In all honesty, I do not spend a lot of time thinking about how I measure up to masculine ideals of what it means to be a “real man.” I view myself primarily through the prism of my personhood—my status as a unique child of God who is made in the image of God with all the gifts and responsibilities that this entails. While there are differences between men and women, the commonalities far exceed these and too often generalizations obscure the fundamental uniqueness of each human person. This is present in the identity politics of the left, where false divisions too often undermine solidarity, and among those on the right, whose articulations of complementarity are hazy and incoherent. In reality, each person has a unique personality and set of experiences, beliefs, gifts, and relationships. Each person has a unique role in building the Kingdom of God.
At the same time, it is clear that social pressures, particularly on young people, are often different for men and boys compared to women and girls. While many boys are objectified and feel insecure about their appearance, the sexualization and objectification of girls is more widespread and a greater threat to human flourishing. We see different societal cues in sharp relief when we see boys aspiring to be “studs” who are praised for their sexual exploits, while girls are denounced as “sluts” for the same behavior. We see other differences in social norms based on a person’s sex or gender when it comes to emotions, play, relationships, fields of study and work, and various other facets of life. Different social expectations that inhibit a person’s potential are difficult to escape, particularly during adolescence, even if a person is intent on transcending them. With this in mind, it makes some sense to articulate a vision of not simply what it means to be a virtuous person, but what it means to be a successful man and to be a successful woman from a Christian perspective.
This conversation has begun in earnest among faithful feminists—those who believe that faith is not only compatible with women reaching their full potential, but actually integral to this. But men too should be having a conversation about what it means to be a successful, fully developed man in the 21st century. While we might focus more on what it means to be a good person, thinking about what it means to be a good man might help us to resist the social pressures that knock us off course from the way of Christ.
Theodore Roosevelt once said, “I abhor the creature who uses the expression that ‘a man must be a man’ in order to excuse his being a vile and vicious man.” Certain vices and failings remain closely identified with existing definitions of manhood. Men seek power and control. They view women as objects to be acquired and used. Material success defines their worth and virtue. Men are free from the weakness of emotional dependence. A ‘real man’ is rational and self-interested, without pity for those who cannot or will not stand on their own two feet. Clothes make the man (or his car or house or corner office). Men use violence to protect what is theirs.
But do we really want a society full of emotionally vacuous men who dehumanize others, define their sense of self-worth based on superficial metrics, and turn selfishness into a virtue? For the Christian, the obvious answer is “no.” But even for the average American, this description of what constitutes a ‘real man’ would likely be viewed as far from ideal. And it is clear that changing social norms, brought on by the empowerment of women and socioeconomic changes, among other factors, are redefining what it means to be a successful man (which is not to say that the aforementioned view of manhood was ever undisputed). But if these changes do not purposefully reject the individualism, materialism, consumerism, chauvinism, and the preeminence of self-interest that has made the common definition of male success so incompatible with genuine virtue, the gap between the two will persist and men will be pressured to conform to social expectations that divert them from living lives of genuine virtue, joy, and fulfillment.
Men are not cavemen nor are we devoid of free will. If we value the authentic flourishing of men and the people around them, we need to define success differently and develop social norms that reflect this redefinition.
The motives for marriage these days are not always the most prudent. Some are rooted in emotions that prove fleeting. Others are based on inertia and timing. Materialism and superficiality motivate others and often prove to be their downfall. But for men and women looking to become one flesh—to pursue communion with someone who shares their values and the bond of lasting love—the present moment is perhaps more promising than ever.
If this type of marriage, this true partnership, is ideal, then that must affect how we view male success. The use of time and talent within a one-flesh marriage will be less driven by traditional gender roles when it comes to work and the household and more driven by a total commitment to the common good and the good of the family. For most marriages, this will mean men playing larger roles as caretakers and maintaining a safe, clean, loving home. And it means more affectionate fathers; the era of the stoic, distant breadwinner father has hopefully passed.
Men must care not only about their intellectual and physical development, but also their emotional development and their spiritual lives. Being caring, compassionate, and sensitive to the feelings of others is not to discard one’s manliness, but to fulfill one’s potential as a person. And if in many countries the kitchen was once seen as the place for women’s work, so too were the pews in the church. But with the decline of cultural Catholicism in the West, when young Catholics often make a distinct choice to be Catholic, a successful Catholic man will have an active prayer life and presence in his parish.
While some may prefer the traditions of past decades when it comes to gender roles and defining success, we are entering a new era. One can respond with nostalgia, but a better way forward would be to reimagine how we translate Christ’s call to love in today’s world, a perennial challenge.
Featured Image: Auguste Rodin (1840–1917), Le Penseur (The Thinker) (1902); Photo: Fredrick Rubensson; CC BY-SA 2.0.