Masculinity in the 21st Century: Part 2

By Chris Thurber

In Part 1 of this series, I shared some family history and suggested that an outdated concept of a self-made man was someone who took wild risks, showed little emotion (positive or negative), relied more on charm than smarts, and acquired material wealth. As I see it, the modern self-made man is more complex.

1.       He is discerning. He watches how people treat one another at play, at work, in families, and in places of worship, and he chooses which examples to follow. He recognizes true beauty and nurtures the signature strengths in others and in himself.

2.       He is respectful. He examines emotions and behaviors in himself and others, embracing fairness, honesty, loyalty, hard work, and sober consent. He rejects sex as a commodity or conquest, and does not confuse assertiveness with violence.

3.       He is confident. He cares for his body and doesn’t let his biological sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation constrain or define his goals. He values his genitals, whatever their shape or size, and relinquishes the self-doubt engendered by pop culture or pornography.

4.       He is courageous. He takes initiative without being reckless. He is imaginative and creative without being wasteful. He takes healthy risks, not to impress his friends but to help others—and himself—to achieve virtuous goals.

5.       He is gritty. He perseveres through challenges, not out of fear of being called feminine (a sissy or wuss), but because he understands that hard work is necessary for success and that set-backs are part of the path to achievement.

6.       He is articulate. He expresses negative emotions, including fear, sadness, frustration, and shame, as clearly as he expresses positive emotions, such as joy, pride, admiration, and love. He also listens carefully and openly empathizes with others’ thoughts and feelings.

7.       He is entertaining. He laughs a lot and makes other laugh. He has fun while inhibiting impulses that may harm himself or others. He relishes spontaneity as much as careful planning, and always does his best to be mindful of the consequences for himself and others.

8.       He is unselfish. He eschews materialism and shares in proportion to his prosperity. He knows that a truly fortunate man is attached to people, places, and pursuits, not to money or objects. He takes every opportunity to teach what he knows.

9.       He is humble. He recognizes that there are entities in the universe more important than he is as an individual. He consistently demonstrates a willingness to learn, to atone, to make amends, and to strive to be his best self and contribute to society.

10.    He is rustic. He appreciates and cares for the natural world. He recognizes that wasting resources, over-populating the planet, and generating pollution show disrespect for future generations, whereas immersion in nature is good for the soul and motivates conservation.

I’ve waxed philosophical and given you a modern definition of masculinity. But I’ve failed. The constructs I just outlined define a good person, not a good boy or great man. To be genuine, respectful, confident, bold, gritty, articulate, entertaining, unselfish, humble, and rustic apply equally well to girls and women, as well as to great people who are questioning their gender identity.

But I’m not racking my paddle that easily.


I was four years old when Marlo Thomas and Friends pressed the vinyl record Free To Be You and Me. It was the liberation anthem for toddlers of the time and included a skit called Boy Meets Girl, starring comedian Mel Brooks. He and Thomas voiced two newborns talking in adjacent bassinettes and trying to figure out who is the boy and who is the girl.

The characters go through some usual gender-role stereotypes, such as who likes flowers and the color pink, who likes trucks and the color blue, and who is afraid of spiders. There is so much gender non-conformity that they have no idea who is the boy and who is the girl. Until the nurse comes to change their diapers, at which point Thomas’s character squeals, “You see that? I am the girl. And you’re a boy!” Once again, the penis saves the day.

But not so fast. Between one and two percent of all people are born with ambiguous genitalia. It’s about as common as having red hair. So I have failed again. One more strike and I’m out. If I’m going to ask “What makes a great boy or man?” then perhaps I should give masculinity a psychological starting point, rather than a cultural or physical one.

Feeling Manly
OK, then, here we go. For anyone who identifies as a boy or a man, what makes them both great and uniquely masculine? It isn’t my top ten 10 character traits, and it isn’t external genitalia. Maybe boys and men are defined not by what they have or what they accept, but by what they reject. Some men, like William Pollock, Dan Kindlon, Michael Thompson, Michael Gurian, and Tony Porter, think so. These authors have expanded and amplified the 1972 stance celebrated on the Free To Be You and Me record: Real boys and real men refuse to be pigeonholed.

Whether I call it a Boy Code or a Man Box, the message is the same: True masculinity is about embracing your humanity and discarding the masculine stereotype as unfeeling, violent, and strictly heterosexual. Enlightened males also discard the stereotype of women as weak, soft, and inferior objects.

I think I just failed to define masculinity for a third time. But this stereotype rejection is valid stuff, so let’s count it as a foul ball, not a strike. The problem is that we’ve heard these non-conformity messages before. Maybe too many times. I know I have.

If one more avuncular psychologist tells me not to conform to a heartless masculine stereotype, I might lock myself in a room—just out of spite—and watch every Dirty Harry, every James Bond film, and every Fast and Furious movie that was ever made. Look, I’m happy to coach other boys and men out of the Boy Code and the Man Box, but let it be known: I got out of that space a long time ago.

Today’s Man
So I’ll take one more swing at it by describing the times when I feel most authentically masculine.

I feel masculine when I’m hunting and gathering. I haven’t slain any wooly mammoths lately, but it felt good to buy new winter coats for my boys. All of the hard work that went into having the funds for the credit card I inserted confidently into the machine came flooding back in a rewarding surge of dopamine. The “Thanks, Dad, for the awesome new coat” was all I needed to feel manly. To be clear, hunting and gathering are in service to others, not at the expense of others. Even verbal references to hunting and gathering by other people, such as calling another male a “slayer” if he makes a romantic connection, or referring to a white tank top as a “wife beater” are misogynistic, not masculine.

I feel masculine when I’m visually and emotionally engaged. I’ll spare you the measurement details, but it’s a biological certainty that most males are more easily captivated by visual stimuli than most females. Some of this may be sociological, but the brain structures involved in male arousal are somewhat different than those involved in female arousal. I recognize this is about as deep as Santa Claus saying he feels most Claus-like on Christmas, something the Tooth Fairy can’t relate to.

I feel masculine when I’m guiding. When I tutor someone, fix something, or orchestrate an experience, it feels great. When I do it for someone else, I feel especially manly. I’m quite gratified when I can replace the icemaker, book a complicated travel itinerary for my family, or teach my son how to use the cross-cut sled I built for our table saw. For the women I’ve spoken with about these examples, such toils are pure psychic pain. For me, it’s pure joy.

I feel masculine when I keep my strength in check. Sure, it’s true that most men have more upper-body strength than most women. However, my friend Jessica is a competitive power lifter, and my friend Michael is a quadriplegic. It’s not the amount or type of strength that defines a man, but the power to control it, to channel it in healthy directions. When I exercise self-restraint, or when I am gentle, tender, or measured, I feel as manly as when I split logs. So far, no women I’ve spoken with feel equally empowered by self-control and swinging a maul.

I’m closer now to defining a masculine ideal than I’ve ever been. I’m certain that hunting and gathering, visual captivation, fixing things, and balancing muscles with moderation are more characteristically masculine than feminine. These factors contribute to manhood. But none of them makes a boy or man truly great. And all of them may be true for certain females.

Clarity And Confidence
So here we are, at the end of our trek. We’ve discarded the bionic boy on magazine covers, climbed the emotional Everest of self-expression, identified 10 gender-neutral virtues, and described four gender-specific attributes. I may have missed the mark, but I am suddenly struck with clarity and confidence.

The one thing that makes a great man—the one thing no woman can do—is to gather all this advice and live it out, as a man, among the next generation of men. Great women are equally important, but they live their leadership in uniquely feminine ways.

Simply put: A great man understands that genuine masculinity is living what we want our boys to become. Our sterling example—as someone who identifies as a man—will help them find their own masculine path. Ultimately, they will decide who they want to become. We can shape the what of boys—their character, their convictions, and their charisma.

Live what you want your boys to become is not just a modern, masculine ideal. It is the living model with which boys can most closely identify. Owning that truth is the essence of manhood.

Dr. Christopher Thurber is a board-certified clinical psychologist who serves on the faculty of Phillips Exeter Academy. His writing and videos are favorite training tools for professional educators and youth leaders worldwide. He co-founded, co-authored the best-selling Summer Camp Handbook, and hosts The Secret Ingredients of Summer Camp Success, a homesickness-prevention DVD for families. Find out more on