What is it to Be A Man? It seems to me there are so many competing versions of this puzzle that men (and boys) end up having no idea how to attain the mythical status of Manhood.
Here are just some of the examples that have been held up for emulation in my lifetime:
A real man is a guy who goes down into his basement workshop for hours at a time, to build things, invent things, fix things, and well, just be alone with his tools and his thoughts. Sure, he may not be that emotionally involved with his wife, or in raising the kids, but he’s there, isn’t he? A real man doesn’t need ‘intimacy’, other than sex, right? He takes a quiet joy in noodling around in his ‘man cave’: it’s enough for him, and it oughta be enough for his family, too. He may not be able to remember his anniversary, but dammit, his tools are all organized and properly cared for.
A real man is someone who hangs out with his male friends a lot, drinking beer and watching sports. He can name every Super Bowl champion, in order, and who should have won the Heisman Trophy every year since 1986, in his humble opinion. He and his buds laugh together, have a lot of arcane in-jokes, and practice the male art of teasing each other constantly – all in fun, of course. He is competitive, probably played high school sports until he sprained his damn knee (he still limps around dramatically a couple times a year, to remind everyone). He wants to win. In his mind, he’s the guy in all the pickup truck and beer commercials: though he’s never pitched a hay bale in anger or ridden an actual horse, he considers himself a brother under the skin to every cowboy and rancher depicted wiping the sweat off his brow after another rugged day of taming the elements.
A real man is ‘successful’ – an achiever: a borderline workaholic, he has pushed his way to the top of the business world by being aggressive and understanding the ‘game’. He’s one of the boys, but also his own man. When it comes to choosing between emotion and productivity, well, he knows where he stands: after all, “It’s just business.” He handles his own investments and has an uncanny way of anticipating the market. He’s a great guy, but don’t kid yourself: if you go up against him in a business deal, you might end up with only your underwear to your name.
A real man is a lady killer: he is slick with the chicks and knows his way around a bedroom. He doesn’t allow himself to really get ‘involved’ because there’s always someone else waiting to fall for his charms, and why have one meal when there’s a banquet waiting for you? Sure, he gets along with other men when he needs to, and can talk politics or sports when he needs to, but his main sport requires the opposite sex, and three’s a crowd.
A real man takes care of his family. Sure, he earns good money and takes care of business at work, but he’s also a team player at home who’s there for his wife in every way. He’s also there for his kids: their games, their graduations, their triumphs and their tragedies. He coaches the teams, drives his SUV so everyone gets where they need to be, and is there for those special late-night talks about life. He’s dependable, solid and responsible. His other specialties are lawn care, home improvements and the barbecue. What a guy.
A real man is a loner, and an expert at what he does:The Marlboro Man; Indiana Jones; Sam Spade. Cowboys, secret agents, loggers, truckers, oil riggers, cops, private eyes, bounty hunters, fishermen and hunting guides. He’s in and out of civilization – he can take it or leave it. If he works outdoors, he masters it: he can build a fire from a piece of lint, keep himself warm at 50 below, and dry in a monsoon. He can find water in a cactus, and survive on weeds, herb and berries indefinitely, unless he decides to snare a rabbit using only his shoelace and a bent twig. If he’s in a truck, he can drive straight on through for three days on just strong coffee and unfiltered cigarettes. If he’s an explosives expert, he can make nitroglycerine dance. He can talk when he needs to, but mostly, he thrives on silence, and on his own. Oh sure, he “grabs himself a dizzy blonde once in a while”, like Detective Mark Dixon in Where the Sidewalk Ends, and of course women like him, but he lives by his own rules, understands his own kind, and moves to his own beat. He’s not a joiner, not really a rebel – just likes going his own way, in his own way.
Need I go on? Do all these guys have anything in common? Hmmm – maybe confidence, and competence? I don’t think any representative sample of Americans would say a real man is weak, or emotional, or needy, or unsure of himself, or bad at what he does. Look at the male movie stars of the classic era: John Wayne, Clark Gable, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, Charlton Heston – not a bumbler, not a boob, not a whiner among them. Oh yeah, maybe Jimmy Stewart got away with some stammering, but even he only really cemented his male image when he did a series of tough westerns in the early Fifties.
And today? Well, it still behooves any actor aspiring to superstar status to establish himself as a tough guy once or more: Matt Damon in the Bourne series, Tom Cruise in the Mission Impossibles. Ben Affleck, Daniel Craig, Liam Neeson, Russell Crowe – all have donned the cape, the mantle, the muscle, the gun or the jock at some point. Even Tom Hanks (today’s Jimmy Stewart) didn’t do himself any harm by playing the title role in Captain Phillips recently.
As a (male) patient of mine once said, rather succinctly,
Women have to be pretty; men have to be strong – that about sums it up.
Does that sum it up? Are we men still basically operating with sex roles from back in the 1940’s, or have men (not just women) “Come a long way, baby”?
Well, what I’m seeing from being in the trenches, doing therapy with modern men, is that they seem to be MUCH less concerned with the “Am I a man?” question, in general, than they used to be – or at least the question as posed that bluntly. Of course men are still, as ever, concerned with achieving success, with making money, with being ‘strong’, but even young men nowadays don’t seem to be attaching those things to yes/no questions about “being a man”, as they used to. But they do wonder what kind of a man they’re supposed to be, and they do wonder if they’ll ever get there.
As a young man I see in therapy recently asked, “Doc, how did you make it through, and do you have any tips for me?”
Well, here’s a brief primer on “How I made it through”, though as the ads say, “Your results may vary”:
My god, I remember when I was young we were bombarded with the question of “Am I a man?” in films and TV constantly: it seemed like every episode of Bonanza, Trackdown, Gunsmoke, or Combat, was about the desperation of some poor slob trying to ‘prove himself’, or failing to prove himself, to a male authority (his father, a superior officer, an employer, or just the ‘guys’), or to a woman. Even the types of TV shows we watched were a dead giveaway as to the male societal imperatives of the time: westerns, detectives, wars, more detectives, more westerns.
So, what changed, and how?
Well, believe it or not, one reason it changed was Humphrey Bogart, and this is why he still stands alone as a special cultural icon among the male stars of the Forties: he was, if not the first, then certainly the best, at portraying a male hero who was flawed, smart, humorous, and most of all, human. He was clearly tough, but that was only part of him: he displayed a kind of wised-up, world-weary, self-deprecating, “Post-War” cynicism in The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, High Sierra, and other films, but he was doing it before the Post-War era. Perhaps it took a guy who was from money (his father was a prominent doctor, his mother a famous book illustrator), but who was at heart just a ‘regular guy’, to have the confidence to be smart but to play it down, resulting in a unique “above us, but of us” persona that still clicks with both men and women. As an actor, it takes confidence to not ‘play’ confident, but to just let your own inherent self-confidence (i.e. as a man) flow through the part, conveying that confidence directly (“show, don’t tell”), connecting to the audience on a deeper level than any dialogue or posturing could accomplish.
So, the Bogart persona was already part of our cultural currency by the Fifties – but who took the baton from there?
Well, James Garner, for one. I remember it was a HUGE deal when Garner portrayed the title character in the TV Western, Maverick. Why? Because, significantly (for the time) he used HUMOR occasionally, he acknowledged his own fallibility, and he backed down discreetly when the situation demanded it. Network poohbahs fretted and stewed mightily about whether the American public would, or could, possibly accept such a ‘weakling’ as the lead in a major show: well, they underestimated the American public (no surprise there), because it was a big hit, and forever changed the rules about what a male was supposed to be. And amazingly, he was still basically a ‘tough guy’, and, more amazingly, he still got the girl! And don’t think we little boys weren’t watching and (unconsciously) taking notes: imagine that – now you could be funny, you could be smart, you could even have a questionable occupation (gambler, in this case), and still be a real man! This laid the groundwork for our generation later accepting and appreciating more complex, more layered, and softer ‘tough guys’, including Bob Dylan, The Beatles, and countless others in music, films and other aspects of pop culture.
And speaking of pop music, I distinctly remember being stopped in my tracks at hearing these lyrics in Six O’Clock, by the Lovin’ Spoonful:
And I could feel I could say what I want,
That I could nudge her and call her my confidant,
And now I’m back alone with just my shadow in front,
Six o’clock, six o’clock…
Wait a minute: did he just say,
I could nudge her and call her my confidant… ???
What the hell! First of all, you didn’t treat girls like that – they weren’t friends! They were the adversary in the eternal game of cat and mouse (i.e. sex), not friends! You didn’t ‘nudge’ them, you “got over on them”, and if you ever did use someone as a ‘confidant’ (which you wouldn’t), it certainly wouldn’t be a girl! And you certainly didn’t ever hear the word confidant in a rock song! Here was a purportedly normal guy, nudging girls, treating them as confidants, and wanting to talk about his feelings? Wow, just that one stanza in a popular song told you things were changing, and fast.
Speaking of women as confidants, how about this exchange on the subject of ‘being a man’:
In probably 1969 or so, I was attending UCLA, and somehow normal classes were cancelled on account of our protesting the war in Vietnam (yes, that really happened). So, instead of attending class, we met every so often in the teaching assistant’s apartment in Westwood, and discussed the fate of the world, or the world of fate, or whatever else came up, seeing as how most of the class was stoned anyway. Well, at one point it was decided that we would split up into teams of two and canvass houses in Westwood (actually, a rather tony suburb, totally unsuited to be a college town), and “educate” the local populace about the War and how terrible it was. I believe this was for actual course credit, though I have no memory of what class it was, or how talking to the good people of Westwood educated us about History, or French 2, or Modern Jazz Studies, but I digress. So this young, attractive female classmate and I set out one morning to change the course of world history, one mansion at a time, armed with a sheet of paper with talking points, if anyone actually opened a door.
Well, I’m pretty sure at the previous so-called ‘class meeting’ we had discussed gender roles, or some such thing. Anyway, as we walked, I got onto the grand topic of “Being A Man”, and began discussing with her quite openly (was I treating her as a confidant?) some of the issues I, personally, had been dealing with on this topic. I talked about what constituted being a man, how different I felt from a lot of the guys I knew, and what it all meant. Or something like that.
But what I do remember is this: at one point, as I rattled on, earnestly presenting my dilemma, she stopped abruptly, faced me, and said:
Do you have a penis?
My jaw dropped six inches. I tried to focus my mind, and square what I thought I had just heard with what I couldn’t have just heard. Finally, I managed to squeak:
She repeated, very slowly, enunciating distinctly like a teacher in a special ed class:
I said, Do you have a penis?
Well, there was no way out of it now: she had actually said what I couldn’t have heard, but did. I licked my lips, looked down and sort of stammered, looking around like I might get caught:
Uh – yeah.
With that, she nodded confidently, and said:
Then you’re a man.
I suppose you’ve heard the phrase: Man proposes and God disposes? Well, this gal disposed. And having disposed, she immediately turned on her heel and started walking again. The conversation was over. Done. Finis.
There was nothing to do but catch up to her and go on with the day’s agenda. It never came up again, nor was there anything whatsoever in her manner to indicate that anything out of the ordinary had happened. She had spoken and it was over – that’s all. And I never forgot it again: I was a man – period. End of topic. Maybe my kind of man, but a man, like any other possessor of said organ. I had inalienable rights to manhood from that moment on, granted in perpetuity, and irreversibly, by some cute girl on my Vietnam-education-stroll team. Period.
One more incident further cemented my claim to manhood, and again, it had nothing to do with any manly behavior on my part, but rather a particular coincidence. During my days at UCLA, I had a job as a delivery boy for a printing business on Sunset Boulevard near Vermont (if you’re an LA kind of person). My job was to hustle finished jobs out to various business all over town, but mostly in Hollywood, then pick up new ones and hustle them back. I remember Petersen Publishing as one of the main clients – they’re the folks who published Car Craft, Motor Trend and most of the other high-class auto mags. I drove my own car, which was a requirement of the job – a red 68 VW bug, the one that stalled out at unpredictable times after I had run it for a while. Very unpredictable times, and the word ‘stalled’ doesn’t begin to measure the malignancy of this car’s engine and its appetite for fiendish torture. I suppose it goes without saying that, every time I brought it in to the German mechanic, he said, “Nein, I cannot help you – never once does it doing zis zing when I test-driving it.”
This is the car I bought after the black Renault Dauphine gave out. The Renault was the sad little family car I ‘inherited’ after I lost my brand new, cherry-red 66 Mustang fastback four-speed. I lost it because my Dad and I had an agreement: if I lived at home while I went to UCLA, I got the Mustang. If I lived at the dorms, he got it. Well, I started out at the dorms. but the dorms didn’t agree with me, mostly because my roommate was some super-rich male bimbo from Lake Forest, Illinois who liked to brag all the live-long day about having gone to New Trier High School – supposedly some kind of swell dump that was the high school equivalent of Harvard. He and his sockless Weejuns were always off to Brooks Brothers, or the Beverly Hills Hotel, or some fabulous restaurant to stuff his fat face with caviar, or baked Alaska, or whatever rich people who go to New Trier eat. So, I ended up living back at home after that first gruesome quarter in the dorms, but it turned out my father interpreted our little agreement to mean that, once I left home, he kept the Mustang whether I moved back home or not. C’est la vie, or rather, “That’s life in the big city,” as he used to say.
Well, anyway, this particular day the Beetle was actually running pretty steadily, as I sailed off down Wilshire, I think it was, to bring somebody’s precious Dead Sea Scrolls to them in a timely manner (everything was always “Rush”, which never seemed to bother Earl Van Wormzer, the head printer, who had a red, bulbous alcoholic face that looked like an enraged pin cushion, and always took his elaborate time about everything, except his fast-as-lightning surreptitious nips at the vodka bottle all day long).
Where was I? Oh yeah, zipping down Wilshire Boulevard with my cargo of print ads. Well, I was stopped at a red light somewhere around Fairfax, enjoying my luck at having a still-running vehicle, when I happened to glance to my left and saw something familiar – a cherry-red 66 Mustang fastback. With my father sitting at the wheel, grinning at me and nodding to himself. I know it sounds crazy, but somehow, I took it as a papal benediction of my manhood: here we were, the two Bernsteins – Men at Work in the big city. Like I say, it sounds crazy, but I truly think that, before that, he thought of my ‘life’ as something figurative, something that happened in a realm other than reality, a series of theoretical occurrences taking place mostly in unnamed classrooms, that produced A’s or B’s, but not substantive corporeality.
But now, I had been seen doing a Real Job, and even more, a Real Job that not only existed in the same physical work world as His Job, but that existed outside of his ken, and demonstrably in the Real World of Men.
Crazy, all right, but something changed after that: he couldn’t deny that I had somehow, behind his back, squeaked into being a Man:
I worked, therefore I was.
So, how does somebody become a Man? I don’t know: mine involved listening to the Lovin’ Spoonful, a penis claimed on the streets of Westwood, and a chance meeting in traffic. It happens in unpredictable, crazy bursts of events that, somehow, mean things, in ways you can’t know beforehand, but always know forever after.
One minute you’re a boy, stuck on the near bank of a wide and wild river, longing for the big time. The next minute you’ve made it across, and there’s no going back.
Well, I hope my story helps someone out there make sense of it all.
Just know this: at the right time, it’ll happen, and you’ll be ready for Life in the Big City.
Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.