Essay: What it Means to Be A Man

March 4, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


CLARENCE PAGE: “What a piece of work is man,” Shakespeare wrote. Yeah, we are a piece of work, especially sportsmen.

Look at the NBA, for example: Running, jumping, dunking, and dancing on air with gravity-defying grace. Yet how quickly the grace of the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons collapsed one night, as sportsmen and sports fans reverted to caveman, pounding and pummeling their fellow man.

This, too, is the world of men, responding with fists to a perceived dis.

SPORTS ANNOUNCER: You knew this was going to happen sooner or later.

CLARENCE PAGE: It’s not just the NBA. One day after the Detroit disaster, we saw the South Carolina football game erupts into an ugly ten-minute brawl. And then there’s hockey, which often has been described as a fight interrupted by outbreaks of hockey.

Sometimes I think that the trouble with men is that we aren’t women. You almost never see women athletes fight, at least not in front of the cameras. No, that’s a guy thing, a manly thing, seemingly, that also raises disturbing questions about what it means to be a man these days.

By almost every measure young women are on the rise while young men are in decline. Since they received equal opportunity under American law in the ’60s, they have excelled, while our young men in many ways have slipped backwards. No wonder men held women back so long.

Coast to coast, high school girls have taken over the honor rolls, the valedictorian honors, the class presidencies, and student newspaper editorships. Women occupy more than 55 percent of college enrollment and 60 percent of Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, and their percentage is still growing.

Business Week Magazine called it the new gender gap. To buck up their gender ratios, to 50/50, Business Week said, some Ivy League schools are practicing a stealth affirmative action for guys.

Other educated women, especially black women, across America increasingly find themselves marrying down, as the popular phrase goes, to less well-educated men. Like the lovely and charming women on Joe Millionaire, who compete for a supposedly rich guy who turned out to be a construction worker.

“This is a man’s world,” James Brown once sang, but women are moving up fast and surging ahead. More power to them, but more questions for us. Nobody says men have to be better educated than women, but the numbers make you wonder. As women are moving up, why are men sliding back? What’s the matter with guys?

From kindergarten to grad school, boys are becoming the second sex, except in prisons, where the male lead stays way ahead. The women’s movement, quite properly, rose up in protest over the narrow roles that society assigned to them, but how about the narrow, one-dimensional roles that society assigns to men?

As boys, we learn that power comes on the playground, in sports. As teens, we are empowered by James Bond’s standards of cool: our appeal to the ladies. As men, we are empowered by standards of wealth. Money, as the saying goes, is how we keep score. We place our male icons on a pedestal, the way men like to put women. But a pedestal is a very narrow place to stand.

As certain over-pampered athletes show us, when testosterone overwhelms their better judgment, a satisfying life requires more from a man than money, muscle or a great slap shot.

It also requires a wisdom, an understanding about others, a wisdom that we don’t always appreciate until long after our testosterone-crazed playing years are over. We need to pass this wisdom onto the young, assuming we can figure it out for ourselves.

“What a piece of work is man,” Hamlet exclaimed, “and yet to me what is this quintessence of dust?” We still wonder, we men. We’re a piece of work all right, a work in progress. I’m Clarence Page.