By Dr. James Emery White, Crosswalk.com
Barbie dominated the summer movie scene becoming not only the highest grossing film of the year, but also the highest grossing film Warner Brothers has ever released. It’s already the 14th highest grossing film of all time.
But Barbie wasn’t just a fun movie.
It raised questions about what it means to be a woman and, maybe even more, what it means to be a man. Ken goes from living in a matriarchal world to then wanting to create a patriarchal world; then the Barbies take back control but work for more equality for the Kens... just see the film.
But Barbie wasn’t creating those questions of identity and place for men—it was mirroring them. Right now, there seems to be more confusion than ever about what it means to be a man. The Kens of the world really don’t know what it means to be a Ken.
If you start typing “What it means to be” in Google, you’ll find it auto completes with things like:
- what it means to be an American;
- what it means to be a leader;
- what it means to be a friend.
What you won’t find is, “What it means to be a woman.” But what you will find, right at the top of the autofill, is, “What it means to be a man.”
It brings to mind an article that came out a few months ago in the Washington Post that was simply titled, “Men Are Lost.” In writing about the men who were interviewed for the story, it was found:
They struggled to relate to women. They didn’t have enough friends. They lacked long-term goals. Some... just quietly disappeared, subsumed into videogames and porn or sucked into the alt-right and the web of misogynistic communities known as the “manosphere.”
The weirdness manifested in the national political scene, too: in the 4-chan-fueled 2016 campaign, in the backlash to #MeToo, in amateur militias during the Black Lives Matter protests.
Misogynistic text-thread chatter took a physical form in the Proud Boys, some of whom attacked the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Young men everywhere were trying on new identities, many of them ugly, all gesturing toward a desire to belong.
It felt like a widespread identity crisis—as if they didn’t know how to be.
One doctoral student who was interviewed told of an undergraduate student asking, “What the heck does good masculinity look like?” He said, “I’ll be honest with you: I did not have an answer for that.”
Growing numbers of working-age men have detached from the labor market—particularly those between the ages of 25 to 34. Men now receive about 74 bachelor’s degrees for every 100 awarded to women. Men account for more than 70% of the decline in college enrollment overall.
As women have become less dependent on marriage as a means to financial security or even motherhood, they are becoming increasingly selective. This has led to a rise in lonely, single young men. More men now live with their parents than they do a romantic partner.
Men also account for almost three out of every four deaths of despair, meaning deaths resulting from suicide or substance abuse.
All of this and more have left men reeling about what it means to be a man.
What are men for in our world?
What do they look like?
Where do they fit in?
And if you find an answer, how do you know it’s the right one?
Is it the hyper-masculine, hyper-misogynistic views of a social influencer like the former kickboxer and “Big Brother” contestant Andrew Tate, making it all about sports and women, cigars and sex?
Is it chivalry? Which is just as confusing to men when they sometimes find out that even holding open a door for a woman can be perceived as sexist to some.
Do you throw masculinity away entirely, as if it doesn’t exist?
Or do you just go with what have been called the three “Bs” which are what most men buy into when it comes to defining manhood. The first “B” is for your billfold, which is judging your manhood by how much money you make or how successful you are with your work or the title you have.
The second “B” stands for ballfield, which is measuring manhood on the basis of strength, athletic ability or physical toughness.
The third “B” stands for the bedroom, which measures manhood on how popular you are with women.
But every one of those is, in truth, meaningless when it comes to what it means to be a man. Because at the end of our lives, it won’t matter how financially successful we were, how many followers we had on Instagram, how famous we were, our sexual prowess....
None of that will matter.
What will matter is whether we fulfilled our purpose as men. But the three “Bs” are all most men have to judge themselves by, which is why it’s just so confusing for men these days.
To make matters worse, men don’t have fathers to look to for answers. Since 1960, the percentage of boys living apart from their biological fathers has nearly doubled from 17% to 32%. Richard Reeves, a Brookings Institution scholar, noted that:
If you’re growing up in a single-parent household, and you go to a typical public school and typical medical system, there’s a decent chance that you will not encounter a male figure of authority until middle school or later. Not your doctor, not your teachers. No one else around you.
And then he adds, “What does that feel like?”
The answer is, “It feels like being lost.”
So what is the solution?
Glenn Stanton wrote an interesting article titled, “Manhood Is Not Natural.” Womanhood is, but not manhood. Womanhood is a natural phenomenon. Her very biology tends to make her grow into a healthy, mature woman.
Just think about sex. Sex makes babies. But for a man, sex can be just about pleasure. He’s not naturally connected to the potential of that act.
A woman is.
For a woman, it can begin shortly after conception, intensifying daily. It costs her in terms of energy, sleep and comfort, long before the pain of childbirth. Stanton writes that she is inescapably invested. The man is not. He doesn’t naturally become a mature man the way a woman naturally becomes a mature woman. It’s why the phrases “woman up,” “be a woman,” or “make a woman out of her” don’t exist.
They don’t need to.
But they do for men.
So how does a male become a man? It has to be learned. As an identity, maleness happens but manhood does not.
And how is it learned?
From other men. It comes through a father and the community’s larger fraternity of men. But that is also the problem. Either men are being mentored poorly,
... or they are not being mentored at all.
James Emery White
Christine Emba, “Men are lost. Here’s a map out of the wilderness.” The Washington Post, July 10, 2023, read online.
Glenn Stanton, “Manhood Is Not Natural,” Public Discourse, December 17, 2017, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Hybrid Church: Rethinking the Church for a Post-Christian Digital Age, is now available on Amazon or from your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. Follow Dr. White on X, Facebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Hybrid Church: Rethinking the Church for a Post-Christian Digital Age, is now available on Amazon or from your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.