When I think of Manliness, when I think of tough men’s men I think of my favourites – Bond, Bauer, Bourne, Batman and Ron Swanson.
What is it about these bastions of manliness that we find so appealing? Is it their devil may care attitude, their strength, their confidence and self-assuredness. Why do we find them so damn cool and interesting and why do we want to be like them?
Classical male values are about being tough, stern, confident, resilient etc. And while those are good values to have, they are also somewhat of a fantasy. They are good and true, but incomplete.
Fantasy heroes like Batman and Bond can be tough all of the time, we don’t see how vulnerable they are when nobody is looking. We don’t see their true emotions, and any human being who is afraid of expressing emotion is ultimately weak rather than strong.
One of Batman’s biggest weaknesses is his fear of showing or expressing emotion. It is not that he can’t, it is that he knows that if he does express his real feelings he can’t keep up the facade of being Batman. He can’t be the grim avenger of justice if he is crying on the inside.
Around Robin, Batgirl and Alfred Batman remains tough, stoic, emotionless and distant. Privately – alone with his thoughts and dreams – Batman is racked with guilt over his parents dying while he survived.
So Batman carries around all that pain, and we see him and think “Wow, he’s so cool, I wish I was like Batman” But to be more like our tough guy fantasy heroes means being very repressed, holding in our emotions, denying the very thing that makes us so human.
The strongest version of ourselves is also the most vulnerable version of ourselves.
Old world male values were all about being tough on the outside while dying silently on the inside.
But those values served their purpose in their time. Folks lived through some tough times, and in the old days it was not socially acceptable to both “be a man” and “feel stuff”.
Feelings were icky and strange, best left for women folk while men were out eating bowls of gravel for breakfast, building things from hard wood and cold steel, or accidentally chopping off body parts with industrial saws then not crying because that would make you look like a sissy boy!
New world male values mean having the courage to be both strong and vulnerable.
Failing to be strong means that women will not respect us. Failing to be vulnerable means we don’t connect with our children, partners and friends. I am not just talking about physical strength here, but strength as a male character trait, which includes emotional strength.
Strength and courage without vulnerability are based in fear.
True strength and courage come with vulnerability. Waking up, growing up and showing up in life means living with uncertainty, it means that you show up, you take action and you can never be sure of the results you get. You take responsibility for your actions even when you are full of doubt or guilt.
It is not easy to live each day with uncertainty, but it takes guts, it takes grit in your eye and not being afraid to be vulnerable, and not letting the fear of others perceiving you as vulnerable stop you from living an authentic life.
True strength means being “okay” with “not being okay”, it means acknowledging fear, doubt, lack of self worth and shame, and being okay with that, making you peace with all of it. It means owning who we are and what we stand for. It means standing up for your beliefs, embracing the qualities and virtues that make men great but not turning our back on our emotions, on our genuine human needs, or ignoring our weaknesses and blind spots for fear of judgement from others.
There is no human being who has never felt the experience of shame. It is a universal human feeling and experience. – Brene Brown
The cultivation of male values and virtues can be a dangerous and slippery slope. We mix up genuine values and virtues with what we perceive on the cinema screen. We assume that Bond and Bauer have something to teach us about being men.
We know it is all a fantasy – nobody walks into a room full of bad guys – shoots them all, slicks back his hair while saying something cool and then a bikini babe falls all over him and is grateful for being saved from international terrorists while things explode in the background.
Male screen heroes promote false values – we confuse confidence with arrogance, we confuse capability and training with a slick look and a cool attitude.
We all love the outsider bad boy with a heart of gold. It’s an archetype we never get bored of. The outsider bad boy with a heart of hold is Clint Eastwood in Fistful of Dollars, James Dean in Rebel without a Cause, Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, David Boreanaz in Joss Whedon’s Angel.
Every guy wants to be perceived as cool, sexy and dangerous. We love our James Bond’s, Batman and Die Hard. We love our car chases, fist fights and needlessly excessive explosions. Men love action movies, because we love to take action ourselves. We like building things, picking up heavy objects, finishing a project or goal and other stuff that makes us feel useful and valued.
We all want to be the guy who rescues the girl, kills the bad guy in some cool way and gives the audience a raised eyebrow or knowing wink with a stupid grin on our face.
Every guy secretly wants to be the romantic ideal of one of those iconic cinema tough guys, outlaws, loners and antiheroes.
We idolise our icons of strength and machismo.
Every guy deep down wants to be Be Bond, Butch Cassidy, Batman. We all want to be effortlessly cool like James Dean, Elvis Presley and Bruce Lee. We want to kick-ass like Batman, we want the rippling muscles of Superman, we want to be the cool bad-ass that everyone fears and respects, the kind of antihero Clint Eastwood made a career out of playing.
We want to be as tough and manly as Stallone and Schwarzeneggar, we want to know how The Rock works out, we want to kick ass and spit gravel like Jason Statham.
We all love when the hero triumphs or passes their tests of adversity through courage, grit and determination. We love when our heroes “Macgyver” their way through a tough spot, we love when they improvise and laugh in the face of danger and say “Hey, Fuck you buddy!” to the bad guy that everyone hates.
But what of the struggle along the way, what of the pain, the shame, the sadness, the self-loathing that is an integral part of getting to that place of being a “tough guy” that people fear and respect?
We don’t get to see that part!
We get all the gloss and heroics, but the messy interior emotional stuff gets left out of it. It’s not cool to see Batman cry! We don’t want a vulnerable hero.
As men we hide our feelings for fear or criticism, especially from other men who may perceive the expression of feelings as weakness.
But being brave also means being vulnerable. It takes courage to be open to other people about who you are and what you stand for in life. Those who constantly lie to themselves and others, who are afraid of expressing themselves become cowards. Human beings male or female can only take so much of living in shadow, of failing to be who we are and live the life we know we ought to.
Eventually something breaks, it may be our mind, it may be our body. It may be our will power, our ethics or values. We compromise a little here and there, we give in to the demands of others. We keep doing that and eventually we wake up one day and don’t know who we are anymore.
We find that we have spent so much effort trying to please others, trying to be polite and not ruffle feathers, trying to live the life we imagine others want us to live and we lose our authentic voice.
We lose the voice of our heart. We lose the voice of our soul that cries out for us not to be perfect, tough and infallible, but to be authentic.
To open up about who we are what we stand for. To feel life in all its glory and all its pain, facing everything, denying nothing.
What we deny and repress we give power to. But what we face and own, we transform through the spotlight of awareness.
“If the healthy masculine principle tends toward autonomy, strength, independence, and freedom, when that principle becomes unhealthy or pathological, all of those positive virtues either over – or under-fire. There is not just autonomy, but alienation; not just strength, but domination; not just independence but morbid fear of relationship and commitment; not just a drive toward freedom, but a drive to destroy. The unhealthy masculine principle does not transcend in freedom, but dominates in fear.” – Ken Wilber / Integral Theory
Fantasy heroes are great fun. We can enjoy them as entertainment, and while they may live impossibly cool lives where everything goes right by the end of the credits, we can still be inspired by their best qualities.
Fantasy is important. Social scientists and theorists tell us that those who have rich fantasy lives are generally sane, happy, healthy people. Despite alarmist media desperate for ratings and attention talking up violent movies and video games, there exists far more evidence about the positive effects of expressing ourselves through fantasy movies, video games and novels etc. In contrast the evidence for the negative effects of entertainment media is often mis-reported, blown out of proportion and too often factually incorrect or just plain wrong.
In real life kids and teenagers who enjoy horror and action movies and play fantasy games with their friends don’t tend to grow up into maniacs. The kids who are denied fantasy entertainment, who are not allowed to express themselves or do what they want tend to be the ones that grow up resentful and self-important. The people who enjoy healthy fantasy as children may grow up to be actors, writers, special effects gurus, video game designers, or other creative types, or they may enjoy any other type of work because fantasy is part of normal healthy human expression as much for children as for adults.
“Even if a child’s attention is mostly focused on a TV show, it won’t be the show that will make the deepest impression on her idea of how she is supposed to behave–it will be the way mom or dad behaves while the show is on. Expressing anger or anxiety about a child’s entertainment won’t make her like the entertainment less–but it will model anger and anxiety for her. She’s not likely to shape her real behavior around what she sees characters do on the glass screen. But if she sees parents allowing entertainment violence but treating others lovingly, she will get the message, “An adult is supposed to be okay with make-believe violence but not make it real.” -Gerard Jones, Killing Monsters: Our Children’s Need For Fantasy, Heroism, and Make-Believe Violence”
All human beings have fantasies, day dreams, power fantasies, sexual fantasies and more. It is part of being human. The fear of our fantasies however often creates more drama and problems than actually enjoying them for what they are.
So we can enjoy male power fantasies like Batman and Bond which are equally appealing to kids and adult males. We can see their good qualities – like determination, perseverance and not giving up in the face of adversity. But our real role models for when we are done playing make believe are our family and friends. They are the ones we connect with, share ourselves with and grow with. They are the ones who love and support us through life. They are our models, our influences and our real life heroes.