The Unifying Theory of Being a Man
Updated: Jan 26, 2019
Can you change the roots of your definition of what it means to be a man?
I’ve been trying to locate where my definition of maleness comes from. I’ve often felt like I’m living a contradiction when it comes to the expectations of my gender and my own sense of what it means to be a man. But it’s tricky to dig down into your memories to find where such a thing as your individual sense of ‘being a man’ began. I had a lead to follow though. The first time I remember realising I was becoming a man.
I was watching a disaster movie as I approached my sixteenth birthday. The characters in the film concluded only half of them could survive during the frantic finale. One of the male characters then said, in a matter of fact tone, ‘women and children first’ and all the men smiled in resignation. Sitting there it occurred to me I was about to cross the threshold into manhood myself. The thought shocked me mortally in the context of that movie, the men didn’t survive, but I also felt a strange sense of pride.
When the time comes men have to stand back, or push themselves forward, so women and children can go on.
I have no idea if it was a specific film because a variation of this theme has played out in so many movies, novels and TV shows I’ve seen in my life. When the time comes men have to stand back, or push themselves forward, so women and children can go on. Even when death is the man’s only available outcome. Occasionally you see ‘bad guys’ try and pretend to be women by wearing their clothes or forcing their way into a lifeboat at gunpoint, but the subtext is clear. Real men are prepared to sacrifice themselves.
I’ve noticed it recently in music too. In the car yesterday Prince sang ‘I would die for you, darling if you want me to’ and a few songs later Bruno Mars began to plead, ‘I would catch a grenade for you, Throw my head on a blade for you, I’d jump in front of a train for you…’
You can probably think of examples of your own. For some men being prepared to die for a woman seems to be required for your love to be real.
Where does this sense of sacrifice come from? I looked for clues further back in my own past.
Being a ‘man’ appeared to be very straightforward as I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s. My Dad worked full time and my Mum stayed at home to look after my brother and I. We saw him in the evenings and at weekends. He provided the money for all the things we needed, but rarely seemed to buy anything for himself. He read us stories and spent as much time with us as he could but he was often worn out. This was reflected in the families around us. I grew up understanding it was a man’s responsibility to earn the family’s income.
This thread led to other memories popping into my head, as though they were linked to each other.
As a child my grandparents and their contemporaries talked a lot about the Second World War. I remember them telling us in hushed tones about the young men peering out of black and white photographs in their homes who had died for us. The unspoken question was whether we would live up to the standards of that ‘golden generation’. Every year on November 11th I imagined the horror of their sacrifice. As Samuel Johnson once suggested — even though most men don’t end up as soldiers we all feel guilty at some level for not being one.
I went to Christian schools and the same principle was nourished under the guise of spirituality too. John 15.13 is a passage in the Bible I remember, even though I haven’t been to a Church service, apart from weddings or funerals, in almost thirty years. You probably know it too. ‘Greater love hath no man than this: that a man lay down his life for his friends’. As boys we absorbed the sentiment. After all, Jesus was the man we should most revere and he gave his life to save us. If we were lucky, we would get the chance to prove we were real men and sacrifice ourselves too.
When I was growing up, I genuinely thought if a man was crying he was in the middle of having a nervous breakdown.
Another thread emerged in my mind. When I was growing up, I genuinely thought if a man was crying he was in the middle of having a nervous breakdown. Mental weakness terrified me because even at a young age I understood it was the opposite of my definition of being manly.
This model of manhood became more dangerous to inhabit during my teenage years. As a young man your greatest fear is physical violence — from the hands of other young men. This is born out in (UK) crime statistics. The section of the population with the biggest fear of being attacked are the elderly even though they are least likely to be attacked. The section of the population most likely to suffer violent crime are young men. At the hands of other young men. In my case punches were meted out at the secondary school I went to between lessons, during evening get-togethers to furtively drink booze in patches of waste ground in the town where I lived, and later on in pubs. Every man who has been started on because he ‘looked’ at someone else’s girlfriend, or if his own girlfriend is being hassled will know the humiliation in the core of your being if you fail to physically stand up for yourself or for them.
This obligation of defence unquestioningly extends into your life as you get older. I — and every man I know — accept the expectation that it’s our job as men to edge downstairs in the middle of the night with whatever makeshift weapon is to hand if we hear an unknown intruder had broken in. Pausing only to make sure our wives and children are locked safely in the bathroom. It may be more sensible to stay and hide, but we know it’s our job to face whoever is downstairs — however frightened we may be — rather than the indignity of knowing we were too scared to protect our loved ones.
Even when I am out with my wife and children I know I am the last line of their defence should anything happen. The thought has been there so long I put it on with my shoes every time I go out. I doubt they ever notice, but I always stand up and put myself between them and the strange man muttering darkly on the train, or the lads being just a bit too loud for my liking a few seats further down.
One of the biggest paradoxes about being a heterosexual man comes from your relationship with women and this can pull you back to the traditional idea of what it means to be a ‘man’ even if you don’t want it to. Men worry about being attractive too, and while being more in touch with our feelings and rejecting the accepted idea of ‘manliness’ might sound good in principle, in practice it can be a turn off for women.
Very few mothers would want their sons to grow up feeling they had to force themselves to conform to this stereotypical view of manhood–especially in the context of suicide being the leading cause of death for young men–but at the same time most women I’ve met do all seem to want to share their beds with one. Women unconsciously seem to want men who are emotionally literate up until the point they want a provider and a strong, silent man in the bedroom.
In retrospect, the contradictions about being a man started to emerge as my childish body began to turn into that of a man. I had expected the strength I’d seen in my father, those soldiers I worshipped and movie heroes I’d seen, to appear miraculously overnight without me having to do anything in the same way my penis had new pubic hair had grown.
I trusted the idealised image of what a man was supposed to be far more than my own definition because I didn’t have one. Instead I just saw the gap as evidence of my failure to be a man.
But this ‘male’ version of myself didn’t miraculously emerge as I’d expected it to. This is when I first I began to realise there was a gap between myself and my ideal image of what it meant to be a man. A gap I’ve been trying to bridge ever since.
Whenever I tried to be ‘manly’ growing up — relying on physical prowess, pursuing danger, hiding my feelings, getting drunk, being terse with girls, harnessing seemingly limitless reserves of aggression, taking drugs — I kept holding back because while I knew it was ‘tough’ and ‘masculine’ to do these things they didn’t feel very authentic to the person I wanted to become. The problem was, I trusted the idealised image of what a man was supposed to be far more than my own definition because I didn’t have one. Instead I just saw the gap as evidence of my failure to be a man.
But over time, and certainly as I entered my 40s, I have grown more confident in questioning the contradictions I can see in the role I previously identified as ‘being a man’. I began to realise the gap between who I was and the ‘man’ I needed to be was rooted in a childhood and popular culture fantasy. I decided if I could change my perspective on what it means to be a man I could change my definition of it too.
However, while I and men like me identify and attempt to navigate this contradiction as we get older, and as the expectations of society evolve around us, what I hadn’t appreciated was that as a white man I was doing so within a society that was set up and designed for men like me. Or at least men who looked like me. The fact that I was trying to escape this definition of maleness while appearing to be just another example of it was an irony that didn’t escape me. Because empathy for the complexity behind the travails of being a man is not something many people have time for today.
Men, and white men in particular, hold a disproportionate amount of power in the world and whether we like it or not are seen to have constructed an environment that did not just give us a warped sense of what our role in society should be. White men historically have also created and defined a warped sense of what everyone else’s roles and identities should be.
Everyone is unhappy with their role, it seems, apart from the subclass of white men who angrily reject the label they’ve recently been given of ‘gammon’ because they often resemble a hunk of pork while straining to defend their lofty — in terms of power and money — positions. They’re often seen doing this on our TV screens, which itself reveals the power they wield. These men have acquired their new label by getting defensive and angry when trying to justify their privilege to someone with a different experience who has asked them to spend some time empathising with the injustices they have lived through. Unsurprisingly, they reach for the established definition of maleness and use words like ‘wimps’ and ‘snowflakes’ to put down anyone who disagrees with them, and deploy particular venom when that person is a white man like them.
The position of ‘defence’ men have grown up feeling they have to adopt to protect the ones they love all too easily morphs into ‘defensiveness’ when their own position in society is questioned or undermined.
So, for the time being, until the injustices facing anyone who is not a white man have been given some overdue air time, analysed honestly and started to be addressed after being ignored for so long, you better get used to your problems being at the back of a rather long queue.
The position of ‘defence’ men have grown up feeling they have to adopt to protect the ones they love all too easily morphs into ‘defensiveness’ when their own position is society is questioned or undermined. We all feel it, but falling back on defensiveness as others call attention to the injustice they have suffered won’t help you. And this is where, I hope, the Unifying Theory of Being a Man might. Because the forum for you to continue your evolution away from a role of manhood you want to reject is not a public or social media one. It’s much more effective to reject it in your own day to day life.
Like the previous ‘Unifying Theories…’ it requires you to shift your perspective on what you expect being a man to do for you. Does the role of being a man require you to conform to a series of behaviours that feel alien to you? Or does the role of ‘being a man’ require you to behave the way you believe is aligned with your own values? I would suggest the latter. But that’s only so helpful. What you need are examples of how you can reject this established definition and build your own sense of being a man in your day to day life. I’m not there yet, but I’m on a path to re-defining my own sense of masculinity.
Here are three examples of things I have done to reject the definitions of ‘manliness’ I’ve felt restricted by in my life. I’ve worked out how to spot the type of ‘manhood’ I want to avoid. The moments of opportunity I look out for are those occasions when I’m about to go along with something I don’t actually want to do because I ‘don’t want to let the side down’ or I want to ‘be one of the lads’ when I’m with a group of men.
Here’s the first one. I went on a stag night a few years ago. Someone brought around a tray of Tequila shots. The usual peer pressure kicked in that I have experienced since I started drinking at fourteen. I hate Tequila but I ‘didn’t want to let the side down’ so — realising this was my chance to act — said ‘no thanks’. The man with the tray faltered. I had broken an unwritten rule. I knew it and he knew it. He said, with a faltering confidence that he made up for by gradually getting more aggressive, ‘it’s a stag, you don’t have a choice!’ and gestured the tray towards me again. Every other time this has happened in my life I would have moaned but accepted the drink. But this time I said ‘one of the joys of being 40 is I don’t have to do shit like that any more.’ He looked on in shock and I could see him preparing to pull on the cloak of being a ‘real man’ and getting angrier but then something unusual happened.
Instead of me buckling under the pressure of ‘being manly’, the guy next to me said with an unmistakable sense of relief, ‘Yeah, actually I don’t want one either.’ Someone opposite him said ‘yeah, thanks but no thanks mate’ and carried on his conversation with someone else. I then felt the courage to say what I actually felt. ‘I’m having a great time but if I drink that I’ll start to feel paranoid and sick and end up going home early.’ The man with the tray looked aghast. A few of the assembled men ended up having one and they forced the ‘stag’ into it but the majority of the glasses were rejected and he took them back to the bar. The irony was that the man who bought the shots was then in the Alcoholics Anonymous programme. There was no shot on the tray for him. But this shows just how powerful this kind of behaviour can be in men. He was just trying to ‘be one of the lads’ even though he wasn’t drinking himself and was all too aware of the pressure to conform.
All men will know this feeling of ‘not wanting go let the side down’, whether it’s drinking shots, lazy misogyny dressed up as humour or casual racism. The time to reject this definition of being a man is in these moments with men. Call it out. Make a stand for what you believe in amongst your peers. It’s not grandstanding. You don’t have to pick a fight about it. Just call it out. Being a ‘man’ is not about twisting and contorting yourself to fit in with a role of manliness that doesn’t suit you. The sense of self respect you generate in yourself when you stand up for what you believe manhood is actually about in these situations is when you really do start to become one. It may cause awkward moments. You may find your role within your established friendship groups changing — but if it’s in a way that feels authentic to you is that such a bad thing?
The second example is to be consciously aware not to pass on definitions of being a man you no longer believe in to your children, whether they are boys or girls. In my own case, like most modern fathers I tell my children I love them regularly and casually. I hug them and tell them they make my heart sing. When I hug them I wait until they let go. I smother them in kisses until they giggle and playfully push me away. I luxuriate in the emotion I feel for them. I tell them when I feel weak and vulnerable — and in doing so show them that it is not something to be feared, because those feelings pass if you let yourself feel them. I have not cried in front of them, but neither have I notcried in front of them.
I also tell them that when you have a thought inside you too frightening to say out loud in case it becomes real, what’s happening is fear is inflating itself into a balloon inside you. But by talking about it you let the air out of that fear balloon and the problem doesn’t seem so hard to bear. When I can see they are scared I make it my mission to help them talk about it.
This is because in ‘Dan Kieran’s’ newly emerging definition of being a man, dying for the ones I love and being prepared to fight for them is a given and a duty I will never shirk in principle, but it’s not a required daily mind-set because it doesn’t come up that often. I’ve realised waiting for it to happen is also completely exhausting and it puts me in a mindset of constant defensiveness. So now love is my daily mind-set instead. Because there is no greater expression of being a man than having the confidence to openly love the people you love.
The third exercise I recommend is to question the idea of yourself as the last line of defence for yourself and your family, which is something all men do even if we never say it out loud. Putting this pressure on yourself is a colossal burden, and not one people actually expect of you if you ask them about it. This is why asking for help is one of the hardest things for a man to do, which must be partly why suicide in young men is such a problem. As a gender, we’ve come to see asking for help as the ultimate manifestation of ‘letting the side down’, which could be why young men who have not yet built up the confidence to come up with their own definition of maleness may feel their role as a ‘man’ prevents them telling anyone about their deepest fears and problems. At a deep level we see asking for help as proof of our failure as men. And it’s not just young men either. I’ve had matter of fact conversations with older men over the years about the best way to kill yourself. Not in a remotely hysterical way. As though it was comforting to have the knowledge should they ever need it to fall back on. This is why it’ so important to ensure your own definition of being a man is one you have chosen, rather than a pattern of behaviour you constantly feel you are failing to measure up to.
Asking for help is not letting anyone down. Whether it’s about the stress of your job. Losing your job. The fact you have got yourself into debt, or are suffering depression or any other kind of severe mental illness you are too scared to admit to anyone. I know from personal experience asking for help can seem too daunting and risk the problem becoming ‘real’. But it can be done.
If you can’t see how, then try shifting your sense of perspective on what being a man really means to you. Ask yourself why the fear of asking for help is any different to the fear that would fail to prevent you going downstairs to fight off an intruder. Push yourself honestly to explain why you could push the fear aside when it comes to standing up to fight for the lives of the people you care about but not ask for help for yourself. The bravery required to ask for help is the same thing. This is the painful irony of being a man and the heart of the ‘manliness’ contradiction. Asking for help requires the greatest courage of all.
Help is not something you need to defend yourself against.
This is an extended piece about an idea included in my latest book, The Surfboard.