The Walrus Blog

When the subject of manliness comes up—or at least, when I’ve brought it up in conversation in relation to this project—people often jump to the conclusion that the key distinction to be drawn about how men behave (or should behave) is how it differs from the way women do (or should). Masculine vs. feminine.

That’s certainly one element of the discussion, and one I expect we’ll get into as I begin rereading and discussing Harvard Professor Harvey C. Mansfield’s laugh-a-minute tome Manliness over the next couple weeks. (Here’s a taste: “Today’s women want power, but they are not so eager to accept the risk that goes with seeking power. An indication of this failing is the willingness of women to claim solidarity with other women in the ‘women’s movement.’ … A men’s movement would be more divided against itself, each individual man looking out for himself and caring less for the general cause of his sex.”)

But an equally interesting distinction to me is manliness in opposition to what I am tempted to call “guyliness” (alongside six other brave internet lexical pioneers). It’s what I was driving at in my opening post explaining my premise, the old question of separating the men from the boys, except that today, the boys remain boys into their thirties and forties and fifties and prefer to be called guys.

This preference is actually an important question of identity to a lot of men. When, as a teenager, I once called some stranger on the bus “sir” (he was probably in his thirties, still rocking the mullet and Zepplin uniform), he got angry and said “Don’t call me sir! That’s my Dad’s name! I’m not old enough to be a ‘sir’!” And I thought, what am I supposed to call you, Ace? Homeboy? Buddy? I was just trying to be polite. But his goofy response seemed sad to me then—people, male or female, who feel threatened by being treated like adults always make me sad, even if I understand the impulse more now that I’m no longer 15 years old. That’s what so many of us are kind of doing in suspending adolescence into indefinite guyhood.

An acquaintance of mine wrote me after my initial post to tell me he’d be thinking along similar lines:

When I was 36, someone described me as ‘an interesting man’ and I realized I was disconcerted at being described as a “man” (rather than, say, “guy”). And I thought how ridiculous that was, given that I was *36*. At that point in life my Dad had already had several responsible careers, and was married with two kids.

So when I write about “acting like a man,” I generally don’t mean “stop acting like a woman” or “stop acting feminine” (although, maybe sometimes—we’ll see as we go along). Usually I mean “stop acting like a guy.” Let’s compile a quick chart to help demonstrate that distinction:

    Man     Guy
    “Nice to meet you too, sir.”     “Hey now, call me Skeez”
    Esquire     Maxim
    Uses tools     Likes gadgets
    Building a career     Working for the weekend
    Quietly obsessed with sex     Loudly obsessed with sex
    Enjoys The Daily Show     Get news primarily from The Daily Show
    “Here’s why you’re wrong”     “Shut the fuck up!”
    Plays guitar     Plays Guitar Hero
    Jokes about homophobia     Makes homophobic jokes

OK, I’ll stop there and abandon my plan to compile a long and hilarious list, because already I can see it’s less helpful than it should be (and less funny, too). The thing is, as much as I’m concerned with behaviour (hence “Act like a Man”), it’s an underlying outlook on life that’s the key distinction, and any one preference is not that important (I’m sure Guitar Hero is fun).

So here’s a big wild stab: a man has a sense that his life should come to mean something, that on the great cosmic balance sheet the world will be a better place for his having been in it. Traditionally this can manifest itself in ways great (leading an army to redraw the world map) or small (providing for a family) or in between (fighting fires). The endeavour could be writing a novel or writing a symphony or fighting a revolution or solving physics problems or just being a part of a corporate team, but traditionally there’s a feeling of responsibility—even obligation—and an often inflated sense of importance that accompanies manly projects. This is true even in cases when the importance of the project is only symbolic; listen, for instance, to professional athletes and those who care about their objectively meaningless occupation (no offence—I’m one of them).

Boys, not yet grown, play cops and robbers and fight in the schoolyard and otherwise fool around with the elements of what they perceive to be manly, but they’re just kids and don’t feel the weight of responsibility or the threat of consequences.

The innovation of guyliness as a standard way of living is that it takes the boyhood shunning of responsibility and consequences and makes them permanent, celebrates them as values and mocks the self-importance and antiquity of anyone who thinks that’s a problem.

Is the same true of women? Not that I can see, really, or at least not to the same extent. There is no great epidemic of women abandoning their children to just flake out with their friends. Women are afraid of growing old in many ways, but they aren’t so afraid of growing up. In my own (fairly diverse, in economic and cultural terms) circle of acquaintance, I don’t see women tending to avoid excelling in school or getting a career-path job and claiming that avoidance as a point of pride. If I see women delaying family life, it is because they are dedicated to careers. I know women who are flaky and screwed up, but they aren’t that way on purpose—they don’t reject the very idea of adulthood as a tool of oppression trying to padlock their individuality. Of course, there are still fairly acceptable ways to be womanly that involve having other people foot your bill, but that’s probably another subject.

Guys, on the other hand, resist adulthood at a time in their lives when their actions should matter, when they should feel the need to contribute to something. Just shooting from the hip, I’d guess that at least part of the explanation for this is the much-remarked-on growing obsolescence of males. There’s plenty of crap to justifiably heap on the pre-feminist patriarchal society, but one virtue of it was that everyone had a role. Today, women generally still fill the roles they always did (bearing children, doing the heavy lifting in raising them, keeping house and organizing household finances and affairs) and they also shoulder nearly half of the “men’s work” of earning and providing. Women were absolutely right to complain about the power imbalance in the old arrangement and in the lack of choice for both women and men in how they pursued happiness. But the resulting societal shift has meant that in the nuclear family—the most significant organization most straight men will ever belong to—males are reduced to an optional frill, desirable but not essential to the unit’s success.

(This discussion is all very heteronormative, of course, and I’ll right that imbalance in some ways in future posts. But in the broad societal trends I’m looking at, the 90 per cent or more of the population who could possibly fall into conventional “normal” families are the, um, norm. And no need to write: I’m familiar with the concept that no one is normal.)

Plus then there’s the fact that we just don’t expect anyone to grow up anymore.

I could be overstating the novelty of this. Shakespeare’s greatest character, Falstaff, is maybe the prototypical guy, masculine but not manly. His role is as a foil to Prince Hal, the epitome of the cowardly and pointless joie de vivre that Hal flirts with as a young prince as a phase, before rejecting Falstaff and all he stands for to take on the responsibilities of his royal role.

So a warning there maybe against assuming that this moment is, in this respect or any other, historically unique. If anyone has further suggestions for where to look in history for guy vs. man comparisons, I’d be thrilled to hear them. And wild specualtion and argument as to the reasons for the apparent ascendency of guyliness are encouraged, from women, men and guys alike. And from anyone in between.

Creative Commons License photo credit: cheesebikini


Briefly speaking: Can underwear tell you about a politician or a grandfather?

I Come by it Honestly: Teenager fights bear. Wins.
Who da man? A brief and possibly irrelevant list of possible qualifications
Is This What You’ve Become? It all began in an east-end pigsty

Posted in Act Like A Man  • 

  • Xavier

    My comment is that of a general one, aimed specifically to the epicentre of the man-guy dichotomy. I must further purport, to our detriment, that the gap is growing, and that this phenomena is new, and although it is something that most twenties and at least early thirties males are thinking about, this is the first I’ve seen of it in the public forum, and my hope is the times, they are a changing.

    My contrivance with the matter comes from my last 8 years as a on and off career student. I have just finished an addenda year to continue my studies more for networking that anything. Why 8 years of on and off, well, let us just assume that as the youngest in the family, I have learned (to my detriment) that the world bends over backwards for me, and I will not settle for anything less – I want the be-all end-all of jet-set careers, and I haven’t found it yet. (Anyone ever heard of the adage, it never hearts to get more education)?

    Why I am candidate for this guy-man split is because of the lack of significance in our societies rites of passages, that boys er, late adolescence go through, in order to garner being called a man.

    Yes, we get our licenses at 16, we can drink alcohol at 18 (and other provinces 19), and well, as the social psychologists say, there is the serial issue of gaining independance from nuclear family (cultural differences aside, we will define this as emotinoal and financial independance – the transition from that of a dependent to an independent). Amongst this process of leaving the proverbial nest, we pass other land marks that give us distinction in manhood. These can be defined as buying a car, moving from one degree (undergrad) to another (graduate), buying a house, and/or getting married. As in your your vignette, these landmarks seem to mark points that define the responsibilities of manhood.

    Let’s be fair. This argument has flaws. Firstly, in no way, do these propositions distinguish men from women, and that distinction is beyond the cogency of this scant elegy.

    Is it the transition of our workforce? From data worker (factory worker) to knowledge worker (financial analysist or school psychologist)… has it been too great a step? I’ll propose the question to the readership… What is the issue here? Are our parents basements too comfortable? Where is the ambition? If, like the article flunking in the April Issue of the Walrus, we don’t learn the value of failure in our post-secondary educational experience, how can we move beyond our fears about making in it in the real world, and just make a go of it?

    And lastly, is anyone else sick and tired of the advertising industry’s portrayal of man as slack-jaw?


    Xavier Crossland

  • David Smyth

    Men have been left behind by the changes in society. In the old days, guys got the power and the wealth and paid for it by dying younger (much younger, when called upon to die in combat). In the modern age, women have claimed the equal power, are struggling for the equal wealth, are largely shunning the dying younger part (just how many female combat deaths in Afghanistan have there been?). Since guys are no longer able to, or expected, to claim the spoils of “manliness”, why would guys accept the costs? Simply put, we all do what gives us the maximum utility or satisfaction. If a society wants more from guys, society had better find a way to motivate them.

  • Hilary

    “in the nuclear family—the most significant organization most straight men will ever belong to—males are reduced to an optional frill, desirable but not essential to the unit’s success.”

    i’m sorry, but this is the guy’s way out of your little conundrum. why does women getting stronger and more successful mean that men become weaker and less accomplished? to say, “no one depends on me, therefore i will not be dependable” is a poor excuse for not being a responsible person.

    to reply to David Smyth – nobody was asking much of women, and yet the feminist movement happened. go figure. the “rewards” of society have not been snatched away from men – the playing field has just been leveled. a bit.

    the result of a more just society is that you don’t get credit for being a responsible citizen solely because you are male, or straight, or white, or any of a number of other things. or rather, that more people of more categories have more opportunities to be regarded as responsible citizens. so yeah, you have to step up and prove yourself. get over it and do it already.

    i’d like to frame your anecdote about the “guy” on the bus who didn’t want to be “sir” in another way: the rise and glorification of youth. at some point in the 20th century, someone said, “don’t trust anyone over 30,” and he (or she) has been endlessly quoted since. the problem is that eventually that skeptic turned 30 – and couldn’t believe it had happened to them. the result is a culture that scoffs at the wisdom of experience and desperately clings to the “freedom” of youth. i have a feeling that this phenomenon crosses gender lines – and probably other lines as well (though i wonder if it crosses class lines) – the desire to stay young, hip and credible.

  • Edward Keenan

    Hilary says: “i’m sorry, but this is the guy’s way out of your little conundrum. why does women getting stronger and more successful mean that men become weaker and less accomplished? to say, ‘no one depends on me, therefore i will not be dependable’ is a poor excuse for not being a responsible person.”

    No need to apologize, Hilary, I’m glad you joined the conversation. That only reads like a “way out” if you somehow interpret it as an excuse. I don’t believe it is. I do put it forward as a partial explanation, because I think diagnosing the problem is important if one wishes to solve it, or even to discuss it. You can ask rhetorical questions about why feeling like a fifth wheel should motivate people to start acting more like spare tires, but those questions do nothing to change the reality that they do react in exactly that way. And I think that’s posibly kind of stupid and destructive and that, as you put it, guys need to “get over it and do it already,” which those who’ve been reading along will know is the entire inspiration for this blog’s being. So: no excuses. Glad we agree on that.

    But your assumption that any attempted explanation of why men feel the way they do must be an accusation against feminism or women is understandable, and common to both men and women judging by my email inbox. I think that’s ridiculous. That will be the subject of a large-ish post later this week.

    And the culture of youth has also been on my mind — especially since, as Xavier points out, it is hinted at in Jay Teitel’s essay in this month’s issue of The Walrus. It does cross gender lines to a large extent, but it gives signals to men and women (and boys and girls) differently in some ways. I’ll be discussing that in another post in the next week (already half written). But I won’t point the finger at Jerry Rubin’s rallying cry about untrustworthy grown-ups and I won’t call it “freedom” either. Freedom carries with it responsibility, and the current infantilized culture is all about shunning responsibility and consequences.

    Thanks again for the conversation.

  • Abbey

    “in the nuclear family—the most significant organization most straight men will ever belong to—males are reduced to an optional frill, desirable but not essential to the unit’s success.�

    When I read the above sentence, my first reaction was: “Glad to hear someone state it like it is!” I agree with Hillary that there are men (guys) out there that choose to use this as an excuse to blow off responsibility and behave poorly, but the excuse has no real merit and appears to me to be little more than a veiled threat: “If women won’t let us behave however we wish, even when it places them in compromising situations, and think they can do everything on their own (i.e. – maintain a househould, earn all the income, and raise the kids by themselves) then fine, let them go do that. I won’t life a finger to help, even in areas where I have a personal and/or moral obligation.” And then they run off, foot-loose and fancy free, and blow their money on beer and porn while we look on.

    It truly is frustrating. I can only imagine how frustrating it must be for those women with children whose fathers have decided to opt out on all levels.

    The message I’m getting from guys is that if society won’t play by their rules and give them what they want, then they’re content just taking up space or positioning themselves in a cumbersome manner so as to hinder the success of those they oppose/are angry at. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it and they’re true motivation is laziness (of spirit, mind, and body).

    Nice blog, btw!

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