Two men sit in lawn chairs on a cliff with a sunset in the background.

Manhood in the 21st Century

By Brandi Mitchell
Web Content Contributor
   

Manhood is a concept that is perhaps less discussed and analyzed than womanhood but comes with no less ambiguity, struggle and uncertainty.

 As social creatures with an inclination to community and at times, conformity, there is no overarching construct prevalent in a society that does not in a continuous stream touch the lives of each and every person. 

Gender is like the fading sensitivity to a touch or smell or sound after its constant presence; at most moments in life, one hardly notices the perceptions of gender that shape us.

However, in moments of deep clarity, the reflection of what it means to be a man or woman in the 21st century, in the world as we know it, and within our specific worldview finds itself to be filled with profound and complex nuances. 

Though the mainstream conversation has surrounded what it means to be a female, cultivate female friendship, navigate a “man’s world”, and survive and flourish within womanhood, the conversation around manhood is as equally worthy of discussion and awareness.

 As a woman who is acutely aware of femininity and how womanhood has shaped who I am, I asked three of my close male friends to sit down and talk with me about the parallel of that awareness, but as a man. 

At the end of our hour-long discussion, which I moderated and led while attempting to elicit truth and vulnerability, I was struck by the differences in how society has raised its men as to how it has raised its women. 

The panel, though not as diverse and varied as would be ideal, was made up of Jacob, a 22-year-old Hispanic male who tends to embody traditional masculinity and was born and raised in southern Texas; Kyle B., a 19-year-old white male who grew up in Michigan for the first half of his life; and Kyle S., who was raised for the beginning of his life in Massachusetts and is also 19 years old.

I chose these three men to talk with because I knew that not only would our schedules allow for an hour discussion but also because they are comfortable enough with me that I hoped for the vulnerability and honesty that would allow this conversation to be fruitful. 

Jacob stands in a field with camouflage on holding a duck.
This picture of Jacob, one of the men I interviewed, engaging in his duck hunting hobby which he jokingly said is one of the three adjectives of manhood. Image by Jacob Gonzalez.

Through laughter and jokes there was raw truth and exposed emotions that rewarded me deeply for the time spent sitting with them. I was humbled by the way that we have both navigated the conversation around what it means to be a man and by how firmly these three men had found their identity as men despite this lack of a popular and controversial national conversation.

I wonder if perhaps they were able to find such security in who they are because, antithetically, the lack of direct scrutiny and discussion surrounding manhood as it does womanhood has lessened the pressure.

Perhaps we have done men a certain favor by not debating so heatedly what a strong man looks like, or what the ideal occupation is for men as we have done for women, or if more simply we have failed to place such heightened scrutiny on every decision men make and what it means for their manhood, and if that failure was what paradoxically led to this success. 

The themes that these men presented of the strong groundings of their families, the examples they had in their parents and particularly their fathers, and the lack of a distinct struggle with this topic was revealing in and of itself. 

When I asked them about if female expectations typically stereotyped in the media and popular culture by a desire for muscles and money had shaped their ideas of manhood, they almost unequivocally agreed that it had not. 

They spoke of their strong relationships with mothers who nudged them towards their concept of being a man, as well as their affirmation that manhood was not in money or brawn or the clothes that one wears or the career that one pursues. 

All three seemed remarkably secure that their manhood was not defined by their height, by their “alpha male-ness”, by popular culture, by exposure to tropes in media, or by any outside force other than their families. When I asked about what trait they may possess that hasn’t been traditionally deemed as masculine by society, their all paused to think. 

Jacob told me that what came to his mind was his desire to be in the human resources career path, something traditionally populated with women.

He recognized that our society tended to think of women as the “helpers” and therefore suited to the human resources field, but he had grown up with that desire to be understanding with others, as well as solution focused. 

Kyle B. initially commented on how he was more emotional than most people expect men to be, but then seemed to qualify that statement with a comment on how that was the perception of him that most people around him had given. 

All three guys commented on the apparent dichotomy in popular media and culture that guys are either hyper masculine with very traditional masculine interests and a voracious appetite for female companionship or have aligned themselves with a very anti-masculine stance, wholeheartedly embraced a radical feminism, and attempted to separate themselves from traditional masculinity as much as possible.

They all agreed that there needed to be space for men to be both traditionally masculine in their interests as well as sensitive and supportive of women. When reflecting on the image projected of men on TV, they discussed how men were often depicted as very sexual and dominant with washboard abs and the main 9-5 breadwinner of the family. 

Remarkably, each of them argued that this image had not had a sizable impact on who they became and did not attribute a lot of sway in their life to these common ideas of manhood. Kyle B. commented, “I think it has changed, that you don’t have to be that way anymore.”

Kyle S. remarked that this pressure from social media was on both men and women, but that “I don’t feel like [men] in my life are shaped by that idea”. After thoroughly covering what manhood was not, it was interesting to hear what they believed manhood to be.

 Kyle B. said that, “manhood means being able to provide, whether it’s for yourself or your family”. Jacob said manhood in three words was “hunting, sports, protector” and then laughed. Keeping with the trend of a three word description, Kyle S. said that manhood was “integrity, perseverance, and bravery”. 

Jacob elaborated that ideal manhood was being Christ-like, as his idea of being a man was very much shaped by his faith, and that it was also about being a good father and strong for those around you.

 Kyle S. said his ideal man would be somebody who embodied being authentic, while Kyle B. said that setting a good example for your family, being vulnerable and able to admit when you are wrong and make it right, and carrying on the values of your family were all marks of a “good man” to him.

This conversation around what it means to be a man was at the beginning of our discussion, and as we got deeper into reflection, it seemed there was much more clarity and certainty on what being a man was not than what being a man was. 

Overall, I was struck by how it seemed that these men had not been defined by deep reflections of navigating manhood, but how natural and free of strife and struggle this idea of manhood seemed to be to them, even as they acknowledged how each person sees it differently. 

Little of their growth into manhood seemed marked by pain, though this is certainly not true for everyone. Their takeaways for what they wish people knew about growing up as a man were these:

 “I wish people knew that men do have emotions, and simply because we don’t always express them the same way as women, doesn’t mean we don’t experience them.” – Jacob

“I wish people knew that sometimes it’s difficult to navigate the constantly changing conversation about how to be a “good man”, and that I want to approach issues like consent and avoiding toxic masculinity well but it can be difficult because I don’t always know what the right way is.” – Kyle B.

 “I wish people knew that making friends as a guy can be difficult. You don’t want to come off as weak by being the first person to reach out, and it can be harder for guys to show interest in developing deeper friendships without looking soft, which is seen as bad. This has been difficult in the culture we live in when it comes to being a man.” -Kyle S.

I think with either men or women, the important thing is that we don’t assume what it has been like for someone to grow up in that identity, but that we ask. And then we listen. I’m glad I asked, I’m glad they told, and I’m glad I listened.

Featured image by Kyle Benacquisto.

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