Evolution is supposed to take thousands of years. But the latest step of male evolution has occurred within just a single generation.
Masculinity – that essential-yet-abstract archetype of being a man – used to be a special club. One where the first rule was: don’t talk about…well…anything. It was the cliché to end all clichés: the strong silent type; the John Wayne wanderer with only a small backpack as he swaggered out of town; the James Bond cad with a wry smile as his twentieth girlfriend was found dead in his hotel jacuzzi.
Day-to-day, what did this mean to that man on the street? If these men were your idols, how would you respond? Clearly, bravado was key. You bet big, drink big, eat big, smoke big, sunburn big. You’d take risks. You wouldn’t listen to reason, all as an assertion of your dominance over the rest of the pack. I’m right, you’re wrong was their mantra, that they blasted, sonared and semaphored at anyone who was within range. A craggy face and coarse hands were badges of pride, symbols of a struggle that never seemed to end.
Men were secretive as well; both with their wives and children, and also with their friends, to some extent. Sure, they were social creatures, but it was more about just inhabiting the same space. You only talked if there was something to talk about, not just for the sake of it. Big talk, never small talk. Small talk was a woman’s matter. So was emotion, sentiment and empathy.
You might’ve objected to some of these values, but you had best conform. These men had no time for outsiders. You couldn’t be different. Because being different made other men suspicious of you. It meant you hadn’t been where they’d been, seen what they’d seen. They wouldn’t know if they could trust you. Being different basically meant that you were breaking the first (unspoken) rule of masculinity.
Not every man was like that, of course. I’m exaggerating and generalising for the purposes of illustration. But speak to my Granddad (you should, he’s ace) and I’m sure he’d still nod sagely along with the idea of ‘men’s places’ and ‘women’s places.’ Calling it sexist or genderist wouldn’t be incorrect, but it would be a bit unfair.
Still, at least you knew where you stood with that old school masculinity. You stood at the bar, that’s where; or on a football terrace; or half-bent over an exposed engine.
To some extent this binary male identity continued up until the mid-1990s, when men still clamoured for these simple, hard-fought values. Men were still alpha-male characters, who didn’t care if they were smelly and religiously read Loaded magazine without a hint of self-awareness.
Within my lifetime however, something has happened. Men have changed. What it means to be a man has changed. We’re staring down the straightening-iron-barrel of an identity crisis.
Because you see, modern men are caught between this traditional stereotype and the general ‘feminisation’ (‘emancipation’ is probably more accurate) of popular culture. And I think David Beckham played a big part in this. Around the end of the 1990s, all of a sudden it was acceptable to take care of your skin, wear jewellery other than a wedding ring and maybe even leave the house with something other than trousers covering your legs.
He was a true modern male hero. He was flawed – he had weaknesses and desires just like everyone else – but he was ok with that. Men who looked up to him initially because he was a man’s man – he was a footballing genius and was shagging a pop star – now started to absorb some of his more rounded traits.
Homer Simpson is another unlikely modern hero. Sure, he’s a buffoon, but think about it. He’s a weak male central character. He regularly fails, as a dad, a husband and as an employee, but he always picks himself up and moves on without doubting his identity as a man. But above all, he loves his family (see also: Peter Griffin from Family Guy) He doesn’t always have the answer. Everyday is a learning experience. Ultimately, Marge is the man of the house, and he doesn’t mind.
The simple thing to say is that there’s no longer a ‘one size fits all’ role that men fall into. We’re now (finally) allowed to be multi-faceted creatures. We’re no longer defined by a single character trait. It’s a freeing from expectations, and allows for individual expression. Being different if now an admirable trait. Success isn’t only based on how much money you earn and how much stuff you have; it’s more about your experiences and the uniquely kaleidoscopic characteristics that make up ‘you.’
Some men embrace this changing masculinity, and are comfortable with many pursuits that previous generations would probably have been shunned for. Exercising, healthy eating, doing nice things for their partner, shaving their back; you know, most of the normal things that you should just do anyway. (Alright, maybe not the back-shaving one.)
Other men strive for those old traditional values, but with a modern, self-conscious twist – they grow beards, they dress smarter, they smoke a pipe– they want to be gentlemen.
That’s not to say that none of the old stuff doesn’t still exist, but it’s beginning to be done with a knowing smile and without the archaic ruthless male undertones. We’re in a position, now, to draw from the past and to select the best bits of masculinity throughout the ages. Adapt and survive.
The fact that, individually, we’ve all changed also means that socially we’ve all changed too. You no longer have to be The Big Man in a group. Partly because being The Big Man means that necessarily there are other smaller men. Every guy in a group can now find his own space within the dynamic – hopefully he has a unique role he’s happy with – and everyone’s richer for that diversity.
We need to lose the labels and the stereotypes; the expectations and the black-and-white definitions. Being a man is just biology. The rest is up to you.