Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Feminism, “Manning Up,” and the Zero-Sum Game

As a woman and a feminist I have a very specific perspective on the term ‘man up.’ It’s a highly gendered phrase, for one thing. The phrase implies that manhood is something that is achieved beyond simply being male. It also implies that certain characteristics, such as stoicism and strength, are masculine traits.

It’s also a phrase I’ve always been denied access to. As a woman, it is assumed that I am not capable of ‘manning up.’ What’s more, if I do exhibit characteristics usually associated with ‘manning up,’ I am perceived as behaving outside of the norm for my gender. Considering how highly western society values being able to ‘man up,’ this is problematic. Most jobs, for example, value someone who will get the job done regardless of whether they are ill or injured. We want employees who won’t let their personal lives affect their professional lives. Essentially, we want our employees to be able to ‘man up.’ So, as a woman in a job interview, I have to jump through that extra hoop and go that extra mile to prove that I am actually capable of all of these qualities. I have to exhibit enough characteristics that indicate I’m not like ‘most’ women, when it comes to my ability to ‘man up.’

Now, if you’re a man reading this, you may very well be frustrated by what I’m writing. You may be forming a comment in your mind right now that reads something like this: the term ‘man up’ puts undue pressure on men to remain stoic in even extremely difficult situations. It’s a phrase that tells men to deny their emotions, and that their actions are more important than what they are feeling. It also emphasizes our society’s assumption that men don’t have strong emotions, or at least not strong enough that they shouldn’t be quashed for the sake of finishing a task. It is also a phrase that can be used to imply that a man is not performing his gender well enough. To tell a man to ‘man up,’ is in essence telling him that in that moment he is not actually a man. Having access to the phrase ‘man up’ is actually quite a burden. Men aren’t just assumed to be capable or manning up, they are pressured into manning up, even when it’s detrimental to their wellbeing.

If you were thinking of writing a comment like that, you’d be right. That is all true. Now if you’re a woman reading this, you may very well have read the above paragraph and thought, “That’s all well and good, but it still doesn’t take away from the way in which women are assumed to be incapable of ‘manning up.’” And if you’re thinking that, you’d be right too. Back to the men, “Alright, but that still doesn’t mean that being pressured to ‘man up’ is any less problematic.” Guess what, guys, you’re right too. ‘Round and ‘round and ‘round it goes, where it stops nobody knows.

This is where the zero-sum approach to gender issues often rears its ugly head, and the conversation often devolves into “women/men have it worse,” and record-breaking Oppression Olympics. But those sorts of arguments largely miss the point, which is that the term ‘man up’ is problematic and harmful to individuals in our society. Arguably it’s harmful to our society as a whole. So I say, let’s focus on figuring out how to get rid of that phrase entirely. Let’s focus on actually solving the problems with our gender system. To get metaphorical: let’s focus on fixing the forest, instead of arguing about which trees are worse.

So then what is the metaphorical forest in this issue of ‘manning up?’ As with so many social issues the focus should be on the systems that create and perpetuate the concept of ‘manning up.’ In this case, it’s only partly connected to our outdated gender norms. Our society has gendered a human behaviour that is not inherently tied to maleness or femaleness. This means that women who do prove their ability to ‘man up’ are perceived as being less feminine and womanly. On the other hand, men who don’t ‘man up’ are perceived as being less manly and masculine. If we took away the gendered aspect to this behaviour, it would become something that everyone had equal access to. It would be something that was judged on an individual basis, which really keeps in line with western culture’s emphasis on individuality.

However, even if we did somehow eliminate gender from the concept of ‘manning up,’ I question whether it’s really a trait worth valuing at all. Now the system we’re looking at is economic and work related. The way that capitalism has manifest in the west, particularly the U.S., results in placing a higher value on output than on the welfare of the employees. In effect, that’s what the term ‘manning up’ is asking people to do. The entire concept is borne out of an assumption that it is more important to suffer in silence and get the job done, than it is to work through negative emotions. It treats emotions as a luxury, and a not particularly useful luxury either.

When it comes to the concept of ‘manning up’ and the problems associated with it, gender is really only part of the equation. When we focus on which gender is affected worse, we end up completely missing the root causes of the idea. And if we fail to see the actual social systems in place that created ‘manning up,’ then we will be unable to truly change it.

This was also published on The Good Men Project.

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