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October 01, 2004



I still don't understand why I can't be a "real man" if I embody all of the characteristics and hold all of the same values prescribed by "real manhood." If it's just because I don't have the anatomy, well, I have a problem with that.

I accept that there are things about men I can't understand. But I don't accept that there's a "male" version and a "female" version of attributes like courage, strength, "wildness." How exactly does male integrity differ from female integrity? Are there also gay and lesbian integrities? Upper-, middle-, and lower-class integrities?

Why can't we promote the concept of good person instead of "real man" or "real woman"? It seems like a much stronger message, one that says that everyone will be treated equally and expected to live up to the same standards, regardless of gender.

Hopefully your upcoming post(s) will address this issue.


PS. My dad was my role model; I'd guess that 80% of my beliefs come from what he taught me. I grew up to be much, much more like him than my stay-at-home mom. So I have a stake in your explanation of the father-son/mother-daughter equation, too.

Fred Vincy


I'm glad you addressed this (not least because I asked you to in an earlier comment) and I appreciate that you've staked out territory that you recognize is going to be controversial with your readers.

Still, I'm inclined to agree with Hestia. When I asked myself for a quick definition of what "being a man" should mean as an aspirational matter, I came up with some combination of strength and virtue. Of course, those characteristics are equally proper aspirations for a woman, yet our language history would make them an odd fit for "being a woman". To me, that says that "manhood" and "womanhood" come with so much sexist and unproductive baggage that the project of reclaiming them is the wrong way to go. If we're concerned with virtue, strength, and maturity, let's focus on those.

I don't claim that there are no differences between men and women, but we should be very skeptical of the Tipper Gore type argument. Parents, grandparents, caregivers, and acquaintances shower children with sex-based expectations from an early age. If you doubt that, try some time to buy baby clothes for a baby before you know its sex -- your choices will be very limited. Or go to a toy store and ask for advice for a toy for a 3-year-old -- you will almost certainly be asked the sex of the child. So there are real biological differences, but when parents start telling you that their experiences prove those differences arise without outside prompting, be very skeptical.

Finally, I disagree that "unique and special circumstances do not gender theory make" because (a) I don't think that the circumstances you describe (e.g., aggressive females or non-aggressive males) are so unique; and (b) as a matter of human diginity we owe it to other people to relate to them based on their unique circumstances rather than on broad probabilistic assumptions about their character.


I'm going to stay out of the nature/nurture argument. It's not my field of expertise, and it's impossible to do much convincing. As on so many other issues, I take a "both/and" rather than either/or position. Social conservatives over-emphasize biology; progressives often over-emphasize culture.

It is not sexist to point out difference! It is sexist to assign value to those differences. Men's restrooms and women's restrooms are laid out differently to accomodate actual differences. Is there very existence sexist? Hardly. What is sexist is not providing equal and adequate facilities. "Separate but equal" may be racism, but it is not sexism.


I can see that one can see "real manhood" and "real womanhood" as being essentially the same and still using different terms insofar as adulthood itself is largely defined by sexual maturity.


Two observations:

1. Men and women differ. Tipper’s son behaves differently than her daughters.

2. Men and men differ. Each man differs from each other man; each woman differs from each other woman. Each of Tipper’s children differs from each other.

Both observations are true. But which observations are relevant to, for example, the design of public restrooms?

My building has two bathrooms. One is handicapped accessible, one isn’t. Does it meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements? I guess; all people - including people with disabilities - have a place to relieve themselves.

Oh, did I mention that the bathroom with the handicapped-accessible facilities is labeled “Women” whereas the other bathroom is labeled “Men”? Does the existence of labels somehow change the analysis?

As noted, all people differ. Undue discrimination (including sexism) does not arise from acknowledging difference; it arises from attaching needless significance to those differences. So, which fact is most relevant to your choice of bathroom: the fact that you use a wheelchair, or your gender?

One criteria seems irreducibly relevant to me. One criteria seems virtually irrelevant, except that society has attached a needless significance to a difference. But the fact that guys in wheelchairs continue to struggle to use the Men’s room rather than the Women’s room says a lot about the power of those needless social distinctions.

I see the struggle and I shake my head. We should design our world not to needlessly constrain people’s behavior with pointless crap. Who wouldn’t agree that white people should be allowed to be tough, loving, wild, gentle, fierce, tolerant, passionate and compassionate? Nobody. But what’s the point of specifying white people? Or rich people? Or short people? Or male people?

Gender has relevance to some questions. But it it irreducibly relevant here? Absent a showing of relevance, it looks like sexism to me.


I think that it's relevant to say that gender has a lot to do with how one sees oneself. I think growing into a life where you have a firm sense of self does require having confidence in your sex--but I think that true confidence in your sex is best exemplified by not always trying to prove that you belong to that sex.

That's the problem with calling someone a "real" man or woman--that implies that there is an unreal state, and that's obviously not what people mean. How about terms like "proper" or "decent" or "mature" man or woman? It's a tough one.


I don't get your last paragraph. What do you mean we are not called to manifest them in the same way? How are men called to manifest those qualities, as opposed to women? All men? All women? Called by who? Wouldn't expediency often require an individual to manifest those qualities differently in different situations? Does that make a person more or less manly, more or less womanly?

Honestly this post surprised me very much. It doesn't make very much sense.

Isn't what you really mean that you perceive boys as needing older men to provide them standards up to which they ought to live? And if so, why all the recourse to alleged fundamental differences in behaviour of men and women? And isn't it possible that these boy's needs are profoundly influenced by the messages, explicit and not, they get from the people around them?

I am also shocked that you don't think a woman could be a role model for a man. If it's true, then that is one of the saddest things I've ever heard.

This reminds me of an anecdote I saw, I forget where, but it was presented as funny. Where the young son of an appelate court judge is asked if he, too, wants to be a judge when he grows up, and he says, "Naw, that's women's work".

He has no conception of the actual work and power of being a judge, his only yardstick for measurement is gender, and he already knows that what's good for women isn't good enough for him.

He's learning that somewhere. Don't tell me that's biology!

Just because you are a man and your mother wasn't a role model for you, doesn't make it true for all men. I know at least a couple for whom their mothers were their primary role models. They're not exactly clamouring after the approval of older men, either, and they seem to be happy, functioning citizens.


I'd be interested in hearing you elaborate more on what specifically it is that makes men and women different -- in what aspects of life can only men be role models for other men? You've mentioned one -- men are more aggressive. As an exceedingly un-aggressive male, I'd be inclined to rephrase that as "aggressive people need aggressive role models, and most people in both groups will happen to be men."


I've been trying to figure out how to succinctly phrase my reservations about this post, but I think Stentor has done a better job than I could with the above question.

Also, as a general point, there seems to be a bit of a disconnect between the (highly appropriate) caution, uncertainly, and humility you express in wading into the deep waters of the social meaning of biological/hormonal gender difference (and your emphasis that there are many exceptions to the general contours of sexual difference on this front), and your apparent complete and utter confidence in your absolute and unequivocal assertion about role models:

Those who don't have a Y chromosome cannot serve as role models for those who do. Young boys need the love and guidance of women in their lives, of course. But as they transition out of boyhood, they require a man's presence in their lives to show them how this is done.

(By the way, just to clarify, you can't actually mean that first sentence, do you? Surely you mean that female role models must be complemented with males ones, not that women can't be role models at all, but rather that they can't do the whole job for adolescent boys?)

At any rate, the absolute terms expressed here make this statement easily impeachable. I don't put any importance in the notion of being a 'real man' and I'd never call myself that, but I do avoid the irresponsible behavior you (rightly) take men to task for around these parts, so I might not be too far off. My male role models as an adolescent were pretty useless. This is true of a number of my responsible, good people friends. Actually, some of the men in my life as a teenager served as powerful anti-role models; I saw what they were and I made a decision to avoid that.

Anyway, in other parts of your post you acknowledged there were lots of exceptions to your general 'natural differences between personality tendencies' notion. Surprisingly, you come across as so certain you've got the answer to how 'real men' are created don't leave room for any nuance of that sort here. For all the books written about it, I suspect childrearing is still an inexact and imprecise science that we can't really know with certainty what exactly is required to turn boys into 'real men' (I'd prefer 'responsible adult males').


I wonder if you might also be headed for a denial of responsibility here. The way, for example, that some Christians will say, well, *real* Christians would never do... some awful thing that is/has been done by Christians who definitely thought of themselves as Christians.

Men harass you? Well, they're not *real* men. *Real* men would never do that.

Actually they are real and they are definitely men, even if they fall short to an ideal "real man." Sure, I could say it's immatureo/boyish behaviour, but that isn't fair for two reasons. One that plenty of actual boys, as in, young male people, are great people, and two, that whether or not I think these men are behaving appropriately/in an adult way, they have the power and status of adults in our society. If they're behaving badly, I can't go to their parents and tell them they need to rein their kid in. Even if the parents wanted to, they couldn't send their adult son to his room or whatever.


I think it is outlandish to say that a person of the opposite sex can't be a role model in any capacity, but I think there is some truth to it when it comes to romantic relationships. A while ago a male blogger, I forget exactly who, wrote facetiously that after he learned the Golden Rule he went around asking every woman he met to sleep with him, because hey, that's what he'd like to be done unto him. That's exaggerated, of course, but it does point out the fact that men and women come to relationships with somewhat different desires and temptations, so being a man dating a woman isn't the same as being a woman dating a man, or a man dating a man or a woman dating a woman.

Of course, you can learn from the opposite sex directly what they want. But I wouldn't rely entirely on men to tell me how to be a good wife, for what I hope are obvious reasons, so I can understand the concept that a man wouldn't want to rely entirely on women to tell him about being a good husband.


I'm reminded, though not quite sure where it fits into this discussion, of the brilliant line from David Henry Hwang's "M. Butterfly," explaining why female roles are played by men in the Chinese opera:

"Only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act."


Real men never exploit other human beings for their own pleasure.

Taken as a single sentence, the main problem I have is the sentence would be equally true if you just said:
Decent people never exploit other human beings for their own pleasure.

I know the context was about men exploiting women and, worse yet, girls through sexual acts. That necessarily introduced the concept of discussing the standards for being a "real man", as opposed to the more generic "authentic mature human". Whatever the standards for "real men" might be, it must require being a "decent person" and also a "authentic mature human", Obviously, the "real women" should require us to be decent people and authentic mature humans.

The question is, of course, is there difference between the list of required personality traits and behaviors to qualify as "real man" or "real woman"?

Joe Perez

Hugo - you go, MAN. As a man initiated in The ManKind Project, I'm with you, brother. Have you done the MKP's training adventure?

Joe Perez

btw, Hugo thought I'd pass along a link to a column I wrote on The ManKind Project as an FYI.



I'm still really ambivalent on this. I can see everyone's point about using non-sexist language. But I also know from reading his blog that Hugo works with teenage boys who are coached from day one in their lives that being "real men" is far more important than any other thing that they set out to do with themselves. It takes years of hard work to unravel that sort socialization. In the meantime, you have a set of young men in the real world who very much desire to be "real men", and in no small part because they are eager to get to the part of their lives that involve adult sexual relationships. Couching the concept of decency in the language of masculinity is a way to get them thinking about how being a man is not opposed to being decent. We all remember being that age--9 out of 10 kids if told that they have to choose between being a good person and being a "real" man or woman will choose the latter.

I think it's fair, if uncomfortable to say that kids look up to sex-specific role models. I know as a young girl I was hungry for any women to look up to who were both liked and respected while not having to sacrifice themselves on some altar of femininity. I doubt any of us would criticize me for looking for women to look up to, even though I clearly knew plenty of men who could be role models for the studious but outspoken life I wanted. Sex-specific role models give you permission to be the adult you want to be.

Trish Wilson

Hugo, your comment about women not being able to be role models for boys has caught a lot of attention. You may find Tanfer and Mott's article "The Meaning of Fatherhood for Men" of interest. They didn't agree with you that mothers cannot substitute as role models for boys. (Get yourself a pot of coffee. This is a long article but it's worthwhile reading.)

They stated the following:

"Social learning theory emphasizes the way individuals develop gender-appropriate behaviors through the observation and imitation of models. Although there is very little research on how men learn to be fathers, there is a long research tradition that looks at the implications of differential reinforcement of boys' and girls' behavior. However, it appears from the research findings that children do not appear to imitate people of their own gender any more than the opposite gender, nor do they typically end up resembling the same-sex parent more than the other. It seems, therefore, that men are unlikely to construct their fatherhood identity on the basis of male role models, only."

Lamb and Pleck also found that both mothers and fathers influence their children in similar ways. Much of the claims that boys need male influence to develop into "real men" and that women (particularly mothers) are no substitute has to do with fatherhood as opposed to a multitude of male role models, but the existing research doesn't support that perspective. Boys (and girls, for that matter) are influenced by many men and women they encounter in their childhoods and adolescence. By the way, in case you don't know - the notion that boys need male role models to grow up to become "real men" and that women/mothers are no substitute has been used to d

Trish Wilson

Darn, the comments cut off!!


By the way, in case you don't know - the notion that boys need male role models to grow up to become "real men" and that women/mothers are no substitute has been used to denigrate single and divorced mothers.

La Lubu

I've been following this thread with some interest....but I don't quite know how to respond. I guess I need a definition---exactly what is a real man, and how does one differentiate between a 'real man' and a 'real woman', other than obvious physical sex differences? What behaviors, thoughts, attitudes, etc. differ between the 'real man' and the 'real woman'? I'm thinking more along the lines of other readers here, that 'responsible, compassionate, involved, upstanding adult' could weigh in as a description of either a real man or a real woman. What are you reacting to Hugo.....the idea that the term 'real man' has been corrupted...that men who have negative traits have been stereotyped as the 'real man', to the detriment of men everywhere? Or are you speaking to and about some essence of masculinity that overrides the mundane, everyday world?

Here's my problem with essentialism: masculinity and femininity are relative terms. They refer more to some continuum than to concrete examples, unlike male and female (although transgender people would argue that too). You stated earlier that aggressive little girls or nonaggressive little boys were the exception, not the rule. I would tend to agree with that, if the numbers fell more along the lines of one in a thousand, or one in five-hundred...but they don't. The term 'tomboy' would not have been invented if not for the large class of girls that it describes. If I had to make a guess, it would be somewhere around 20-30% (take that with a grain of salt...I'm just making an educated guess). The percentage of nonaggressive little boys may be lower...but it's hardly rare.

See, in our lifetimes, we've seen some real changes in the idea of what constitutes femininity. I'm old enough to remember when the first girl to play Little League had death threats called to her house. Now, damn near everyone has their daughters enrolled in at least one sport! This is a sea change. Before passage of the Title IX Higher Education Act, 8% of physicians were female; now the percentage of women in medical school is equivalent to the number of women in the population. Another sea change. The number of women entering and completing a college education has skyrocketed from the time I entered kindergarten to now. When I was a kid, I remember seeing help-wanted ads in the paper segregated by sex. More sea changes. Few people would now question a woman's femininity if she: plays lead guitar in a rock band, changes the brake pads on her car, installs a ceiling fan in her house, hikes the entire Appalachian Trail by herself, pumps iron, kickboxes, runs marathons, works on her PhD., runs for public office, confronts city council...etc. See what I mean? The concept of femininity has undergone some serious expansion in our lives. I don't think there has been any corresponding change in the concept of what constitutes masculinity.

Like most folks, I think there are differences between men and women, outside of anatomy. But what? How do we put our fingers on it? And why is it important? How does one put a concrete definition on something elusive....liminal....subtle?


I too would prefer responsible adult over real man or real woman. First of all I don't like the term. I think it devides people into camps: the 'real' and those the 'real' don't approve of.

Also, I don't live my life as a male so much as I do as a person. I never model my behavior around some ideal of masculinity. The only time I'm really consciously male is when I'm having sex. I wonder if it is really a good goal to encourage boys to continue to think of themselves as men first rather than as humans first.

Thirdly, I've learned lots of life lessons from women. To me they've been role models.


I fear I've been quoted out of context. Women can role model for men about many things. My mother taught me all sorts of valuable things. I followed her into teaching -- I use her stuff in my lecture.

One thing my mother could not teach me how to do was live as a man. Men taught me that.



I pretty much agree with your description of why it might be useful to redefine Real Man when working with adolescent boys. I just wish that Hugo were willing to talk about it in those terms. Instead, he seems to feel that he needs to buy into the sexism underlying the current meaning to be able to work on changing the meaning. Once he has bought into the "Boys and girls are different, and maybe girls can be strong too, but not in the way boys are" ideology, it is hard to see how the idea of manhood he has to offer is really so different from the standard fare.

On the other hand, Kudos to him for mentoring adolescents.


I can't figure out what it means to "live as a woman." I mean, I'm a woman. I live. Therefore...

I don't walk around reminding myself, "woman woman woman." I don't create belief systems or make choices based on the fact that I am a woman. I'm not "proud" to be female; it doesn't make much sense, seeing as I didn't earn or win my gender.

So what does it mean to "live as a man"?


It means, Hestia, living with justice and integrity and courage while incarnate as a man. It means matching one's language and one's life. It means rejoicing in one's embodiedness. God didn't make generic persons -- She made men and women, and I delight in the body I was given.

Living as a man means caring for boys and helping them transition to adulthood. It means seeing girls as one's younger sisters and not as sex objects. It means seeing women as peers, as complete equals, and yet acknowledging biological, cultural, and social differences.


Why is it that in order to have justice, we must deny difference? Have any of you worked with adolescent boys?

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