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Redefining Masculinity – and Being Okay With It

by Neta Meltzer
Communications & Development Coordinator, CCASA


The title of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Ted-Talk-turned-book declares, “We Should All Be Feminists,” and she’s right.  We should all be feminists, all of us, whether we identify as men, women, transgender, or non-binary.  Because being a feminist simply means, as Adichie famously and succinctly explains, that you are “a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.”


As emerging social justice movements challenge the established patriarchy and confront concepts of toxic masculinity and male privilege, men are forced to ask themselves, “What does it mean to be a man today?”  In response to these shifts, men are turning increasingly to each other to build communities of growth and support for themselves.  These communities are necessary and important, and they are not unlike the consciousness-raising groups of the second wave feminists from decades ago.


But a fine line can be drawn between groups that support men as they explore their role in a world exploding with options of who they can be, and groups that lament these progressive changes and frame them as an obstacle for men to overcome.  In this new world, the question arises: What do men need right now?  As a woman, I can’t answer that question, but I can offer some advice from a feminist who has done the work of self-reflection that men are being called to do today:


  1. Don’t Get Defensive


Toxic masculinity and grieved male entitlement continue to be pervasive concepts.  Many folks continue to promote the idea that a man is defined by his power over others, and that to be a man means to show no fear and no feeling.  It’s time to create a space within which men can move beyond these limitations.


But change can be incredibly intimidating, and we aren’t always ready for it when the time comes.  We tend to double down on what is familiar and comfortable, on what requires the least amount of mental effort.  I would encourage the men in our movement to embrace the challenge of questioning stereotypes, to allow themselves vulnerability in unknown territory, and to really think about what kind of person they want to be, regardless of gender stereotypes.


  1. Confront the Tough Questions


You can start by asking: What does it mean to be a man?  What is modern masculinity?  Are these categories and descriptors still useful, and what does it mean if they aren’t?  As you ask yourself these questions, be careful not to reinforce the very stereotypes we are trying to overcome.   Don’t buy in to toxic or outdated ideas of what masculinity entails.  Challenge yourself not to think in terms of “manning up” or rejecting traditionally “feminine” ways of approaching things – As society changes and progresses, the concept of masculinity must be revisited.


  1. Ask the Turtle


In Gloria Steinem’s memoir, My Life on the Road, she recounts a story about seeing a turtle on the side of the road, picking it up, and moving it to what she thought would be a safer spot.  It was only later that she realized that perhaps the turtle had other plans and that she had taken it woefully off track without its consent.


Men, we need you in the feminist movement.  But we need you to recognize your privilege, and we need you to listen to us as you endeavor to support us.  In advocacy and social justice, we must always ask the turtle what it needs, what it wants, what goals it has chosen for itself.


In 2017, we have begun to break out of the binary, and we are confronted with a world of possibilities of which we should all take advantage, regardless of gender identity.  Let’s all challenge ourselves to peek out from under the shell and to be a support to each other as we explore.

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