor them, to champion them, to lift them up.
It is a definition, I recognize, that is applicable more broadly: to be a man is also to make other men flourish, just as a mature woman helps the men and the women around her flourish. It originates from my understanding of prosperity (to be blessed is to bless others) and of happiness (to be happy is give of ourselves and share our happiness).
But I believe this definition captures something special about the masculine heart: we guys are at our best when the women around us flourish–wives and daughters and friends and colleagues. And we are at our worst when they wither, are suppressed, are pawns for our ego, are the butt of our jokes, are seen as objects or as junior-league. Just like a tree that nurtures an ecosystem of life, the most manly men I know have a constellation of people around them flourishing. And you can see it especially in their wives’ eyes, in their daughters’ spirits, and in how they champion women in their workplaces.
Objection: but is this not a thinly disguised version of dominant masculinity or of patriarchal relationships? I don’t think so. The point here is not one dominates, the other is subjugated; one leads, the other follows. The point here is precisely men lifting women up. Men believing that women have equal potential and championing them in everything. This may mean to fully support a woman’s vocation to be a mother and a housewife, if that is her heart’s calling. And to just as fully support a woman’s vocation in the marketplace, politics, and Christian ministry, if that is her calling. I see it not as “strong man” helping “delicate woman” but as a mutually uplifting dynamic of equals. For those of us who are Christian, we see it in the Son honoring the Father just as the Father honors the Son, and in Christ giving of himself for the sake of the Church, who in turn lives for Christ.
So, if the ladies allow me, here is my message for the dudes. Wanna be a manly man? It is not about being superior, or having a hairy chest or spectacular biceps. It’s about being a capital-letter husband to your wife, a father to your children, a champion to the women (and men) around you. Boys are afraid of women, and suppress them. Men are not afraid, and lift them up.