There’s a series of conferences this autumn in the States called ‘Act Like Men’, which calls men in the church to ‘step up’, and to embrace all that God created them to be. At least one of the organisers is very vocal about what men should be like and very disparaging about anyone who differs from his narrow definition. One man who attended one of the earlier weekends has written about his embarrassment and discomfort at the way gender stereotypes were upheld and how both women and men who didn’t fit the dominant narrative were belittled, although clearly other men thought it was great. I’d like to add a couple of thoughts into the conversation.
Firstly, the whole project seems to be based on very shaky foundations because it suggests that God has different requirements of men and women. The theme of the conference is taken from a verse in the bible, 1 Corinthians 16:13, that says, ‘Be on the alert, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong.’ Except that it only says that in a very few versions. Other translations don’t use a gendered term. The NIV translates it: ‘Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong.’ Using inclusive language for people in bible translations is surprisingly controversial. So when the latest edition of the NIV was prepared in 2011, the Committee on Bible Translation reviewed every inclusive language term for humanity that had been introduced in an earlier version. They used the Collins Bank of English to conduct a study of changes in gender language, looking at the way that language is actually being used, rather than how people would like language to change or stay the same. So for example, it’s now common practice for people to use the gender-neutral ‘they’ instead of ‘he or she’/’him or her’ – so the 2011 NIV does too. People still use a variety of terms to refer a group of men and women or to humanity in general, including ‘people’, ‘human beings’, ‘the human race’ and ‘man’ and ‘mankind’ – so the 2011 NIV does too and Genesis 1:26 now reads ‘Let us make mankind in our image’. Personally, I find ‘man’ or mankind’ to be exclusive terms when they are used to mean all people, as they define the male as the norm – but obviously I’m in the minority. But when it came to this verse, they didn’t choose a gendered term such as ‘act like men’; they used the phrase ‘be courageous’ because that was a more accurate translation. To use the term ‘act like men’ would have been misleading.
Being alert, being faithful and tenacious, being courageous, being strong are not qualities that only men are capable of; they are human qualities that all of us can exhibit when we are our best selves. Both men and women need to be encouraged to step up and to embrace all that God created them to be. It might be appropriate to do that in a single-sex setting (something I’ll write about more at another time) but it’s disingenuous to suggest that God looks for a different set of qualities in male disciples than he does in female disciples, that there’s one distinct and different way of being a Christian man than there is of being a Christian woman. Last time I wrote on a similar theme I said: ‘I wonder why we persist with these false dichotomies that set one trait up against another, and one sex in opposition to another, as if they are poles apart and mutually exclusive. We are not robots programmed to only operate in one way; we are humans who have a range of responses open to us.’
Secondly, the fact that speakers and conferences like these have to shout so loudly about what it means to be a real man only underlines how volatile the whole concept of ‘true masculinity’ is. Understandings of what it is to be a man change over time and across cultures. Movements like these to re-establish ‘true femininity’ or ‘real masculinity’ are themselves clear evidence that the boundaries they defend are not very stable. There are lots of different ways of being masculine that intersect with ethnicity, class, educational ability and so on. The exhortation to ‘act like men’ is pretty meaningless; which men should we choose?
People are far more complex than narrow definitions of masculinity and femininity allow – there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’. When you look around at your friends, family and colleagues, you’ll see a diverse mix of people with different strengths, talents, interests, personality types and ways of expressing themselves. You’ll know people who don’t fit the stereotypical gender norm – for example, men who stay at home and look after small children, or women who are ultra competitive and love doing physical challenges – as well as those who do. And while there is usually a dominant form of masculinity within any culture, known as hegemonic masculinity, and men and boys in particular are very good at policing their masculinity and punishing those who don’t fit the norm, that diversity is enriching if we will embrace it and is to be celebrated. I wonder why the men behind this conference are so defensive and so insecure about their masculinity. What are they afraid of?
There can be as much difference between two women as between a man and a woman, in terms of abilities, interests, preferences, talents and so on – and that’s fine. Instead of being squeezed into a mould we can be free to be ourselves. On the broad spectrum of gender there is space for a man whose hobby is knitting as well as a man whose hobby is boxing. There is space for women who know how to replace the hard drive on their Macbook as well as women who know how to wear lipstick for more than five minutes without chewing it off, and space for women like me who can do neither.