What does it mean to be a man, today?
Our grandfathers are almost always our idols. We learn of the greatest generation through the stories of our fathers and look to them as our heroes. They are the personification of the American Dream. They are the immigrants (or sons of immigrants) who came from nothing, worked their asses off on farms and mills and coal mines. They joined the Army in WWII or Korea. They went to college, thanks to the G.I Bill. They won the hearts of a beautiful young girl and married at 23. They got a job right out of school and bought a home. Raised 7 kids and went to church every Sunday and never questioned their deep faith in God. They could drink more booze at a business lunch than I can on a Saturday night. They were quiet. Reserved. Each word spoken was precise. They ate red meat and fried potatoes almost every meal and they had cigarettes for dessert and breakfast, yet they could survive heart attacks and strokes as if life owed them something. They never showed “weakness” and hid their emotions from the world. They created the framework for what we thought it meant to be a man.
I look to my grandfather and want to be that person. But when I look at the world I live in and the world I hope to live in. I cannot be that man. I can only be myself. But when I look at those men and the prototype of “masculinity”, I wonder, “am I less of a man?” The question remains, what does it mean to be a man, today?
It is not my intention to define what a man is. In doing that, I would define what a man isn’t. I am in no position to make that judgment. My effort is more to look at this modern masculinity in the framework in which it was presented to us, through our ideas of the greatest generation.
Yes, all of our grandfathers were as badass and manly as John Wayne, Ted Williams and Don Draper all wrapped up into one handsome son-of-a-gun with callused hands. We are right to idolize our grandfathers. They fought bravely to defend the freedoms we Americans hold dear. They did the best they could to raise their families the best way they knew how. They are our heroes, and for good reason. However, they are not better men, nor more of men than we are, we are simply men of a different era. It may be dangerous to keep these men on the pedestals we put them on without questioning the entire context of the society they lived in. Yes our grandfathers where the ultimate men, but they also lived in a different time. A time in American history that we, as a society, selectively remember as the “good ol’ days”. A time when a handshake and a man’s word was better than any legal contract. When baseball was still a game and corporations hadn’t polluted America’s pastime. It was a time where hard work would get you somewhere in this world. This is the time to idolize, however, this wasn’t the whole story. It was a time when lives were run by “The Joneses”. This was a time when depression, and mental illness were brushed under the rug only to lead to explosions of alcoholism or violence. This is the same time and generation that passed laws preventing black people from voting, and even worse the generation that turned fire hoses and dogs on innocent citizens who tried. A time in America where a woman’s only place was the kitchen and the bedroom and she was taught from the earliest age her only ambitions should be to be a wife and a mother. It was not pretty, or a society I am particularly proud to talk about, but it is our past, and thus can shape our future.
Our selective memory allows these men to remain our idols. We remember and immortalize their accomplishments and the positive example they set, but we forget their flaws. It is important to keep in mind those flaws, because if we do, indeed, forget them, we can never learn from the mistakes of our past. If we cling to this antiquated image of masculinity, we may never evolve or produce positive change to do whatever man has always wanted, make the world a better place for their son or daughter.
When I look at my generation, I hear a lot of opinions on “the Millennials”. Some say we are lazy and spoiled, and many of the voices in my generation say it is not our fault, our parents all left the world this way for us. I don’t approve of blaming past generations for problems that exists now, it does no good to help us move forward and it makes us sound like spoiled children (which most of us are.) What we can do, is recognize that this is not the same world our fathers grew up in, or our grandfathers grew up in. The game has changed. We cannot play the same way our grandfathers did. Like wearing a leather helmet in the NFL going head to head with James Harrison, it won’t end well. Society is not the same as it was all of those years ago. So why do we still hold the same standard for our masculinity? We need to adapt and to grow.
While society progresses toward a more accepting and equal existence, many men still cling to the vintage prototype of manhood, creating sort of hyper-masculine and xenophobic backlash to our collective forward movement.
It is important to not identify who we are by the societal standards of “masculine” or “feminine”, but rather as a human being in a globalized society. A man just needs to be himself and not who he thinks he is supposed to be. We have a duty to ourselves to be proud of the men we are, and not ashamed that we are not something we could never be. We must be strong enough to admit our weaknesses. We must be brave enough to hurt and show our fear. We are all so different. We come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, we are white, black and brown. We are straight and we are gay. We are frat guys, hipsters, republicans, democrats, vegans and hunters. We are all so very different, to attempt to fit ourselves into a socially constructed mold is damaging. In order to be better sons, brothers, and fathers, we must “man up” and break these old roles and be ourselves. We must do the one thing every man has always wanted, to make this world a better place for our sons and daughters.