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There are few things that can be filed under my List Of Things That I Have To Throw Into My Giant Cesspit Of Anger To Prevent Myself From Frothing At the Mouth In Frustration And Fury, but one of these things is the idea that there is meaning in the phrase “what it means to be a man”. It’s a phrase that I hear tossed around a lot—in books, on tv, in movies, from my dad, from other people—yet nobody ever has a real concrete idea of what it actually means. That, alone, would be enough to go on my List of Irritating Things That People Need To Think About More And Actually Use Their Noggins For Once, but when added to the fact that there is no such twin phrase as “what it means to be a woman”, it really starts to piss me off even further, because it suggests that being a man is this mystical, cult-like thing that only those born into it can Truly Understand™.  

“What it means to be a man.” Such an innocuous-sounding phrase. Completely harmless and actually quite inspiring, you might think, until you’re being told that only those born biologically male can ever understand it and they are therefore somehow superior for it. Anybody not born biologically male can’t possibly hope to ever comprehend the true meaning of what it means to be a man. But then we’re also told that boys without strong father figures in their lives aren’t able to learn how to be men and “Aha!” we think. “So you have to learn how to be a man. Surely that means that anybody can learn?” To which the response is always, “No, you’ll never understand.”

When I came out to my parents, one of my dad’s main issues with it wasn’t the worry that I might get beaten up, or the worry that I might encounter transphobia or have trouble finding a job. No, my dad’s issue with it was that he didn’t think I knew what it meant to be a man. I kid you not. He sat there and said as much to me, completely seriously, with my mum sat beside him nodding in agreement. Neither of them sat back and thought, “Wait. Does my kid know what it means to be a woman, then?”—the automatic assumption was that if you don’t know what it means to be a man, then you are a woman because that is the only other option and it doesn’t actually mean anything to be a woman. Nobody has to learn how to be a woman. It’s just…not being a man. That’s all. 

I follow a fair few number of FtM blogs and youtube channels, and a topic that I see come up with disturbing frequency is that of “what does it mean to be a man?” I will sit there and stare at my screen in blank-faced horror, because guys will genuinely um and ah over this question and end up coming up with something inane such as the following:

  • “It means hearing a noise in the night and getting up to see what it was.”
  • “It means catching spiders when your girlfriend screams.”
  • “It means doing manly things, like football and drinking beer.”
  • “It means being mature and grown-up.”
  • “It means being chivalrous and holding doors open for girls.”
  • “It means being strong and courageous and protecting people.”

All of which is very good and well, don’t get me wrong, but why is that restricted to men only? I’m pretty sure that everybody knows at least one girl who fits the criteria on that list. I’m pretty sure that any decent person should be able to fit a fair few items on that list—being mature and grown-up? Seriously? Think about that one for a moment and then go smack your head against the wall in the hope that doing so will be some sort of twisted reverse psychology and actually give you some extra braincells. 

I’ve rambled and ranted for a few paragraphs now, by which time you’re probably rolling your eyes and going, “Yes, okay, it’s dumb and meaningless, now get to the point.” And what is my point? My point is that being a man isn’t some mysterious, chivalrous thing that all cisboys must learn and understand in order to grow up. “Being a man” doesn’t mean anything. So why do we keep bandying the phrase around? Why do we not bat an eyelash when plots of books and movies revolve entirely around a boy learning to be a man? Why do men clutch it to their chest in hysteria, insisting that it’s something any non-cismale couldn’t possibly hope to learn, no matter what they did? Why are we letting this stupid, stupid idea be perpetuated and dribbled into the ears of children everywhere? And then we wonder why small boys bully weaker boys and girls, when we’re telling them that being manly makes them superior to everybody else.

Where are the heroes who aren’t muscular, like to read and talk to girls as friends and don’t utter those wretched words of “you taught me what it means to be a man”?  Or, on the flipside, where are the girls-only movies where a girl does something badass and then says to her (older, female mentor) “you taught me what it means to be a woman”? Why are even the stories which are apparently meant to break gender boundaries still tied into the damned idea of “what it means to be a man”—this guy likes to sing and dance but he still learns what it means to be a man! Girly things don’t stop somebody from understanding what it means to be a man because men are stronger than these girly things! A man can be a man despite them, don’t you see?

So next time you hear the phrase “what it means to be a man” being passed around casually, tell them to cut the crap and think about it for a second. And maybe—eventually—“what it means to be a man” will go from my List Of Things That I Have To Throw Into My Giant Cesspit Of Anger To Prevent Myself From Frothing At the Mouth In Frustration And Fury back to my List of Irritating Things That People Need To Think About More And Actually Use Their Noggins For Once. Or, even better, be eradicated from existence. 

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Adam

June 2012

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