What's a 'Real Man' These Days, Anyway?
Back in the nineties and early aughts, my homeboys and I would attend NBA All-Star weekends. More times than not, our crew included my day one—may he rest in peace—Neal Franklin Blassingame Jr.
Blass was a legend in my hometown, in part for owning arms wide as rivers, legs tree-trunk thick, and a chest cast from canyon rock.
During the 2007 All-Star weekend, Blass, me, and crew were strolling down Las Vegas Boulevard when a carload of women fawned at him from their windows. Before you knew it, they’d pulled over, and one of the women jumped out, giddied over to Blass, and asked to touch his arm.
The sleeveless-T-shirted Blass obliged her.
Though no parts of a movie star, my homeboy was emblematic—save for the not-at-all-negligible fact of his being a Black man—of the Herculean physiques that Hollywood has idealized going back at least to the days of Rambo and Conan the Barbarian.
You might’ve noticed that Hollywood has been remaking, or at least diversifying, the attributes of male sex symbols and, you could argue, manhood itself right alongside them. Exemplars of this en vogue masculinity are less the musclebound, taciturn, and seldom-emotive men of yore but slim, bookish, sometimes awkward, and empathic types, some of whom are daring against gender boundaries: Timothée Chalamet, Harry Styles, Shawn Mendes, etc.
Harry Styles at the 2019 Met Gala in New York.
Let’s unpack a bit, shall we?
The fact that Hollywood’s new standard-bearers of masculinity are young white men shouldn’t be no big old surprise. (Jaden Smith and Tyler, the Creator touted as equal paragons? Not so much.) This goes back to eighteenth-century art-history pioneer Johann Winckelmann, who extolled the beauty of whitewashed Greco-Roman statues. “A beautiful body will be all the more beautiful the whiter it is.” But it’s also a response to prime cultural forces: the #MeToo reckoning; the cultural, political, and social capital of the LGBTQ+ movement; and the most recent wave of feminism.
If you’ve spent any time on Reddit or, in the pre-Covid days, at a barbershop, gym, or watering hole, you can fathom the anxieties this revisioning has begotten.
And I understand some of the angst. Sometimes when I’m shopping the website of my favorite brands, the androgyny of the styling makes me double-check, a bit bemused, whether I’m browsing the men’s or women’s section. Truth—I still covet a bench press on par with my late homie Blass’s. Part of me values emotional strength—at times a form of impenetrableness—for having helped me endure certain crucibles. In my work life, I’m often asked to identify my gender pronouns, and though I do it because I recognize what the act means especially to trans allyship, my inner voice sometimes chides me that my identity should be obvious.
But there’s a difference between the mild anxieties of the average man and a man’s man bristling over these changes.
Who’s this man’s man?
In an homage to Kurt Cobain, Kid Cudi wore a dress by Off-White while performing on Saturday Night Live on April 10.
The man’s man admits the equal worth of men and men alone. He disbelieves the decades-old wisdom that gender (not biology) is a social construct. The man’s man maligns emotional vulnerability, measures his value in sexual conquests (full disclosure: this was once me), and uses his physical strength as a weapon.
The man’s man excuses “Grab ’em by the pussy” as locker-room talk and argues alibis for Weinstein, Cosby, and Lauer. He deems Brock Turner’s sentence fair but was dubious of Christine Blasey Ford even after she testified. Beaucoup man’s men turned insurgent trying to thwart democracy for their Caesar.
On account of the man’s man, the word masculinity is now seldom mentioned without toxic as its modifier; it’s because of him that men who aren’t blatant misogynists—a majority—are catching a bum rap. Which is to let no damn body off the hook. Because for real, there’s at least a little bit of toxicity in a whole lot of us. Plenty of well-intentioned cisgender straight men (myself included) fight an instinct to sexualize the attractive women we meet.
Nonetheless, the collective unease of men over the state of masculinity is by and large misbegotten. Hollywood portraying men as less imposing or aggressive, as more caring or expressive, ain’t an assault on manhood itself or a persecution of all men. What’s happening on movie screens and in the press isn’t an erasure of conventional ideals of manhood.
It’s an expansion of those ideals.
The collective unease of men over the state of masculinity is by and large misbegotten.
Men have challenged traditional masculinity for ages. In eighteenth-century England, people went batshit over “macaronis,” men who obsessed over fashion and blurred gender roles. The qualities of men have always varied. Some embrace gender fluidity. Some bench-squat-curl their way to a living Farnese Hercules. Others lean right on in to their ectomorphdom. Some quote Shakespeare and fancy art-house films. Others don’t read a thing beyond a finance or sports mag. Some men, at points, represent all the above aspects. Others live a lifetime reflecting almost none.
So let those of us not hell-bent on preserving the patriarchy relax.
You can still compliment a woman on the way she’s dressed (minus the creepiness). You can still protect someone in need of help (sans patronizing). You can still open a door for a woman (unless she’s expressed otherwise).
More importantly, crucially, you should work to exemplify the virtues of true masculinity.
Like earning respect and treating people with it; believing in hard work and providing for your family; remaining loyal to friends and playing it fair in competition; acknowledging the humanity of others, especially those with less power; achieving the security that allows you not to feel threatened by someone who looks or thinks or acts different.
That’s real manhood—sexiness, too—whether you favor Cary Grant, Michael B. Jordan, Timothée Chalamet, or the local Neal Franklin Blassingame Jr. as an in-the-flesh Greek god.
Don't forget to subscribe to the Esquire Philippines YouTube channel.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.