What Makes a Man a Man? - by David Teel
Life made me a feminist before I knew the meaning of the word. I didn’t have to be convinced that the world was hostile to women, girls, and vulnerable boys and men (though grad school helped me clarify some of that). I was raised by a single mom who fled a suburban home and “security” with an abusive husband in Texas for a safer, albeit impoverished, life with me and my sister in rural Arkansas.
Following our move in 1972, I became friends with a neighbor boy my age. We spent long, unsupervised summer days exploring an abandoned lumber mill and conversing uncomfortably about the exilic chaos from which our mothers had rescued us. Our bond grew around shared secrets of raging domestic violence and a trauma-induced fear of dominant men. Our liberations were different, though: my mom left Texas, his mother ended up taking his father’s life to save her own.
Later that year, mom moved us into red-brick government housing and made friends with two other women who shared her plight of frantic flights to protect children from male wrath, addiction, and stupidity. They would gather to the song-stylings of Charlie Rich on 8-track tape and chain smoke, laugh, and curse – comparing disappointments, desires, and declarations about the plummeting value of the men in their lives. Without fail, someone would see me in the room and say, “except for David.” These picaresque living saints renamed the world for me, giving me a new script, a seed of hope that maybe something like exceptional manhood was possible.
Along the way, I found an unlikely script doctor, former NFL lineman Joe Ehrmann, the subject of the prize-winning book Season of Life by Jeffrey Marx. Ehrmann champions a thoughtful and simple strategy for how the lives of boys and men might be re-written in ways that set atremble popular myths of manhood.
In his 2013 TEDx talk in Baltimore, Ehrmann identifies three cultural lies of toxic masculinity that shape young men from elementary school through the marketing machinery of consumer adulthood: the myths of ballfields (athletic prowess), bedrooms (“sexual conquest”), and billfolds (financial success). When someone says “be a man,” they are appealing to these myths and the distorted emotional landscape and violence they create. Ehrmann counters with two new codes to guide male life, indeed, all human life: the emotional depth and respect found in quality relationships and a cause bigger than oneself, one that betters the world by helping others. Respectful relationships in service to a helping cause becomes the template for teaching boys how to be men, refiguring masculinity in the process. Borrowing from Bonhoeffer, Ehrmann calls for a seismic change in our culture, one that forms boys into “men built for others.” ***
I have spent most of the last 25 years helping my wife prepare two daughters to be strong and brave in a hostile world. I have taken the position that men need to step back and make room for women’s gifts and strengths, voices and agency. But as I consider my time as a Christian educator (confirmation classes, Bible studies, sermons, curriculum choices), I think I might have served many women better by spending less time “getting out of the way” and more time teaching new scripts to the boys-becoming-men. It feels like an abdication that I delayed passing along clear yet pliable myths that young men might live into – character ideals that might mitigate (not multiply) the rampages of modern constructed masculinity.
There is a risk and peril, of course, in creating new honor codes. Perhaps even our best paradigms and storylines privilege and suppress. The complicities and complexities of race, class, and gender will always call for deeper analysis, resistance, and a stubborn metaphorical “yes, but not quite” approach, to quote theologian Edward Farley. But what am I waiting for? Here I think Ehrmann’s approach can be a pragmatic endeavor, pointing to a masculinity that moves by improvisational bravery and competence, adjusting to on-the-ground needs for love, respect, and advocacy.
So maybe today I’ll risk teaching a new script to young men, one where “manning up” reclaims something like Aristotle’s virtue of courage, a discerning balance between fear and confidence. Such manly courage would include acts of relinquishing power, but also the unapologetic exertion of strength to defend anyone on the receiving end of power’s unholy play. A generation of boys/men who will name the lies of masculinity, form honest relationships, and defend the bodily integrity of women, men, girls, and so-called “weaker” boys needn’t be mythological heroes or static ideals of courage for all time. They could be exceptional men. We might even call them the sons of the daughters of God.
*** See Joe Ehrmann, InSideOut Coaching: How Sports Can Transform Lives (Simon and Schuster, 2011).
David C. Teel is a writer, editor, and educator in Nashville, serving United Methodist churches and editing academic books since 1997.