I’ve never really thought of myself as “a man”, in the sense that our culture traditionally uses that word. “Be a man”, “Man up”: what do these injunctions mean but silence your finer feelings, quash your doubts, suppress your fears? I’m all about the finer feelings. I’m all about the doubts and fears. If you compelled me to distil my personal brand of masculinity into a slogan, it would probably be, “Come and have a cuddle if you think you’re soft enough.”
In fact, I often find myself saying exactly this to my infant son. I don’t want him, as he grows up, to silence his finer feelings. I want him to understand that his finer feelings are what make life worth living. I don’t, in other words, want him to “be a man”. I want him to be something else.
But what? Our culture offers a narrow range of manly options. Sports jock! Incel! Hipster! Nerd! It’s like taking your child to a restaurant in which everything on the menu is, as my daughter would say, “Yutty.”
And biology has its own ideas about what it means to be a man. If I reach back (and I try not to), I can remember what it’s like to be a teenage boy: sex-obsessed, full of directionless energy, imprisoned by terror of the world. In such a state, it can be almost impossible to keep in touch with your finer feelings. How am I, as a parent, supposed to help my son perform this miracle?
What does an adult man look like? Our popular culture isn't exactly crammed with good examples
The problem, of course, is that all those off-the-rack masculinities (sports jock, etc) don’t solve the problems of male adolescence; they just sublimate them. Many men enter adulthood still obsessed with sex, still full of directionless energy, and still terrified of the world. I’m hardly the first person to observe that many men are still basically teenagers at heart. But we still don’t know how to help them negotiate their way to adulthood.
It would help, I suppose, if we knew what we meant by "adulthood". What does an adult man look like? Our popular culture isn't exactly crammed with good examples. Our idols of masculinity remain idols of sublimated adolescence. Batman. James Bond. Thor. Men often seem to arrive at chronological maturity still under the impression that these characters represent viable models for being a man.
It's a pretty miserable lesson to have to teach my son: that you don't have to 'be a man', but you should still be careful how you present yourself to the world
How to explain this to my son? I have no interest in depriving him of Batman, James Bond, Thor, etc. We need stories, fantasies, escape. But I’m not sure precisely how to teach him, especially during his addled teenage years, that Batman and co aren’t meant to be models for an actual life.
On the other hand, I know many men who are definitively not still stuck in adolescence – my brother, my father-in-law, my friends. (Myself, I hope.) It is, in other words, possible for men to find a path to actual adulthood – a condition that generally involves recognising complexity; eschewing violence; taking account of other people’s feelings; not thinking of yourself as special; and other elusive qualities.
The problem is that men get no real support from the wider culture as they pursue these qualities. What do most of the non-traditional men I know have in common? They try to get by without calling too much attention to themselves. In fashioning their non-traditional masculinities, they have been forced to operate under the radar.
It’s a pretty miserable lesson to have to teach my son: that you don’t have to “be a man”, but you should still be careful how you present yourself to the world. On the other hand, it may be that there is no escaping this lesson, for men or for women; that we still don’t know, as a culture, how best to guide people towards adulthood; and that, for now, all of us, individually, still just have to do the best we can.
Kevin Power’s novel, White City, is published by Scribner UK