“Masculinity must prove itself, and do so before an audience.”
– Harvey Mansfield
Before we know what it is, boys are measured against the invisible standard of masculinity. As boys, the world is fixated on where you fit on the spectrum of “boy-ness,” and the same obsession follows you into adulthood. You’re never told exactly what is, only what parts of yourself you must destroy and hide to be man enough. In the African American community and other cultures where hypermasculinity is the creed of all men, not fitting this standard makes you a target that needs to be fixed by any means necessary, even if it requires you to end up on the wrong side of the fists of those you love.
There are a number of ways that society and those closest to you “check” your masculinity and remind you of where you may fall short in comparison to the standard. It can be in the moment where your mother or girlfriend tells you to stop “bitching.” It can be like the time you were learning a sport and was accused of throwing like a girl. But one phrase that never fails to efficiently cut any boy or man down, reminding him of his deficiency is “man up.”
We don’t realize it, but every time we utter “man up” to a young boy or a man, we’re reinforcing some of the most negative and violent traits we chastise men for. On one hand, women and society at large talk about the importance of a man being patient, kind, thoughtful, and respectful in order to be a devoted husband, loving father, and a friend you can always count on.
“…in that moment, I thought, ‘I’m going to run into as many brick walls as I need to in order prove him wrong.'”
Everywhere you look, at the slightest show of vulnerability at a young age, we kill that by saying “man up.” Whether we know it or not, “man up” is the same as calling a man a sissy, punk, bitch, or a faggot–even when it’s said in jest. It’s a constant reminder of what a man shouldn’t do and be. And what’s more, there are ways we tell men to “man up” without even saying those words, and their response is always the same: be more aggressive, violent, heartless, and emotionless because that’s what we say we want, even if it’s not what we mean.
Don’t believe me? Here are two examples from an interview that demonstrate this perfectly:
Jarren, a late-twentysomething West Coast native and former Yale football player, shares the negative affect “man up” had on him as a young boy:
My feelings were hurt a lot when older men called me sensitive and said that I needed to man up. I was explicitly told that being sensitive wasn’t masculine. So, when you hear, “Be a man,” you realize that whatever it is you’re doing you shouldn’t do. For example, one experience was when I must have been 11 because it was when I went back to Colorado to visit my uncle who was a father figure to me–my father had died in a car accident when I was 3 months old. We had our own language and he would always take me camping and fishing. But when I moved to Washington state, I’d stopped doing those things. So when we went back that one year, I was with my uncle outside and I must have said something trivial like that I was cold or hungry or I might have asked could we go home. In response, he said that Washington was making me soft. After hearing that, I remember trying not to cry and trying to figure out what I did to make him say that.
Another experience where that happened was when I first started playing football in high school, and my step dad could see that I was considered with being hit or injured. My step dad said, “You’re not running like someone who isn’t afraid of contact. You need to stop running like that–you can’t be afraid of physical contact.” When you’re that young, no one is looking to run into another person. It’s very counterintuitive and it is something you have to learn. I was the skinny kid and always wanted to carry the ball. But in that moment, I thought, “I’m going to run into as many brick walls as I need to in order prove him wrong.”
In both examples, there’s a very clear reaction to having one’s sense of masculinity checked: hurt feelings and anger. Jarren was willing to “run through as many brick walls” as it would take to prove to his father that he was man enough. And although it shouldn’t be taken literally, I often think about the lengths that boys and men will go through to prove themselves. In this example, it went only as far as physical contact in football, but I know personally that moments like this can lead into much more dangerous situations.
Now, is everyone who utters “man up” looking to annihilate a man’s sense of self or pride? Not at all. But intention doesn’t take away from the consequences of the words and their effect on the man who hears them. And whether we mean it or not, whenever we use phrases like that we become a part of the problem.
So, the next time you think about why men do the things they do–whether you’re a woman or a fellow man–I challenge you to think about your own words and how you can use them to build up those around you, instead of becoming a part of the problem.
Do you have an experience where someone told you to “man up”? Tell us what it made you feel in comments section below, or send me a message directly.