As boys grow into men, many struggle with what makes real men. This struggle often dramatically changes the young person. This struggle is greatly exacerbated by the media’s portrayal of men. Gretel Ehrlich’s “About Men” deals with the stereotypical image of men and what real men are like. Richard Wright’s “The Man Who Was Almost a Man” shows a young man who feels so derided by everyone thinking of him as a boy that he buys a gun to make himself more powerful. Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” is about a group of soldiers who all have different methods of coping with their own emotions at the death of a comrade.
The media, Hollywood being one of the main culprits, often depicts true men as being tall, dark, and physically strong. They don’t feel pain and are able to fight, either with their hands or weapons. They are often emotionally hardened, not showing tenderness. The media presents men as “macho, [and] trigger happy.” (Ehrlich 127).
This presents serious problems for young boys who are starting to mature into men. Young men are often told to be tough and to man up. Many boys are taught that crying is for girls and are called cry-babies if they do cry. This is incredibly hard on young guys who compare themselves to men like Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger and see absolutely no resemblance. These boys are often troubled by a growing insecurity from contrasting themselves to the unrealistic image of men. The insecurity spawned by this idolatry of the machismo can lead young guys to resort to drastic measures in order to be recognized as men. In “The Man Who was Almost a Man,” Dave Sunders, a seventeen-year-old African-American in the years after the Civil War, says that “he was going to get a gun and practice shooting, then they couldn’t talk to him as though he were a little boy” (Wright 144). He later reasons that “He could kill a man with a gun like this… And if he were holding his gun in his hand, nobody could run over him; they would have to respect him.”(Wright 148). Dave finally shoots a donkey that will take him two years to pay for, so he runs away from his home and his responsibility (Wright 154). For him, as for many youth today, the desire to be deemed manly leads to many poor choices.
The glorification of the ultra masculine has “perverted manliness into a self-absorbed race for cheap thrills.”(Ehrlich 128) Not every man is designed with the build of a marine or NFL draft. Fewer still can honestly claim to be emotionless. This leaves many men with great turmoil inside while attempting to live up to some larger-than-life status. “The Things They Carried” illustrates this is well in a story about a group of soldiers dealing with the death of a comrade. In the story the speaker says that “while Kiowa explained how Lavender died, Lieutenant Cross found himself trembling. He tried not to cry.”(Tim O’Brien 329)
One problem with shutting down emotions is that no one can effectively accomplish this without altering personality. Even cowboys, who are among the toughest of men, have gentle natures. In “About Men,” the speaker says, “Their strength is also a softness, their toughness, a rare delicacy” (Ehrlich 129) and “[their] courage is selfless, a form of compassion” (Ehrlich 128). This character is the source of men’s inner strength. After all, people dislike men who are brutes but respect men who have patience and self-control. Since “It’s not toughness but “toughing it out” that counts,” (Ehrlich 127) men of all different physiques and personalities can hold their heads high and should not feel obligated to change who they are.
This idea that “the index of a man’s value [is] measured in physical courage” (Ehrlich 127,128) has caused no end of grief for men, young and old alike. Man’s merit is not found in the superficial and external, it is a man’s heart. A man’s strength and character originates from who he is on the inside. Manliness at its core is about love and sacrifice. This is a harder approach to manhood but is open to many more men than just the ones who are physically strong and daring. Since manliness is a presence of character, there is a growing need in society, in families, and in government for real men. There is a call for men to become more, to always grow in qualities like love, gentleness, self-control, and selflessness. These qualities are not like clothes. A man with these character traits can earn the respect of many, regardless of his age or physical aptitude.