In 1939, researchers at the University of Iowa found that when it came to relationships, college men across the country were searching for three main things in a woman: dependability, kindness, and homemaking skills. “She should have ample ability in the kitchen,” one respondent graciously pointed out. These men, surveyed from universities across the country, also voted chastity as more important than intellect. Fast-forward more than seven decades and the very same study shows that men are now looking for love, emotional stability, and good financial prospects in a future wife. Times are changing and men have certainly changed along with it.
So what are we now if not the briefcase-slinging breadwinners buffoonishly devouring our wife’s signature pot roast after a long day at the ol’ office?
As with just about everything else in life, the media has stepped in to share its two cents: there’s the metrosexual (Justin Timberlake, Will Smith), retrosexual (Ron Swanson), ubersexual (George Clooney, Pierce Brosnan), heteropolitan (anyone in Men’s Health magazine), even the unfortunately named SPURMO (Single Proud Unmarried Man Over Thirty — it would be cruel to name names). Then there’s the pathetically emasculated man represented by Ryan Gosling looking laid back and apparently saying things like, “Hey girl, my New Year’s resolution is to give you more foot massages.”
Indeed, the perception of men has progressed from the sepia-tinted patriarch smoking a cigar and reading his newspaper to the soft weakling, who’s more cute than handsome, the man who prefers to rest not on his confidence but on his twee charms and tweed coats.
The fact that definitions of masculinity have changed isn’t much of a surprise though. After all, we’re living in a different era, and right now, it’s a woman’s world. Women are still paid less than men on the whole and that’s a true shame, but every indication shows that the power of women is ascending while men have stalled out. There are now more women in PhD programs than men. The Gender, Institutions, and Development Database backed by the OECD statistically proved that the greater the power of women in a given country, the higher that nation’s economic success. And as for how quickly girls develop versus boys, forget it — the lasses have gold, silver, and bronze, while the lone lad huffs and puffs his way to dead last.
Is it really such a surprise though that men are having an identity crisis? After all, men have a particularly tough balance to strike these days. He must be emotional, but not too emotional. Willing to open up his heart, but not to the extent that it makes him less manly. He must be able to woo a woman and pay for an evening out, but because he is a gentleman, not because he expects it to be somehow perversely “repaid.” A man must know how to dress well, but not too well. His shoes should be shined, but shouldn’t be described as “spiffy.” He must shoot for “debonair,” not “chic,” but he shouldn’t let this be known, lest he get pigeonholed as a Don Draper wannabe, a narcissistic who’s overly image conscious and reads too much GQ.
This doesn’t mean it’s an unfortunate time to be a male though. Quite the opposite. It means that we’ve got to pick up our game. Women have worked tirelessly to get where they are. The original suffragettes were some of the gutsiest people on the planet and every subsequent woman fighting for equality has helped get ladies to where they are today. Men, especially us white heterosexuals, have faced so few real obstacles to equality that it seems odd to be confronted with a challenge like this. Yet it is a challenge. It’s a challenge of identity, of sorting out what it means to be a man in the 21st-century without succumbing to the ridiculous notion that we have to be as sweet as Ryan Gosling petting a kitty cat or as silver foxy as George Clooney orchestrating a heist. These are great guys, sure, but in all the images of masculinity we consume, we seem to have forgotten that no one can decide who we are for us.
I realize my opinion is as significant as a raindrop splashing atop an ocean, but the modern man isn’t defined by clothes or celebrities or those advertisers trying to sell shiny cars to guys in the throes of a midlife crisis. The modern man is equipped with emotional intelligence. He’s both more informed and better groomed. But he’s no longer given respect by default. So now he must earn it.
So set the bar higher for yourself. Win that respect back by working harder, listening harder, understanding harder, romancing harder, learning harder. Earn the title of modern gentleman. Whatever that means to you.