By Jennifer Ash
Recently I’ve been thinking about the phrase “real men.” When I hear it I cringe and wonder, “What does that even mean?”
People use this phrase with reference to a specific kind of man: a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy…a hyper-masculine creature who loves a “feminine” woman, yet hates all other things feminine; a man that loves football and drinks beer.
More recently I hear this phrase used to provoke irresponsible men to take care of their life responsibilities (i.e. stepping up to fatherhood, working to keep their families out of poverty, avoiding the abuse of women and girls, etc.) Nothing is wrong with any of that. So why do I cringe?
Because this phrase reminds me how profoundly imbedded patriarchy is in our society and how it also harms men. “Real men” (in air quotes) are taught to do two things: protect and provide. And while no functioning adult should be able to skirt his/her duties as a parent or partner, this notion limits conversations about problems that plague men today.
Attached to this phrase is a particular notion of how masculinity should be expressed. Usually the ideal “real man” is a cisgendered, hyper-masculine person with a cisgendered, feminine woman by his side (actually behind him because he is constantly protecting her). Women who are in relationships with “real men” struggle for an equal voice. Protection and resources are viewed as more significant and more valuable than what is conventionally considered “women’s work.” Therefore, “real men” who are taught to provide and to protect are also given the clout to drown out the voices of others who are not expected or allowed to provide or to protect.
In exchange for protection and resources women are expected to meet certain demands from “real men.” Whether it’s a sexual expectation, a hot meal, or bearing the brunt of childcare in the household, these expectations limit the agency that women have over their own lives.
This traditional exchange also limits the agency men have over their own lives. Where is the space for the woman decision-maker? Where is the space for the male caretaker? Men (and women) are systematically trained to believe and invest in a system that expects actions and emotions from individuals based on the social construction of gender.
In addition to making space for less-submissive representations of women and less-dominant representations of men in heterosexual relationships, conversations about masculinity must also focus on sexuality and gender identity/expression. The phrase “real men” leaves no room for male-identified people who are gender non-conforming, nor does it leave space for same sex couples. The phrase — rooted in patriarchy — is also the lingo of homophobia, heterosexism, and transphobia.
Instructing men and boys that they should not abuse women and girls and that they should take care of their parental responsibilities is not enough. These two issues are tremendously important, but they are symptoms of a much deeper crisis: patriarchy. Until boys and men are challenged on a fundamental level to think critically about masculinity and are introduced to — and to become comfortable with — emotional and physical expressions that are not exclusively hyper-masculine, society will continue to be plagued with all sorts of male-centered issues that affect us all.