“Be a Man”. We’ve heard the phrase jabbed at a dude caught in a circle of dudes (sometimes women are there, too) who are using peer pressure tactics. Or it’s a classic movie line aimed at motivating male protagonists to realize their potential. Some of us might’ve said the phrase in an effort to encourage a friend to do right by his community. The problem is that saying “be a man” hurts more than it helps and, according to The Guardian’s Eva Wiseman, to be a man today “is to fight for success and sex, to reject empathy, and to never, ever cry. The result is depression, anxiety and violence.” This sounds anything but compelling – and many men feel conflicted about the statement – so I thought it might be helpful to offer-up 10 better things to say than “be a man” in order to help all of us evolve beyond this dated and dangerous narrative.
“Suck it up!”
“Muscle up” or “be stronger” or “get your shit together” are also acceptable phrases in this category.
Hey, it’s pretty much what folks are getting to when they say “be a man” – my friend Jackie nicely articulated that phrases like these are about accountability, not masculinity. While I would rather ride my bike than empty a Diaper Genie, I have responsibilities to complete every day. Sometimes I complain. Everyone now and then I express my feelings with the intention of getting my way. Neither my behaviour nor the probably pre-determined outcome of diapers being emptied into the garbage has anything to do with my gender. We can all suck it up – but, as my friend Evan told me, this phrase only serves to be equally harsh for all genders, so be mindful of its impact, too.
“Do the right thing”
“Be a good person” or “be authentic” are also acceptable phrases in this category.
Whether it’s a movie scene where a father is cajoling his son into marrying his pregnant girlfriend or your best friend telling you that it’s not okay to dump your partner of six years with a text message, the term “be a man” is often delivered as a synonym for doing right by your community. So just say that. Make the statement about the good thing to do, not the person who is doing it.
“Be a professional”
“Be an adult” or “take ownership” are also acceptable phrases in this category.
Mr. Pink from Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs – a film about men, starring men and most likely for men –incredulously pleads with his criminal colleagues to consider their professional obligations as everyone points their guns at each other. Anyone can be a professional with the right amount of intention and commitment, so this alternative phrase might serve you well in workplace situations or when you’re coaching a buddy through a professional challenge.
“Be yourself” and “it’s okay” are also acceptable phrases in this category.
There are many paths to strength. For me, a lot of my confidence has come from how I dealt with daily teasing and, thankfully, infrequent humiliation.For example, having trust and being vulnerable are critical and awesome strategies to being stronger as an individual and as a teammate. Sometimes we jeer “be a man” to encourage a buddy to literally exude physical strength. But often strength isn’t the solution to the problem. Instead it’s worthwhile to be compassionate, emotive and open.
“Don’t screw it up” or “whatever happens was supposed to happen” are also acceptable phrases in this category.
Resilience and grit have more to do with success than talent or privilege. If someone is struggling (and they are male) then emphasizing their capacity for resilience can be powerful. It’s clearer and more supportive to hear “hang in there; I know this is hard and we’ll get through it” and it feels good to say, too.
“Be a superstar”
This is basically just a more fabulous version of “be stronger” because sometimes we need to be hyperbolic! (I would’ve written “awesome” but Kurt keeps me on a strict awesome-word-allowance in my articles).
“Be Brienne of Tarth”
“Be Beyonce” is an acceptable phrase in this category.
Brienne of Tarth is a Game of Thrones character who is a kick-ass, graceful, and honourable warrior poet who brings wisdom, love, ferocity, and physical dominance to every encounter. She transcends gender norms with class and fanfare. And no offense to incredible documentaries about gender identity, but her pop culture notoriety has more resonance than peer-reviewed research.
“What does being a man mean to you?”
My friend Zoe – in an epic Facebook essay – offered this gem. I love it.
We don’t do this enough. Seek to understand each other, that is. When a buddy is struggling with something the phrase “be a man” serves to reinforce a tired narrative of hyper masculinity that implies men do not talk about what’s bothering us or share our problems through mediums other than sports or face-punching. By simply asking for someone’s perspective on manhood and what it means to them you are inviting the possibility of a game-changing conversation and there is a lot of potential for a better world in such dialogue.
“How can I help?”
Imagine a world where men are raised to ask for help and take failure as something learned, not someone spurned. Every day three boys take their own lives in North America and I don’t think I’m wrong to attest that phrases like “don’t be a pussy” and “be a man” have more to do with this horrifying statistic than offering to help, even if that just means listening and accepting a boy’s perspective.
“Be a man!”
While satire does as much to reinforce what its mocking than engender change from it, I think that re-purposing this phrase to celebrate behaviours that are the antithesis of how it’s commonly used can be powerful. So, the next time that your awesome male friend is about to demonstrate incredible empathy, talk to a friend about his feelings, or live comfortably in his own skin, feel free to rejuvenate this tired and uncreative call-to-action by giving it some fresh perspective.
Men struggle to live up to what’s expected – real or imagined – of us. Filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newson, the subject of Wiseman’s piece that I mentioned above, recently premiered The Mask You Live In (just arrived on Netflix), which documents the troubling “boy crisis” in communities around the world. Newsom’s research is compelling:
“…she found boys were more likely than girls to be diagnosed with a behaviour disorder, more likely to be prescribed stimulant medications, more likely to binge drink, more likely to be expelled from school, and more likely to commit a violent crime. At university entry level in the UK, women outnumber men in two-thirds of subjects. Three to four times as many men take their own lives than women; men aged between 20 and 49 are more likely to die from suicide than any other single form of death.”
As a father of one (soon to be two) boy(s), these data disturb and concern me greatly. A simple thing that you can do to be part of the positive change for boys is to remove “be a man” from your lexicon and challenge others to do the same. Try something cooler the next time that you find yourself searching for a motivational phrase and be assertive with your recommendations to others, too.