What Makes A Man, A MAN?

Posted: December 8, 2010 in Identity, Masculinities, Uncategorized
Tags: ,

What makes a man a man?

It is a question that sounds simple but is actually not at all.

And the more I ask it the more I come to the conclusion that ‘a man’, like ‘a woman’ is really only a way of thinking about gender.

Those people I have met and loved or hated or felt indifferent to, who call themselves ‘men’, have no more in common with each other than any other form of human being.

But in our culture ‘being a man’ is a very important concept, that we are very hung up about.

I had a bit of a discussion about this  subject of ‘manliness’ over at Mark Simpson’s blog. It all started with a seemingly innocent essay about how America sells fast food as ‘manly’ in a very macho way, and then got rather more involved as you will see if you look at the comments.

The main problem I had with Mark’s argument was that although he was critiquing the concept of ‘manliness’ as an ideal for men to aspire to, whether by consuming loads of burgers and/or by being grizzly, manly, masculine ‘Bears’,  he also resorted to the idea that there is such a thing as a ‘natural’, ‘manly’ man. In this paragraph he states:

‘Of course, supersizing yourself actually diminishes your virility.  Obesity lowers your levels of testosterone, as well as causing you to lose sight of your John Thomas, while growing man-boobs.

The epidemic of obesity amongst pre-pubescent young boys on both sides of the Atlantic means that many of them never really experience puberty. Oh, their voices break, they get furrier and their genitals mature, but their body won’t really change shape.  It will be ovoid and lipid – and ‘momsy’ – forever. Until they’re put in a super-sized casket. Possessing a masculine body will always be just a dream.’

The term ‘virility’, is defined in  a number of ways including:

Virility refers to any of a wide range of masculine characteristics viewed positively. It is not applicable to women or to negative characteristics. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED1) says virile is “marked by strength or force.” Virility is commonly associated with vigour, health, sturdiness, and constitution, especially in the fathering of children. In this last sense, virility is to men as fertility is to women.


  1. The quality or state of being virile; manly character.
  2. Masculine vigor; potency.


So basically, ‘virility’ is the equivalent of ‘manliness’ and Mr Simpson was at the end of his article, merely replacing one version of manliness with another. In his ‘masculine body’ ideal, manliness or ‘virility’ relates to the ‘healthy’ production of testosterone and the physique of a man which shows off and allows him to view his own cock.

Apart from that being a bit macho faggish, it made me wonder about trans men, many of whom have testosterone injected, in order that they become ‘manly’, but many of whom also don’t have a cock at all. Are these men not men then? Or are they just not very manly?

I am only using the ‘virility’ discussion as a starting off point because it helps me show how confused we all are about masculinity, and gender, even us self-appointed ‘experts’. I am as confused as the rest of you I assure you.

In the comments following this article about gay men and trans men in New York, some trans men also showed they are hung up about, and confused by, concepts of ‘manliness’ and masculinity, with an arguing developing about when a trans man is a ‘real man’ and when he isn’t…


By GayTransMan on 05/20/2010 at 4:12pm

“Ex-girls”??? How offensive. Transmen are NOT all the same and this article does not represent transmen. The title implies that it does, which makes this irresponsible journalism. MANY transmen are men and identify as such. Many transmen are gay. Many of us like the gender binary.

The labels transmen and FTM have been appropriated by many who would be better defined by the label gender queer, gender anarchist, gender-free, or something along those lines. TransMEN used to refer to MEN who were born female-bodied who had surgery and take hormones in order to live in society as fully male. Unfortunately, we are pushed out of view by those in the younger generation who are not transsexuals. That they appropriated our labels confuses the whole trans issue for non-trans folks, who have enough difficulty understanding us as it is.

I applaud young gender queers for being so active and paving new ground. But get your own labels, please, so that those of us who were calling ourselves transmen before you can go on being accepted as men. 

By MAM449 on 06/10/2010 at 1:04pm

@ gaytransman – I beg to differ, dude. The way I see it, a female-bodied-born man who has had surgery, takes hormones, lives in society as male and embraces the gender binary, is simply a MAN, not a Transman.

The term Transman seems more accurate for those of us who still have any connection (physical, mental or social) to our former female socialization, for those who are not 100% male, and/or for those who don’t choose the stealth path and instead are “out” about our transmale status.

SO, what makes a man a man?

I think the answer is… I don’t know.

And that it really shouldn’t matter. But somehow it does.

Sexuality plays quite a big part in this question. If I wasn’t a ‘heterosexual’ woman, predominantly, I might not be quite so hung up as masculinity as I am. I might be, but if I didn’t find men attractive, and I didn’t want to sleep with them, I wouldnt look over my life and realise I rate men on how ‘manly’ I think they are, according to my own sexual tastes, and society’s norms.

I like men with some muscle definition. I like men who are taller than me. I like men who I think could pick me up and throw me over their shoulder if they felt like it.

But I have also dated some men who, no matter how strong they appear on the outside, no matter how high their testosterone levels, emotionally are actually just sissy boys.

So what makes a man a man? Maybe the same as what makes a woman a woman, a person a person.

Strength of character?

Whatever that is.

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by MarcNash, Elly . Elly said: https://quietgirlriot.wordpress.com/2010/12/08/sissy/ New Post; What Makes a Man, a MAN? […]

  2. hmm says:

    Doesn’t it depend on what aspect of the human person you’re discussing?

    You want to ask what makes a MAN (total) a man (by his parts).

    So if he’s physically a man by genitalia, then he’s not one if he’s skinny.
    If he’s muscle bound but shy and afraid of everything, he’s not a man.

    How is your position any more or less prejudiced than the use of the word virile? Which, btw, you are disingenuous about its hazy, circular definition. When

    The Oxford English Dictionary (OED1) says virile is “marked by strength or force.”

    then manly has a meaning with content, not just a circular link to a synonym.

    If I can crush a can on my head and someone else can’t, I’m more manly than them *in that way*. If I’m a girl and my wimpy competitor is a boy, then he’s of the man/masculine sex but he isn’t manlier than me by his genitalia, rather he’s manlier by the hair on his skin, depending on how rough you think hair over the body is.

    Even if it’s just “performance”, it’s still performance of something: strength or force. So if a man is about to sling you over his shoulder and a butch lesbian passes by and beats him to it, pushing him away with ease, then she is performing a more “manly” deed than he. And you’ll either make a man out of her or she’ll make a woman out of you, once she gets you back to her cave. It’s defined by action. It’s not empty.

    If, on the other hand, you want to take a gender reformist position (a la second wave feminism) and say we need to redefine masculinity as sensitive, as caring. Then you’re also choosing a content for manly against strength/force. Those feminists tend to justify this bias and taste with more nonsense, along the lines of redefining the sub-terms. So they’d say, it works because we can also redefine strenght/force as emotional openness, as time spent on helping others.
    Actually, wikileaks comes to mind yet again as do any “whistle blowers”. They stand against a “strong/forceful” institution not for their own profit but to “help” and “care” about the public. So you might say they prove the ambiguity of a manly ideal. I would say they are both manly in action and sensitive in emotion. Which kind of disgusts me. Pick an attitude and go with it, people !

  3. I am just saying masculinity is how we imagine it and not how it actually IS.

    I think my critique of ‘virile’ stands.

  4. I dont have the OED on me I think the point is the definition of ‘virile’ is contested and has changed over time and is linked to prejudices / assumptions about masculinity not actual aspects of a man/person.

    I will do more research on virility

  5. I often ask myself this question about both men and women. A really interesting book I found on the subject is Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs–don’t worry the title is tongue-in-cheek.

  6. great title! I will look it up, thanks!

  7. arctic_jay says:

    Okay, people really need to stop pretending that masculinity is this vague, ephemeral, mystifying concept. It really isn’t.

    Brief semantics: most objects are not categorized by necessary or sufficient conditions being met. They are categorized by instantly weighing hundreds of characteristics and determining which term is most suggested by those characteristics in aggregate.

    “Man” is one of the easier terms to apply to an object because it’s part of a dichotomy. Much easier than cat, grass, swimming pool, or fork.

    Gender relates to reproduction. There are two types of humans in the reproduction game: those who get pregnant and those who induce pregnancy. The vast array of human characteristics will statistically vary in their presence and degree between the two types. If a trait is more common amongst inducers of pregnancy it’s manly; more common with the preggers, it’s womanly. If a human object has more inducer traits than pregger traits, it’s a man. If has mostly inducer traits and those traits are very prominent, he’s masculine.

    Thus, a human with a penis, big strong muscles, body hair, and no pregger traits with be categorized as a masculine man. Something cultures have been doing with ease for thousands of years.

    Very simple people.

  8. ok Ajay I will play.

    here are some traits. you tell me if they are ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ ok?

    1) Being sexually attracted to men
    2) Having an anal fetish, expressed in part by an enjoyment of anal sex
    3) Being sexually dominant
    4) Having a tendency to eat when under emotional stress
    5) Being physically strong.
    6) Being unable to produce healthy sperm to produce children

  9. arctic_jay says:

    1) Feminine
    2) Giving=masculine, receiving=feminine
    3) Masculine (but so is sexual submission; being into sexual hierarchies is what’s a male behavioral trait)
    4) Feminine
    5) Definitely masculine. Probably the most masculine trait other than having a penis and testicles
    6) Feminine, as almost all the women I know are unable to produce healthy sperm

  10. Ok so if you are a gay, dominant, man, who is quite well built and strong, but sometimes over-eats when stressed, and has problems producing healthy sperm, are you masculine or feminine?

  11. arctic_jay says:

    I should point out that maleness doesn’t equal masculine. Masculine refers to the abundance and prominence of male traits that are idealized and respected by men. So, even though men are into S&M more than women in general, it’s only the dominance aspect that’s considered masculine.

  12. arctic_jay says:

    Overall, masculine, especially because he’s strong and dominant. Those are critical and can overcome other shortcomings. But he’s not nearly as masculine as a heterosexual man who’s well-built, powerful, eats with steely resolve, etc.

  13. what about a heterosexual man who is well-built, powerful, eats with steely resolve, but is submissive sexually?

  14. arctic_jay says:

    Again, he’d still be considered masculine, but with a raised eyebrow. His sexual submission isn’t helping him, but men weigh other men’s masculine traits against their feminine ones and then do the math. There are few things men respect more than power as it relates to physical strength and ability. A man might be gay or sexually submissive, but if he’s Alexander the Great, men will look up to him.

  15. so you are basing masculinity on how other men perceive men? That is what I think it is too.

  16. arctic_jay says:

    We also base the categories rock, solar system, computers, Pokemon, and Socrates based on how people perceive objects in space. My point is that masculinity and, especially, maleness is as real and probably more well defined than any of those things. And what has fundamentally defined masculinity has been pretty constant throughout human history. It’s not vague or arbitrary or even especially political as far as men are concerned.

  17. Ok thanks Jay. I won’t try and argue with you then!

  18. P.s. Looks like the wall is still up.

    I don’t know what else to do really. Maybe I have knocked a bit of a chink out of it anyway.

    I do hope so.

    This wall is part of a much bigger, much more macho wall. I come across it all the time. I keep banging my head. I sometimes feel defeated and alone in my struggle.
    I don’t know many people taking ‘macho faggery’ head on.

    • Tuigen says:

      People will continue lving in the way that makes sense to them, and people like him will continue making sense to themselves.

      In Hinyana Buddhist thought (no really, you may want to look into this), identity is a delusion, and based on desires way beyond your control. It certainly seemed to be when I spent all my teenage years laughing at homosexuality, only to suddenly find a man attractive one day!

      Their is a lot of things in people’s minds that stop a more fulfilling life. Be happy that you are ahead of the game? Maybe. Stay cool, anyway.

      • Thank you. You are very perceptive to find this post. It is the one that really first showed some differences between me and my Big Man Hero of gender theory! And, he did not post the ‘pingback’ to it on his blog! Because he didn’t like what I had to say.

        But yes you are right. I have to take some comfort from not feeling so bound up in ‘masculinity’ as to make it into something better than any other aspect of a person.


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