Be a Man?

I get really frustrated when I hear people say that someone needs to “man up.” How, in fact, does one man up? This phrase is incredibly problematic, namely because it implies that there is one particular way to be a man. Because, obviously if a person doesn’t lift weights every day he’s going to automatically lose whatever sense of manliness he has. 

I’ve also had people try and mansplain this phrase to me, explaining that it doesn’t mean that a guy has to play sports or be into action movies, but that a guy needs to be responsible, go to school, work hard, either provide for his family or plan for when he has one, stop prolonging his single-ness and settle down, etc. This is all fine; I’m not saying that guys shouldn’t be responsible adults. Which is what, for me, all those qualities add up to. 

Keeping your commitments, going to school, working hard, providing/planning for a family. I think that these are much less traits of manhood and more traits of adulthood in general. 

I like the way Nick Offerman puts this idea of manliness. I like the way Nick Offerman puts lots of things. He says, in his book Paddle Your Own Canoe, as he lays down his rules for “manliness”: “I wish to examine some human attributes that I think of as, yes, ‘manly,’ but I would also like to touch on some personality traits that I feel are charismatic in people of all sexes, that many readers might instinctively think of as “manly” but I will simply call “capable” (46).  Nick gets it. Even the parts in which he does say what men should do, he concedes that they can also apply to women. 

I also hate hearing this phrase is response to boys showing any kind of emotion. When I went to church, I would help my mom in the nursery from time to time, taking care of kids ages 18 months to 3 years. I remember when parents would drop of their boys and their boys would cry (understandably, since they were being temporarily abandoned by their parents) and their parent(s) would say, “man up” or “be a man” to try and get their sons to stop crying. Not cool. And this isn’t the only time I heard kids told these things, it’s just one example.

Telling boys to man up when they show emotion has several implications. First, it implies that boys can’t cry and, consequently, girls can. Nobody ever says “woman up”. When people use the phrase in question, they’re equating being a man with being tough. Therefore, women are not tough. To say “be a man” is also, in a sense, to say, “don’t be a woman”. And we’ve all heard the derivative of this phrase “don’t be a girl”. Sigh. Face palm. It feels like it’s just endless. If your kid is crying and you need them to calm down, at least say “be tough,” instead. At least that way you’re not equating toughness with one gender over another, although I still find insisting that children be tough to be problematic. But I’ll save that for another time.

I know most people aren’t going to stop saying “man up.” I also know that most people aren’t going to stop trying to categorize everything and tearing people down if they don’t fit their preconceived notions. I know that most people are still going to try to enforce what boys do and what girls do. But maybe if enough people write and/or read posts like this one (here I go, thinking my words are influential :)), people will start thinking about what they’re saying a little more, and that’s all I ask. Because what you say (especially to children) definitely has an effect.


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