Masculinity: how do we define it in the 21st century?

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There are a lot of qualities that have traditionally made up the picture of a man – strong, stern, supportive, courageous, family-oriented and stoic, to name a few. Now, more than ever, there is a masculinity crisis in modern men. I don’t mean that men aren’t masculine enough; I mean we don’t even know what the hell masculine means.

Who are some of today’s biggest male sex symbols that men also respect (sorry, Adam Levine)? If there is one gent who stands out in that regard, it may be Don Draper, a.k.a. Jon Hamm in Mad Men. Hamm has become a bona fide sex symbol from the role, the Old Fashioned has made a substantial comeback in bars, and men have actually come up to Hamm and stated their admiration for the character.

Don Draper is a man. He is manly. He smokes things and drinks other things and wears a suit and his jaw is made of granite and misogyny. He’s the epitome of manliness. Except that Hamm, himself, has called Draper “despicable.” For all his faults, that argument can easily be made.

Even if you put aside his philandering, lying ways, Don Draper still shouldn’t be considered the epitome of masculinity. What makes him a man’s man? Scotch? Money? Decisiveness? Is it his stoicism? What’s so fantastic about being stoic? There’s a strange idea out there that stoicism, maybe more than any other attribute, is a signal of manhood. Ryan Gosling? Stoic. John Hamm? Stoic.

This guy? Painfully stoic. (Photo via Wikipedia)
This guy? Painfully stoic.
(Photo via Wikipedia)

It’s what we’re all taught: stiff upper lip. Don’t talk about emotions. Suck it up. Do your job and provide. None of these are 100 percent terrible pieces of advice, per se, but in a modern society, why are we grasping onto this seemingly outdated, absolute criterion for manliness?

The answer is in the rise of certain cultural offerings, which suggest that men are trying to redefine masculinity without really knowing what it means.

The rustic, $600 shoes that look like 1800’s prospectors’ footwear and the rise of massive beards are just a few examples. Look anywhere and you’ll see men trying to define themselves as men with the hobbies they seek, the boots they wear, the drinks they order. As if the accessories will make up for the fact that no clear definition of manhood exists right now.

Men are seeking old signifiers of manliness because it’s a brave new world out there where a guy can be a vegan AND an ultimate fighter. Stay-at-home dads, the onslaught of more emotionally vulnerable programming, Viagra – there are so many new facts and trends muddying the waters of masculinity right now that we gravitate toward old-timey, manly stuff to clarify it. Old-timey stuff like bespoke axes and yes, stoicism.

I’m guilty of trying to do the manly thing all the time – I was suckered into drinking black coffee instead of the dessert-style coffee drinks I loved because my (female) friend told me to toughen up. Now, I love black coffee and dessert coffee is too sugary, and I am eternally grateful to her for pushing me. However, the manliness factor of black coffee still played a role in my motivation.

I might love whisky stones because I just think they’re cool, but I might believe they’re cool because I think they’re a badass man-item. It’s hard to know which is true or if it even matters. Do I like it because I like it or do I like it because men should like it? Am I following a passion or defining my person? Would Don Draper like this? WWDDD?!

In a lot of ways, I generally fit the profile of manly man, too – an independent, bearded connoisseur of whiskey, flannel, the outdoors, survivalist skills and hazardously spicy hot sauce. But I also don’t at all – I’m goofy, inarticulate, emotional and I love doing weird characters that range from effeminate patriot to enraged bear-hunter.

Too often, I separate the two as “masculine” and “not masculine,” instead of just looking at what these traits really are:  me. These are just the things that I enjoy and the things that I am. I check myself when I think about joining or buying anything – why do I want this? Do I think it will define me as masculine or do I truly enjoy it? It’s an ongoing process.

I don’t see a problem with saying someone’s a manly man or labeling an activity manly. Going overboard and trying to eliminate gender differences or terms is silly and impossible because there are certainly differences between the sexes.

Generalizations are made – that’s the way culture works. Women like shopping and things that are pink; men like punching and things that can be punched. Sure. That’s fine. Say what you want. These have been around for years and will continue to be. The problem for us gents is when we feel pressured to like a certain thing or be a certain way because that’s what men are. Men are stoic. Men are powerful. Men are … whatever.

Actually, I sort of like that: Men are whatever, women are whatever. Can we just stick with that?