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How the Word 'Man' Works in the Human Mind
Or "Oh, Come on, Carolyn! Stand up like a man!"
by Carolyn Ray

Date: 1 Dec 1997
Copyright: Carolyn Ray

The following is a brief history of the use of the word 'man' in real literature, conversation, and other media.

Having read the essay, "Are Women Men?" and noted the careful attention to argument, one might well wonder why the writer would go to all that trouble. While that topic will be covered in yet another essay (coming soon), the pres ent work will help to construct the case against the use of the term 'man' as though it can be gender neutral in any context.

On What it Means to "Be A Man"


It is a word which strikes terror into the hearts of male persons in our culture. Young men especially are apt to do just about anything to prove that it does not apply to them, from making obnoxious jokes at the expense of homosexuals, to making lewd comments about women when what they really mean is "gee, I really like her and I wish she'd talk to me." Few dares are too risky to accept, if only the word 'faggot' is used as a threat.


Interestingly, this word has a similar effect. Only sissies refuse to dive into the quarry. Only sissies opt to avoid a fight. But what is a sissy? It is a man who is like a woman, a boy who is like a girl. Being like a girl is one of the worst thi ngs that could possibly happen to a boy. Young gay males struggle against their emerging sexuality because the thought of being like a woman in any sense is worse than the thought of never expressing themselves sexually.

On the other hand, the expression 'Be a man!' is an exhortation to be brave, noble, honest, strong, upstanding, responsible.

Does the expression, 'Be a man' use the term 'man' in a gender-neutral sense? How absurd! Of course it does not. The speaker is never implying that the subject should behave like a human being. The speaker is always suggesting that male persons ex emplify the traits which are required by the frightening or daunting situation, and that the subject ought to call on his maleness in this time of strain. Maleness entails strength, bravery, toughness.

The expression 'Be a man' is an admonition but also an insult. The suggestion is, "You are currently behaving like a women. This is ineffectual and silly. Behave instead like a male person."

The phrase 'Be a man' is almost never said to a female person. It has occasionally been said to me, tongue-in-cheek, and with not a little bit of hostility. The suggestion was, as was readily affirmed by the speaker when he was questioned, that I was acting like a woman (by being weak, or confused, or emotional, or whatever it was), and that I should instead act like a man.

The implications of this expression are not just offensive when it is directed toward a woman; they are offensive all the time. Boys are told that to be good, they must pick out the characteristics which are male and emulate them, and avoid those char acteristics which are female. And which are the characteristics labelled as male? All the good ones, of course.

The message is inescapable. Being a man is good, being a woman is, at the very best, less than desirable.

Naturally, most people want their boys to be happy being boys and to look forward to being men. This is only metaphysically honest.

But do they not also want their girls to be happy being girls and to look forward to being women? Is this not a requirement imposed by reality as well? But how can they, when they are informed at every turn that it would be better to be men?

One might object at this point that the expression is really not heard that often, and so the problem is not widespread. On the contrary, it is not simply that one expression, but all the derivative expressions, which make up the assault on female pers ons' self esteem. Let me enumerate some common expressions:

The implication in all these statements is that behaving like a man is good, while behaving like a women is bad.

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