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After my daughter was born, I began working on a piece about my wife’s postpartum body. One response in particular “revoked my man card.” This is my response. (Also: I made it official.)
You’ve seen the commercials. They’re beer commercials — Of course! — a man does something that his buddies consider unmanly (screams in terror, orders the wrong kind of beer) and his pals consequently revoke his man card.
They’re ads for swill beer, and they’re stupid, but the underlying sentiment — that one should be the stereotypical manly man isn’t just a joke. The idea’s as entrenched as ever. For proof, just look for your nearest “Man’s Mall” or a Man Cave or the “straight shooting” of Donald Trump, who constantly describes himself in terms of his stamina or his energy or his strength. When you’re done, maybe have yourself a “Manwich.” Hell, where I live, one routinely sees signs announcing that a “Man Sale” — and presumably not some lily-livered garage sale — is nearby.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with living the stereotype – some guys really are just big, strong and stoic — but insisting that traditional manliness is the only way for a guy to live is a real problem. If you get in a huff about what someone else wears or doesn’t wear, or their mannerisms or their accent, that says something about you, not them. And when you try to enforce the standard definition of manliness, you’re not just placing limitations on others, you’re also placing them on yourself.
I’ve got a counterproposal: You’re not a real man if you don’t know how to read. You’re not a real man if you think people different from you (women! immigrants! gay people!) are inherently less valuable than you are. And you’re not a real man if you give another guy a hard time for his clothes, or his interests or his appearance.
There’s more than just one way to be a man. That’s why you can have my Man Card back.
Let’s start with the man card itself. I don’t know how you picture it, but one side probably has an image of a Playmate on it or an adult film star. Because nothing says you’re manly like failing to secure an actual mate and relying on a photographic simulacrum of someone you don’t know instead.
You know the Man Card would be branded, each one with a brand with a telltale consequence, the NFL (concussions), Marlboro (lung cancer), your local pizza joint (rampant obesity), alcohol (you name it).
And have you ever flipped over your “man card” and looked at the benefits? Once you turn the card over, you see its basic promise boldly proclaimed in Comic Sans: that you can secure a successful, happy life based solely on emotional strength, hard work, and sheer physical power. The trouble is, in a technical age, muscle — and even sheer physical effort — is redundant. While it’s statistically always a good time to be a man, it’s not a great time to be a manly man. This isn’t the 50s, when a big, strong man could get a good factory job based on his physique and work ethic alone. No, the entire economy has changed, several times over. In the space of a hundred years or so, we’ve gone from a largely agrarian economy to an urbanized economy predicated on industrialization and mass transit. Today, thanks largely to the rise of automation, cheaper labor abroad, and parsimonious consumers, we find ourselves in a global, often service-oriented economy where national borders mean less and less (at least economically), and traditional masculine attributes such as physical strength, and intensive self-reliance and general stoicism no longer guarantee success.
Instead of brawn, you need training and education. The evidence here is pretty apparent: paychecks don’t lie. If you get a 2-year degree after high school, you’ll make, on average, $41,000 per year. If you get a 4-year degree, you’ll bring in $56,000 a year. If you graduate from high school only, you’ll get $31,000 a year. And that’s per year. Over the course of a lifetime, we’re talking vast sums of money, winning the lottery type of money. You can certainly earn similar sums — or more — without a college education, but that’s the exception, not the rule. For a demographic that prides itself on self-responsibility, many manly man have been slow to adapt in the one way that could help their economic chances: by furthering their education.
There’s more than just one way to be a man. That’s why you can have my Man Card back.
Given these facts, you’d expect that everyone — men included — would be encouraged to attend at least some level of college, but college attendance rates among men have plummeted. “Book smarts” and education are sneered at. Teachers, or their unions, are described as thugs. Professors are pilloried as propagandists.
For proof, picture the traditional manly man. What’s his career? Most work with their hands—carpenter, lumberjack, factory worker, farmer, but I also picture Don Draper-style businessmen and the like. When you pictured the typical manly man, did you ever picture him reading a book? Or how about this: Does he attend, or finish, college (whether 2-year or 4-year)? The answer is “probably not.”
If you look at it that way, the term ‘man-cave’ makes a lot more sense: It’s a literal retreat to a non-threatening abode. What happens in a mancave? It ain’t thinking or reading or bettering yourself. Instead, it’s football and beer and pin-up girls and distraction, distraction, distraction.
I’ll drop the jokes for a second. The urge to flee is understandable. It’s a national tragedy that automation and cheap labor abroad and corporate greed have turned an entire region of the country into the Rust Belt. Add in a rapidly changing culture and shifting demographics, unfamiliar territory for traditionally manly men, and I can at least understand how manly men might think their world is falling apart. But it isn’t — it’s just different, and they need to adapt.
This is my real problem with manly men — in my experience at least, anything that’s different is often shunned. To be sure, that’s the whole assumption behind the Man Card jokes — Real Men® do things one way: the right way. Heck, in my neck of the woods — the Upper Midwest — different is even a euphemism for “bad.”
But that’s always been nonsense. Women can be gearheads or powerlifters or boxers. So can gay guys. Lesbians can serve overseas — and even die — for their country. They already have. Huge, muscle-bound men who could pass for the Brawny Man might like the NFL and chugging beers, but they might also like Bach or Dante or the work of Gustav Klimt.
Here’s an example from real life. A few months ago, I was in the grocery store checkout lane wearing a dressy coat, a trench coat that I’d snagged at our town thrift store for $5. This was in the rural town in which I’d lived for the past 7 years — having grown up just 10 miles southwest of there.
You’re not a real man if you think people different from you are inherently less valuable than you are.
The guy in front of me took one look at me and scoffed before half-asking and half-demanding, “Where’re you from?” I told him that I was from there. He instantly shook his head and said, “No, you’re not from here. You look like some sort of college professor.”
While that story’s anecdotal, it’s a good enough stand-in for the Manly Man as a whole. There’s this idea that a mythical Real America exists where membership is detectable with just a glance. At that grocery checkout lane, I didn’t respond. The guy was more than a little drunk, and I felt more than comfortable in both my manliness, and my sense of belonging. But what I should have said is simple: first, there’s more than one way to exist — and there’s sure as hell more than one way to be a man.
 I inevitably imagine a long-frazzled wife hawking her husband for the highest bid, and maybe also selling her annoying brother-in-law and the smart-aleck nephew who would never listen.
Brett Ortler is the author of a number of non-fiction books, including Dinosaur Discovery Activity Book, The Beginner’s Guide to Ship Watching on the Great Lakes, Minnesota Trivia Don’tcha Know!, and several others. His writing has appeared in Salon, at Yahoo! as well as atThe Good Men Project, and on The Nervous Breakdown, among many other venues. A husband and father, his house is full of children, pets, and noise.