What is a “Real Man?”

November 2, 2014

Due to shifts in public funding in South Africa, with many other funding avenues exhausted, for the first time in a long time, Beth Uriel is truly facing closure before even the year end. Beth Uriel has supported countless young men in their journey from boys to men, and it would be a travesty to see them close their doors. I wrote this piece to support their REAL MAN campaign, created to help drum-up financial support and general awareness around the issues they work with on a daily basis.

Hypocritical Halloween

One night in 2008, like many of my fondest nights spent in Cape Town, I was sitting around with a group of friends, enjoying food, laughter, and communion. Halloween was quickly approaching and, though I don’t know how we arrived at that very moment, my friend Lindsay―manager and head social worker at Beth Uriel―dared me to go as a fairy for Halloween. Without thought, I agreed.

Though I rarely turn down a fun dare, both Lindsay and I knew it wouldn’t even take something as formal as a dare to get me to dress as a fairy, on any night, much less Halloween. Dressing as a fairy was really inconsequential to me, especially considering my past. I grew up constantly playing dress-up―also involving every friend and family member I could coerce into dressing-up in some random costume I had made―and my childhood pictures are hard evidence of that fact. I would say I am dressed in some costume that I had made or acquired in approximately three out of five of my childhood photographs―cheetahs, robots, ballerinas, chickens, clowns, cowboys, flappers, monsters, Paula Abdul’s backup dancers, punks, miscellaneous unidentifiable people and creatures, and beyond.

As a kid, I never felt any more or less “masculine” dressed as a clown or cowboy or princess. I just liked dressing-up. My mom still tells stories of how one of my favorite parts of playing baseball was getting dressed-up in the uniform, making sure every piece of apparel was perfectly in place, including ensuring that my batting gloves hung out of my back pants’ pocket in the most perfect and stylish way, a type of behavior our sexist socialization might consider “sissy” or “effeminate” or “wrong.” At the time, I―maybe innocently―didn’t see it that way. I just wanted to look good.

I was never a “normal” boy. I am not a “normal” man. I was, and am, just me.

So, on Halloween of 2008, I joined my Beth Uriel family members―some who went as a Flower, an Angel, Cotton Candy, a Tahitian Purple People Eating Bird, Dwight K. Schrute, and a Piece of Bubblegum Stuck to the Bottom of a Shoe―dressed as a fairy and we went out trick-or-treating around Cape Town. Like most Beth Uriel outings, we had a blast that night. Though many people were completely unfazed by my costume, it was interesting to see different people’s reactions to me dressed as a fairy, many who projected their own fears onto me. Whether well-intentioned or not, many of the comments I received reminded me of Toni Morrison saying, “Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.”

“Oh no! Why?!”

“Wow. That’s brave,” with a hint of disapproval.

“That’s gay!”

“Are you doing this for LGBTQ rights?”

“Men aren’t supposed to dress like fairies!”

“That’s awesome,” with a condescending shake of the head.

“But really, why are you dressed like a fairy?”

fairy

Whether they realized it or not, most people’s comments said more about them than they did about me. I was just dressed as a fairy, and though I was not ignorant enough to think that there would be no reaction, I didn’t really care what people thought about it. I just wanted to be a fairy for the night, no strings attached. As I said, definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.

Halloween has historically been a hypocritical time, where we seem to have no problem with little girls dressing as boy characters, but completely lose our minds when little boys want to go as girl characters. Just this weekend, my social media newsfeeds were flooded with images of little trick-or-treaters, many of whom were little girls dressed as this season’s most popular guy characters. I even saw a picture of Jay Z and Beyoncé’s daughter Blue Ivy dressed―looking flawless, I might add―as the late Michael Jackson. I didn’t see one single comment in protest to them dressing her as a male icon. However, I could only imagine the uproar that would have occurred if Blue was a boy, and they would have dressed him up as Janet Jackson. And some people reading this would quickly retort, “That’s different!”

But really, apart from our skewed sexist socialization, apart from the fact that at some point people randomly decided certain fabrics and colors should be worn by certain types of people, what is the difference?

Well, the difference is we live in a society where sexism and misogyny warp the way we see things. We wrongly equate masculinity with strength and femininity with weakness. We use phrases like, “You throw like a girl,” as an insult, rather than taking it as a complementary comparison to someone like Mo’Ne Davis. We don’t recognize patriarchy and sexism as institutionalized systems of domination, and we don’t understand how the very society in which we live is still controlled by those dominator values. We often blame female rape victims for how they dressed or presented themselves, rather than blaming the rapist. We are convinced that street harassment many women endure is “no big deal,” and they should “take it as a compliment.” Our misogyny runs deep. And for these reasons, and more, we often have difficulty defining what a “real man” is.

What is a “Real Man?”

When Beth Uriel family members reached out to me to write a piece for their REAL MAN campaign, with the prompt, “A REAL man is…” I must admit my mind was flooded with all sorts of conflicting thoughts. For many individuals, it is difficult to separate the idea of a “real man” from our hypermasculine, misogynistic, sexist, patriarchal socialization of “what it means to be a man.” In popular culture, “a real man” has usually resembled a muscular, tough, dumb, burping, farting, chauvinistic, beer-drinking, sports-playing, womanizing, nincompoop. We have seen this image of a “real man” repeated over and over again. I, for one, do not buy-into, or fit into, that stereotype of the “real man.” Still, though I have a deep awareness of what it means to be a “real man” to me, I struggled to find the words to describe it.

Alas, I consider myself a feminist and many of my best examples of what it means to be a “real man” came from women―two things that a hypermasculine “alpha male” would use as reason for the immediate revoking of my “man card,” though I don’t remember ever signing up for one, or even desiring owning such a thing. Some of the strongest, bravest, toughest people I know are women. Likewise, some of the “realest” of men I have known do not fit into the hypermasculine stereotype of what our society has determined it means to “be a man.” That is not to say that I haven’t known “real men” who do, in fact, fit into that stereotype of the hypermasculine man―I simply will not let patriarchal values limit my definition of what it means to be a “real man” by that shallow, constrictive archetype of a “man.”

Patriarchy is no different than any other institutionalized system of domination―it was actively and intentionally created, and it must be actively and intentionally deconstructed. It is oppressive, causing both the oppressors and the oppressed to live in different forms of bondage. Unfortunately, just like with other institutionalized systems of domination (imperialism, white-supremacy, capitalism, etc.), there is an ignorance and denial that comes with those who benefit from the system. As James Baldwin put it, “They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.” And until we are completely released from it, we will continue to perpetuate sexist ideas of “what it means to be a man.”

In her book Feminism is for Everybody, feminist, academic, and author bell hooks defines feminism as simply, “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” In the same work she laments, “Often the only alternative to patriarchal masculinity presented by feminist movement or the men’s movement was a vision of becoming more ‘feminine.’ The ides of the feminine that was evoked emerged from sexist thinking and did not represent an alternative to it. What is and was needed is a vision of masculinity where self-esteem and self-love of one’s unique being forms the basis of identity.” This vision of masculinity that bell hooks speaks of is possibly the beginning of what it means to be a “real man”―for an individual to have the courage, strength, self-esteem, and self-love to base his identity on his unique being, who he really is, rather than trying to create an identity rooted in, and fitting into, the societal pressures and stereotypes of “what it means to be a man.”

Nonetheless, I think that definition of being a “real man” has less to do with being a “real man” and more to do with being a real human.

 A REAL man is…

With all of that said, asking what it means to be a “real man” can be as daunting of a query as asking what  means to be “human.” Assuredly, each individual person finds different purpose and meaning in life, in being human. Being a “real man” can look as vast and different and unique as each and every individual man inhabiting the earth. In my experience, from people I have known and loved, here are some examples―including but not limited to―of what it means to be a “real man.”

A real man has a deep understanding that we do not live in isolation from one another, that we are not here by chance or coincidence, and has a deep awareness of how we perpetually co-create each other―living with the knowledge of Ubuntu: I am what I am because of who we all are.

A real man makes himself aware of injustices taking place around him, and activates himself in a fight against them.

A real man stands up for what is right, even if he is the only one standing.

A real man knows when to speak and knows when to listen.

A real man knows how to love.

A real man is compassionate and empathetic.

A real man lives with a sense of purpose.

A real man is responsible and takes responsibility for his actions.

A real man wholeheartedly laughs and unashamedly cries whenever he feels like it.

A real man has the courage, self-esteem, and self-love to be the unique individual he really is.

A real man lives in the realty that he can shape and mold society, rather than trying to fit into the confining mold society might try to put him in.

A real man plays ball with his daughter or his son, braids his daughter’s hair, dances with his son―sees his children as unique individuals and helps and encourages them grow more and more into who they really are, to pursue their individual talents and gifts.

A real man is a doctor, nurse, teacher, lawyer, lumberjack, ballerina, drag queen, seamstress, chef―a real man is proudly whoever he really is.

Beth Uriel

Since its inception, Beth Uriel has been a part of molding, shaping, and mentoring uncountable numbers real men. One of the things I appreciate most about Lindsay and Beth Uriel’s leadership is that they really get to the heart of who the Beth Uriel family members are, encouraging them to boldly and unapologetically be the very best versions of themselves, and no one else. I have seen all types of young men enter and exit the doors of Beth Uriel―and there are so many more I have not witnessed―and one common thing remains, those young men were given the opportunity to grow in, and even discover for the first time, who they really are. They were supported and encouraged to be brave enough to discover what it meant to be a “real man” in their unique, individual narrative.  The young men of Beth Uriel have become social workers, models, butchers, soldiers, actors, chefs, singers, nurses, and more. They have been challenged not to live up to or fit into stereotypes of what it means to be a “real man,” but to be radical enough to create a vision of masculinity where self-esteem and self-love of their unique being forms the basis of their identity. They are and were encouraged to be “real men,” whatever that means to them.

To learn more about the REAL MAN campaign that supports the amazing work of Beth Uriel, visit their website:

http://www.realman.org.za/

Share, nominate a REAL MAN, and donate!


The Artist: film in development

December 3, 2010

Just before I left South Africa I signed an option agreement with Made In Africa Films for The Artist, one of the scripts I’ve written. I’m pretty excited about this project. It was a bit surreal to wake up this morning and see this link, even if it is just the poster and synopsis. It’s still very early on in development and, just like any script, it also stands a chance of not getting made. But I am feeling positive about this project and would love to see it on the big screen. You could help it get there by being interested.


Kids who aspire to be gangsters, grow to be gangsters who aspire to be kids.

July 7, 2010

And then I found myself and this ‘dangerous’ gangster in the kiddies’ section of the video shop.

But first…

Occasionally I get reminders of what a strange world I live in. And when I say “world” I don’t mean the big ball of dirt, water and gas, rotating, slightly tilted, on its axis. I’m talking about my world: my day to day, the places and people I surround myself with, the city I live in, the particular parts of that city I choose to go to, my norms and the norms of those who I choose to place around me, my reality…yeah, that world. Sure, pieces of my world are shared with different people, some parts more than others, and some people share more parts than others do, but for the most part, my world, is uniquely my world. Which brings me back to my original point, that I am occasionally, if not often, reminded of just how odd my world really is.

One of those reminders came yesterday through a gangster who used to be a kid, and maybe still is…

I had a pretty laid back morning with a meeting about a thing. No big deal. My main goal of the day, however, was to get my hair cut. Now, that may not sound like a big deal to you, but it was getting to the point where it was becoming more and more urgent. You see, over the years, the thinner my hair has gotten on top, the more ridiculous it looks when it grows out. I’ve surrendered to that fact, and therefore try to keep it as short as possible, like most balding-to-bald men who maybe don’t want their blank patch running down the middle of their head to be as noticeable as it is on others’ who don’t seem to care at all. Whatever. I needed a haircut.

I have a machine at home. But it is old, and it misses spots, and I didn’t have anyone around to check the back. So a self-cut was not an option. In times like those, or when I am feeling lazy, I usually go to Jerry, the Nigerian barber in Capricorn, the “developing” community that used to be an informal settlement, the oldest one in Cape Town at that, called Vrygrond. Jerry only charges 20 Rand ($3.00 US), and he’s really nice. So, after I had finished my morning meeting, did some emails, ate some lunch, and what-have-you, I headed to Capricorn for my much needed haircut.

I pulled in to Capricorn, turned down the one street, up the next, winded around a bit, and then my car was stopped by a group of gangsters. The one stood in front of my car, placing his hand on the hood and his other in the “stop” position. The others ran to all my doors, trying to open them, two of them coming to my open window. This scene would probably cause the average person to wet their pants; maybe me too, had the circumstances been slightly different. In this instance, I was greeted with smiles. “Come man Ryan, let us in! Give us a ride around! It’s boring here.” Yeah, so these particular gangsters are just the rough, more grown-up, less innocent versions of the kids I have known for years and years. Not a threat, really…at least not to me. I greeted them with the usual handshakes. I bragged to the one about how he has gotten fatter, insinuating that I noticed he seems to not be smoking tik, he smiled, insinuating he appreciated me noticing.

“No drives around today. I got something to do.”

“Where are you going?”

“To get my hair cut.”

The chubby one took one glance at my hair, and then earnestly waved me on, with wishes and promises of future “drives around”, but a true understanding of the urgency of my hair situation. I drove on and waved bye in the rear view mirror, as they all got back to doing whatever they were doing before I drove up. I turned the corner, pulled up on the sidewalk and got out of my car to see Jerry’s barber shop, a four-chair-haircutting business in a shipping container, totally empty. Strange. Jerry’s always there.

A random dude came up to me and pointed over to the Somalian shop, down and across the street, “He says he’s coming now. He’s just sorting something out quickly.” I looked over and saw the back of, who I assumed was Jerry, standing in front of the shop, a shop looks more like a cage because the merchant is locked in and the customers are locked out, doing all their dealings through the bars. There stood Jerry on the outside of the cage. He was speaking with a raised voice at the least, and a Somalian arm kept coming through the bars, from the inside, trying to hit Jerry, who apparently possesses ninja-like skills and remained untouched. The moment suddenly ended, for reason unbeknownst to me, and Jerry turned around and walked towards us.

As he neared I noticed, this is not Jerry, no not at all. He walked up to me with a smile. “You probably expected Jerry.”

I was a bit surprised he knew. “Um, yeah. Yeah, I was. Where is he?”

The guy, not looking a thing like Jerry up close, smiled and shrugged. “I don’t know. He didn’t come in today.”

I looked at him for a moment. Not trusting this stranger’s haircutting skills I said, “Uh, ok, well, I’ll just come back later.

“Cool.”

“Cool.”

I walked to my car and looked down the street at the other Nigerian barbershop, about two blocks from Jerry’s. I weighed it up in my mind. Honestly, I haven’t felt good even seeing those guys since my last real interaction with them. It was a random situation where the one Nigerian barber had offered to by a television from one particular Auntie, and he had come to fetch it but only paid half the price and then refused to pay the rest once he had the television in his possession. I just so happened to visit that particular Auntie on the night all that went down. When I arrived at her house the Auntie told me what happened and asked if I could give her a lift down to the barbers so she could “speak” with them. Of course I didn’t mind! She brought her son and a thug with us. I pulled up and stopped, the thug jumped out and stabbed the one Nigerian barber in the arm and then ran into the darkness of the community. I sat there, not sure what might happen next.

Let’s just say the Nigerians were pretty pissed, and they did not appreciate me being the driver of this drive-by stabbing. I tried to assure them I had no clue that was going to happen. Not consoled in the least, they promised vengeance and the bleeding guy shouted in other languages. I drove away and decided to speak to them when they were more cooled off. I dropped the Auntie and went back to the Nigerians, parked and went in to their shipping container shop. I think they thought I was coming back for more, as the one grabbed a pair of scissors. I lifted my hands in surrender, apologized, and promised I had no clue that situation was going to go down in that way it did. I told them I thought it was just a “drive to talk to a man about a television” kind of interaction. The enormous, bleeding Nigerian patted me on the shoulder, “It’s alright Eminem. We understand. But that one, that one who did this,” he removed his hand from his bleeding arm, “he will die.”

Fair enough, I thought. I shrugged, “Well, I don’t recommend that. But I understand you’re angry. You might want to get that looked at.” He looked at me as though I had spoken the worst of the worst blasphemy. “Me?! Doctor?! My brudder, I am a man! I am African!” I shrugged again, “Whatever. So are we cool?” The big bleeding dude patted me on the back, “We’re cool my nigga.” Um…I started to correct him but decided I should probably just be happy I didn’t have a pair of scissors sticking through my neck, or worse, and I just said, “Cool. Sorry again. Later.” And I walked back to my car, got in and drove home.

I have seen those Nigerians since that night, but I still get a strange guilty feeling when I see them, even though I didn’t know I was going to be a part of the attempted assassination. So, as I stood there yesterday, with Jerry nowhere to be seen, considering going to that Nigerian barber as an alternative, I decided otherwise. I opted for the Nigerian barber all the way in Muizenberg. The problem with that dude is he always tries to charge me the “white man’s” price. A haircut is twenty Rand, just like at Jerry’s, but if he sees white skin or hears a foreign accent the price goes up by at least ten Rand. I have both, so he often tries to charge me forty. I usually manage to talk him down a bit, but rarely all the way to the real price.

As I was driving out of Capricorn I saw someone running beside my car and waving. I stopped. It was Boy. Boy is only his nickname but maybe not unironically nicknamed. I’ve known Boy since he really was a boy. He’s got a real sweet spirit but is the usual case of an individual whose actions are molded by the negative environment in which they grow up. He became a gangster, did “bad” stuff, went to prison quite of number of times, but, like many do while they are inside and then sing a different song on their release, the last time Boy was locked up he decided he didn’t want that life anymore, and he decided to change. And so far, he has done just that. I’m proud of him.

Boy, “Yho!!!! I haven’t seen you in forever. Why don’t you ever come and pick a guy up?”

“I’ve just been busy. You look like you’re doing good.”

Boy smiled proudly, “Yeah. I am! I told you I am done with that shit.”

“I’m glad to see that.”

“Where are you going?”

“I need a haircut, and Jerry’s not there.”

Boy looked down at the direction of Jerry’s place in confusion, “And now?”

“I’m gonna go to the Nigerian barber in Muizenberg.”

“Can I come with you?”

“Why not.”

I unlocked the door and he jumped in. I figured Boy coming with me, and us speaking Afrikaans the entire time, could help me get the brown skin discount. On the way, Boy excitedly filled me in on all the positive things going on in his life. I was pleased to hear them. We got to the barbershop, parked and went in. They had no customers, but the usual group of random dudes sitting and talking. The one Nigerian pointed at an empty chair and I sat in it. Boy told me he was just going to go smoke a cigarette quickly. The Nigerians spoke to each other in other languages. When Boy walked out the one Nigerian told me, “He’s very dangerous! A gangster. He just got out of Pollsoor.”

I looked at the guy, sitting behind me, through in the mirror in front of me. I smiled, and then laughed, “Yeah well, I’ve known him since he was a tiny kid. He doesn’t really show me his dangerous side.” The guy laughed. They went back to speaking whatever language they were speaking. Boy came in and we spoke Afrikaans. We all shouted over the sound of the clippers; all speaking at once, not bothered by each others’ conversations that seemed to be colliding in the air. The Nigerian barber tried to do that trim thing around the edges of my head. I managed to stop him just in time. It doesn’t look good on white guys, but definitely not on balding white guys! He seemed disappointed but compromised by trimming my beard, which ended up looking like a beard of a Mexican gangster. I was ok with that.

The barber brushed the hair off my neck, then took off the smock and whipped it. My hair flurried in the air. I stood, reached in my pocket and pulled out a twenty rand. I handed it to him. He looked at the other guy, and back at me and smiled, “”It’s thirty.” I laughed out loud and spoke to Boy as I pulled out another ten rand without arguing, “The white man’s price.” Boy laughed and agreed. I was just glad to finally have my haircut. As we walked out Boy asked me what I was up to and if it would be possible to watch a movie. I didn’t have any pressing matters and said it would be cool. We went to the video shop and as we walked in Boy commented about the poster in the window of The Rock dressed as a fairy, “YHO! I wanna see that one!”

I was slightly surprised at his taste in movies, but was relieved that the poster said, “Coming Soon.” Boy was disappointed. We walked to the New Release section and Boy couldn’t find anything that tickled his fancy. I pointed him in the direction of the Action Section, but he got sidetracked by something that interested him way more. And then I found myself and this “dangerous” gangster in the kiddies’ section of the video shop. He excitedly snatched up one of the DVD covers, “Have you seen this?!” Hoping he was joking but knowing he actually wasn’t, I held back my laughter and smart comments, “Alvin and the Chipmunks? Um, nope. Not, uh, not that one…yet.”

Boy’s eyes lit up. “You wanna get this one?”

Knowing it was not really as much about what I wanted, “Do you?”

“YEAH!!!!”

“Ok.”

Boy silently fist pumped the air.

I thought surely he would be disappointed with this choice once we watched it. But no, we went to my house, watched the little-talking-singing-chipmunks, and Boy seemed to thoroughly enjoy it, laughing quite often. I must admit, I enjoyed it enough as well. And as I sat there on my couch, with this so-called “dangerous” gangster, according to Nigerian barbers, I just thought a thought that I have thought so many times before that moment. When we let kids grow up too soon, allowing them to partake in adult activities that they are way too young to partake in, certain parts of them die young, they lose their innocence. But certain parts of them, the parts that maybe were never allowed to really and truly be a child, never grow up. So we find kids who act like gangsters and gangsters who act like kids. It’s altogether sad and hopeful. And it is most definitely one of the peculiar, yet common, realities in this odd world I find myself in.

Oooooooh eeeeh ooh ah ah, ching, chang, walla walla bing bang. Oooooooh eeeeh ooh ah ah, ching-chang walla-walla bing bang!


Township Tours…

May 26, 2010

Ok, I’m just going to say it… Township tours really freak me out! I used to be more torn about it; on the one hand I was seriously disturbed by the patronizing and intrusive edge they have to them, but on the other hand I could see how it’s good to bring money, jobs and positive attention to the townships. And I believe when they are tastefully done, through community participation and inclusion, they can expose tourists, who might have otherwise been shielded from the poverty that affects the majority of South Africans, to the bigger picture of the realities in South Africa. But that is if they are tastefully done.

All too often they remind me of some weird kind of urban safari. One day I was walking in Site C, Khayelitsha, and I rounded a corner to see the tiny township street flooded with white, camera-wielding foreigners, all snapping away, maybe trying to capture that perfect “smiling-with-a-random-black-kid” photo for their Facebook profile pictures. As I approached them they looked at me in shock and annoyance; I don’t think I have ever been glared at so intensely by any other group of people in my entire life! They thought they had paid for the right to be the only white people in the township and I was ruining that magical ideal for them!

As I walked by, I cringed at the incredibly loud ignorant comments made by the tourists (comments that would really insult a resident), them posing with random children they have never seen before and will never see again, them speaking down at the people of Site C as if they were not on the same plane of intelligence, and so on and so forth. The whole scene made me sick to my stomach.

As the FIFA World Cup approaches, and the entire world will be on South Africa’s doorstep, I can’t help but think about things like township tours. I want all the tourists to experience the fullness of South Africa. I want people to be able to experience the amazing culture in the townships, and also not be shielded from poverty, but I do not want it at the expense or exploitation of people. Let’s look at it in another way… Can you imagine the reaction of residence of Bishops Court or Constantia if tour companies began doing tours through their neighborhoods; neighborhoods which were also established and enabled through Apartheid with potentially just as much interest as the ones on the other end of the socio-economic spectrum.

Imagine a tour bus stopping on a street in Bishop’s Court, followed by a bunch of foreigners flooding out of it, filling the street; stopping little white kids riding their bikes past so they can get a picture with them, taking pictures as the fancy cars drive by, climbing up the tall barrier walls to get pictures of the large mansions and yards, and making comments like, “Man, can you believe people still live like this?!” I do not think the Bishops Court residents would be all that happy about it. I don’t think those tours would last that long.

So yeah, I just wanted to get that off my chest. I guess it’s not the township tours per say that bother me. It’s probably, more specifically, the township tours that are done distastefully that bother me to the core of my being.