What does it mean to be a "real man" today?


What does it mean to be a "real man" today?

We all are well aware of the patterns of masculine behaviour that are deeply rooted in the Western culture — according to the centuries-old stereotype, the “true masculinity” is connected to power, strength, and courage. A “real man” fixes taps, is a natural conqueror, makes money, never cries, and is scared of nothing! Over the last few decades, this pattern has been in the process of being revised, which makes us question the very concept of masculinity. Let’s have a look on what it means to be a “real man” today.

Cezary Polak

Published: 2.02.2021 9 minreading time

Toxic masculinity illustration by Jarek Danilenko

Illustration: Jarek Danilenko

  • Gender norms
  • “For men” advertising
  • Toxic masculinity
  • So what is toxic masculinity today?
  • A beacon of hope
  • How to get rid of toxic masculinity ?
  • Masculinity redefined?  
  • Sources

Gender norms

Moulding us into cultural patterns of masculinity and femininity starts off at a very young age. Little girls learn that those teasing boys are only trying to express their affection. These “rough advances” are usually put off by saying: “he’s just a boy” as if those minor forms of violence are an in-born and acceptable way of expressing emotions. By making light of such attitudes, girls develop a subconscious belief that some forms of aggression may be blinked at, and boys are relieved from looking for different forms of expression. It doesn’t mean, though, that they are unbound in showing how they feel: it’s okay to bicker and banter, but crying? A big, fat NO to that, especially in Western cultures. When a boy is told to “stop blubbering”, he’s forced to suppress his emotions which, sooner or later, will have to find their way out.

“For men” advertising

As boys grow, the list of duties grows with them, and a man who doesn’t fit into patriarchal expectations is subject to comments like “what kind of a man are you?”, hence the opinion of someone of lesser value. The compulsion to keep up one’s “masculinity” is visible even in the tiniest and seemingly harmless, yet peculiar marketing gimmicks. We have, for example, special yoghurts “for men” which differ from all the other yoghurts by a slightly increased protein content and… black packaging. Meggings (leggings for men) or urban camouflage (makeup for men, usually limited to a concealer or face powder) are also advertised — apparently, no “real man” can afford to use something which used to be considered as belonging to the “women realm”, that is, not before some crafty marketing expert puts “for men” on it. How fragile is masculinity then if it can be undermined by using a barely visible beauty product? It seems that it’s not enough to be born a man — it’s a status which you have to acquire and constantly keep up. This begs the question: if there are “real” men, are there “unreal” ones? 

Let’s look at some message boards and try to answer that. One of Reddit users proposed a division according to which real men accept full responsibility for their actions, whereas “boys” rely on excuses. Most of the users agreed with that, although they pointed that being responsible is indicative more of maturity, which is gender-independent, rather than masculinity. Then they started to ponder on particular examples: Donald Trump — a real man or not? Taking responsibility or making excuses? Decisive, but is he powerful? Decisive, but what about the quality of his decisions? Ultimately, the users weren’t able to come to any definite conclusions.

Toxic masculinity

A few years back, the term “toxic masculinity” resurfaced in public discourse and quickly gained popularity. Interestingly, the term was coined by men themselves — in the 80s, a trend of “regaining masculinity” set in the USA, which was inspired by books such as Iron John by Robert Bly. Therapists and activists called on men to abandon the “toxicity” in favour of “deep masculinity” which, in their view, could be retrieved by means of forging rivalry-free relationships with other men, or reintroducing the rite of passage for teenage boys. Today, their works frequently face criticism (they abound in controversial statements), yet they undeniably provided the foundations for the discussion which continues to this day.

But before we enter the discussion on the toxicity itself, we should devote some space to the conceptualisation of gender. Studies have shown that there is little difference, biologically speaking, between the brains of a man and a woman. As a consequence, identifying as a male, female, or another gender is rooted not in the chemistry of our minds but rather results from the repetition of the old stereotypical mantra of what it means to be masculine or feminine — in other words, it’s the society that keeps us “in check”.

So what is toxic masculinity today?

Today, toxic masculinity is discussed in a broader context. The term helps to consolidate an entire spectrum of harmful behaviours which are connected to the stereotypical masculinity. That being said, it doesn’t mean that men are intrinsically evil or malevolent. The term is now used to pinpoint the problem and show young people that there isn’t one “correct” way to be a man (or a woman — in case of “toxic femininity”). Yet, Rome wasn’t built in a day, which is why societies need time to digest these facts. And that brings us back to the discussion on toxic masculinity. How does it manifest then? Seeking medical help (and even thinking about one’s mental health) may serve as an example here — stress and bad habits increase the risk of disease, yet for many men going to the doctor is a sign of weakness, especially when symptoms don’t impede day-to-day functioning. Don’t you even dare to mention going to therapy. Another problematic area is interpersonal communication — men are usually not accustomed to naming and expressing their feelings, they don’t always want to change that, and even if they do, they have no idea how to start. This is also an issue for transgender men — many of them claim that after their gender confirmation surgery communication became considerably more difficult, even if they had no problems before. I can multiply the examples of toxic masculinity. Let’s have a look at a few more:

  • Being always dominant (or at least believing in one’s right to be so). One Australian study showed that almost a third of young males was convinced that they’re entitled to make final decisions concerning their relationships, and 37% believed that they should know the current location of their partners at all times!

  • Violence. Statistics show that men commit serious crime more often than women. One of the reasons standing behind those numbers is the perpetuated permission for responding to violence with violence. The ill-conceived necessity to prove one’s manliness by using brutal force is the cornerstone of the concept of toxic masculinity.

  • Sexual promiscuity and sexual aggression towards women. At some point in our lives, we all have heard men bragging about their sexual conquests or making locker-room jokes about women (if you haven’t, you’re either too young or you’ve been born under a lucky, “nonsexist” star). Toxic men love to bathe in the spotlight beaming from their toxic friends’ eyes and, in their minds, it’s achievable through objectification of women.

A beacon of hope

In 2019, the American Psychological Association issued a first ever therapy guideline related to men and boys. We learn about the harmfulness of “traditional masculinity” — stress, various forms of violence, and rat races lead to depression, addiction, difficulties in establishing relationships, and all these mustn’t be ignored during therapy. The APA also points to the necessity of establishing local prevention programmes in which therapists will take the problems rooted in particular communities into consideration.

However, as I’ve said before, not every man will go to therapy, which is why it’s important that the discussion on stereotypically “masculine traits” remained in the public sphere. We’re glad that men themselves take up the issue. A former NFL player Wade Davis, after he’s finished his football career, took up the social activist gauntlet. In his speeches, he encourages men to take some responsibility for other men, e.g., by loudly pointing out their flawed behaviour — in the same way as Twitter users reacted when a journalist Piers Morgan laughed at Daniel Craig, who played James Bond, for carrying his child in a sling. In response to Morgan’s tweet many fathers have shared their own photos of them carrying children in slings and commented: “it’s hard to believe that someone thinks that taking care of a baby is not masculine”. Actor Chris Evans also voiced his opinion on the matter and said that Morgan must feel deeply insecure about his masculinity since he’s wasting time on judging the way in which other men take care of their kids. How did Morgan reply? “Captain America wouldn’t carry his child in a sling”.

Amongst the “non-toxic masculinity” promoters was also Bob Ross. He was known as the host of “The Joy of Painting”, in which, with his mild voice, he instructed his viewers on how to paint landscapes while sharing his life philosophy. The 80s’ show is now being rediscovered by an audience much younger than the show itself, who thank the host (who passed away in 1995) for his sincere and soothing guidance which helps them cope with their own problems. It’s not common knowledge that Ross was a U.S. Air Force officer. After he ended his service, he noticed the devastating influence of military life and decided never to raise his voice at anyone. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is often listed as an example as well. This nearly 2-metre high, weighing 120 kg actor and wrestler has no problem showing to his abundant number of followers how he’s doing chores or spends time with his children, and how passionate and happy he is about his work and training.

How to get rid of toxic masculinity?

Apart from such shining examples mentioned above, we need to revise our entire way of thinking about gender roles and cease the stereotypical labeling or putting people into boxes. The battle has already begun, but the change must take place on a societal level. Obviously, such changes don't happen overnight and aren’t easy to achieve but there’s an array of actions you can take to try to eradicate the spreading disease:

  • Be a feminist. Don’t be afraid to confront your friends or online interlocutors if they start to voice sexist or misogynist comments about people of other genders. If you remain silent and passive, your behaviour will let them believe that you approve of such attitudes and the toxicity will spread. 

  • Open up and let others open up in front of you. A good place to start here is to invite a friend to talk about their feelings, emotions, allowing them to share, without being judged or criticised. And don’t be afraid to return the favour! Accustom people to the fact that you’re willing to talk about your mood or mental health with them. 

  • Don’t give up on people (or yourself). The fact that someone proves resistant to all the efforts of eradicating the toxicity out of them doesn’t mean that we should give up on them. Try to find other ways of bringing the good in people, instead. There are no mistakes that can’t be undone or redeemed, which is also true in your case. So don’t beat yourself up for the past errors and try to do something about the present.

  • Put your heart into it. Keep challenging the “masculine traits” and try to convince people to redefine their view on certain aspects of their behaviour and push them to find their own definition of manliness, one that is healthy for them and the people around them.

  • Pay attention to the young ones. When talking about the next generation, we have to realise that children often mimic the behaviours of the grown-ups, which is why we should always strive to be the best versions of ourselves, that is, if we want to live in a world where stereotypical gender boundaries are not an issue anymore.

  • Boycott brands perpetuating toxic thinking. Last but not least, don’t buy those products which are to make you “invincible, unbreakable, or impenetrable.” There’s nothing wrong with regular yoghurts or shampoos that are just that (you know the “thousand-in-one” “for men” thingies). So don’t be a part of the industry that’s set on perpetuating the “masculine lies”.

Masculinity redefined? 

So, what exactly do we mean today when we refer to “real men”? Definitely not the bullying, aggressive machos who’d claw their way at the cost of others. So much more important are taking responsibility, civil courage, honesty, composure, and compassion. It appears then that “real men” are simply good people, and perhaps this is the only differentiation we need.


https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/what-we-mean-when-we-say-toxic-masculinity [Accessed: 26.01.2021]

https://www.aurorand.org.uk/news/top-10-toxic-masculinity-behaviours [Accessed: 26.01.2021]

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/toxic-masculinity#summary [Accessed: 26.01.2021]

https://thebookofman.com/mind/masculinity/10-things-to-end-toxic-masculinity/ [Accessed: 27.01.2021]

https://theconversation.com/australian-study-reveals-the-dangers-of-toxic-masculinity-to-men-and-those-around-them-104694 [Accessed: 27.01.2021]



Cezary Polak
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