While the focus of the 2016 presidential election has shifted from controversial words to alleged actions, I couldn’t help but notice an ironic use of a popular masculine turn of phrase in a New York Times story today.
An article titled “Cut Ties to Donald Trump, Big Donors Urge R.N.C.” reports a number of honchos distancing themselves from Reince Priebus and the Republican National Committee’s continued support of Trump. “‘Reince Priebus has to ask, how much of his soul does he want to sell for Donald Trump at this point?’ said Charlie Sykes, a conservative talk show host in Milwaukee, calling on Mr. Priebus to ‘man up.'”
“Man up.” What a curious phrase to use in the context of a wave of accusations of sexual harassment and assault.
The phrase has caught on in recent decades as women have broken more glass ceilings in business, politics, entertainment, and other fields. Perhaps it’s not coincidental that these particular times should have engendered an expression that conscripts masculinity as a symbol of honesty and courage – behavior that has no gender. For years, there’s been an unspoken fear hovering in the air around straight men in America, a fear that their traditional place as heads of the national household is under threat.
Back in 2010 Ben Zimmer, then the Times‘s language columnist, traced the use of “man up” in its current sense – to resiliently face up to what you’ve done or need to do, like a man – to football coaches in the 1980s. In the years since, “man up” has become so much part of the vernacular that an effort to engage men in a movement to oppose violence against women was named the Man Up Campaign (birthed, ironically enough, at the Clinton Global Initiative in 2009).
But equating literal masculinity with universally admirable traits probably does more harm than good. Jonathan Wells wrote in The Telegraph last year:
Seemingly innocuous words like “man up” don’t just affect us personally and emotionally, they also blur our understanding of masculinity and manhood as concepts. That’s the argument Jennifer Siebel Newsom makes in her new film The Mask You Live In…Say “man” and the first thoughts you’ll conjure up will be of action heroes – muscle-bound, tall, handsome stock characters with a fondness for fighting and a way with women. This stereotypical “box”, as Siebel Newsom describes it, flashes into every man’s mind when they are instructed to “man up”. And even if we are just slightly outside of this box, insecurities begin to manifest themselves…In our vain pursuit of this hyper-masculine ideal, we effectively disconnect from who we really are.
So who are we men really?
Complex, insecure creatures, clearly. One thing’s for sure: Being told to “man up” or “be a man” isn’t going to call forth our better natures. It evokes times past when men used “womanish” as an insult, and an unsolicited pinch on a woman’s behind was expected to be taken as a compliment.
We won’t truly move beyond those times if we retreat to our “man caves” – another term symptomatic of modern culture – crawling back into our mother’s wombs to hide, quaking, from woman ascendant.
Ironically, nothing has symbolized courage more consistently through the ages than male anatomy itself. Quora asked recently: “Does Boris Johnson have the balls to trigger Article 50 or he is more likely to escape just like David Cameron did?” Millions of Americans who don’t speak Spanish know the meaning of “cojones,” at least since Ernest Hemingway, and the association of courage with balls goes back centuries before that, as Juliet Lapidos has explained in Slate:
There’s also a long tradition of literally believing bravery comes from the balls. The 16th-century anatomist John Banister, for instance, argued that testicles are “the cause of strength and manhode.”
Few American men can say they’ve never been berated as “girls” or “ladies” by a gym teacher or coach who probably thought he was being motivational. Haven’t we had enough of that?
So telling Reince Priebus to “man up” and dump Trump is just playing into the outdated, if not downright false, duality of sex roles that in other ways, such as marriage quality and transgender rights, Western society has been struggling valiantly, with gender-neutral gumption, to move beyond.