Why as a man, in order to be a man, you have to be a man.

It sounds nonsensical, doesn’t it. “As a man, in order to be a man, you have to be a man.” However, this seemingly paradoxical statement is actually meaningful. Let’s break it down and see how.

Addressing an audience

As a man

The phrase “as a man” directs whatever comes after it at a particular section of people: those who are addressable as “men”.

It says, “people who know that I am talking about you when I talk about men: the following applies to you”. It also says, “people who know that I am not talking about you when I am talking about men: here is what you should know about people that I am addressing.”

Setting a goal

“in order to be a man”

“Being a man” is presented as a goal. If the first part, “as a man”, has succeeded at addressing you, you are now reminded of the existence of a goal, and the goal is to “be a man”. And if there is a goal, it also means there is potential for failure.

Addressed at men, the goal to “be a man” only makes sense if “being a man” can have different meanings, which would allow you to contrast one meaning with another meaning. Given two meanings, the following statement is not necessarily paradoxical: “Being a man (1) is easy, but being a man (2) is hard.”

Sometimes people talk about “real men” to express something similar to the second meaning.

Putting them on a path

“you have to be a man”

The audience has been addressed, the goal is set, and what’s missing is to tell them to go from where they are to where they should be.

Of course, the path to the goal of “being a man” for any member of the audience addressed as “men” depends on where they are in relation to the goal. Some might already be there, others might be far away.

There may also be multiple different concrete ways to achieve the goal, which are all valid. You might need to look around you and orient yourself by looking at where other people carrying the “man” label are located.

Making sense of it

In summary, here is what the statement does:

  • It talks to (and about) the section of people addressable as “men”.
  • It reminds them that there is a goal associated with the “man” label.
  • It tells them to find a way to get closer to a position conforming with that goal.

Conforming with the statement means finding out where you are in relation to the nearest goal, and walking towards it.

What’s the point?

The seemingly nonsensical statement emphasizes a particular meaning of the concept described as “being a man”. The thing with words is: without reinforcement, typically through consistent use, their meaning can change over time and as a result, they may become less useful at least to certain people.

But what does it mean to reinforce the meaning of a word that is assigned to people without their choosing?

That is an important question, because gender is in fact a label that is assigned to people without their consent.

The seemingly harmless act of assigning a gender to a person carries a lot of “meaning” or personal consequences with it: Gender assignment shapes the way you are treated as a person, it channels certain messages to you about who you are, or should be, what you should and shouldn’t like, how you should behave and how you should or shouldn’t look.

Given that those consequences are something that is done to human beings, what are likely responses that individuals might have?

Here is a short answer:

Individuals can choose the degree to which they are willing to conform to gendered expectations, as long as they can live with the consequences.

Here is another short answer:

Individuals who successfully identify with their gender assignment have an easier time conforming than individuals who don’t.

Here is a slightly longer, but still quite short answer:

Different individuals perceive the pressure of society reinforcing the meaning of gender labels differently. They may respond positively to some aspects and quite negatively to others. The process of identification can lead to a more stable position where most pressure is perceived as positive. However, it can also result in disidentification, which can have a number of different outcomes itself, including identifying with something else.

There is a lot of complexity in this, and the above attempt at mapping out a few things that are possible is still quite vague and incomplete.

There are lots of open questions:

What determines the meaning of “man” and “woman”? Have the meanings changed over time? Are they different in different parts of the world? How? Why? And what follows from that? How does identification work? And what happens when a person disidentifies with their assigned gender? Is any of this related to sexuality? How?

There is also another question:

Is telling people how to properly “be” the gender that they “are”—meaningful as it might be—a good thing to do?