When I could tear myself away from enlightening talks and the like, I spent my time at Being A Man Festival conducting somewhat of a social experiment. I invited unknowing attendees (men and women) to rummage through a rusty old suitcase filled with ‘manly’ paraphernalia, the Man Case. I then asked them one simple question:
“What, to you, is the manliest thing in this case?”
What’s in the Man Case?
– Can of beer
– Steak (real, bloody and raw)
– Suit jacket and tie
– Pair of goalkeepers (football) gloves – well worn
– Karma sutra ‘sex tips’ book
– Pingpong bat
– Plectrums (CALM ones of course)
– Bottle opener
– Book of facts
– Shin pad
– Baseball cap
– DVDs (Green Street, Rock n Rolla, Essex Boys)
– Remote control car controller
Many picked out the goalie gloves as the most manly, which surprised me. It was partly their worn-away, tattiness that people identified with. One chap, Davy, said that the gloves reminded him of manual labourers shifting barrows with calloused hands on construction sites – quite a manly thing to be doing. He then admitted that he probably didn’t look after his hands so well, and that he probably should. Others said that the gloves reminded them of being back in the macho environment of a muddy PE changing room after a football lesson.
It was common for participants to hark back to memories of school and sporting events. Lee has been playing football all his life, he dismissed the gloves but said it was the shin-pads that were the manliest thing for him, in terms of practicality. On a pitch with 21 other men, all wanting to win, preparation is everything. As a man (he says) you have to make sure you’re protected, so that you can give it your all during the game, meaning that when you come off the field afterwards, you win the respect of your team mates. Lee felt most like a man when winning the ball in a tackle, winning headers and being physical.
Steak was very popular as well; one man, John said that many of his mates seem to identify manliness with the food they eat. There seems to be a trait of fetishising a raw steak as a way of tapping into the hunter-gatherer/ cave-man. We agreed there doesn’t seem to be the same expectation on women. As much as John does eat steak rarely, he recognised that men seem more obliged to order steak when out with other men.
Lexy is a vegetarian. He said his father pressures him to order a steak whenever they go for a meal together. This is something which he finds challenging to deal with… Does meat maketh the man?
Seems to be the case that we identify objects as masculine if they remind us of times when we were around other groups of men. The hip-flask, for instance was a popular choice; one saying that it reminded him of a time when he was on a stag do, and everyone in the group was given a hip-flask for the weekend. A token of the vanguard, so to speak.
Although the karma sutra sex tips book wasn’t a very popular choice as the most manly item, Simon shared a very interesting perspective: when being intimate in the bedroom with a partner, he is at his most vulnerable and most ‘himself’, and therefore at his manliest. Interesting.
Presenting my Case
I now ask you reader, to think about whether eating steak or drinking beer or wearing football gloves makes you feel any less, or more of a man. With Christmas on its way, as we all rush to the shops to panic-purchase for our often estranged family members, think about what sort of gifts we are buying each other, and what messages and stereotypes we are reinforcing with those choices.
The ‘Man Case’ really gave us the chance to ‘unpack’ some of the ideas we have around masculinity; where these ideas come from and why they influence us today. It lead to some really interesting conversations about the baggage we unknowingly carry around and the load we place on others. And it turns out to be the case that manliness means many different things to many different people.