Although the definition of a man or woman is fixed in the biological context as an adult human male, it does not have a fixed definition in cultural and social contexts. For example, the phrase “be man enough” is used to mean “be brave enough”, associating bravery with being a man; in other words, an adult human male who is not brave cannot be described as being a man.
Expectedly, the cultural and social contexts for defining who a man is vary depending on the culture and society. While some are positive, others have led to quite negative effects on the society. For example, the notion in many societies that a man who is unable to produce male offspring has not proved to be a man, or the man who is not the higher income-earner in his household or who does the domestic duties such as cooking and cleaning in the house is not a man. These beliefs are what create gender roles – what men and women are supposed to do or be.
For a very long time, gender equality advocates have focused on empowering women and taking away barriers that limit them from reaching their full potentials. However, very few have considered focusing on the redefinition of men as enablers of this objective.
For example, if in a society, men feel that in a group of people, a woman cannot lead when a man is there, this mindset presents a barrier to women being in leadership roles. Also, if men believe that they ought to control their wives & exercise authority over them with the use of physical force if need be, it will not be surprising to see high rates of domestic violence against women in such a society.
A huge proportion of people, men and women, define men using characteristics that are straitjacketed and exert a lot of pressure on men: men do not cry or show emotion; men never complain about how tough things are for them and they should always be tough no matter what; men must shoulder the financial needs of their families, nuclear and extended; and so on and so forth.
Since a failure to be these create the feeling or perception of one is not a man, there is the intense pressure to be these things, even to the point of going down under the pressure. It is toxic masculinity.
For example, the picture below of a man crying at his wedding went viral with many people making fun of him and others wondering what could cause a man to cry so at his wedding. Of course, brides crying at their weddings are commonplace and seen as normal, but that of grooms is a rarity, and his masculinity in many quarters was questioned.
Another example is seen in preparations for weddings in the Nigerian society where it mostly rests squarely on the man – not just for the event but also for the couple starting off their life together. For a lot of people, it does not matter if the wife is earning or not – it is the man’s responsibility. It is a lot of pressure to have and to live with.
A society’s definition of who a man is in the context of its culture does not impact only the men, but also the women. A cause-and-effect relationship of what the definition of a man is can be seen among both men and women.
This is why it is important for discussions to be had about what I term ‘positive masculinity’ as against the prevailing toxic masculinity that many use to define men.
Imagine a society which does not belief that a man is not seen as less a man because his wife earns more or is more prominent than him – there will be fewer men refusing to encourage their wives to aspire for more even if it will lead to such a situation.
Imagine a society that does not believe that a man has to sire male children to be considered a man – there will be less pressure on both men and women and less strain on marriages to have male children.
Imagine a society that does not believe that the man’s role is to provide while the woman’s primary role is to take care of her home and cook for her family (and belong to the other room) – there will be fewer women cutting down on their ambitions and dreams in order to carry out this belief.
Imagine a society that does not demonize a man for admitting that he needs help in whatever area or like every other human, is under pressure for whatever reason – there will be more mentally and physically healthier men due to less pressure on them and being able to have outlets for their feelings.
It is important that in our cultures and societies, we define being a man in a way that does not try to make the man out to be superhuman, but empowers him and encourages him to empower the women in his family and his society.