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Being a man is a fraught business.  Every day we are offered advice on how to be a man, via movies, newspaper columns, adverts and sports shows. And being a man is apparently not enough, you need to make sure you’re a real man.  From the 1980s satire of Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche to the checklist anxiety of “Being A Man The Wall Street Way”, we’re encouraged to aspire to this category of “real man”.  Our society has very particular notions of what being a real man involves, and when you say them out loud they tend to veer from a bit shabby to pretty repulsive.  Have plenty of money.  Don’t care too much about things.  Wear a suit.  Make sure other people know they can’t mess with you.  Don’t do anything which could be described as “girly”.  Or “gay”.  Or “beta”.  Or “soppy”.

Prefer beer to wine, unless it’s wine you can explain to women.  Watch sports.  Explain your fondness for sports as proof that you’re genetically wired to hunt mammoths and also to hit people when they don’t do what you want.  Hit people when they don’t do what you want.  Have lots of sex, ideally with women who’re much younger than you.  Make jokes about the women you have sex with, suggesting that they are stupid, contemptible or morally defective for having sex with you.  Pull chairs out for women, whilst making sure they never have a seat at the table.  Let them through the door first, then slam the door shut in their faces.  And so on.  It’s an odd business, being a real man.

However, there’s a very different sort of model of the “real man” being put forward by a number of people in recent years.  “Real men don’t hit women”, “real men look after their children”, “real men don’t need to settle things with violence” are all sentiments which have been promoted, as a way to channel notions of masculinity in healthy and healing directions.  Sex education and domestic violence activism are two areas where this approach is particularly to be found.  It makes a lot of sense: it’s pragmatic, offers a positive vision of being a man, and it works with young men’s desire to live up to the standards set by role models (whether the previous generation or figures from history.)  I admire the people who’re undertaking this sort of reworking of masculinity, and it fits with the insights which gender studies have produced about the way masculinities have shifted over time in response to social and cultural forces.  But something about it makes me pause, and I’d like to explore that.

Being a cliché, I asked a few friends who tweet and blog about gender and feminism what they thought about “real men…” statements.  I found that a lot of them harboured a similar unease.  There was agreement amongst several that there could be a pragmatic value to stopping male violence by any means necessary: if one woman is made safer by her partner believing that “real men” don’t abuse the women they love, then that’s got to be a good thing.  Particularly in situations where she is unlikely or unable to leave safely.  The same might go for sex education: if telling teenage boys that “real men” don’t share revenge porn, or pester girls for sex they don’t want, then it might help ease the pressure on young women.

But in the longer term, there were concerns about the usefulness of channelling “real men” into feminism and gender issues.  Put bluntly by one of my correspondents, “bolstering the male ego to stop them hurting people has never worked”.  In other words, building up the notion of the “real man” seems to still involve making distinctions which valorise the power and prestige which men should be seeking, in comparison to other people.  It’s still playing on the assumptions that men want to compete against other men in order to define their very identities.  (Perhaps in a similar way to the probably well-intentioned campaigns which praise “real women”, setting up yet another standard by which some women fail at womanhood simply because of their body shape or personalities.)

It also encourages men to see women as the means by which they define themselves.  Treating women kindly, rather than attempting to sleep with lots of women without respecting them, is surely a step forward.  But it does still locate men’s actions towards women as the locus of their personal meaning.  Women still appear in this narrative as objects – or at best, distant figures over there – to be interacted with in ways which bolster male self-esteem and self-image.  Being a man is still about what you do to women.  And it keeps men as the measure of the universe.  What every boy should want to be is a man (and a real man) rather than a good person.  It defines boys’ goals in a way which immediately shuts girls out, and reinforces the idea that girls can’t and shouldn’t do what boys should be doing.

It risks reinforcing young men’s sense of male virtue as a closed system, with particular rules to follow, and male role models to emulate.  In a situation where teaching children is seen as a woman’s job, and male children are already encouraged to ignore and belittle women, I wonder if it’s helpful to emphasize aspirations which women can (by definition) say nothing worthwhile about.  The women whom our society has apparently tasked with educating a young man are already bracketed on the other side of the gender divide as creatures against whom he can define his identity, rather than people whom he should listen to.

There’s a final worry, which was articulated by several people.  If “real men” are defined against “boys”, “failed men” and “women”, aren’t they also defined against “unreal men”?  Our society puts a lot of effort into unreal men.  We generally call them “monsters” or “inhuman”, and they’re the ones who rape and murder women.  They’re nothing like the men you meet at work or in the pub, and none of the men you know personally is a “monster”.  Despite the statistics which demonstrate that more women are raped and killed in the home than in the proverbial dark alley, our public discussion of gender leans heavily on these “unreal men” to insist that actual men – real men from real life – didn’t do any of these things.  This is the narrative which makes it fine to joke about the underage girls on the school sports team, or helps to explain away a friend’s reluctance to contradict her husband in public.  It’s the narrative which allows people to disbelieve a woman when she says a man in the same company raped her.  The “real men don’t…” approach does risk working both ways: if real men don’t do this, and he’s a real men, there’s no chance he did it.

I’m not writing this to condemn this sort of campaign – which, as I said, does a lot of good and involves a great deal of admirable work – but to ask whether other people have similar reservations about this.  What are your thoughts on the reframing of “real men”?

Many thanks to the people who contributed to the discussion last week – they can be found on Twitter: @bo_novak, @SianNeilson, @MollieHarris95, @mellowdramatic, @LucyAllenFWR