How to Be a Real Man?

How to be a real man? An extremely important question to a great number of guys (and a moderate number of their partners). This is a question that many flail around, unable to find the answer or trying to adapt to one which doesn’t necessarily make much sense to them. This is also a question that everyone is trying to make money off: from psychologists, to stylists and dating coaches, even to priests of various religions.

Here is the answer: 42*.

Now let us take a look at questions that we should actually ask because the one contained in the title simply makes no sense.

*Reference to “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy…” 😉

The question of how to be a real man makes no sense because something like this simply doesn’t exist. Of course, there are certain stereotypes associated with who men are or should be. Those are merely empty shells. All that you think men should be… it all was once completely opposite. Some time ago, somewhere—usually, quite recently and not that far away— something totally opposite was considered to be the model of masculinity! Some elements of our contemporary stereotypes are one or two hundred years old, but most of them are actually brand new!

This is why wondering how to be a real man is simply absurd. Because which one do you want to be?

The tough Viking, with his obsessive care of the appearance of his hair and fancy beard?

The medieval knight, whose tears were the greatest expression of masculinity and male honesty?

The brave samurai, who picked up a male student-lover or the Spartan warrior, who believed that true love could exist only between men?

Wherever you look, if you tear off the “it’s always been like this” top layer, you will discover a fascinating and varied history presenting a completely different past of a given social standard.

(This is why I enjoy reading the histories of “strange” things, e.g., debts or beer—because they teach about the diversity of the world and elements of our culture that we haven’t expected.)

Culture or propaganda—who could tell them apart?

For some time now, there has been a meme on the Internet comparing two action heroes from the ‘80s with contemporary boy band singers, suggesting that “masculinity is falling because we used to watch Rambo, and our kids watch Justin.” Well, let us put aside the fact that we have some pretty good action heroes today. The thing is,cinema has become a little more complex—there are fewer black and white stories and a few more nuances. This can be explained by the needs of the audience, who have become bored with tales of good Americans and bad outsiders. However, I believe that there is a simpler and more important explanation.

The Cold War is over.

The “ethos” of the tough guy being the essence of masculinity, which is currently “dying” in our culture, is a mere propagandist fiction created for the purpose of the Cold War. Americans needed a message or a symbol uniting the society in the conviction of their superiority and bravery. Cowboys (who were earlier perceived as ordinary blue collar workers) became this very symbol. The brave pioneers, tough men and women, facing adversities, villains, and Red savages. They gave rise to the contemporary REAL Americans!

cold war

Of course, that wasn’t the first project of cultural distortion of the past. Knight sagas and the whole code of chivalry were trumped-up tales to somehow tame and direct crowds of landless nobles. After all, it was better to have them fight in ritualized tournaments than attack travelers on roads. The same holds for Japanese samurais. The model samurai—master of the sword—was an artificial creation of the Tokugawa shogunate officials, a way of honoring their ancestors and themselves. The real samurais were indeed masters—of the bow. They weren’t eager to boast about their sword fighting skills because it would have been tantamount to saying that they couldn’t hit the target and thus had to fight one another like peasants.

I am providing those examples to try to make you realize something. The fantasy about a tough macho man that movies of the last few years have been selling us is just the poetic license of the filmmakers. This is not the real or only standard that should be pursued at all costs, or the disappearance of which means the collapse of civilization. (Honestly, I have seen such theses.)

This is fiction. It has never existed, so it can’t be disappearing. It’s just transforming into another fiction.

There is nothing wrong with fiction

I would like to emphasize one thing. If you like this social standard, the one from old westerns and action movies, or the contemporary one, that’s great! If you feel comfortable with it and don’t impose it on others—excellent! Then the issue is basically closed in your case: you know what you want, you feel good with it, fine.

Problems with such standards arise in one of two cases:

a) You believe in a given standard, but others don’t fulfill it, so you become frustrated with the world,

b) You believe in a given standard, but you don’t fulfill it—you don’t even know how to do it—so you feel less valuable.

Frequently, the two options mix together in the form of overcompensation. This mechanism consists in the excessive highlighting of the area in which you feel weak and insecure. Therefore, people experiencing problems fulfilling fictional standards of masculinity that they have accepted and will often try to impose those on everyone else, acting as if they were fulfilling the standards 120% of the time.

If we are dealing with the first situation, you should simply work on accepting the fact that other people can have different standards than yours. It’s just fiction anyway, so if you accept that one person likes detective stories and another one horror movies, then why can’t you accept this?

On the other hand, in the second situation, you should think about whether these standards of masculinity make any sense to you personally or whether they are some kind of introjection, a belief adopted as a standard without much thought. If they do make sense, you might try to prepare a plan of their implementation.

However, usually, it will turn out that they don’t. We have accepted them through cultural osmosis, “absorbed” from movies, novels, comic books, comments from our friends and from strangers. They generally didn’t invent the standards but absorbed them as part of the cultural game of Chinese whispers.

Unfortunately, if you reject these standards, one huge problem will arise.

What else is there?

What standards should you adopt instead of that one? What does it mean to be a man? What to pursue?

There are NO simple answers that will be true for everyone. There can’t be. However, there are questions that you can ask yourself and some specific paths that you can take. Below, I will try to show you a few such questions, at times pointing to how answers to them have changed throughout centuries.

What should a “real man” look like?

Contrary to popular belief, there is no uniform standard. I have mentioned that Vikings used to be dandies , just as Renaissance men, whose outfits were very androgenic. Even such things as “masculine” and “feminine” colors have changed many times. Until the beginning of the 20th century, there was no division between clothes for boys and girls—all children were dressed in a similar way. When the division began (mainly for marketing purposes, so that Ann couldn’t wear hand-me-downs from her older brother or give her old clothes to the younger one), blue was, at first, a color for girls (delicate and floral), and pink was the one for boys. After all, this is the color of red meat and an enemy’s blood!

Cute girl, hm? Well, this "girl" is young Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Cute girl, hm? Well, this “girl” is young Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Here's Ernest Hemingway walking with his sister. Can you tell who is who?

Here’s Ernest Hemingway walking with his sister. Can you tell who is who?

The standards are flexible in how they change, so we should consider carefully whether we would like to follow them or simply pick an outfit that will make us feel comfortable and look good. The more important question might be, which of the factors should be more significant to us? If you have a choice to wear beautiful but uncomfortable clothes or comfortable but ugly ones, what should your priority be?

Should a man be emotional?

I wonder where this idea that “boys don’t cry” and that emotions should be suppressed in men has come from. Throughout the greater part of the history of our culture, emotions in men have been treated as more important and valuable. Odysseus—the hero of the Trojan War and a ruler—cried regularly! So didmedieval knights or Victorian gentlemen. Tears used to be a sign of sincerity, commitment, and honesty. I think that standard was changed by a few actors with immobile faces, such as Eastwood or Wayne. They have been so strongly written into our culture that we find it difficult to notice that things could be different. And they definitely could.

So should a man be emotional? Or maybe just partially—some emotions are accepted, and some are not? In what situations can or can’t you show your emotions?

What should the role of a man in the relationship be?

The division of duties used to be historically dictated by the economic situation more than by anything else. The constantly present “standard” in our culture of a working husband earning money for the family and a housewife is to a great extent the effect of the industrial revolution, with intense work in factories. Earlier, for a few centuries, we had a more balanced arrangement because, for instance, animal husbandry enables equal commitment from both sexes. Even earlier, women had no legal personality whatsoever—they were the property of their husbands or fathers. Even earlier—there was much greater equality. These arrangements have been changing in our history all the time.

So, instead of thinking about “how it should be,” ask yourself how you want it in your life. How does the person you are with want it to be, or what should be the approach of the person you would like to be with? The arrangements are varied, and all of them can be happy. I know situations in which the only breadwinner is the man, where this role is played by the woman, and where both the man and the woman work. I know arrangements in which, at some point, the woman provided for the family, and at present the man does it, and vice versa. Among those various types, I know very happy relationships and ones that are not so happy—and the arrangement selected by them is not an important criterion in this happiness. However, acceptance of these arrangements by both parties is.

Should a man take care of children?

Historically, children were looked after by men alone and by women alone or (if the family could afford it) by hired servants or slaves. Frequently, the responsibility shifted over time—until a certain age, the father took care of the children, and then the mother did, or the reverse. Really, there are no clear standards, so you have an opportunity to determine your own. What should the role of a man in relation to his children be?

Men and the social status

What should the status behaviors of a real man be?

Status behaviors are the original behaviors of herd domination. In some cultures, masculinity and high status are closely related. It is the case especially in so-called honor cultures, cultures of shepherds who had to protect their herds using their image of being badass—if you stole a man’s sheep, he would go after you and kill you. These cultures have one more element—they are generally rather poor. The less you have, the clearer demonstrations of your honor/dominance you need. When your honor is all you have, you have to try hard not to lose it.

The more affluent societies become, the less they need to demonstrate their personal significance, and the more benign their customs become. The manifestation of being a real man is no longer his proclivity to violence or physical domination but rather sophistication of behavior.

That’s for the historical background. And what about you? Should a man dominate? Yield? Be flexible in this regard?

Sexuality of a real man

I don’t even know where to start in the era of porn movies that—what can I say?—create strongly unrealistic expectations and beliefs (as regards both sexes)… Therefore, let me begin by traveling in time and indicating that standards related to sex and love also changed a lot. They are still changing—the perfect man in Japan (at least a few years back; I don’t really know what it’s like now) was the younger brother. There were adverts on the subway saying, “Now my legs are as smooth as my girlfriend’s.” No, I’m not joking—Japanese women did (and maybe still do) find it attractive for a man to shave his legs. Historically, also, man-on-man love was frequently indicated as the true one, while relationships with women were reduced to procreation. Even in medieval Europe, where, under the influence of the Church, homosexuality was usually treated as a crime, some countries allowed for quite interesting solutions. For instance, the French affrerement was the actual prototype of homosexual marriages.

Therefore, even regarding sex, there are no clear standards or rules. There are preferences—so, probably you should think about yours. I know that is particularly difficult as regards this topic—the cultural stereotypes of masculinity are especially strong in this area, and taking a look at these issues requires quite a lot of self-awareness.

Resolution and courage of a real man

Actually, these aspects are part of the above mentioned status. High-status people are brave and determined. Low-status ones are not. However, whether a man must always have a high status is a matter of your own evaluation.

You live in a society

The above mentioned questions are to communicate one simple truth—there is no single real standard of being a man. If you like the social standards in this area—great. If not—find your own.

Just one important thing: such answers are not to serve as excuses to explain your laziness. It’s not about saying, “Oh, well, it’s great the way it is.” It’s about standards for you, but those can also be high standards—something that you can strive for. After all, you live in a society, and people around you can have different standards and expectations, too. Or your partner can have different standards of masculinity, and some things that you do might be unattractive to him or her. What is important is, this person’s standards may be very different from the cultural ones, so it’s better to ask instead of assuming that “he or she must want me to be like this or that.”

The standards of what it means to be a real man have been changing for centuries. Maybe it’s time to—instead of accepting ready-made ones—start making decisions by yourself and picking your own standards. Of course, making sure that those actually are standards. 😉

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