Reflecting on what it means to be a man

The below exercise is designed to examine the gendered expectations we learn to live with and negotiate in our everyday lives (Brooke Friedman, 1998). As we grow up in our communities, both men and women are introduced to a set of expectations and ideas as to what ‘makes a man’ and how a man ‘should’ be and behave in the world. Whether we buy into particular expectations and ideas, they shape our world, how we and others act and behave, how we make sense of ourselves and others, the ways in which we express ourselves in different contexts, and how we feel about that. Many men may not have had an opportunity to pause and consider how ideas as to what ‘makes a man’ and how a man should be and behave in the world has been and is shaping of their lives.

Pause for a moment to consider and reflect on what you learnt growing up about what makes up a man.

What does it mean to be a man?

  • How is a man meant to act?
  • What do you remember seeing and hearing as you were growing up in your family, in your neighbourhood, in your community, at your school, or in the playground?
  • What roles did men play on television, in films or books? How did they express themselves?
  • Who were the iconic male figures or ‘real men’ in films? (John Wayne, James Bond, Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenneger, The Rock, etc.)
  • What sort of jobs do men have? What is a man’s job?
  • What recreational activities do men engage in and enjoy?
  • What sports do men play? What is a man’s sport?
  • Does a man drink alcohol? What is a man’s drink?
  • What if a man does not drink alcohol, or cannot hold his drink?
  • What cars do men drive?
  • What clothes do real men wear? What is a man’s colour?
  • What should men’s bodies look like?
  • What roles and responsibilities does a man have in the family?
  • What jobs should they do around the home? Inside the home/outside the home?
  • What pet would a man have? Cat/dog? What type?
  • What are the feelings and emotions a man expresses?
  • What are the ways men should think about love and romance?
  • Are men meant to be interested in sex, when, with whom?
  • What is a man’s attitude towards sex meant to be?

Part of building a picture of how a man is meant to be and act involves also noting and documenting how a man is not mean to be or act. It can be useful therefore to note:

  • What is considered not ‘manly’?
  • What behaviour, ways of being, and relating is associated with ‘being a woman’?
  • What are the possible costs or sanctions if a man does not act according to these gender expectations? What might people, say, do, think?

There is no right or wrong answer here. In naming these gender expectations there is no need to hold back — by noting them it does not mean you agree with these ideas. The purpose of the exercise is to name expectations of how a man is expected to act, look, and be. In doing so we are identifying the stereotypes, and naming the expectations, that men experience in the non-politically correct world that many men live.

It is useful when working with older men to specifically name what was considered ‘manly’ or how a man ‘should be’ in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s, or 90s. This is a time when older men’s ideas about masculinity would have been formulated. Looking at what expectations, norms, and rules operated back then, and making this visible in the present, can be particularly useful. It is their knowledge and understanding of back then that would inform their actions and choices during those times, not what they know in the present. It’s quite common for men to pass judgement on themselves, on their past actions and choices, forgetting that it was a different time and place; a time and place when he did not have access to his current knowledge, understanding, and resources.

You can enter your thoughts below. Once you have submitted your response, continue to the next section, Masculine norms.