On my first day at Boise State in the fall of 2011, I found myself wandering through the SUB. As I approached what is now the Information Desk, I made eye contact with a young man in a fraternity t-shirt, who invited me over to his table. There, over an impressive array of brochures, he offered me an enthusiastic handshake and said, “Come join us. We’ll teach you how to be a better man.”
For whatever reason, that moment has held firm in my mind, even all these years later. I walked away from that exchange feeling genuinely intrigued, particularly by his parting words—“be a better man.” These are words I’d wager most men hear at nearly every stage of their lives. It’s an appealing idea that somewhere out there, a perfect definition of manhood and masculinity exists, and if one can fulfill it, he can be everything he needs to be.
However, this idealistic concept is one that is fading fast. The advancement of feminist thought and the increased acceptance of transgender identities have left some defensive, leading to movements such as “meninism,” a tragically misinformed counter to feminism which claims men are just as discriminated against as any other group.
So what are traditional men to do in this new climate? According to many scholars, the answer is to stop worrying about masculinity at all, and take a broader approach to personal identity, one that doesn’t feel the need to tether worth and purpose to the idea of gender.
In a study published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology, researchers found men who conform to roles and attitudes associated traditionally with masculinity—in this case being self-reliance and power over women—struggle with more mental health problems than those who eschew those same roles. This should hardly come as a surprise to the average reader, as those more extreme attributes of masculine thought have long been known to be problematic when it comes to forming meaningful relationships with others.
Many modern men claim to have discarded these particular traits, trailblazing the way for a more P.R.-friendly definition of manhood. While this is certainly progress, a noticeable gap still exists between the two ends of society’s favorite binary gender system, both in the arenas of politics and business and the world of private interpersonal relations. In a world where men are to always be masculine and women are to always be feminine, the stage is automatically set for apathy and tribalism, leading to the inequality and unrest that inserts itself into our shared experience. It is not enough to say the problem with the relationship between men and masculinity lay in its more violent tendencies. Rather, the more we can eschew the burden of gender roles in our day-to-day thinking, the better.
At this point those who disagree will erroneously cite biology as justification for the continued existence of these gender roles. However, as our understanding of psychology and sociology grow, researchers are finding the bulk of gender norms are merely learned performances. Consider the difference it would make for intergender relations or even basic human understanding if young men and boys were allowed—or even encouraged—to explore the facets of their personalities typically labeled as feminine. Young men and boys who know it’s more than okay to cry, build a network of confidantes or even dress well without an excuse will grow up with a better shot at forming lasting relationships. It would create a society of more stable, empathetic individuals.
Rejecting the tired idea that the strict confines of binary gender norms are only natural allows the opportunity for civilization at large to realize being born with different genitalia doesn’t mean we have to treat each other differently, or expect certain behaviors from individuals based on how they were born.
Returning to that phrase I mentioned in the beginning—to “be a better man”—the problem with this phrase, as well-intentioned as it may be, is its terminology runs counter to what it is ultimately proposing: the creation of a male-identifying individual who is productive, a leader, treats others well and is respectful to women. These traits are best achieved not when people strive to be good men, but rather when they strive to be good people, regardless of gender. As long as men continue to subscribe to the tether of exclusive masculinity and define themselves within that role, they will continue to confuse productivity with ability to provide, leadership with power and push those of other genders further into the realm of ‘the other,’ where true, lasting empathy and solidarity are nearly impossible to occur.