Redefining Masculinity

A recount of the struggles of navigating and defining masculinity and what it means to be a “Real Man”
by Robert Bivouac

When I was 7, I had an operation done on my left ear. I couldn’t eat at all for 12 hours before that and I told myself I would never go hungry again. Back then I didn’t know what calories were and I got a dollar a day in allowance, just enough to buy a bowl of lor mai kai for recess. I knew it made me feel full, so I think I ate that at least twice a week, and on the other days I ate things like pork bao and those chicken-flavoured Petit Brunch crackers.

When I was 8 and our class was held back for recess I cried. I remember the teacher’s name. I think it was Mr Wong, or Mr Fong, or something. I don’t actually remember the teacher’s name but I remember what he did. He went over to my desk and looked me in the eye. He had this habit of puffing his cheeks up before he spoke. I don’t remember why I remember that but I remember what he told me. He told me that I was a boy, and boys don’t cry. I was a boy, and I was going to be a man in a few years, and men don’t cry either. I tried to stop crying and after I did, and he let us go for recess, some kid came up to me and told me I didn’t need to eat recess anyway. That was the first time I realised I was fat, and it was only the first time.

G44A0821In hindsight it was mostly the boys who bullied me, and in hindsight I should’ve known it was going to get worse in my all-boys secondary school. Literally the second week of class in Sec 1 someone had already broken my stuff. I think it was a pen, but eventually someone smashed my calculator. There was this thing going on where they’d take my stuff and run around with it because they knew I was fat and slow and I couldn’t catch up and when I couldn’t catch up they called me names. I remember being called a bunch of slurs strung together the way someone who doesn’t really know what they mean would use them. I remember my classmates pinning me down or slamming me into walls. I remember I was so physically weak that hitting back became an excuse for them to hit way harder. Someone threw a chair at me once and then someone threw me into a chair, and then into a table, and then into the lockers at the back of the class. I didn’t cry.

I didn’t cry, but I was short, I was soft and I was physically weak, and to top it off I was in choir. I spoke a lot in class, did better than every single person who came at me and went up every week to challenge the principal during assembly. I didn’t know my place, apparently. In a school full of boys I was not a man, and I didn’t know my place, so that was all the excuse they needed. When the school counsellor and house head were brought in to investigate they told me what they’d heard. My “friends” thought they were training me to be a real man, as if all the insults, stealing and hitting could “fix” me; as if I needed to be “fixed”.

10458342_775298422505091_3667291884959981461_nThe thing about being “fixed” is that if you need fixing, that means you’re broken, as if not being a “real man” means you’re broken. See, if you’re a man, but not a “real man”, it seems you’re doing something wrong and if you’re doing something wrong, you need to be taught a lesson. It’s not just kids who do this. Like, turn on the television some time and you’ll see a bunch of “real men”, doing really manly things. “Real men” are strong and violent. “Real men” work hard and protect their families (which, of course, they want). “Real men” are attractive, or else “real men” are heroic, and “real men” always get the woman (and it’s always a woman), even though sometimes they really shouldn’t. It’s not all the time, but the implication is this: this is what a “real man” looks like, this is what he does and this is how he does it.

Guys, we’ve been caught. We’re told by these so-called “real men” to “be a man” when we’re hurting, when we’re sick, when there’s nothing else you can do but they want us to do it anyway. We’re told that if we don’t look or act like “real men”, we don’t deserve to be men at all. We’re something less than men if we aren’t “real men”, something they have permission to dominate, to hurt and to exploit. Frankly, guys, I’m tired.

I’m tired of this “real man” crap. All men are “real men”. We are men simply because we choose to identify as such, and nobody gets to decide otherwise. Not your parents, not your friends and certainly not anybody who thinks taking your stuff and hitting you is a good idea. We need an understanding of manhood that doesn’t exclude people who don’t fit the traditional idea of a man. We need to acknowledge that men who can’t or don’t want to find a partner, who aren’t straight, who were told they were something other than men at birth but consider themselves men, are real men. And yet, we also need to acknowledge that the men who do bad things? The men who hurt other people? The men who hurt me? Are real men too.

If we want a more inclusive understanding of manhood, we need to accept it’s for everyone, not just the good guys, and we need to do our part, as men, to fix it. Real men still do bad things, but good men stop them. and you, every single one of you boys and men in the crowd, can be a good man.

If you see a man who’s angry because he can’t get laid, tell him he’s got a problem. Tell him his problem is not that he can’t get laid, but that he believes he needs to get laid to be a real man. Tell him that he’s already a real man, and that no matter what he does, he will never deserve to get laid. Tell him that maybe he’ll find someone, or maybe he won’t, but either way it’ll be alright. He’ll still be a real man.

Youth at the event came up with different gender stereotypes they'd like to break. Warning: images in this mirror might be distorted by socially constructed notions of beauty.If you see a man going off about women, saying they’re the cause of all his problems, tell him he’s going in the wrong direction, and maybe ask him why he feels that way. Take his rage and point it at whoever told him women were to blame, because they’re lying. Tell him that’s who he needs to be mad at. He needs to be mad at everyone who told him being a man meant getting his way, meant automatically getting more respect than women, meant not being told he’s wrong. That’s who he needs to be mad at.

If you see a man harassing someone else by being sexist, homophobic or sexually aggressive, tell him to back off. Tell him he needs to back off, and that he doesn’t have the right to demand they shut up or do things just because he’s a man. Tell him being a man doesn’t make him more correct than anyone else, and that he really needs to stop. Say it firmly and with conviction and maybe the threat to report him to his teachers, or his superiors at work, or, if there really is no choice, the police.

Your voice is a vote, guys, and these are only some of the issues. All men can, and all men should, work together to make being a man something less aggressive, less exclusive, less sexist, and more proactive. We need to save our brothers from this myth that only some men are real, and other men are less real, and women are perhaps even less than that. We can play our part to help end violence by and against men, but only if we try. And we really have to try.