What Does It Mean to Be Manly?

By Laura Sessions Stepp
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 29, 2007

If you're wondering what it takes to be a man these days, check out Johnny Depp's wrist.

As the unconstrained Capt. Jack Sparrow in the newly released "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End," he wears a wisp of white lace tied just above his left hand.

A token of his feminine side? Perhaps. Or maybe it's just what Depp said it is: a trophy piece from a young woman.

Swish or swagger? That's the choice that men -- particularly young men -- find themselves facing today. As author Calvin Sandborn -- who juggled teaching and child-raising as he wrote "Becoming the Kind Father" -- says, society used to assign certain characteristics to men, including power, aggressiveness, professional success and autonomy. Other, shall we say, swishier traits were expected of women, such as the ability to create and nurture connections, kindness and communication.

Of course, you could always find some crossover. But while catching up with or surpassing men at school and at their first jobs, young women have dumped much of the feminine to embrace the masculine traits that they think represent success.

This has left some young men wondering what it means these days to be a guy. Should they, can they, explore their softer sides in a country that places less value on the feminine than ever before?

The answer to that seems like a bold Yes when you look at young men -- straight as well as gay -- who feel strong. They bend the gender role freely, especially if their buds are doing the same.

A preppy guy in high school might pair a lime-green Polo Ralph Lauren shirt with light yellow J. Crew pants, a Lily Pulitzer belt and Rainbow flip-flops. Lots of guys gel their hair and wouldn't think of going out without fragrant cologne. Body-waxing is a booming business among men in their late teens and early 20s, and exfoliating creams for men sell for $50 and more.

While men used to greet each other with a handshake, now it's a hug. And male hip-hop, writes one pop critic, "sounds more lighthearted and clean-cut than it has in years."

So, while such singers as Amy Winehouse and Ciara pump the idea of the girl player, R&B singer Akon, who clinched a Grammy nomination for singing about "smacking" a woman, practically croons in another tune "how much of a queen you are to me and why I love you, baby." In the hit "Ice Box," Omarion pines for a girl who's "good with ma, good with pa."

When it comes to mating rituals, young women have rewritten them, leaving some men pining for the clarity of the old days.

The young man who desires a particular young woman has always had to work for her affection, but years ago he knew what he was supposed to do: Ask her out, pick her up and take her home, times 10.

Today, as likely as not, there is no date. She will drive herself, meet up with him and either offer to pay for herself or insist on paying. She may bolt later, or they may land in bed the same night, but chances are he won't have a clue why either happened.

"The male has to learn to interpret the direct and indirect actions of the female," says Gabriel Harris, a sophomore at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y. "Most of my friends make an effort to do that, but it's stressful. That's very different from the generation my father grew up in."

Women, another guy acknowledged, don't want a pushover, but they also don't want a meathead.

So has swagger disappeared? Not at all, says Bill Albert, deputy director of a pregnancy prevention group in Washington and father of a 13-year-old son.

Guys who are virgins are still more troubled by their virginity than are virgin girls, according to Albert. Not as many teenage males are having intercourse as in the past, but more of them are having oral sex.

And the guys who wear green and yellow? In high school cultures where homophobia hangs on, the Polo boys typically are athletes who have, shall we say, lots of success with the opposite sex.

And when guys in any dress are hanging just with other guys, it's still all beer and football and whom they slept with last night -- even if they didn't.

The question, author Sandborn says, is how much self-confidence is behind that swagger. His generation of men may have been too macho, but they also were more self-assured.

But then he and his colleagues did not have women chasing after the same professional degrees and salaries that they wanted in anything approaching today's numbers.

Parents have paid a lot of attention to girls, he explains, and the results are noticeable: His best, most ambitious students at the University of British Columbia law school are, for the most part, women.

That success may well be true in the years after college as well: The number of college graduates returning home to live is at record levels, and it's disproportionately male. While women are preparing to run corporations, what are guys doing? Playing the new Nintendo Wii?

"In trying to empower the girls," Sandborn says, "we implicitly sent a message that the guys were not as good. Women succeeded in creating positive new roles for themselves. What we haven't come up with is what a positive image of a man would be."

Maybe Depp is teaching us that it's not swish or swagger; it's both. ยท

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