On the subject of how feminism can do better to help men, one suggestion I’ve heard many times, is that we need to provide better role models for men.
Honest question: what does that even mean? I don’t understand what “role model” is, why I would want one, or how it would solve anything. To me, “Who are your role models?” is a writing prompt they give you in elementary school, which was endlessly frustrating and never made the least bit of sense.
My frustration is compounded when people go on to suggest specific celebrities to be role models. For example, “Terry Crews is a great guy, and a great model for 21st century masculinity.” So, I know Terry Crews as someone who has done work against sexual violence, but that doesn’t make him a role model to me. I’m confused about how that would even work. Are you suggesting that I follow news about Terry Crews and imitate what little I can glean of his viewpoints and habits? The solution to the crisis of masculinity is… more celebrity news? Color me skeptical.
I brought up the subject of role models on Pillowfort, and Sennkestra pointed out that there are really two distinct concepts of role models:
- Someone who is held up as a moral exemplar to be emulated. Terry Crews being an example.
- Someone from who you emulate to learn behavioral scripts, often unconsciously. For example, when I started blogging I modeled my style on other bloggers I followed, but I don’t remember who that was exactly, and have no reason to believe they were moral exemplars.
While everyone has role models of the second sort, we don’t all have role models of the first sort. And that’s why elementary school writing prompts about role models are so frustrating. They’re asking for someone we idolize, who we strive to emulate. But to the extent that I emulate anyone, I don’t just stick to one person, and I’m not conscious of who exactly it is.
So, it does not make much sense to suggest specific celebrities as role models for men. In general, we don’t use single individuals as role models, we imitate a large number of people (and characters) around us.
Initially, I just wanted to complain about the way people talk about positive male role models, but then it felt like my criticism was too destructive. Pointing to celebrities is not a good way to make better role models for men… so how do we create better role models for men? So now I present the second half of this article:
A road map to better role models for men
We start with the abstract: how should men behave? And if you’re a man, then you behave that way, becoming a good role model to those around you. It helps to explain why you behave that way, to criticize others who significantly depart from the ideal. But it also helps to just embody your ideals, as if it were the most normal thing in the world. Some people will have more influence then others, especially celebrities and creators of mass media, but I don’t think we should lean on any particular celebrity or fictional character, because a lot of men may simply not care about the same celebrities/characters you care about.
That leaves the question, how should men behave? I guess this doesn’t seem so hard to me, since ethical behavior is not a gendered issue. Men should behave the same way any other good person would behave regardless of gender.
In fact, one may ask, why do we need men to serve as positive role models for men? Couldn’t men equally well emulate the women in their lives? I think men do in fact emulate women often, often without thinking about it or worrying about the whole gender thing. Still, it seems best if we provide positive role models who are specifically men, for a few reasons.
First of all, I observe that many people seem more quick to emulate people of the same gender.
Second of all, there are certain male-specific problems, and we need to show ethical ways of dealing with them. My understanding is that one common frustration among men, is pursuing romance/sex in a culture that expects men to always take initiative and control. Given my orientation I don’t think I could provide any specific advice, but I’m just pointing to it as a major issue. Another common issue for men, is expectations regarding success. Men are expected to outcompete their peers in every aspect of life, from career to love to hobbies. But obviously not everyone can be above average. We need healthy ways to deal with failure and mediocrity; to show people that they don’t need to win to succeed, that they don’t need to succeed to be happy. And we need to stop putting down others for not winning.
Finally, it’s important to show some harmless male gender markers. I’m talking basic stuff like appearance, mannerisms, and personal interests. Many binary-gendered people seem to enjoy adopting some sort of gendered expression, and it’s good to suggest harmless outlets for that expression–without suggesting that any particular expression is mandatory.
This is just a brief outline. If there’s any specific point that you would be interested to see further developed, let me know.
Pierce R. Butler says
I model myself after a ’90s rapper whose name I just failed to find online, who had people getting on his case for something and said, “Do I look like a fuckin’ role model?”
Andreas Avester says
I immensely hated all this talk about role-models back when I was a teen. I had no idols. I didn’t want to be like some specific person. It was largely due to my aversion to social hierarchies—having an idol would require looking up to said person, and I strongly disliked the whole notion of being at the bottom of some hierarchy. Sure, some people had various skills that I admired (I wanted to be an artist, and I really loved some other artists’ works), and I wanted to learn to do similarly amazing deeds, but I never wanted to be like some specific person.
This one was immensely frustrating for me back when I was a teen. I had learned that a woman is supposed to be passive and wait for a guy to approach her. Yet whenever some guy approached me, I felt extremely uncomfortable, and I instinctively distanced myself from him. My problem was that I’m the kind of person who loves taking initiative and being in charge. Lack of control made me uncomfortable. By the time I was between 18 and 19, I was involuntarily celibate, because I just couldn’t get a guy. At 20 I finally got so frustrated that I just gave up on all the norms, I picked a guy I liked, I invited him to dates, I kissed him, and so on. Problem solved.
Harmless? Yeah right…
Let’s start with mannerisms, for example poses in which men and women are supposed to sit. A man is supposed to take up space, spread his arms and legs, sit in a comfortable posture. A woman has to keep her knees and ankles together, she even has to keep her arms closer to her body. Taking up space is a dominant pose. Taking up little space is a submissive posture. How can you call this shit harmless? As for non-mandatory… I must laugh. My mother taught me to keep my knees together when I was 5. My school teachers taught me the proper pose in which a girl is supposed to sit again and again and again.
When I came out as queer, I had to intentionally relearn all the female mannerisms I have been taught despite me being a tomboy and never having wanted to be a lady in the first place.
Or consider clothing. Evening wear. A male suit emphasizes shoulders and makes the wearer look more imposing and dominant. A female evening dress exposes much more skin than a male suit and makes the woman look like a pretty piece of meat that’s being offered for sale. Never mind that for a woman dressing up means wearing footwear that’s literally harmful for her feet.
Personal interests and hobbies? Seriously? Do you really want those to be gendered? Certain interests being perceived as stereotypically male or female is a pain in the ass for anybody who likes something that’s typically associated with the other sex. For example, I enjoy woodworking. You cannot even imagine how many times I have been shopping for wood or tools only to be dismissed by shop assistants who imagined me to be incompetent in said field just because of how my body looked like.
So I hear you saying that a lot of gender markers are harmful, but I was asking you to imagine harmless gender markers, even if they do not presently exist. Are you of the view that gender markers are necessarily harmful? I think this is arguable.
Real people make lousy role models — they are complex and messy, and bound to disappoint. I prefer fictional role models, who don’t exist beyond the boundaries of the page or screen, and whose every thought and utterance we can be in possession of.
Of course, we can still spend internet months arguing over details and lines of dialogue of Harry Potter, say, and disagree as to whether or not he’s admirable. But at least Hermione isn’t going to go on tv next week and say he groped her.
Yeah, I concur. My main issue with fictional role models, is that I don’t like most mass media.
Regarding gender markers. I’ve always liked formal Scottish attire. Kilt, lace at the throat and cuffs, Silver buttons. On the other hand I don’t normally go around dressed in a kilt.
Can’t think of an equivalent style for women unfortunately.
I’m not sure what’s incomprehensible about saying that the celebrities, actors, film characters, politicians, etc. who we set up for praise and admiration will become de facto role models of the second, subconscious type whether we want them to or not.
So the call for better male role models is then a call for a greater emphasis in public on individuals or stories which display nontoxic/wholesome male behaviour, irrespective of how many people explicitly or even consciously identify with that.