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.
- The quality or state of being virile; manly character.
- 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
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.