Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

What is a man?

By Peter West - posted Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Australians over 80 are part of one of the fastest-growing sections of our population. And Australia now has a Royal Commission into Aged Care. Most of the media coverage seems to be written by women, about women, and for women. It deals mainly with the concerns of women. But what about those of men? And how does the fact of being a man gel with being old?

Sex differences today.

Today women's voices are clearly heard in the street, in the media and of course on the ABC. Look at the programs listed in the TV guide or the subjects that are deemed important on the ABC news, and women's issues are usually discussed thoroughly. And 'men' is often on their list of favourite issues. And so we get a litany of ways in which men don't measure up to what women want. As Macnamara's careful studies show, men in the media are usually shown as murderers, philanderers, perverts, deadbeat dads and molesters. Masculine behaviour is measured with a feminine ruler. Women speak for women, and women speak for men much or most of the time. But as soon as a man says something about masculinity, people fall on him like a ton of bricks. So men keep their thoughts about sex differences to themselves and a partner or a couple of trusted friends.


What is a man?

Once what is a man? was too obvious to bother with. Men went off to fight wars, as Hektor says to his wife in The Iliad: "You look after the home and our little boy; I'm a man and I must fight to keep my honour", he says. It was ever thus, it seems. And not only in wartime. "What did you DO today?" is a key question a male must be ready to answer. Men worked; and work was what men did all day, until they brought their weary bodies home to rest every afternoon. We needn't bother too much about men who were too wealthy to need paid work. Today the whole question of men's and women's lives is far more problematic, though those of us on the dark side of fifty have much more traditional views than younger people. Older men might find that their old-fashioned ideas are given scant attention by the outspoken women who dismiss the bulk of men's ideas anyway.

When I wrote Fathers, Sons and Lovers about what it meant to be a man in the period 1930-1990, I did manage to get some answers. One man summed up many others:

They expect a man to be rough, tough, robust…be a domineering, all-powerful brute. Drink with your mates in the pub all the time. Those are the marks of manliness…

Or here's another guy talking:

It must be wonderful to be a man, because they're always telling us the worst thing you can be is a woman or a poofter.

There's more pressure on males. You have to keep a tough image up. There's something wrong with you if you don't play football…


Other things show us men's gentler side, especially being a father, as we saw with Hektor's softness towards his infant son in The Iliad. But probably most men enjoy relaxing, being with some trusted friends, making a racket, yelling and shouting when they feel like it without someone trying to make them tone it down.

Thus we can argue that masculinity is always made in a time, in a place, and in a context of culture. Men from the Middle East; from Africa; from the many cultures that preceded European conquest of the Americas: there are and have been vast differences among males (and there's no suggestion that all African males, for example, are similar). We can even see this breadth in masculinity from some of the depictions of men in movies made in France, in South Africa, and in Thailand. Though admittedly movies always show us someone's preferred depiction of what reality is; Hollywood movies especially. Still, Moonlight and Beale Street might be the precursors of a whole new genre that reveals some fresh realities about men.

Sometimes we have trouble saying what a man is. Some have tried, like Louann Brizendine in The Male Brain. Or Sebastian Kraemer in a celebrated article,' The Fragile Male' in the British Medical Journal. That takes us into biology. And today it's unfashionable to talk of biology. Many self-proclaimed 'leading feminists' and 'experts on gender' know almost nothing of anatomy or endocrinology. Biology seems to be taboo as a subject even to mention. Yet when I look at my grandkids and their friends, the impact of biology is inescapable. Thus let me try to say -without fear of contradiction- that men are generally seen by society as self-contained, strong, and reliant on their own muscles and wits. The Sunday supplements are fond of showing us just the visible part of this, and thus we see some young men whose abs and pecs are well-developed. This language was not used when I was growing up: men were not summed up by their body parts, as if they were a motor car or prize stallion. But men somehow have to be masculine in their own way, as they work out their life course. And live what dreams they can, mostly by themselves.

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. 2
  4. All

A version of this article was submitted to the Royal Commission into Aged Care.

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

19 posts so far.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Peter West

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Photo of Peter West
Article Tools
Comment 19 comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy