The Significance of Guy Talk

[This post was selected by Gender Across Borders as part of the “Mask of Masculinity” series.]

Paul Rudd 4

“Man up.”

“Don’t be such a woman.”

“Grow a pair.”

Hang around a group of guys long enough, and these phrases are bound to pop up as assertions of masculinity. So what, exactly, does it mean to “be a man?”

By and large, being a man is defined by not being a woman.  When someone says “be a man,” s/he is generally indicating disdain for weakness and/or emotion – characteristics that are, of course, associated with women. I came to this realization more recently than I’d like to admit: a few years ago, I probably didn’t even blink an eye upon hearing these words thrown around. I’m fairly certain that even now, many of my peers would question the significance of guy talk, asking me “Isn’t it more important to focus on the bigger issues that face women, rather than over-analyze the ways in which men communicate with each other?”

Well, as Melissa McEwan of Shakesville has often said, those bigger issues don’t exist in a vacuum. These assertions of masculinity feed into the major challenges to egalitarianism: first, they reinforce the idea that anything thought to be “feminine” is necessarily inferior, and second, they encourage men and women to live in separate worlds, making empathy much more difficult to achieve.

To that first point, consider some Madonna lyrics:

Girls can wear jeans

And cut their hair short

Wear shirts and boots

‘Cause it’s OK to be a boy

But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading

‘Cause you think that being a girl is degrading.

[From “What If Feels Like For A Girl.”]

It’s generally thought to be cool and desirable for women and girls to embrace what is considered masculine, but we as a society freak out when a little boy has pink nail polish on his toes. It’s also unacceptable for men to like girly cupcakes unless they’re “butched up” with camouflage and wood grain patterns. The examples are as endless as the media messages we’re bombarded with each and every day.

The second point on living in separate worlds is evidenced particularly well by this piece, entitled “Why I Am a Male Feminist.” In it, the author describes an eye-opening experience: while attending a workshop on gender violence, groups of men and women were asked separately what actions they take to prevent rape or sexual assault. Their answers were listed side by side on the blackboard. The women’s side filled up quickly, while the men’s just displayed one word: “Nothing.” I know I’m not alone when I express the desire to live in a world where rape prevention is not solely the responsibility of those most vulnerable to assault.

These are the reasons why when someone says “be a man,” i.e., not a woman, I can’t just write it off as meaningless guy banter. It’s context in a bigger story, one that tries to convince us that our gender differences make it difficult, or even impossible, to share a common humanity. People often say “that’s just how the world works,” but I refuse to accept that. That attitude encourages complacency at best, and utter disillusionment at worst. Let’s make it a point to challenge the story that portrays human society as men versus women, and in so doing, transform it into one that constantly seeks egalitarianism for all.


photo still of 40 Year Old Virgin from
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