What is a man?

Mar 9, 2019 by

Photo of Peter WestBy Peter West –

Australians over 80 are part of one of the fastest-growing sections of our population. And Australia now has a Royal Commission into Aged Care. Most of the media coverage seems to be written by women, about women, and for women. It deals mainly with the concerns of women. But what about those of men? And how does the fact of being a man gel with being old?

Sex differences today.

Today women’s voices are clearly heard in the street, in the media and of course on the ABC. Look at the programs listed in the TV guide or the subjects that are deemed important on the ABC news, and women’s issues are usually discussed thoroughly. And ‘men’ is often on their list of favourite issues. And so we get a litany of ways in which men don’t measure up to what women want. As Macnamara‘s careful studies show, men in the media are usually shown as murderers, philanderers, perverts, deadbeat dads and molesters. Masculine behaviour is measured with a feminine ruler. Women speak for women, and women speak for men much or most of the time. But as soon as a man says something about masculinity, people fall on him like a ton of bricks. So men keep their thoughts about sex differences to themselves and a partner or a couple of trusted friends.

What is a man?

Once what is a man? was too obvious to bother with. Men went off to fight wars, as Hektor says to his wife in The Iliad: “You look after the home and our little boy; I’m a man and I must fight to keep my honour”, he says. It was ever thus, it seems. And not only in wartime. “What did you DO today?” is a key question a male must be ready to answer. Men worked; and work was what men did all day, until they brought their weary bodies home to rest every afternoon. We needn’t bother too much about men who were too wealthy to need paid work. Today the whole question of men’s and women’s lives is far more problematic, though those of us on the dark side of fifty have much more traditional views than younger people. Older men might find that their old-fashioned ideas are given scant attention by the outspoken women who dismiss the bulk of men’s ideas anyway.

When I wrote Fathers, Sons and Lovers about what it meant to be a man in the period 1930-1990, I did manage to get some answers. One man summed up many others:

They expect a man to be rough, tough, robust…be a domineering, all-powerful brute. Drink with your mates in the pub all the time. Those are the marks of manliness…

Or here’s another guy talking:

It must be wonderful to be a man, because they’re always telling us the worst thing you can be is a woman or a poofter.

There’s more pressure on males. You have to keep a tough image up. There’s something wrong with you if you don’t play football…

Other things show us men’s gentler side, especially being a father, as we saw with Hektor’s softness towards his infant son in The Iliad. But probably most men enjoy relaxing, being with some trusted friends, making a racket, yelling and shouting when they feel like it without someone trying to make them tone it down.

Thus we can argue that masculinity is always made in a time, in a place, and in a context of culture. Men from the Middle East; from Africa; from the many cultures that preceded European conquest of the Americas: there are and have been vast differences among males (and there’s no suggestion that all African males, for example, are similar). We can even see this breadth in masculinity from some of the depictions of men in movies made in France, in South Africa, and in Thailand. Though admittedly movies always show us someone’s preferred depiction of what reality is; Hollywood movies especially. Still, Moonlight and Beale Street might be the precursors of a whole new genre that reveals some fresh realities about men.

Sometimes we have trouble saying what a man is. Some have tried, like Louann Brizendine in The Male Brain. Or Sebastian Kraemer in a celebrated article,’ The Fragile Male’ in the British Medical Journal. That takes us into biology. And today it’s unfashionable to talk of biology. Many self-proclaimed ‘leading feminists’ and ‘experts on gender’ know almost nothing of anatomy or endocrinology. Biology seems to be taboo as a subject even to mention. Yet when I look at my grandkids and their friends, the impact of biology is inescapable. Thus let me try to say -without fear of contradiction- that men are generally seen by society as self-contained, strong, and reliant on their own muscles and wits. The Sunday supplements are fond of showing us just the visible part of this, and thus we see some young men whose abs and pecs are well-developed. This language was not used when I was growing up: men were not summed up by their body parts, as if they were a motor car or prize stallion. But men somehow have to be masculine in their own way, as they work out their life course. And live what dreams they can, mostly by themselves.

Now we have a paradox. Here is a politician and he is shown in the media with his wife and family. Footballers are expected to show off their girlfriends and wives. And so are most men in the public eye. So there’s the contradiction: how can men be self–contained if they have to have a partner and maybe kids around them? Too often today, we see families without men, and men without families. Men and families belong together.

How do men relate to women through the life-course?

And now we come to the heart of things. How do men relate to women? I can almost see readers, pencils poised, waiting to pounce lest I say the wrong thing. The vast majority of boys must grow up connected to a mother. The exceptions have been known, but they are far from the norm. A boy might be used to the comfort of a mother’s breast and tenderness. Later on, it’s women teachers who scold him and raise their voices at him, as I know from many years visiting schools. Many things have been written about the need for male teachers. But it hasn’t delivered many males who want to submit meekly to the challenge of being a male teacher, ‘a rooster in the henhouse’, as a friend put it. As the boy grows, he wants to cut the apron strings. Nobody admires a mummy’s boy. An adolescent boy grunts and growls at the world. Fathers and sons shout, yell and slam doors at each other. Mothers start an inquisition.

Where have you been?


What did you do?


The boy gets angry – we seem to prefer males to be angry rather than to be soft and tender. And the boy might be angry at his mother most of all. But most boys are looking for a partner. We tell parents “Your son will want to marry someone: probably, a woman”. Thus somehow boys grow to adulthood – I almost said, to adultery – and people expect him to have a girlfriend in tow on suitable occasions. The boy becomes a young man, and then an older one. In the seasons of his life, spring turns to glorious summer and on to autumn. And how does the male survive now? He just soldiers on, often with little thought about how he does act, or should act, until he reaches some kind of crisis. Many a sportsman is confronted when an accident forces him to stay home and be fussed over- probably by women who feel they need to do so.

And towards the end of his life, where is he? Reluctantly, he faces up to life at home – with a wife. Or having home care by women. Or submitting quietly to a nursing home in which women are abundant. Back into the care of women, whom he feels a little wary of.

Age shakes our foundations

And so here is our typical male at the end of his life, once more subject to the care, the kindness, or the whims of women. Often in the media, aged care is discussed as if it only concerns women. There are usually more women in care at any given place, as women generally live longer than men. But who will speak up for the males who at seventy or eighty, want to be strong, independent, and sexually attractive? And who must yet have to be confined to beds and armchairs, when they are probably desperate to be rampaging around, as they did in their twenties and thirties?

Some female company is often welcome, if it’s the right kind! When I’ve been in hospital, I’ve been lucky to have my family around. Older people love to have a few kids buzzing about, I’ve noticed. I was also lucky to find one or two women nurses who were helpful and understanding. I was also glad to have a couple of men who did the same. Most men would not feel happy enfolded in the care only of women. It doesn’t feel safe. Men enjoy the jokes and joshing that men typically do. Women want to be always talking about things – and talk can be wearing. Men more commonly show their care through their actions.

In the main, people don’t like old men much. They just want their money. Let’s hope the Royal Commission doesn’t forget men’s needs. Let’s hope it can help restore some respect to older men. And don’t let men be cared for only by women. Many men in their own homes as well as in aged care homes need a man’s understanding as well as a woman’s.

Source: What is a man? – On Line Opinion – 6/3/2019

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