Being the adventurous and culturally-aware person I pretend to be, I opted to take a course on Italian and Italian-American masculinities this semester. Along with way more unnecessary work than I could have ever imagined, I have also been presented with a question: Why do men have to be “made”? Let me explain.
In looking at the vast majority of cultures (though there are, of course, some exceptions of relative note) a male human has a test he must pass to be considered a man. Generally speaking, that test is not a pleasant one, but the rewards of becoming a man sure seem worth it. If one is not a man, not only does he suffer humiliation and at times end up ostracized by his people, but he may also lose out on such privileges as taking a wife or holding a certain roles in the community. (Though I will take the time to throw out the fact that I have no idea who can really say who is a man (or a woman) anyway. Don’t lie; you don’t know either.)
Like I said though, these tests don’t allow for just anybody with the right parts to become a man. In his book Manhood in the Making: Cultural Concepts of Masculinity, David D. Gilmore details tests of manhood that range from deep-sea fishing in shark-infested waters to accepting whippings, beatings and other brutal acts unflinchingly. Should the fail, they may be considered weak or effeminate (Ironically, it seems to me that women are also trying to avoid being effeminate in some ways, seeking instead to be independent like their male counterparts are traditionally expected to be. Nobody is shooting for feminine anymore unless that is what their prospective mate wants).
Well, in reality, societies like these (and ours, though in more subtle ways) want our men to have all of Gilmore’s three P’s in their command. Those three, protecting, providing and procreating, are considered to be a man’s duties. If he cannot successfully do all of these things, well, then he is no man at all.
A man should form a family by wooing a woman, letting her have his multitudes of children and then proceeding to protect and provide for that family until his dying breath (preferably one that involves explosions and war and blood and other man stuff).
Only not at all.
The real kicker to all of this is that in the vast majority of societies, a female needs only one thing to become a woman: fertility.
That’s right, ladies. If you can menstruate, you are, in fact, a woman. Congratulations.
Now, I don’t want to discount the efforts of being fertile and bearing children, but are they really so great that in comparison a male should be thrown into a shark tank to become a man? Maybe. Who am I to decide?
Regardless, the moral of this story is that people are weird. We set weird standards (that are generally very arbitrary) for what we believe a man should be, and when he doesn’t get there we humiliate and punish him. Some people would say, “Oh no! We live in *insert your developed, civilized nation’s name here*! We are so advanced beyond that that one shouldn’t even entertain the notion. You sound silly, Amanda. This only happens in undeveloped societies.”
Well, you’re wrong.
It still happens today. It just has a slightly different face. Picture if you will the high school virgin. Somehow, he can be a six foot tall wall of muscle (though in this scenario he generally isn’t), but if he has not known woman in a biblical sense, he is forever shamed by all his friends who were smart enough to lie and say they have (We were there, guys. Most of us weren’t sleeping with anybody. We know most of you got your diplomas before you got a woman in bed.). Break this scenario down and you’ve essentially got men being mocked because they have yet to conquer a woman. Sounds brutish, right?
Well, it is. And even though most people would chalk it up to adolescents being the absolute worst things ever to exist, they had to get that idea somewhere. They may not be banging on their chests and declaring they are man and hear them roar, but they are being expected to pass a test, reach a goal and prove themselves worthy.
On a more serious tone, think gang initiations. What more is a group of men doing when telling another, younger, newer man that he must prove himself through violent crime? Is that not just another test of manhood?
With the urge to be a traditionally feminine female on the decline, women are starting to do it, too. The “I’m-empowered-and-can-have-just-as-much-sex-as-a-man-when-I-want” women are passing similar tests to that high school virgin from before. Where are it was generally accepted that a girl eventually would become a woman, she now must pass a test that is in some ways very similar to what boys have had to do for centuries to become men. Even if she has been wearing a bra since she was 12, she may not yet be a woman until she has passed her own test. I will say from personal experience though that more seems to ride on your period than anything else, which is interesting because I definitely was NOT a woman when that day came. I was just an awkward girl with a whole new set of body problems.
Regardless, this test of one’s manhood sounds archaic because it is. Why men still insist on declaring they lost their virginity when they were 14 (which, by the way, nobody cares about when you lost your virginity but you, so calm down) is beyond me. Honestly, I’m not looking for anybody to prove anything other than their personhood. Be a human, and not an awful one. That’s all I need. But, since I am not going to be the one to stop men or women from feeling the need to prove themselves prime adult specimen, I can only hope that we will continue to evolve and eventually base manhood and womanhood on less base and brutish goals.
Maybe, if we’re lucky, someday a man will be somebody who can take care of himself and those around him in the way that best suits him and benefits his local and global community. If we’re really lucky, women will be measured by those same parameters. We are all humans, after all, aren’t we?