The “Real Men” of Evangelical Christianity

CC image courtesy of Flickr, Jeremy Brooks.

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog, Love, Joy, Feminism. It was originally published on November 18, 2015.

I’ve run across a number of memes about what “real men” do. The most frequent seems to be that real men “protect” women rather than abusing them. This meme has bugged me because I’d rather have a man’s respect than his protection. On a whim, I went to google, typed in “real men,” and started scrolling through images. I found quite a number of these “real men” memes that were Christian-themed (most were probably created by evangelicals), and found myself cringing on a variety of levels.

If you’re like me, your social media feeds are probably filled with discussions of ISIS and refugees and epic battles between conservative friends and progressive friends. So today, let me offer you a break, such as it is. Let’s look at some of the “real men” memes I found, and I’ll take this opportunity to discuss some of the problematic aspects in evangelicals’ approach to male-female relationships. Let’s get started!

And why do men need to lead women anywhere, pray tell? I think this is the biggest problem I have with Christian “real man” memes—they all focus on male leadership. They don’t treat women as people. Instead, women become objects to be protected, or cared for, or led here or there. What about “real men listen to women”? What about “real men respect women’s ability to make up their own minds”? I could have stopped at “real men respect women,” but in Christian meme world that actually means “real men don’t have sex with women before they marry them,” not “real men listen to women and accept their decisions about their bodies and lives.”

The problem with this meme is related to the problem with all of the memes about fathers and daughters. Men are supposed to be overly protective of their daughters, and controlling of their daughters, and possessive of their daughters—or so the memes suggest. It’s as though their daughters are objects to be locked up or put on a shelf for looking at only. When was the last time you saw a meme where a father said he wanted his daughter’s suiters to treat her with respect and let her make her own decisions and choices? That’s right, never.

And so here this meme is, suggesting that a “real man” should treat his wife or girlfriend the way he would would want another man to treat his daughter. Given the way we talk about fathers and daughters in our society, this is extremely infantilizing. Respect for women as people disappears, swallowed up by a respect for women that is defined by their relationship to men.

I appreciate the assertion that woman was created from man’s side “to be equal,” but nothing in the rest of the meme reflects this focus on equality. Instead there’s a focus on women’s tears, because we all know women are delicate flowers who cry at the drop of a hat. And then there is a focus on women being created under man’s arm, “to be protected.” Well guess what? A protector/protected relationship is not equality. Why not “a real man gives women the tools they need to protect themselves”? After all, if a woman must rely on a man for protection, who will protect her from that man?

Let’s talk about the stereotype of women crying easily for a moment. One thing I’ve noticed is that sometimes women cry when they want to be heard but aren’t being listened to. Sometimes women cry to get the attention of a man in their life because saying “this matters to me, please listen and take me seriously” isn’t enough. As a general rule, men don’t tend to take women as seriously as they do other men. But when tears come—then they listen. Then they realize shit, this is serious, she really means this!

I’m not saying that all women do this (they don’t) or that this is what is happening every time a woman cries (it isn’t). What I’m saying is that I’ve noticed a pattern where men refuse to pay attention to what a woman is saying until she cries, and then all of a sudden they realize it’s important. But no, this meme can’t be imposed upon to include any realization of this pattern. It’s all “be careful when you make a woman cry because God counts her tears” rather than “a real man listens to a woman and doesn’t drive her to tears by refusing to take her concerns seriously.”

Again with the protectors rhetoric—and again I say, why not equip women to protect themselves? If a woman must always have a protector, she is vulnerable to abuse by that protector. If a woman is equipped to protect herself, she will not have to depend on a fallible male to protect her. Seeing women as beings that need protection gets in the way of seeing women as equals. Instead we are weaker vessels that need male protection—and, presumably, male leadership, because we apparently aren’t capable of looking after ourselves.

Note too the use of the phrase “our women.” In this context, it denotes ownership.

Christian memes about “real men” often repeat traditional societal assumptions about male/female relationships, such as the assumption that a man will pay for a woman’s dinner on a date. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t recall seeing that in the Bible, so it’s worth noting that they’re pulling things from cultural norms that date back to the Victorian Era and treating them as a sort of gospel truth. Either way, the wording in this meme—”pay for you,” rather than the less confusing “pay for your food” or “provide for you”—is creepy.

While praying for a woman doesn’t have the same problematic aspects as the “protector” rhetoric, I’m curious about what rhetoric is to be engaged in these prayers. There’s a difference between “please help Wendy today as she undergoes her performance review at work” and “please help Wendy see that, as a woman, she needs to submit to my leadership” or “please make Wendy realize that she shouldn’t have stood up to me today.” There’s an assumption in these memes that prayer is always good, and a lack of understanding that there are certain sorts of prayer that can make a situation worse.

Here again we see the repetition of traditional patriarchal gender norms—men are supposed to open doors and pay for their dates’ food. Note also the last line, where men are presented as guides. Why does a woman need a guide, exactly? It is true that relationship partners influence each other—as do individuals in other relationships—but I’m uncomfortable with the one-way nature of the phrase as used here and the centering of the idea of guiding, which suspects that one party must lead and the other will naturally follow. Women aren’t treated as independent entities who chose their own direction in these memes.

I could go on, but the memes have started to become repetitive. The same focus on protection and opening doors marches from meme to meme. In each meme, a focus on respect—true respect, not simple sexual abstinence—is glaringly absent. And this isn’t only an evangelical thing—secular memes about “real men” also tend to focus on protection and lack any mention of respect. And that, quite frankly, is tragically sad.

But let’s not leave off on a downer! Let me leave you with this:

Note: This is all without even getting into what “real men” means. What’s the alternative, “fake men”? Speaking of “real men” also ties into ideas of masculinity. Why not focus on how “people” should treat each other—i.e. with compassion, respect, understanding—rater than what “real men” should or should not do? 

4 comments

  • “Why not focus on how “people” should treat each other—i.e. with compassion, respect, understanding—rater than what “real men” should or should not do?”
    It isn’t a rhetorical question. Real life, fully realized, is about human compassion, respect and whatever understanding we are able to muster. It begins with our children: natural love, respect, compassion. Our understanding grows as our children gift us. If we know little compassion and respect for children because of our own abuse, little understanding results. We even hit them and call it Jesus.
    Men unfortunately, partly because of patriarchy have lost touch with some basic gifts of life. They learn slowly and have terrible difficulty understanding the compassion, the respect. They bastardize scriptures to suit their denial, their own damaged histories and and they perpetuate abuse with the rod, with narrow rules and bullying of various stripes: Women are to be silent in church and men are the boss. Children must obey or be punished. What happens with children, happens with women too. The abuse is not limited but spread wide as the good word.
    Real men in fundagelicalism are broken men who harm women and children by the book.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy

      Women are to be silent in church and men are the boss. Children must obey or be punished. What happens with children, happens with women too. The abuse is not limited but spread wide as the good word.
      Real men in fundagelicalism are broken men who harm women and children by the book.

      “*I* HOLD THE WHIP! YOU FEEL THE WHIP! GAWD HOLDS THE BIGGEST WHIP! PRAISE GAWD!”

  • I don’t mind the idea of husbands, fathers, brothers etc. protecting women. Even women who aren’t related. It is called being a gentleman. I do have a problem with the notion that women just need to wait for their knight in shining armor to complete them. We are complete in Christ. Women, single or married, need to wrap their identity in Christ instead of in a man.

    • Well, Kay, I don’t agree but wish you well in your pursuits. I let go of the rather offensive idea that we are incomplete without Christ or Buddha or Mohammed or Bahaullah or any one of the countless people that dot human history. They all may add some measure of life to our being depending on how we meet them but they are also all potential harms and excuses for hatred in the world. They all bring great teaching of love and they are all finally mutually exclusive. The Bahai’s say their leader is not mutually exclusive but that is only because they do not like to admit his supremacy, his divine claim. Not even all his writings are released because you are not ready for them yet.. Same goes for Mohammed(mutually exclusive) who wants it made clear that he is the last hope, the final solution.
      Jesus has become a political mallet in America and though he may have had wise counsel in some manner for us, he is not the Jesus of history, the man who had a message to share… he is now a God of righteous war and gunslingers (see the recent news from Jerry Falwell Jr. at Liberty University.)
      So, Kay, if you want to feel ‘looked after’ by men, that is your business but I reject the idea that men are ordained as boss in the home. What nonsense. You are as free and powerful in the world as you care to be. Your obedience to the man in the kitchen or the man is the sky is simply your choice to be a free human or one bound. Doug Wilson claims that God told him women are built for submission. It is God’s plan. I am telling you Doug Wilson is a bully. Believe what you will…

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