Masculinity, and manliness, are two words that I hear thrown about by all sorts of people. Feminists, their opponents, and everyone in between use these words and use them differently. But there is a real meaning that is being forgotten and it’s an important distinction to make. Manliness and masculinity are not synonymous and we should not confuse the two.
Masculine is simply an adjective describing traits associated with men. It is a neutral word that includes good and bad qualities. Usually, this being real life, the same qualities are good or bad in different circumstances. For example aggression and assertiveness, physicality, strength, stubbornness, violence, decisiveness, obsession with sports – the list of generally masculine traits could go on. Anyone can demonstrate these traits and some men don’t show some or all, but they are masculine traits because they are most usually and obviously found in men.
But masculine isn’t the same as manly. The difference between being masculine and being a man is one of earning the title. Or to put it another way, being a man is a choice and not a result of your birth, like being male. That’s why we tell people to ‘be a man’ – if every male was always a man we wouldn’t have to say this. This is why most cultures have maintained rites of passage. It provides a way to put males to the test and discard those who don’t measure up. In doing so it plays to men’s intense tribal and competitive instincts. It makes them want to measure up and once they are in the group it makes them want to keep acting a certain way to show they are in. These two things made rites of passage effective ways to move a young man from immaturity to having a mature, responsible stake in his group and keeping him there.
That’s important to remember – masculine is neutral. Masculinity can be very good or very bad and often the same traits will be both in different circumstances. Boys are masculine, and bullies and rapists are as masculine as loving fathers and self-sacrificing protectors. Proper manliness by contrast is always good. This is because a ‘real man’ is a male who has learned self-control. This does not ever mean rejecting his masculine aggression, competitiveness, sexuality, possessiveness, protectiveness, or anything else that is sometimes seen as negative. It means embracing it and through that, learning to use it appropriately. That means being strong and confident, but using that strength and confidence to provide and protect rather than indulge in immature urges.
Why do I think it’s important to say this? Because we’ve lost the concept of a good male role model in the public dialogue. We use phrases like toxic masculinity, but don’t contrast it with good manliness. And that’s a problem because boys need good role models. Without this balance – without criticizing immature masculinity and at the time praising good strong men – we give our boys nothing to aspire to. They either become weak by rejecting themselves as inherently bad, or eventually respond by rejecting the criticism and embracing their masculinity in an immature fashion.
Being a man means being powerful and comfortable with competition and aggression, but doing so in a nurturing way. In other words, your strength must be used to build something for your family and your community and to provide others the space for growth and happiness. And we need men – we need you – not just step up and be good men as a quiet example for their children and for each other. We need husbands, fathers, friends, and colleagues to openly say that we are being men because that is a good thing.