Jimmy Fallon messed up Donald Trump’s hair in the run up to the 2016 US presidential elections. Fallon recently expressed regret for this playful moment because it normalised the US president, a far-from-normal man. Fallon said, “I made a mistake.”
Oops. Real men don’t make mistakes or, if they do, they certainly don’t admit it. You’ve seen the script for men caught saying offensive things or committing sexual harassment: “I apologise to anyone who felt hurt,” not “I apologise for those I hurt.”
Or say that under a false pretext, a leader devastates a country with bombs and starts a cycle of horrific wars? “Mistakes were made,” not, “I made a mistake” let alone, “I lied.”
Enter President Trump, the man who pretends to the world (and most frightening, seems to himself believe) that he never backs down, that he is always right and always gets his way. In response to Fallon’s little cri de coeur, Trump told him to “be a man.”
The most toxic word combination in the English language.
It’s a boy’s first instruction to manhood. He falls down, he’s hurt, he cries. And the helpful adult pulls him to his feet and says, “Be a man,” or “Big boys don’t cry.” A boy is scared and the coach barks, “Be a man.”
We raise our sons through humiliation. Not with positive ideals of manhood and humanity — which means recognising both our strengths and vulnerabilities, feelings and fears, resiliency and stumbling blocks. Rather we pummel boys with messages that lead to an abiding fear of not being a “real man.” And by telling boys to mash down so many natural emotions, we teach boys to distrust those we associate with weakness.
It gets worse. The implicit and often explicit corollary to “be a man,” is “don’t be a girl.” Becoming a real man builds in a fear of femininity. And all this leads to an unconscious fear that other boys or men will discover that although you put on a terrific show, you will never measure up to the impossible expectations of manhood: always strong, number one, tough, powerful, a sex magnet (for women, of course), in control, without fear, athletic…the list goes on and on.
This fear that other men will discover that you don’t fit into the man box is why so many men will stay silent in the face of a sexist, or homophobic, or racist comment or joke that actually offends them. It’s why more men don’t speak out when a friend is verbally abusive to his girlfriend. It’s one of the reasons why many men don’t refuse unsafe working conditions. It’s why fights break out in a split second in a schoolyard or a bar. It’s why more men than women self-medicate with alcohol and other drugs, or take their own lives.
The fear of not being a man is also, as I’ve explored in my writings over the past three decades, one of the causes of men’s violence against women or other men. Yes, the violence, or threat of violence has an aim of asserting power and control. But paradoxically, the use of violence by far too many men is also a way to compensate for the feeling of being “not a real man”. And it’s because he’s suppressed a range of emotions which means a lot of feelings get channeled into rage.
You wonder how Donald Trump could support policies that snatch terrified children away from their parents and lock them in cages? He was only “being a man.”
Michael Kaufman’s next book, Count Me In: Why Men Must Fight for Gender Equality (Counterpoint Press), will be published in January
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies