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The Future of Masculinity: Do We Need Real Men - Or Real Human Beings?

Feminism has re-defined what it means to be female. But there's still no consensus on what the ideal 21st-century man looks like.

Photo Credit: Andrew Becraft


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This weekend's New York Times  "Room for Debate" asks whether today's men are "manly enough": "A-list actors are getting facials in  Mansome, Morgan Spurlock’s newest documentary, and pumping their waxed chests in Steven Soderbergh’s  Magic Mike, one of the summer’s most popular movies. But is all this exfoliated, chiseled perfection what women really want? And should men really be making it a priority?"

In Charles Mee’s 2001 play  Big Love, one of the title characters delivers a soliloquy in which he bemoans the difficulty for men in living up to gender stereotypes. On one hand, men are expected to be civilized—calm, gracious, and sophisticated. But when violence is called for, and people—especially women—need defending, they expect men to be the rescuers, “going at the target like a bullet...with rage in his heart...with no breaks to hold it.”

The even bigger challenge is presented when the need for such violence has passed. After the conflict, men are expected to automatically revert back to calm, civilized members of society. Women, he argues, have the luxury of deploring the violence of men (because they can depend on that violence when they need its protection) without having to give in to such impulses themselves.

While the play is fictional, the idea that gender stereotypes adversely affect both men and women is very much a reality. I've witnessed this countless times from even my most feminist of girlfriends. They want men who are sensitive, who are considerate, who are emotional. But in only in very specific instances. Because at other times, they want the Alpha Male. The one who will fix the drain in the sink and protect them from rapists on the walk home. They want Don Draper.

They want a man who will take control, who is confident in his power, who will take care of the dead mouse in the kitchen, and make the first move in a bar.  As Natasha Scripture put it, "The kind of guy who can build you a log cabin on a whim with his own bare, callused hands; who can lift you up with one enveloping arm while the other steers the lawn mower; who can shamelessly peel the meat off a spare rib with his maxillary lateral incisors, like some sort of ravenous primate."

If you ask me, that's quite a lot to ask of a man. How are they supposed to navigate all that? Plenty of women are downright offended when a man doesn't insist on picking up on the check, when a man doesn't make the first move, when a man doesn't automatically assume it's his duty to fix the flat tire.

Then again, plenty of women are like me, and don't believe men should be pressured into  picking up the check on a date, that doors should be held open equally for both sexes, and that exerting control is a sign of disrespect for a person's agency.

Of course, simultaneously, women are encountering the same challenges. We're supposed to be strong, independent, ambitious, and smart, but at the end of the day, we're expected to act like ladies—to not challenge our men in public, or do anything to make it seem like they aren't in control. We're supposed to be smart, but not smarter than he is. Sexually experienced enough to know how to please our man, but not sexually promiscuous or slutty.

Pop culture references to this double standard abound: Usher's hit 2008 song "Yeah" claims "We want a lady in the street but a freak in the bed," while the  female characters in Emmy award winning writer Aaron Sorkin's hit tv shows claim that women want this, too. The character Dana Whitaker, the epitome of this impossible dichotomy, says in one episode of Sports Night: "I used to mind being single. I used to mind not being with a guy after work. I don't know, but that's when know, you're the boss all day long, and you're barking out these orders, and you just want—I don't know—a check on your femininity." [Shudder]

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