What does it mean to be a man in 2013? Consider four data points from recent weeks:
1. Tech entrepreneur Bryan Goldberg, who became an Internet laughingstock last month when he issued a stupendously tone-deaf announcement for Bustle, his new site aimed at women, was bashed all over again this week following a New Yorker profile in which he appeared to be overcompensating for his prior gender gaffes. “We didn’t want pink everywhere,” he told the magazine, noting that women seem to be interested in all kinds of things, from earrings to Zumba to Amanda Bynes to Syria. Women, in Goldberg’s view, have complex desires and interests, some of which conform to classic feminine stereotypes, but many that do not. And what of men? According to Goldberg, they like sports and financial markets and ... not reading books. A man is a simple creature.
2. Hanna Rosin, author of The End of Men, declared the end of patriarchy. In an era when middle-class men are struggling to hang onto their jobs and cultural relevance, it’s only feminists who keep the concept of male dominance alive, she argued, by purposefully highlighting the “statistics that make women look most beleaguered.” In other words, how can we be living in a patriarchy if the definition of “male” no longer carries with it a guaranteed level of social and economic status? Without such power, man is over.
3. Esquire revealed its “Life of Men” project, a photo gallery and accompanying questionnaire that aims to “create a living portrait of the American man right now.” There’s a healthy dose of masculine swagger among the subjects, but if there’s one common theme, it’s family. Over and over, these men — some of the most professionally accomplished specimens in America — name their children as their greatest achievement, their best day as the one on which they met their wife. A man is a nurturing partner and father.
4. That theme was echoed somewhat in a new report from the market-research firm JWT on male consumers and masculinity, which found that “emotional support for family” ranked just behind “financial support for family.” The JWT report says two thirds of men would make their work schedule more flexible or stay home with their family full-time if they could afford to. This was confirmed by a new Pew study this week, which declared that there are more men on the “daddy track” than ever before — though not always, it took pains to note, voluntarily. “Men’s ideas,” reported NPR, “have shifted closer to what many women have long felt.” But still, a man is a provider.
What’s striking isn’t the lack of consensus on what defines masculinity now, but the utter confusion about how to go about doing so. That’s because America is finally getting around to having the conversation about what it means to be a man that, decades ago, feminism forced us to have about womanhood. Women still face social consequences when they don’t conform neatly to gender norms, but many of even the most ideologically progressive men are just now starting to talk about how to break with masculine stereotypes and still hang onto a sense of gender identity. Goldberg and Rosin, in using traditional definitions of manhood (the simple, stoic breadwinner), declare him dead, or at least less marketable to advertisers. Men’s magazines, which now peddle facial moisturizers but still often shy away from heartfelt confessionals, have spotted how hard it is for men to balance both embracing and rethinking masculine stereotypes — and they’ve made some attempts to address it, but mostly ended up documenting the confusion.
And much of that confusion can be traced back to the fact that we’re still adapting to an expanded definition of what it means to be a woman. “The most complicated aspect of manhood is dealing with antiquated social norms about gender roles,” says my friend Eric Uhlir, who lives in D.C. “Society, at least American society, still hasn't realized that it's not just a woman's job to raise a child but everyone's job in a sense. We just drop it in women's laps and men just pretend like it's not even a problem. That feels like the most pervasive gender stereotype the world's brohemians don't seem to understand or just choose to ignore.”
Brohemian is an apt term: The JWT report gives an overall impression that, just like femininity, masculinity is increasingly defined by both playing to and against type. It's growing a really impressive beard and ordering a kale salad for lunch. It's knowing Super Bowl trivia and being an emotionally supportive partner. But if this makes it sound like men are joining women in having a less gender-bound view of their sense of self, it’s not that simple. According to the JWT research, even though millennial men are, more than older men, okay with using concealer and learning to poach eggs, they also say they're more frustrated with not knowing what it "means" to be a man.
JWT’s millennial men were more likely to answer affirmatively to statements like "Men can't be men anymore.” These guys have never lived in an era of rigid gender rules. The report says they seek the perceived trappings of manly men of the past to reinforce their masculinity while they pursue the other, more traditionally feminized lifestyle choices they also desire. This theory might explain why you can often find rugged pickaxes in high-end clothing shops of urban America.
“One of the reasons that I think facial hair — mustaches and beards, specifically — have come so much back in vogue is because there seems to be an almost primal urge to reclaim our right to be men and to look like men,” says Phil Walker, a gay man who lives in D.C. and has been known to sport an impressive mustache.
Sometimes the thick beard and the artisanal pickax on the mantel betray the fact that — gender enlightenment aside — a man may not be completely ready to abandon the traditional greatness of being a guy. Even if he wanted to, it would be tough to pull off. “How can guys pick themselves up by their bootstraps and bring home the bacon when we're also embracing the idea that everyone is entitled to whatever bacon they want, however they want to get it?” asked my friend Dylan Lathrop. The real challenge is compromise and balance.
And this is why I think Rosin is wrong about the end of patriarchy. “Patriarchy” doesn’t just mean concrete systems that ensure only men have access to the upper echelons of power; it also encompasses our ingrained cultural understanding of what men should be and how they show dominance. If it looks like we’ve reached the “end of men,” that’s only because patriarchy (alive and well!) tells us the only way to be a man is to be The Man — economically, politically, and socially. If patriarchy were really over, stay-at-home dads wouldn’t be the death knell of an entire gender. They’d just be … men. They are men.
Ultimately, confusion about modern masculinity is a good thing: It means we’re working past the outmoded definition. Men are increasingly comfortable breaking masculine gender stereotypes, but want to hold onto certain gender signifiers? They're uneasy about living in such a mixed-up, muddled-up, post-gender world, but don't want to go back to the rigid roles of the past? Welcome to where women have been since second-wave feminism! It's confusing out here.