Like believing in Santa Claus and thinking blue participation ribbons symbolize some sort of merit, we leave a lot behind with our childhood. Yet the idea that “bad guys” are rare and easy to pick out seems to linger. If a man commits an act of violence, like sexual assault or emotional abuse, he isn’t a “real man.” We assume they aren’t teachers, religious figureheads, police officers, or so-called family men.
The sentiment behind statements like, “Hitting a woman is not something a real man does,” is appreciated, encouraged and needed. However, the language needs to be tweaked so that it is known that much of the abuse against women is at the hands of real men. Real men like the RCMP’s Constable Kevin Theriault who was told he could have a woman released in his care so her could take her home because, as a senior officer said, “You arrested her, you can do whatever the fuck you want to do.” Or the real men behind the statistic, provided by Canadian Women, that every six days, on average, a Canadian woman is killed by her intimate partner.
These perpetrators of violence aren’t obvious, and that is why victim blaming seems so natural to our culture as a whole. When the “bad guy” isn’t who we’ve come to expect—a shadowy figure, not a trusted authority, peer, partner or family member—they can’t possibly be one … right? “I am arguing that part of the problem with the ‘real man’ discourse is that it erases the existence of actual, real men who perpetuate acts of violence against women,” writes Dr. Rebecca Hains in the comments section of a critique she wrote on the video “Slap Her.”
The problematic message behind real men don’t hit women also lies within already dangerous gender roles. If a man isn’t a real man they are lesser, they are weaker, and according to binary thinking, that makes them feminine—the lowest of the low. A “real” man is stronger and better than that.
“This culture, which glorifies an ideal of male dominance, is responsible for a society which sees women routinely experience the unimaginably harmful—and, sadly, often fatal—consequences of this ideal,” writes Millie Brierley for Feministing. “That is why suggesting that ‘real men’ don’t hit women is so damaging: it is fighting a problem with the very problem itself. It’s flawed, cyclical logic which is never going to fix the problem.”
If a man uses violence to assert his dominance while exploiting his privilege, he is doing so in order to prove he is a real man.
Though the intentions behind the message are good, the message sent is, as John Stoltenberg notes in Feminist Current, focused on gender identity being the determining factor in choice making rather than moral identity.
We don’t need the image of a “manly man” to save us from gender inequality; we need the manly man image to disappear completely.
A former This intern, Hillary Di Menna is in her first year of the gender and women’s studies program at York University. She also maintains an online feminist resource directory, FIRE- Feminist Internet Resource Exchange.