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Reader Request Week 2022 #1: My “Man-Cred”

Me, looking very manly, if I do say so myself.

Hello, and welcome one and all to Reader Request Week 2022, where you offer up the topics, and I offer my thoughts on your topics. Let’s start this week off on a manly topic, shall we?

“Just Sayin'” asks:

You have occasionally been criticized by meatheads for being a “girly man” type, and you have dismissed these idiots appropriately.

However, for the sake of argument and fun, please defend your man-cred, and demonstrate your good standing in the white male dominated patriarchy. What tools do you own, and what can you do with them? Can you fix an engine, sail a boat? Are you a deadly shot with a pistol? Do you hunt? What sports have you, can you play well? Macho achievements, skills? Can you drink all night and crank out immaculate prose like a Hemingway? You get the idea.

So, to answer this, I need to go back to high school, and the day that the dance teacher, Joan Rohrback, decided that I was going to be in her dance class.

It went like this: I was standing around in front of my high school administration office, doing whatever the hell I was doing, when Ms. Rohrback marched up to me, said “I need a guy to be in the dance class. You’re it,” and then walked away before I could say anything one way or the other. And just like that, I was the guy in the dance class, because as it happened a physical education class was required, so I had to do something, and also I didn’t want to argue with Ms. Rohrback about it. She was a dancer, she could pop my head right off with her thighs.

It turned out that dance class was in many ways fundamental to my understanding of my own masculinity. This was for several reasons. One, it reinforced to me that I was, in fact, a straight dude — and a cis straight dude, although “cis” was not a word I knew or a concept I would have understood at the time. Regardless, I was very aware of the women I got to be with in the class, and felt like I was getting away with something being able to spend my time with them instead of, say, wrestling another dude into a foam mat. Two, it taught me to dance. To be a good dancer, I think, you have to understand that your dance partner is your equal — you may lead (or may not, depending on the dance and whether it is a partner dance or an ensemble dance), but the dance doesn’t work if you don’t support and aid those you dance with. I wanted to be a good dancer, and as a result I learned to understand, in a very oblique way I wouldn’t unpack until much later, the benefit of equality and support.

Third, it really effectively short-circuited my concern about the judgment of other dudes. A lot of straight men, especially young men, don’t dance, because they think they will look foolish doing so, and when they’re concerned about looking foolish, the people they’re most concerned about looking foolish to are other men — who they often imagine will see them on the dance floor and cast judgment on them, not for their moves, but for being on the dance floor at all. Learning to dance got me over that, by actually teaching me how to dance and by teaching me to enjoy dancing for itself, and by giving my dancing proper focus — not on the other dudes, most not on the dance floor, who may or my not be judging me, but either on my dance partner, who legitimately deserved my attention, or on myself, enjoying the pleasure of the dance itself.

Did I get shit from other dudes about dancing? Sure, both in high school and beyond, but I didn’t care. And some time later, when literally the most beautiful woman I had ever met in my life saw me dancing and then told me we had to dance sometime that evening, and I said “now is good,” and then we got married (not that night, to be clear), my policy of not giving a shit about what other dudes thought about my dancing was vindicated. When I took Krissy to meet my dude friends for the first time, and they all said to me (when Krissy was out of earshot), “We don’t understand, how did you manage this,” I got to say, “Because I learned how to dance, motherfuckers,” and I have to say, that was especially sweet.

So, learning how to dance went a fair distance of getting me out of needing the approval of other men for the things I did, and who I was. It wasn’t the only thing, to be sure, and here are some of the other things that helped: My enormous ego, even as a child, which made me resistant to the opinions of people I thought were full of crap, particularly if they were my peers who I realized knew possibly even less than me about how the world worked; My manifest lack of genuinely useful male role models growing up, counterbalanced with a surfeit of women in my life who Just Got Shit Done; The ability to be in my own head a lot of the time, and to do my own thing, regardless of what anyone else thought of it. And also, you know, the realization that so much of the US Standard Model of Masculinity was just complete bullshit, which was evident to me at a very early age; so much of it posturing and so very little of it actually useful to anyone who had to deal with it, including the men themselves. But certainly the high school dance classes gave me a structure to think about masculinity and my relationship to it, whether I was fully aware of it at the time or not.

Now, let’s fast forward to today, and the interrogation of my masculinity by other dudes. It is correct that I have a tendency to wave away attacks on my masculinity by other men, but that doesn’t answer why I do that. One reason is because I don’t care what these dudes think; they’re all resentfully holding up the gym wall in the high school dance of my life, while I’m in the middle of the floor, dancing with my gal and all my friends. Another reason is that even by their own standards of what masculinity is, they’re usually not measuring up, so why would I let their opinion of what I’m doing matter one way or another?

A third reason is that, bluntly, and again, by their own standards of what masculinity is, I’m wiping the floor with them. Hello! I’m a financially sound cis, straight white man who, even factoring in all the societal buffs he got for free, built a successful career with his own hands(*), and has been living the life he’s wanted to live for going on three decades now. I’m good enough at it that the way these dudes deal with it is to try to demote me out of it. And, my friend, if you have to concoct an actual industry-spanning conspiracy to explain how I’m actually failing in my masculinity, well. You have fun with that. It’s all the same to me. You can’t demote me out of my manhood, and it’s not my manhood that looks lesser for you having made the attempt.

That said, I cheerfully acknowledge that I don’t care about so many of the things that (jokingly presented in the question, but not-so-jokingly presented by the Masculinity Police) are on the checklist for Standard Issue Man-Cred. Who made those lists? What are their credentials? What about those activities are so inherently strongly gendered that someone who is not “masculine” can’t do them? Tool use is not inherently masculine. Sailing a boat is not inherently masculine. Shooting a pistol is not inherently masculine. Writing whilst drunk is not inherently masculine (see: Dorothy Parker). Can I do the things on any random given Man-Cred list? Possibly! But there’s almost nothing on any random Man-Cred list that needs a man, by whatever definition you want to give that word, to do it.

But because we live in a sexist and deeply gender-anxious world and culture, both globally and locally, I concede that there are certain things that men are expected to do, or at least aren’t given the same amount of shit for doing, than other folks; it’s not suggested they can’t do these things, nor is their competence questioned when they do them.

To this end, these are some of the things on my own “Man-Cred” list, the list by which I measure my own success as a man, and which, I suggest, I will not encounter static for being able to do:

  • Provide, financially and emotionally, for my family
  • Love and champion friends
  • Be a good and useful neighbor
  • Contribute positively to my community
  • Be kind and fair with others when I can
  • Use my voice and wherewithal for the things I believe in
  • Use my privilege to raise people up, not keep them down
  • Acknowledge the wrongs I do and make amends if possible
  • Work to be the better version of myself every day
  • Plan for a future beyond myself and my own immediate desires

Again, there’s nothing on this Man-Cred list that needs a man to do them; anyone of any gender can perform them. But let’s also acknowledge that if men centered these sorts of things in their masculinity, we might be better off in general.

I will be the first to acknowledge that I am not perfect in observing the things on my own Man-Cred list; I’m not always performing my own conception of masculinity to its best. But I do make the effort. I become a better man, and a better person, by doing so. And if nothing else, I still get to dance.

— JS

(It’s not too late to get a question in for this week’s Reader Request Week! Go here to find out how to do so.)

By John Scalzi

I enjoy pie.

37 replies on “Reader Request Week 2022 #1: My “Man-Cred””

Manliness stuff aside (at my age I’m six decades past giving a shit about that), what I notice in John’s recollection is that he is on the other side of a cultural divide from me. While in-school dancing/social-behavior sessions were uncomfortable (regimented and artificial), most of my classmates enjoyed dancing–after all, we were the cohort that developed the sock hop and teen canteen and CYO get-togethers as ways of channeling our emerging courting protocols. I was a decent dancer and still enjoy (now old-fashioned) couple dancing when I can find the appropriate live music. (Once a year at swing camp. Though there I’d rather be on the bandstand.)

Well, John, your list took me back to one of the pivotal moments of my early life, when I tried to enlist in the U.S. Navy. And was told that I wouldn’t be allowed to sign up for what I wanted, because it would require sea duty (which was what I wanted, I thought) and back in those days the only females who got a chance at sea duty were in medical specialties and not too damn’ many of them, little lady.

And I went home fuming. And my stepdad, who was ex-merchant marine, asked me what was up and I told him, along with a long rant about How Unfair Life is to Girlz.

So my stepdad, who looked like a cross between Joe E. Brown and the older Mickey Rooney and would strike no one as a “feminist” in any way, explained to me that growing up was tough either way and the thing to do was focus on what it would take to be a good person, a good adult, regardless of gender.

And he laid out a list that was surprisingly similar to yours – make a commitment to a family and honor that commitment, stand up for your friends and neighbors, do something with your life to make the world a better place for your kids and grandkids, don’t let ‘what other people will think’ keep you silent in the face of injustice, and honor your responsibility to those less fortunate.

And that even if I had to live with those ignorant Navy fools telling me what I can’t do, never forget that every thing on that list is required equally of men and women. And you’re not successfully grown up until you can accept them and live them.

So what is this “man-cred” of which “Just Sayin'” speaketh, and why matters it?

Heh. My last semester in community college, my counselor called me in and informed me I needed 1 more PE class to graduate. The only one that fit my schedule was nutrition and weight loss.

Picture in your head 20 y/o me, 6’2 and about 160 lbs dripping wet. In a class of overweight women, half of them middle aged.

Now picture the reaction when the teacher puts up a “typical” daily menu, and stupid me blurts out “hell, I eat more than that for breakfast”.

I was not popular in that class.

Nice. After Tom Petty died a friend I had turned onto his music years before called me out of the blue 20 some years later and just chatting asked if I had kids. I replied that my wife and I had two sons and his comment to this was “Excellent! That’s two more white people.” I was like, WTF? But at this point he was living in south central Florida in his fever swamp of white supremacy and I have no interest in ever speaking with him again. Asshole.

As someone who scooped up her future baby-daddy off of the dance floor as well, my first thought when you first started talking about dance class was “Isn’t that how he & Krissy met? Obviously he’s killing the straight dude thing.”

Also, thanks for representing the “I can have a huge ego and still be a good person” folks. I am a proud member.

A lot of young men out there are struggling to get all the colors on their Rubik’s cube on the right sides, confusing machismo with manhood. They should read this. I hope they get the chance and you link it the next time they challenge your manhood on twitter. While it’s not necessarily going to solve their cube, it could certainly help them with a side or two, metaphorically speaking.

You answered so much more than I asked. Very well done, sir.

Great post, John! As for the self-appointed gatekeepers of masculinity, it feel like over the past three or more decades, their concept of masculinity has shifted from strength-focused to dominance (and sadism)-focused. It’s less about what I can do “for me” and more about what I can do “to you.”

Yeah, but…part of Hemingway’s need to do all those things was his own problem with his masculinity and need to prove to himself by “proving” to others that he was the most macho guy on the planet. You see how that worked out in the end.

Add me to the “don’t give a shit about what others think of me” crowd.

As a kid, I always wanted to take ballet lessons, but my parents couldn’t afford it. Then a women’s college near where I lived offered adult ballet for beginners, I decided to go. I turned out to be terrible, a problem I solved by not looking in the mirror.

But it left me with two gifts:
1. the habit of regular exercise, which I’ve maintained all my adult life
2. the willingness to be bad at something new because I enjoyed it. That one came in handy when I started writing fiction

I’ve thought about this some more. Please feel no compulsion to answer, if you don’t wish to. What you have done is describe the components and nature of journeying to become a good person. As you said, there is nothing about anything you wrote that is necessarily the purview of a male. It’s a big and important question you’ve answered, and answered well.

What I was asking was a much lesser question. I was asking about your cred in the traditional/stereotypical manly arts. Are you a member of the tribe or can you impersonate one?

If there are a bunch of neighbors fixing a lawn mower, and drinking beer while talking sports are you comfortable joining in? Do other neighbors come to you to access your skills in carpentry/computer repair/ etc in a sort of a mutual circle of skill sharing? Do you and a group of other guys play cards and talk shit to each other? Would you have their backs in a bar fight? You have the instruments, have you started a band with some other guys? That kind of stuff. . Again, this is much less of a question then the one you answered, and you have other things to do…..

As someone who grew up with two sisters, I really don’t get the “man” list bullshit at all. All of those things are things that a HUMAN can do. Most are skills that just make life a little easier (or cheaper – see changing your car’s oil) that ANYONE can learn. I taught most of them to my daughter (yes, she is a crack pistol shot) because we have only one child and,,,,see above, HUMAN!
I also taught her how to make a quiche (mmmm love me some cheese and spinach quiche!) sew on a button, iron a shirt (thanks, U.S. Army Boot camp!) and do many other skills that are labeled “Girley” . I never did get how dancing made the list. I grew up watching John Travolta kick that dance floors ass! Never thought that was effeminate.
Dave

You do realize that your photo looks an awful lot like a mix between Governor Kodos of Tarsus IV and Count Baltar? That’s a visage I would hate to encounter in a dark alley…

So I guess it falls under the heading of “manly.”

@ Johan Winkelman:

“As for the self-appointed gatekeepers of masculinity, it feel like over the past three or more decades, their concept of masculinity has shifted from strength-focused to dominance (and sadism)-focused.”

I could be missing something/someone, but the “self-appointed gatekeepers of masculinity” tend to be profoundly non-masculine individuals. By traditional, or any definition of “masculinity”. It’s not so much that the concept has shifted, it’s that there never was one to begin with – only arbitrary nonsense certain folks sling at people they perceive as “enemies”.

@ Just sayin’:

“If there are a bunch of neighbors fixing a lawn mower, and drinking beer while talking sports are you comfortable joining in? Do other neighbors come to you to access your skills in carpentry/computer repair/ etc in a sort of a mutual circle of skill sharing? Do you and a group of other guys play cards and talk shit to each other?”

But… none of these are “manly arts”. They’re hobbies. I suppose to an outsider they might look like “shit dudes do”, but outside of TV shows, very few men actually engage in this sort of behavior.

Absolutely. The useful virtues aren’t gendered; neither are the less immediately practical, courage, honour, kindness and the rest. It’s western men who have a problem with dancing, though; I don’t think it’s on the Latin man’s list of girly practices.

Very well written essay. It speaks to me. Not giving a shit about what other dudes think of me is still a work in progress. I am doing much better than, say, 30 years ago, when I kept my “non-macho” activities (like knitting, reading, etc.) to myself.

“…so much of the US Standard Model of Masculinity was just complete bullshit…”

My term for that is “Macho Bullshit Culture”. Perhaps not the best term but it works for me.

A couple of things… When I was in the Army the drill sergeant said “wiredog, you got no rhythm” and had me march in the part of the platoon where people wouldn’t see me. So I’m somewhat handicapped in the dancing arena…

Tool use, knowing the basics of automotive (and household, etc.) maintenance and repair, should be a basic part of any adult’s repertoire. Even if I don’t repair my own car, I can still tell when a mechanic is trying to rip me off.

“Macho achievements, skills?”

I’ve flown airplanes and helicopters, I’ve jumped out of perfectly good airplanes, my hobbies are in line with being a steelworker, I’ve rebuilt three carburetors in the last two months. Where I grew up, drinking was considered a winter sport.

“Are you a deadly shot with a pistol?”

I am absolute crap with a pistol. But I qualified expert marksman in the Marines, 500 yards with iron sights, so there’s that.

“US Standard Model of Masculinity was just complete bullshit,”

This, I can confirm.

Someone already pointed out that Hemingway was likely driven to masculine things because he didn’t feel himself masculine enough. And I’d say it probably killed him.

I definitely did a lot of things to prove myself “worthy”. But after I did whatever it was, I still felt unworthy. didn’t exactly lead to a fulfilling life.

Took a while to sort all that nonsense out.

As a woman seeking men I would just like to concur about dancing.
When I see a man with moves on a dance floor it is an absolutely flipping’ YES PLEASE’ from me. I don’t need to see you do some Cuban salsa footwork or a Viennese waltz. (though I will not say no to that) I just want to know that you can do something with music other than shuffle around the edges of a dance floor hunched over a beer. That is not my idea of fun.

I always thought man-creed was for people who were too dimwitted to define themselves. Who cares what others think? Do what you like and to hell with the rest. Don’t let others define you or spoil your fun. Be unique. It’s more interesting to everyone except the fearmongers.

As to dancing, anyone not dancing is missing out on a hell of a lot of fun. I took ballroom dance every year of college and tap for one semester. I would have loved to have taken more. I also wanted to try jazz dancing but didn’t get the chance. Maybe when I retire! I only wish my wife could dance. She is utter crap at it, but we still dance anyway because it doesn’t really matter if she is any good or not, just that she wants to dance with me!

Umpteen years ago a couple of books came out, “Real men don’t eat quiche.” and “Tough guys don’t dance.” The tough guys being a quote from Al Capone. An uncle said, “Real ken eat what they want, and tough guys didn’t worry about Al Capone’s opinion.

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