What does it mean to be a real man? How is society hindering that goal? What has and can be done about it? What do issues of manhood have to do with fatherhood?
The Men’s Movement is a rather recent development. Special concern about girls began in 1990 with the American Association of University Women conducted a survey highlighting how girls’ self-confidence plummets after puberty. A raft of books about girls followed. Studies and books about boys came in the latter 90s-and concern for their welfare and falling behind girls in schoolwork continues to the present.
Similarly, the Women’s Movement and Feminism precedes attention to the special deficits felt by men by decades. Popular books about men’s concerns came out in the 1990s, but the Men’s Movement might be traced back to the National Congress for Men founded in 1981. Books to counter or balance Feminist ideas date back earlier. Promise Keepers was founded for men in 1990; the Million Man March came in 1995. It should be noted that many men and men’s movements are pro-Feminist-at least to some extent. Some male writers emphasize how the men’s movement draws on the legacy of the women’s movement, and how their goals of peace and justice, concern for the under-privileged, and other issues, coincide.
Some men’s organizations or movements blend in with Recovery or 12-step Programs. There are similarities between addictive and unsatisfied male life styles.
The primary issues of the male movement are the discovery and enhancement of manhood and the responsibility of fathers. Men need to bond and develop skills of communication (areas where women seem more apt) among themselves as males. And they need to foster a special bond with their children. Concerns include the neutralization of gender (androgynous tendencies), the loss of adventure and risk in a boy’s life, and the general sense that raw masculinity should be curbed.
Many books and workshops emphasize the lion-heartedness of men, the adventurer, risk-taker, hunter or warrior within-and how these natural masculine traits can be fostered and channeled in positive ways. The titles of men’s books point to such emphases: King, Warrior, Magician, Lover (1991), Fire in the Belly (1992), Iron John (1992), Wild at Heart (2001).
Many readers, men and women, have praised these books. Esquire, Time, and Utne Reader, however, took obvious pleasure in panning their suggested rites of manhood as immature, boyish extremes.
Sam Keen (Fire in the Belly) says men can’t really find themselves and have healthy relationships with women until they separate themselves from women (at some time and in some temporary way).
What I see as the central issue: We have not been raised by our fathers and so we don’t know how to be men and don’t know how much masculinity is enough. Thus we are forever at the mercy of women to define us and evaluate our masculinity. (And this leads to a crisis of fatherhood.) A man who takes no care of and is not involved in the process of caring for and initiating the young remains a boy no matter what his achievements.
John Eldedge, in Wild at Heart; Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul, seeks to free us from a wimpy, nice-guy image imposed on us by society and church. He invites us to the wilderness interpreting Genesis as having man born in the outback, then the garden, and “Eve created in the lush beauty of Eden’s garden.” At core a man’s heart is not at home in an office, on a street, or in a taxi. This is an invitation to explore nature, a call to the wild. Although some will find the wilderness motif overdone, the book is humorous, passionate, and explicitly Christian. Eldredge urges men to take time out to explore their deepest desires. He wants men and women to understand authentic masculinity.
Surrounded by studies and readings, we should all be aware that there are genetically and culturally produced differences (once denied) between men and women. Yet among men and women there are wide ranges of femininity and masculinity among women, and ranges of masculinity and femininity among men. That seems to show that what’s good for some men may not be helpful to others. Gender does not have absolute measuring sticks or norms. That’s why each individual struggles to clarify his or her identity and every marriage is a unique relationship.
What we also learn from studies is that it is good for a child to have an involved father and mother. Where a father or mother is missing, it is good for children to bond with an adult, same- or opposite-sex, depending on who is missing.
Further studies and inquiry are needed in regards to male-female relationships and parenting. For now, we should take what we know and apply it the best we can to our own situations. And of course such considerations are helpful to those who are single and wanting healthy and fulfilled lives.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
1. How much consideration have you given to what it means to be a real man?
2. With what in this article do you agree and what disagreement do you have? How would you have written it?
3. Do you see any crisis of manhood or fatherhood in youth society?
4. How do you think narcissistic, addictive or abusive men can best be helped?
5. How can we help boys become healthy men, and girls to become healthy women, in our schools and youth groups?
6. In general, what advice would you give parents of boys (and girls) in these matters?
1. Where there is strong popular interest, there is usually some genuine concern. The testimonies of many men tell how they have felt hemmed in (as women often say they feel suffocated). Many also tell how certain workshops and books have changed their lives for the better.
2. Certainly the absence of fathers in some neighborhoods is a grave concern for all who try to reduce violence and crime. Many are speaking out passionately on this issue.
3. It should be our goal to see that every boy grows up to full manhood and every girl to full womanhood (and those few who find themselves in confusing gender predicaments get understanding, respect and help).