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4Men - Opinions

Letters and opinions from concerned male South African citizens on current affairs and issues affecting us all

What it means to be a man

By Steven Roche

What is it about most men these days that they can't stop obsessing about what it means to be a man?

I firmly believe we’re becoming less manly because of this moaning and groaning and grinding of teeth. I was browsing the internet the other day, and I came across a generic site directed toward men and men’s interests. Or so I thought.

No, this site greeted me with an article expounding upon the benefits of shaving with a safety razor, like one from the ‘50s. Further down the page, there was an entry calling for the rebirth of the practice of carrying and leaving calling cards. I was searching for some point to all of this, but I realized there wasn’t one. This was simply a site about being a man, full stop. This site and, particularly, the people in the comments were trying their damndest to practice masculinity for masculinity’s sake.

It was around the time I read a comment that suggested that “real men carry a gun on a first date to ensure they can protect their partner” that I realized something: This self-conscious brand of masculinity was nothing new. Rather, it’s simply reached critical mass. Our masculinity, like so many other things in our lives, has finally become a commodity. And we’re buying it.

Male-oriented media is not a recent phenomenon. In fact, it’s been around for as long as there have been products to sell. Men bought Brylcreem and shaved with Gillette razors because the ads told them that slick hair and smooth skin would help them get the naughty done. The difference is, in those days men bought the razor because they thought it would help get them laid -- a noble pursuit. There were tons of male-fetishizing ads in the 1950s and ‘60s, but they were selling a product as a means to an end, rather than selling masculinity by way of a product. Nowadays, fast-food restaurants can take an existing food product, double its size, call it “man size,” and we will buy it for this reason alone.

Watch an episode of MANswers on DSTV's Sony Channel and count how many times you see an image of beer, guns or ninjas in the opening sequence. We should get excited by those things. We’re supposed to get excited by those things, because we’re men and ninjas are manly. Go to the myriad “lifestyle” websites directed at men and spend some time browsing the articles outlining the things real men do or do not do (yes, even this one). There aren’t enough hours in the day.

It’s commonly held that this trend started with the “metrosexual” boom around the year 2000, and I’m inclined to agree. It’s no coincidence to me that what I consider perhaps the shakiest period for male identity resulted in over a decade’s worth of men fighting to reclaim it. As an example, the market for men’s grooming products experienced double-digit growth rates from 1999-2009. It used to be there was soap specifically for women, and then everything else. Now, I can buy men’s bodywash, men’s shampoo and men’s facial moisturizer. Manly toothpaste can’t be far behind.

If I had to guess, I’d say this self-consciousness has a lot to do with women’s rise to prominence and its effect on the male sense of self. Several authors on this site (myself included) have discussed the changes in the men-women dynamic that happened when women no longer necessarily needed to rely on men to survive. But beyond struggling to define their role with women or in society, I believe that men have slowly lost the ability to define themselves. More than ever, men are finding themselves asking the banal question “What does it mean to be a man?”

With men so unsure of what makes them men, plenty of retailers, authors, and media outlets are happy to prescribe their own brand of manliness. It’s one thing to have the occasional existential crisis, but it’s a sad commentary on our gender and society as a whole when we’re apparently so eager to craft an identity via media and commerce.

To put it in perspective, look at it this way: What was “man food” to your grandfather? Whatever he could afford to put on the table, that’s what. Do you think your great-grandfather would beam with manly pride when he learned that you mastered a straight razor? Maybe so, but only until he realized that there are cheaper, safer, faster methods out there that you eschewed in favor of a technique invented in the Bronze Age.

Did James Bond consult a list of beverages that real men don’t drink before he ordered that first martini? No, because he was too busy kicking ass to care. Finally, do you think your dad would enjoy lying in a field with you making daisy chains and contemplating what it means to be a man? No. He would tell you to work hard, that life doesn’t ever get easier and to stop being such a pussy.

To paraphrase perhaps the best teacher I ever had in school, you know you’re a man when you stop trying to prove that you are. I don’t know all I know about being a man, but I do know this: Real men don’t waste time worrying about it.

Real men get on with their lives, whatever their lives may be. They don’t look for manhood in a can of body spray. They don't stop and ask what it means to be a man because they're too busy being one for that kind of self-referential bullshit.

Live your life, and be a man about it.

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