What does it mean to be a man? And is masculinity in and of itself, “toxic?” Masculinity these days tends to get a bad rap. Any man claiming to embrace their masculine nature is automatically suspect by many.
To embrace “traditional” norms of masculinity is considered “toxic,” not only by certain segments of popular culture, but it has even had some shade thrown on it by some controversial guidelines recently issued by the American Psychological Association.
Back in 2019 the American Psychological Association issued some controversial comments in which they stated, “The APA defines traditional masculinity as “a particular constellation of standards that have held sway over large segments of the population, including: anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence.” The guidelines, which were highlighted in the January issue of the APA’s Monitor on Psychology magazine, say the pressure boys and men feel to conform to certain aspects of traditional masculinity can lead to poor health outcomes, including higher rates of suicide, substance abuse, violence and early death.”
Of course, their controversial comments were balanced by some more nuanced and positive comments about masculinity. The APA also stated:
“But the term “traditional masculinity” does not refer to all masculine traits, said APA chief of professional practice Jared Skillings, defending the new guidelines. “We’re talking about negative traits such as violence or over-competitiveness or being unwilling to admit weakness,” Skillings said. “Of course masculinity also has positive traits — courage, leadership, protectiveness — the report includes both sides.”
So, it’s not all bad as the headline can make things sound. The APA recognizes both good and bad traits associated with masculinity. NOT just bad things, but good things, and that it does make a distinction between the males and females. And I think that’s important to note, because there are differences between men and women.
But in popular culture, these differences aren’t really all that recognized all that much. While the spirit of our age is officially “egalitarian” in its view of the genders, there’s a very real mushy sense in which we aren’t really egalitarian, but “androgynous” in our views of gender, with a bent towards being pro woman and anti man.
If we were really philosophically committed to egalitarian ideals, we would welcome and celebrate the differences between both men and women in our culture. We could affirm their differences in personhood, their unique traits, while at the same time affirming their equality in humanity in the sight of God.
But our culture isn’t interested in gender equality. Gender is being viewed as something we liquify in a blender, making it impossible to make solid distinctions between the two, or to even define. To attempt to define what a man is or what woman is has become such a cultural and political hot potato, that the controversy found way into normally boring hearings for the Supreme Court. In the recent confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Jackson, Justice Jackson, who is a woman, was asked by one senator, “What is a woman?” For this seemingly simple (but politically loaded) question, Justice Jackson refused to answer, and punted to other experts.
We live in a society that doesn’t want to say what a man is or what a woman is. Instead, we prefer to say things say things like “gender is a social construct,” and talk about gender identity taking place on a “spectrum,” and having some sense of “fluidity.”
And in this fluid stream of gender identity, our culture has come up with some pretty colorful and sometimes outright crude labels and language to identify people on this spectrum.
Consider the following sample of terms, slang, and slurs our culture uses to talk about people on the spectrum of gender identity (of which I use only for illustrative purposes to talk about the ways our culture talks about various gender identities, not as an endorsement of terminology). We use terms like male, female, alpha males, boss girl, king, queen, beta males, sissies, tom boys, tom girls, cisgender, queer, non-binary, trans, bitches, bastards, dykes, faggots, Todd’s, and Karen’s.
All these labels and identities are essentially an assortment of archetypes that people are modeling themselves after, or that we see others as embodying in some way. It’s an identity that people embrace or have thrust upon them. As a result, is it really a surprise then that with all these gender identities that exist in our culture that Facebook felt the need to let people select from over 50 gender identities when creating their profiles? Such is simply the reality of our culture, and where it presently stands.
So, with all this said, and having plunged us into the swirl of our current culture, where does that leave us? Is it possible to understand what a man is? And since this podcast is produced from an Evangelical Christian perspective, what can we say about the “Biblical manhood” that so many controversies center themselves around? What does it mean to be a man?
Man As A Biologically Created Reality
It must be first acknowledged that when talking about men and women we are talking about individuals who are of the same species, both created in the image of God. We may have different imperatives in the way we are hard wired, but we have more in common than that which makes us distinct. There is considerable overlap between men and women and who they are, because who they are is humans created in the image and likeness of God. We are equally intelligent, equally emotional, and equally virtuous.
But at the same time, we were put on earth to be fruitful and multiply. Our biological function and purpose cannot be disentangled from each other. This is true from not only a theological perspective, but a biological, and evolutionary one.
And though we live in an age that, because of contraception, that tries to divorce our raw organic biological function of our sexuality from our gender identities, such ideology is divorced from reality.
Manhood, and conversely womanhood, are ultimately grounded in certain biological function and realities. Anyone that ignores or makes light of these distinctions is drunk on whatever ideology they are drinking.
Whatever overlaps men and women share, they have different biological realities that center around reproduction. Men produce sperm and women produce eggs and can have babies. I know, that almost sounds crude to say. But it’s something we need to say more often in our culture, because it almost seems like you have to apologize for acknowledging these distinctions today.
Because sex has as its possible outcome, beyond mere pleasure, the creation of children, since men and women play very different roles in that process, certain temperaments and responsibilities come with that.
Sex is a high risk activity. Since children can be born from sex, women find themselves in a very vulnerable place. Women can literally lose their lives in childbirth. And while the advances of medical science have made such increasingly rare in many parts of the world, it’s still very much a reality that every woman that has a child ultimately faces.
And on both sides of childbirth, during pregnancy and after giving birth, women also find themselves in a dangerous place physically. While women are quite amazing in their physical capacities, while pregnant they may find themselves rendered physically unable to fully care for themselves, or are required to, at least, take it easy in some limited capacity.
Then of course, there is dealing with a newborn child, and typically having to nurse it. While newborn children aren’t always able to breastfeed for a number of reasons (or aren’t for modern reasons), physically speaking, women will have to give much of their attention to feeding and nurturing a new born child.
As a result of these things, women for the sake of the risks associated with childbearing, should be selective about their mates. For the sake of not only their own lives, but the lives of their offspring, women should choose men who demonstrate the traits that give them and their offspring the best chances of survival, so that humanity can continue to propagate itself.
As a result of these biological realities and functions associated with reproduction, this demands that men are something more than just sperm donors. Men must be individuals who have certain outstanding traits and characteristics that can ensure the safety and well-being of their mate and their offspring. Such men, more often than not, will be selected as mates with which to propagate the species.
As a result, men must have some level of physical strength and capacity for this functionality. They must be able to protect, provide, and make a woman and their offspring safe. Especially during times in which both will be physically vulnerable. This will often require them to be in good physical health, to have a strong sense of confidence, a strong sense of loyalty, the ability to be assertive and make tough decisions, to obtain a certain level of success and social status, and the mastery of a certain set of skills to transform the world around them. Those who lack these basic traits will be seen as less desirable mates.
And so that their offspring might grow up and to one day repeat the process of their parents, men must be able to show their sons how they too can one day grow into and function as men, so they can reproduce, have offspring, and ultimately repeat the pattern that keeps humanity alive generation after generation.
Masculinity, when rightly understood from a biological perspective, as founded in the created natural order, are those “particular constellations” of characteristics which men possess that exists for the creation of human reproduction and flourishing. Masculinity is firmly rooted in a man’s basic biology, but it is also those characteristics which arise out of his unique function as a man in the mating process, that exists for the propagation and flourishing of human life.
Man In Time And Place
I know, all this might sound so barbaric and crude like descriptions. Maybe some might say they are chauvinistic. I’d imagine those with more progressive ideals of the world might be a little uncomfortable or even upset at saying these things out loud. But these are the realities of the world we have lived in for all of human history.
Of course, such can sometimes be hard to imagine in our contemporary modern and urbanized world, with all its conveniences, and things that make it possible for women to get along fine without men. Who after all, needs men to “man up,” in a world that’s not as physically threatening as it once used to be. Technology and systems of government have long replaced a lot of what previously required the raw strength of men to accomplish.
The ability of the independent boss girl type of woman who can boldly stand up and say “I don’t need no man!”, to see men as purely optional part of their life, and no longer necessary for the successful raising of offspring, is an interesting phenomena in human history.
Society has definitely shifted in the demands placed on men because of the advent of our modern world. Men are increasingly seen as a commodity that can be disposed of. And suddenly, that which was once taken for granted about what a man was, and what his function is in society, is now highly questionable.
Men are no longer expected to be as “hard” and rugged as they once were, and are maybe even expected by some to be a bit more “soft,” as our contemporary environment is much more physically forgiving than the past. And certain demonstrations of masculine mindsets from the past might seem not only out of place, but perhaps even considered as “toxic” behavior in contemporary society today.
Then of course, there is the question of what it means to be a man should a man who chooses to be, or for whatever reason, remains single. Or a man who for many different reasons had yet to have, or for some reason cannot have children. Or, what it means to be a man who has limited physical abilities, who might be something of a physical runt, or is now old, and not as capable of taking care of himself or others. Are such men really “men?”
And is all of what it means to be a man simply limited to that stage of life that has to do with attracting a mate, producing, and raising children? Are those who fail to do such somehow less of men because they aren’t doing such, or simply cannot for some reason outside their ability to control?
I would argue no. What it means to be a man will be somewhat contextual. While not departing from the raw biological aspects and functionally of manhood within creation, what it means to be a man will depend on where you are not only in your state of life, but in your particular time, place, and capacity.
That doesn’t mean men who are unable to completely fulfill typical biological functions and expectations associated with their nature aren’t “real men.” It just means they might have to look for other creative outlets to pour their masculine energy into. But the end goal should be the same, to help create a world in which life can thrive and humanity can flourish.
The Man In Christ
And last but not least, finally, this brings us to Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ is described as being the “Alpha and Omega” in the Bible. So, whatever our views of gender, and whatever our views of humanity, Jesus Christ is the ultimate demonstration of what it means to be fully human, and to be fully a man.
Others might serve as great models, but all must ultimately bow and surrender what it means to be a man to who He is as the model of all humanity and manhood. As a result, as men we don’t look to John Wayne or William Wallace as models of what it means to ultimately be a man, though they might have redeemable characteristics, but we ultimately put our eyes squarely on that of Jesus Christ as the ultimate representation of what a man is supposed to be. And where all others fall short, we find no such short comings in Christ.
Through Christ we understand our masculinity to be something we have been given for the ultimate service of others, and not our self aggrandizement or pleasures. We may be strong, but we are not brutes or savages.
And just as Christ came into the world as a servant, and so that we might through Him have life more abundantly, so we too as men must harness our masculinity in a sacrificial way for the flourishment of those who are placed in our care.
And far from being dominant beasts that are hell bent on conquest and plunder, we are to empty ourselves, and use our masculinity in the humble and loving service of others.
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