It can be tempting to dismiss sexism as an unfortunate cultural oversight that occurred in the 1950s advertising. Sadly, sexism continues to be a problem and affects all genders equally. Men are frequently told to suppress their emotions and “just be a man.” A sexist phrase can have a long-lasting psychological impact on little boys and men. We usually use sexist phrases whenever a man or boy fails to act as per the gender roles dictated by society. Have you ever said or heard something being said to a man and felt weird about it? Like you could not put the finger on it, or it did not initially strike you as sexist?
The list of all the sexist things we say to men is longer than Rapunzel’s hair, but the three phrases below are the most commonly used.
Real Men Are A Certain Way!
This phrase is often followed by statements that reflect the do’s or the don’ts of masculinity. For example, “real men don’t cheat,” “real men are the best sons, best husbands, and best fathers,” or “real men are the breadwinners and take care of their children.” These two examples imply it is the standard for men to cheat and not take care of their children. These implications are odd because no one should cheat, and if you are a parent, regardless of your gender, you should be taking care of your children.
What is rather dangerous about this phrase is that it creates a binary between “real” and “regular” men. By doing so, we inadvertently perpetuate gender norms. Rather than changing the standard expected of “regular” men, we’ve settled for a glorified man who does everything right.
Its use is ironic because we use this language in response to situations or behaviors that we think are sexist. We think we are doing a good thing by pointing out what a “real man” would do, but instead, all we are doing is glorifying and further perpetuating toxic gender norms.
According to Bola a British writer is “used when men share a form of (non-sexual) intimacy, express feelings or bonds in a way that goes beyond the hyper-masculine expectations.” (2019, p.13) For example, a guy could say things like “I love you,” or “I care for you.” Showing any kind of platonic physical affection toward a male friend is in this case considered “gay.” More often than not, people will let their friends know that they are being “gay.”
It is unnecessary to call someone out for acting gay; doing so implies something wrong and deviant with expressing your genuine feelings. This implication is horrendously homophobic and toxic. Additionally, this phrase reveals what society expects of men on an emotional level. Emotion, in the case of men, is a weakness. This character trait is supposedly only afforded to women. Men must play the role of emotionless protector. These beliefs may significantly affect someone’s frame of mind.
Man Up, Don’t Cry!
This particular comment angers me in ways I cannot explain. Unfortunately, it is used to emotionally silence men and control the actions of young girls/women. In his book Mask Off (2019), Bola illustrated when this type of phrase is typically used.
A young boy is playing outside and falls over, grazes his knee, and cries. He runs over to his parents, who–quite often unknowing of the harmful effects it may have–tells them to ‘man up,’ usually followed by claims that boys are meant to be strong and so on. p. 13.
From this phrase, young boys and teens associate weakness with the vulnerability of expressing emotions. This is problematic because performing gender roles is repetitive. The more these young boys hear it, the more they internalize, the more they suppress their feelings.
Keep in mind that how we define “masculinity” or what it means to be a man will depend on who you are and where you live in the world. For example, in the Desi and Arab world, male friends who hold each other’s hands are not thought of as gay because hand-holding is a sign of respect and friendship. Whereas in the Western world, particularly the US and Canada, any type of physical touch is relegated to sexually intimate relationships. Hence these phrases may differ in meaning for other groups of people, or they may be realized differently. Having considered this, what are some sexist phrases used against men in your culture? Are there other ones that you know or consider worse?