What Does It Mean To Be A Man? Everything Society Teaches Us

Gender identity is a topic of ever-increasing importance in our society. There is a constant tension between the concept of the new genders that are becoming more and more commonly accepted and the evolution and influence of traditional genders. Cultural pressure seeks to empower women, but there is little discussion regarding what it means to be a modern man. Perhaps the key to greater gender equality is to cultivate an awareness that both genders experience benefits and disadvantages from social perceptions they have little control over. In this article, we will try to answer the question of what does it mean to be a man and discuss the influence of society on that perception.

What Does It Mean To Be A Man?

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When you think of a man, what image comes to mind? Do you imagine John Wayne sitting on a horse with a six-gun on his hip peering at the world from beneath the brim of a ten-gallon hat? Do you think of the Marlboro man? Do you think of Michael Cera, Barack Obama, or Stephen King? Do you think of your father?

It’s important to note that when you ask, “what does it mean to be a man?” the answer that pops into your mind will carry influences from your life, society, and culture. Asking “what does it mean to be a man?” will get you a much different answer today than it would have ten, fifty, or a hundred years ago. Your personal relationships with men, particularly fathers, brothers, friends, and intimate partners will have a massive effect on your answer as well. What are the characteristics that define a man?



Just as women are objectified for their sexuality, men are judged in terms of their physicality. Film stars like Dwayne Johnson and Arnold Schwarzenegger embody a physical ideal that is impossible for most men to achieve. The concept of a positive body image is often discussed for women but rarely mentioned for men. Yet, we live in a culture where unattainable physical beauty is viewed with paramount importance for both genders. Perhaps one benefit of transforming gender perceptions will be that men with slighter, less imposing builds will become more comfortable with their personal masculinity.



The social model of an ideal man is often one who is quiet and somber. The phrase “a man of few words” is considered a compliment. Men are expected to remain cool under pressure and keep a clear head no matter how desperate their situation becomes. Does this represent a case where society does not allow men to consider their emotions? If emotions are warning bells that indicate a developing existential problem, do social pressures that define the ideal man create a scenario in which men are destined to fail in life by teaching them not to attend to these warnings? Does society train men to ignore problems and fail to equip them with the tools necessary for personal growth?


Emotional Distance

Men learn from an early age that it’s not considered socially appropriate that they cry. Sadness and other emotional issues are topics that make many men very uncomfortable. But, evidence suggests that social pressure on men to suppress their emotions might have a long term, negative consequence. There is much talk in the media of the wage gap between men and women, but there is relatively little talk about the suicide gap. In the United States, men kill themselves at a rate of 3.5 times more than women. Could a false expectation of what does it mean to be a man account for that difference?


Breadwinners, Not Caregivers

From an early age, men are groomed to be breadwinners. Traditional gender roles had women in the house taking care of children, but today, there is a strong social push to encourage women to get out into the workplace. However, that social push has not been balanced with a complementary campaign to encourage men to stay at home and care for their children. The result is a situation where men only have one social role, and they feel society is doing everything it can to give that role to women. The unintended consequence is that men feel their self-worth encroached upon and find their situation to be even more challenging, which can lead to hostility.

Toxic Masculinity

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Perception of any event or social structure changes over time, and it’s been especially interesting to observe gender relations over the last decade. The phrase ‘toxic masculinity’ is a relatively new concept that is a manifestation of an extreme embodiment of a corrupted version of traditional male gender roles. Individuals like Bill Cosby or Harvey Weinstein represent men who used their positions of power to abuse and exploit women and felt entitled to do so, in part, from their flawed self-image as males.

An interesting question to consider is whether toxic masculinity is a function of gender or if it is a manifestation of an individual of a poor personal character. Many individuals in a position of power will eventually use that power to exploit people who are beneath them. This is reprehensible behavior, but it isn’t an indictment of all men. The concept of toxic masculinity seems to be a reaction that manifests in a small percentage of males who perhaps are feeling angst trying to figure out the answer to what does it mean to be a man in the modern world.

If a new definition of what does it mean to be a man is embraced by our society and advertised with vigor, would it help men who are struggling with gender identity put aside their subconscious frustration and embrace a more positive behavior model? It’s easy to see that most of the traits that embody traditional masculinity do not equip men to deal with an evolving gender expectation landscape. It’s easy to say “don’t engage in toxic masculinity”, but it’s probably more effective to conceive of a methodology to help men who are struggling better understand and employ appropriate behavior.

Reconsidering Manhood

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One of the great tragedies of human history is that men have rarely been allowed to be caregivers to their own children. Many men were essentially outsiders in their own families because they were never given the moments to bond with their babies or weren’t trusted to hold them. Today, it is much more acceptable for a man to stay at home, change diapers, and feed his children. However, being a good caregiver requires that a man becomes familiar with many aspects of life that are in direct contradiction to the traditional male gender role expectations he grew up with.

For example, when a man falls down, he is told to get up and shake off the pain.

However, a father, when presented with a child that has fallen and is crying, cannot scream at that child to get up and ignore the pain. A man from a few decades ago would never have been allowed to be in a caregiver position with a young and vulnerable child. A modern man, however, must learn that there are moments when stoicism is required and moments where a gentle hand is a more effective teacher.


Male Resentment From Traditional Gender Roles

It may be difficult to understand, but many men have trouble accepting a kinder, gentler model to answer what does it mean to be a man because rejecting the old model means acknowledging they were abused during their own adolescence. Men are trained not to think of themselves as victims. A father who embraces a crying child, rather than telling him to shake it off, has to accept that he was mistreated when his own father failed to show any compassion. All people internalize painful and abusive memories, and it can be very difficult to force yourself to reconsider the behaviors of your parents whom you love and want to maintain a good relationship with.

The complexities of interpersonal relationships between generations of fathers and sons are what perpetuates negative gender roles and lead to toxic masculinity. Men need to adapt and change to a kinder, more progressive, more inclusive worldview. However, it’s not enough for society to demand that men change. There needs to be a social effort to equip men with the tools to effect this change and to lead them through the painful and complex emotions of reevaluating their past, so they can become full participants in a better future.

Conclusion: What Does It Mean To Be A Man? You Get To Choose

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Society influences everyone, men, women, and children. Social influence is inescapable, and it is not always to your own benefit. Many people go through their whole lives without considering why they hold on to certain behaviors or beliefs. It is pleasing to contemplate a world in which the concept of a man represents a kind, just, wise, and protective figure. If given the choice, most men would prefer to be Captain America or Superman instead of a villain like Lex Luthor or Doctor Doom. But, many men fail not because they are evil but because they don’t know how to succeed.

Inequality damages both genders. There is no long term benefit to exploiting people, but a small amount of power granted by the random chance of an outdated gender role can be intoxicating and hard to give up. It is the obligation of the modern man to evaluate injustice and do what he can to create a more equitable world, even if that seems as though he is surrendering power. A man should be reliable, stoic, and strong, but he should also know his own emotions and be cognizant of the emotions of others. We are in this together, and life is short. The best thing men and women can do is endeavor to understand and help one another.

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