Recent cultural trends have led me to ask the following question:
What is the essence of masculinity?
That question has led me on a journey, and I felt compelled to reflect further here in my blog. Here’s my brief disclaimer [I’m no expert, just an observer!].*
To the right I thought it would be fun to throw in a quick picture of Kaile and me trying to get our two boys to take a picture. These little guys are intense! [By the way, we never did get them to look at the camera].
Okay, just setting the context! I’ll begin on a personal note.
As I came of age, I remember noticing men functioning distinctly different than women in the culture that first shaped me. There seemed to be different rules and regulations for men than for women. From what I observed then [and actually still observe today], the rules or maybe I could use the term, “cultural script” for men included:
*An emphasis on emotional stoicism: anger, apathy, and ambivalence were each acceptable emotions. Humor, in certain forms, was also okay, as was happiness. Not deep, joyous wonder, but basic happiness was fine-especially when it was sports-related. When one’s team wins, celebrating-and even complete buffoonery okay.
*Providing financially for one’s family was always underscored, though providing emotionally, spiritually, relationally was not much of a category for male participation in the home life.
*Sports sports sports. Where I grew up everything was Detroit sports, local hockey, soccer in the Fall, the Griffins, and the next baseball coach. Sports was always the safe go-to topic for conversation. Beer always seemed integrated into the sports matrix. That $9 Bud Light tall boy was something of a safety mechanism at a baseball game, as important as the ticket one pays for entry.
*Speaking of alcohol, booze was an onramp for sexual conquest. And most of sex boiled down to conquest. There was always a strong sense in locker room conversations and in the back of buses that if some guy “hit a home run” and engaged in sex with his girlfriend, he was larger than life-a champion. This message was countered in many church teachings, but almost always reinforced or normalized in media-certainly in pornography.
*Knowing about construction, engines, machinery, and physical repair or modification were manly traits. If one didn’t know what a V8 is or the difference between truck models, they lose manliness points.
*The more genetic predisposition toward facial hair, the manly-er one was. I’ll never forget the way one friend of mine would constantly refer to his 5 o’clock shadow, especially how at age 31 my beard still has some barren spots. What a man!
There you have it, folks: beards, beer, baseball, Buicks, and big bucks.
Is this list not a culturally relevant view of how men operate, what we are about, what priorities are for anyone with the XY haploid combination in their genetic makeup?
It is apparent to me that men cannot possibly be this simple. We cannot be simple brutes who just fix things and watch football. I learned this early on, mostly at church. Men at my church seemed different. They were affected by the same culture and surely struggling in various ways, but there was a desire to somehow care for their families-and not just financially. They didn’t get it right all the time, and I could share negative experiences too, but there was a desire to find new life and a new kind of manhood.
One middle school youth group trip stands out. We were on a Youthworks trip in Milwaukee, WI, helping local 501(c)3’s with neighborhood projects of various kinds. At night we heard messages about Jesus’s concern for the poor and had opportunities for meaningful conversations.
The final night, our leaders wanted to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, so they washed our feet. It was strange, no doubt. What was especially strange was how Dave, the leader who washed my feet, simply did his humble task with such honor and strength. There was a fierceness, a sharp edge to his action.
Dave’s foot washing act was an early clue that male-ness had a depth into which I had not yet plunged.
A few years later, in early high school, I had gotten close with a classmate, Thomas. He and I had joined the same friend group and we did sports together. Once in a while we would do sleepovers, and during one he mentioned that his mom was really young when she had him-16, actually. His biological dad was not part of his life; they had never met.
On a cool Fall evening in Big Rapids, Michigan, he confided in me. After a lot of pillow talk about a range of topics, we landed on family: “I really wanted to somehow find my dad and get to know him,” he said, “it’s a dream of mine. Yeah, I know it might not happen, but it’s something I really want to do.”
He liked his new stepdad a lot, according to what he said, but there was still a raw interest in knowing the dad whose genes he inherited.
These conversations with Thomas were yet another clue that masculinity had depth and meaning beyond what I had previously imagined. He was being vulnerable, and I was on the journey to discovering that male-ness is somehow deeply impactful, that men need to understand women and each other, that deep friendships between men are challenging-but absolutely vital.
Somewhere along the journey I remember learning about the ancient shift in human culture from nomadic roaming to agrarian culture. During this time especially, it became clear in many cultures that since women were the ones biologically capable of growing babies in their uterus, men were to be the ones who would make their way to the fields to farm crops. Women and men arranged themselves socially to support one another, agreeing on particular roles.
Marriages hinged on this system of men acting as the economic providers as women took on the role of nurturing and caring for homes.
This is such a gross oversimplification of 10,000 years of human history, but I think the foundational anthropology we’ve observed leaves us with some serious questions and honest frustrations with the apparent cultural scripts we experience related to both masculinity and femininity.
It’s called the patriarchy! We can either talk about it or not, but this system is affecting women and men whether or not we give it an honest look.
What exactly does it mean to be masculine? Why is it weird to cry if you’re a male? Why are sports so pervasive [nothing against sports, just speaking to cultural scripts!]? Why is sexuality so often framed as conquest?
And how can we become free of the negative influences of the patriarchy while also finding a positive male identity?
I certainly would like to know!
It takes more than a few hundred-or a few thousand for that matter-to really dig into the concept of masculinity. I don’t have all the answers, but I have at least some of the right questions.
To start, here are some simple things I really want each of our boys [we have a toddler, Maelin, and a preschooler, Silas] to grow up knowing in their soul [note this list mirrors my deconstruction of cultural masculinity]:
*Expessing emotions is perfectly acceptable, and not just anger. Mommy and daddy both cry, feel deep joy, experience disappointment, get overwhelmed, and get a prick of wide-eyed wonder during sunsets, songs, or sermons. “Guys don’t cry” will not be an expression in our household, and we want to challenge the cultural norms Silas and Maelin will no doubt experience in school and in media.
*Providing for one’s family is a meaningful thing for either a mother or a father to contribute-as is providing for spiritual, emotional, and relational needs. Whether one parent or the other-or both-provides for any aspect of household needs is simply the way we are making things work at any given time.
*Sports are great! And so are lots of other activities! One of the strongest men I’ve met over my lifetime is a ballet dancer. I myself was forced to work out with weights was when I was 16 and participated in a two-person ballet production. Whatever the activity or sport, it is to be enjoyed and pursued wholeheartedly.
*Alcohol is a wonderful gift, but not one to be used as a crutch. It is not a replacement for deep-seated spiritual or emotional needs, but rather as an enjoyable experience.
*Sex is not at all conquest-oriented, but exists as a special covenant bond within a marriage relationship. Sex bonds people together in a way that should not be treated lightly or unreservedly, but with utmost care. Mutual pleasure is the goal within the sexuality of marriage relationships. The fiercest and most masculine of men should be thus prioritizing the joy of the person to whom they have committed their family life.
*Knowing about machines and construction is great! Strange to need to say this, but it is not the essence of masculinity. Rather, knowing this kind of strategic information is simply helpful in navigating the everyday situations of life in the 21st century. When one cannot do, one can ask a friend!
*Finally, facial hair does not equal manliness. Beards are great-who could disagree? A muscled, bearded man without respect could learn a lot from a kind gentleman whose mustache is more along the lines of peach fuzz-and vice versa. Throw out the physical appearance that so captivates our imagination, and let’s look to the heart.
Biologically speaking, something that differentiates men from women in most cases is the stronger presence of testosterone. Women and men both circulate this hormone, but in significantly different quantities. Sexually, our testosterone is intended for reproduction, but relationally it is meant for so much more than that!
The science behind the study of testosterone is fascinating, and if we take it seriously then we should also take a look at how we, as a society, are coaching men to leverage their hormonal selves-and I mean this neutrally, for this chemical is simply part of our makeup.
When I look into society, I see a lot of testosterone-influenced vignettes. The aggressiveness of the guy who cut me off on the freeway-that was testosterone-induced, was it not? There was a narrative of masculinity he was living into, and it even affected his driving habits. And the urge within me to respond, that was part of my formation too, wasn’t it?
Rather than squelching the male urge [and I’m not saying this isn’t also a feminine urge] to be strong, to stand up, to fight, what if there was a way to harness that energy positively?
I consider Jesus turning over tables to be a case in point. Seeing business people leveraging the temple for their own gain was surely an injustice that required action, and Jesus acted. There is a time for tenderness and a time to act or speak out!
What if we men exchanged violence and hateful fear for a ferocious advocacy for others? Imagine a world where men showcased their manliness by investing deeply in the well-being of others, possibly through mentoring or activism.
What if all the energy we spent as men quieting our emotional selves blossomed into a beautiful, hopeful vulnerability that stiffened the spines of other men [and maybe women too?]? Playground bullying would slow down, I think, and workplaces would become safer not only for women but for men who find themselves on the margins, in the out group.
What if the sexual conquest paradigm was subverted and sexual respect and a new kind of sacredness became the standard for men? I suppose then the #metoo movement would find greater satisfaction, for it would challenge the deep power structures that support rife sexual violence.
What if we men provided our families not only with enough dough to make things work financially but enough love and care and paternal affection to make our daughters and sons respect our fatherhood enough to want to be parents themselves?
I’m getting a little emotional as I sense God sparking my imagination with ideas. More ideas will come in time, I think. But right now I want to spend some time with my wife, my life-partner-and our two tiny boys, who still call me daddy.
*There are PhD programs in gender studies, and I certainly do not hold one; I am only bearing witness to what I am aware of from my own educational background, personal observations, and research. To the extent these reflections are