Is There a Future for “Man Up”


From time to time Voice Male has asked contributing editors, national advisory board members, and other colleagues to submit short essays. In Fall 2012, a number responded to the question “What Is Healthy Masculinity?” In the three pieces that follow, two advisory board members and a longtime contributor weigh in on the question “What comes up for you when you hear the phrase ‘Man up’?”


Man Down

I seldom use the term “man up” in conversation. I do recall my wife saying it to me after a silly argument earlier this year; so I guess the expression has a washcloth and towel in my house. The words however sound so militaristic or perhaps what a football coach might say at halftime to a losing team in a losing season.

What are you supposed to do when you man up? Check your jockstrap?  Punch someone? Pay the bills? Help a woman you don’t even find attractive? Is “man up” something you tell your son? Since I don’t know how to drive a car or repair things around my house, I’ll never be able to man up. I’ll be a failure in the eyes of other men. It also means my wife will look at me with pity and the shaking of her head that secretly means she made a mistake when the vows were passed around.

Many times it’s my wife who seems to “man up.” She’s the one yelling at drivers in other cars, arguing the price of food items with clerks in supermarkets, and instructing our children on how not to back down when the possession arrow is pointing in their direction.

I don’t think we need another word or term to replace “man up.” I think we just need to understand our full potential and relationships to others. If we simply do our best we don’t need to crave a power drink to quench our thirst. And what might it mean to man down?  Would this mean the end of conflicts and wars? If so, it might explain why we never hear the expression used this way. “Man down” usually refers to someone injured or worse.

How do we reclaim language? What if “man down” was defined as someone in prayer—kneeling in a pious state? What if “man down” was the ultimate act of not submission but humility?

Maybe God is the only one waiting for us to Man up!

—E. Ethelbert Miller

e ethelbert miller thumbnailE. Ethelbert Miller is a literary activist, director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University, and a writer and poet who has authored several books.



Code for “Suck It Up”

Man Up is another way of saying “Suck it up. Be tough.” This constant demand for men to be hard is part of the problem when it comes to conventional manhood. I asked my students at California State University, Long Beach, if they thought “Man Up” could ever be reclaimed. Most said “Man Up” can never truly have a positive spin because its meaning is so closely tied up with the core ideas of hegemonic masculinity. My students make a compelling point. But if “Man Up” isn’t the slang-of-the-day there will be another term just like it to take its place. It’s crucial that we go deeper and rethink masculinity (like Voice Male does). We need to uproot the expectations and demands of hypermasculinity that limit men and are so dangerous to us all. With that in mind, being strong, brave, bad-ass, or powerful isn’t the problem. It’s what we do with that strength, bravery, bad-assery, or power that matters. One chapter of my book Men and Feminism is titled “Man Up.” This title calls out the term for scrutiny. At the same time, it’s a call to action, a strong request for men to step up to the political and ethical demands of nonsexist commitment. In other words, the phrase says, “You wanna be tough? Be nonsexist. Now that’s being tough.” There are many starting points for gender justice action. Getting rid of the term “Man Up” is one; transforming the rigid demands on masculinity is another.

—Shira Tarrant

shira tarrant thumbnailProfessor of gender and sexuality studies at Cal State University Long Beach, Voice Male national advisory board member Shira Tarrant is the author of Men and Feminism (Seal, 2009) and editor of Men Speak Out: Views on Gender, Sex, and Power (Routledge, 2013).


Human Up

As a teen boy in the 1960s, “be a man” and “act like a man” were the phrases I regularly heard. What I believed my father (and mother) were teaching me were ideas of righteousness, standing up for what I believed, standing by those who may have needed my help and support, and being a mensch. They gave me the gift of understanding that being a man had everything to do with being respectful, caring, empathetic, generous, tolerant, and nothing really to do with violence, coercion, control, or dominance—although on one memorable occasion, when I was being physically bullied in eighth grade, my father did suggest to me that if I simply “popped” the kid once on his nose, he would stop. I believe my father thought of this clearly as what a man could do to defend himself.

Take a look at all the definitions of “man up” in the Urban Dictionary ( “Don’t be a pussy, brave it, be daring,” “strap on a pair, grow some balls, stop being such a complete and utter wuss,” “take control, be strong, rise to the moment,” “to work through impediments and obstacles without whining,” “derived from the phrase ‘cowboy up,’ meaning  ‘be tough, be strong, act like a real cowboy,’ which was in use in rodeo circles at least since the mid-1970s. ‘Man up’ means, similarly, ‘Be tough, be a man, do what a man should do.’”  There are a few other, more positive, definitions and usages, but you get the picture.

When I played football at a military academy in the 1960s, coached by an unhappy and aggressive man who had played football under Paul “Bear” Bryant at the University of Alabama (but who didn’t make it into the NFL), the pejorative sense of “man up” was everywhere in different guise: “Don’t be a sissy,” “No pain, no gain,” “Don’t just hit him, hurt him,” and, of course, “Don’t be a crybaby.” All the while, the funny little military caps we often wore at the academy were called “cunt caps,” reminding us that our manhood was always in question.

I don’t like the phrase “man up” and I never use it in my work supporting change in men’s attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. At the very least, it is far too limiting.

At a conference a few years ago, playwright-activist Eve Ensler said: “What greater tragedy is there than for a man to be separated from his own heart.” I want men to connect to “their own hearts,” I want men to understand what it means to be fully human. I guess I want them to “human up.”

—Stephen McArthur

stephen mcarthur thumbnailStephen McArthur is a direct service advocate for victims and survivors of domestic violence in Vermont and works with hundreds of students from middle school to college each semester in helping to answer the challenges confronting them, including bullying, sexting, dating violence, and domestic violence. His poem “When Men Do Nothing” was published in Voice Male (Summer 2012).