By CF O’Rourke
As I turned 25 and began to stare adulthood in the eye, I began to question what being a man really means. This personal exploration into my own masculinity has gotten me to dig deeper into the subject of gender. One point that really began to spark my interest in the subject was in a TED Talk by Jackson Katz. In his talk he makes a very simple, yet powerful comment. To paraphrase, whenever “gender issues” are mentioned, we almost always assume they are talking about women’s issues, as if we, the men, have removed ourselves from the conversation of gender entirely. It is vital for us to get back into the conversation of gender to determine what it means to be a man today.
(Note : I will first say, I am not an expert on gender studies, nor will I ever claim to be. I am simply hoping to facilitate a conversation. )
One cannot engage in discussion of gender, without mentioning feminism. Feminism, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is the “theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.” I feel that most decent people in the world would subscribe to this theory. So, why do we always have such a problem with this term? And particularly, why do men see this term as negative?
Many people have associated feminism with negative connotations for years. Bra burning, man hating, bossy women trying fight for crazy things like “equal pay” or to “stop sexual assault and domestic violence” or “vote.” (Sarcasm is tough when you type it). Yes, feminism is all of these things, but the one thing feminism stands for most is equality.
Men and women share basic feelings and emotions that are universally human. We experience physical pain, fear, sadness, joy, frustration, loneliness, anxiety, stress, and love to name a few. But do men and women really experience these emotions differently? No – but we are taught to handle them differently.
Think back to being a kid on the playground at the park. Imagine a young girl falling off the monkey bars, and scraping her knee. Like any young child, the girl will cry. Mom or Dad will come to pick the girl up and care for her. They will let her cry, hug her, comfort her and allow her to work through all of her feelings before she is ready to hit the monkey bars again with confidence and make her way across. Now imagine those same monkey bars, the same incident, but with a boy. Mom and Dad will come to pick the boy up to make sure he isn’t terribly hurt, but what happens next is interesting. In no time at all, the boy will hear the words that all of us have heard in our lives, “Man up”, or “be a man.” We are taught from the very beginning that our natural, universally human emotions must be held back or not acknowledged at all if we want to “be a man.” Men and women innately feel emotions the same way, but society dictates how we handle those emotions.
So, how does feminism fit into all of this? We often think that feminism is when women demonstrate traditionally masculine gender roles. While this is true, it is only a piece of the equation. Equality is a two way street. Feminism does not prescribe, “strong” or “passive” or “independent” to any particular gender. It simply recognizes that these characteristics within all of us (wherever you fit in the gender spectrum) are universally human. Feminism eliminates the assignment of gender roles entirely allowing people to be the men and women they want to be, not what they are “supposed to be.”
When I see a strong, independent lady (like Beyonce or my girlfriend), I don’t think, “look at you, breaking social norms by not being weak and needy.” I just see a strong, independent woman. These women possess qualities that are both traditionally feminine and masculine and they are shining examples of women because of it.
Yet flip the example. When men show traditionally feminine characteristics, we do not praise them as a shining example of manhood. In fact, we shame them. If a man shows his emotions rather than burying them, he becomes less of a man in the eyes of his peers (or even worse in his own eyes). If a man shows weakness, admits failure or God forbid, cries, his buddies will have one of two reactions. They will a) Call him a pussy or b) Acknowledge that he looks sad, pour him a drink and tell him to “man up.” (Then, they get wasted; get super deep and cry listening to Wagon Wheel at the bar. But it’s not weird because they were wasted)
Society is constantly evolving, before we can claim our place in the world, we have to know ourselves. That means embracing all aspects of who we are, masculine and feminine. To thrive in this ever-changing world, we must know, to our very core, who we are and be proud of that man. Men throughout history have been confident in who they are, and that confidence has made them men. The men we idolize in film, and the men we idolize in real life have one thing in common, confidence.
So, how has feminism made me a better man? Confidence. Because of feminism I am stronger and more confident in myself. I know that I am full of many emotions and I am proud to not hide them. Because of feminism, I am able to truly examine who I am as a person, and not feel ashamed for any of it. Because of feminism, I can provide an example to other men, that being a man isn’t about being the strongest, or the toughest; it is about being confident in who you are and being man enough to not hide it.