In junior year of high school, I participated in a “learn to row” program at a local boathouse. The place itself was no spectacle, not worthy of pictures like those on the Schuylkill River, but it housed a great staff and the boats floated. The main problem with this boathouse, named Nereid after the nereids, sea nymphs in Greek mythology, was that it was located on the Passaic River. Now, for any native of Northern New Jersey, this name should send a bit of a chill down your spine. The Passaic River is notoriously dirty, with garbage as plentiful as water, fish plagued with jaundice and in the warm temperatures of May, the air smells like a mixture of gasoline, decay and disposed medical equipment. Not to mention a corpse every now and again. But, anyway, to return to the point.
One day, my boat began to tip as I was rowing, and I had a terrible vision of myself falling into the water and emerging with three eyes. To say the least, I was shaken and probably the closest I have ever came to having a panic attack. It was a Friday. The following day I was supposed to have another practice. I felt incapable of going back in the water, at least for a day or two. When I told my parents that Saturday morning that I didn’t think I could handle going back into the water just yet, my father said something to me that I will never forget: “Be a man.” What exactly did that mean? This thought has been swimming in my brain ever since.
Here is another vague “definition” of masculinity. A friend from back home has, let’s say, a certain trepidation when it comes to parallel parking. And I find it fair to further say that this trepidation carries over to an inability. So one night, on an excursion to the movie theatre, my timid friend volunteered to drive. When we arrived, the only spot available required parallel parking. Despite our goading, my friend eventually gave up and yelled for someone else to park it. His girlfriend took up the offer and parked it perfectly. As we headed towards the theatre, he mumbled to himself, “that was so emasculating.”
So clearly, we see masculinity has something to do with being able to parallel park a car and row on a dirty river. Of course, I am being facetious, but I believe that the prevailing thoughts behind masculinity’s definition are as ridiculous as my previous statement. The examples provided suggest that an act can somehow be gendered. Secondly, they suggest something about the role of women, for in these definitions, they appear to be the losers. To shy away from doing something frightening or just having an inability to complete a task is “feminine”. The definition extends to showing emotion, talking about problems and generally showing affection.
Why do we have these perceptions of masculinity, and why do they define manhood? Well, certainly there is some societal aspect as there is to most things. Through TV shows, music and various other forms of media, we see men acting in ways that promote gender stereotypes. One show that has recently interested me is “Parks and Recreation”. Although he is my favorite character, Ron Swanson certainly is the epitome of the tough-as-nails, 1950s “manly-man.” Andy Dwyer, the goofball wannabe rock star, is a stereotypical “Jackass” kind of character. These are only a few examples of the way that men are portrayed in various media. Look elsewhere and you’re bound to find the partier, the nerd, the depressor, the drug addict, the politician, the misogynist and many others.
Like sponges, we absorb all of these “personalities” and end up emulating them. Just as movies like “Van Wilder” give false impressions of what college is like, such characters too give a false impression of what manhood is. This is not to say, however, that these stereotypes are not based on some truth. I know my fair share of lunatics, jackasses and nerds. Yet, one must wonder which came first, which has actually influenced the other more.
In my opinion, manhood and masculinity still remain undefined. Well, what would it be? Thinking over the most important men in history, I would say something like this—A man is someone who does not bolster or build himself up in the hopes of becoming a leader, but rather naturally draws people to him; a man is someone that knows when to laugh, knows when to cry and understands his emotions as his own, seeking not to suppress but express them; a man does not expect to do everything on his own because he knows he needs help from his friends; a man respects and loves women, realizing that his hands hold only half the sky; a man does not see actions as masculine or feminine, but simply as actions; a man does not seek to place blame but accepts his failings and the consequences they have; and finally, a man knows his own boundaries and has an intelligence to gage danger, disregarding societal norms that stand in the way of those boundaries.
Our job as Generation Y, the Echo Boomers, is to break down the walls that our parents did not. What will it say about us if we stay stagnant and do not reconsider such antiquated views? I do not ask you to view the world through gender-neutral glasses, but please, next time you want to tell someone to be a man or say that something is emasculating, consider what it means to be a man; for a man would never need to condemn another as unmanly.