When was the last time you told someone, or were told to "man up"?
We hear it all the time in song lyrics, in the classroom, in the workplace, at the dinner table. You've probably said it to someone at some point in your life. You've definitely heard it being said.
“Man up” may seem like a harmless way to tell someone to get a grip, own your responsibilities, or toughen up, but language is a powerful tool, and relating these meanings to the word 'man' feeds harmful stereotypes and puts a certain pressure on men to conform to these expectations.
The phrase itself also implies that being strong and suppressing emotional vulnerability is gender specific. It implies that one can be more or less of a man based on behaviour.
Man up meaning: be strong, don't cry, toughen up, get over it
"Man up" is one of many phrases which are so normalised in our everyday lives that we forget to question why they're worded that way, and the negative impact words can have.
Bias and discrimination are so deeply embedded in our society that we regularly use and hear phrases like “Don’t be a pussy” and not even think about what it implies for women and those who have vaginas. The word "gay" originally meant happy and elated before becoming a term to describe homosexuality. Since the 1990s, "gay" can now mean stupid, undesirable, and/or un-masculine.
Words have power. And using gendered language like the above encourages the stereotypes we - society - have created. A stereotypical man is everything the phrase "man up" implies: someone who doesn't need help, doesn't need to cry, someone who can just get on with it.
It's no wonder that men are much less likely to seek medical support for a mental health problem than women. We normalise men's ability to deal with things on their own.
At Voicebox, our main mission is to promote healthy masculinity in schools, society and beyond. So here are our 3 reasons to stop saying "Man up".
1. Strengths and weaknesses don't relate to our sex and gender
Contrary to what society and culture tells us, our strengths and weaknesses - our character - aren't inherently tied to our sex or gender. While societal stereotypes have historically perpetuated the notion that certain traits are gender-specific, in 2023, we need to recognise that we as unique individual people transcend these artificial boundaries.
Gender diversity in fact enriches society by providing a range of perspectives and skills, irrespective of stereotypes. Men and women are equally capable of demonstrating compassion, leadership, intelligence, creativity, resilience, and emotional vulnerability.
2. Shaming doesn't work
When researching SEO phrases for this blog, ranking in the top 10 were "how to man up" and "man up pills" (either a joke gift for imaginary ailments or genuine viagra pills?!). This alone highlights the serious and dangerous effect that shaming men has.
Shaming anyone, regardless of gender, undermines self-esteem, hinders open communication, and prevents seeking help. If you add to the stigma that asking for help is weak, that one should just get on with it, toughen up etc, that person's problem doesn't go away. Instead, the shame builds and festers. It adds pressure to conform to what that person thinks is expected of them.
Men are literally googling 'How to man up' and relating manliness to sexual ability instead of dealing with their problems in a healthy, sustainable and shame-free way.
3. Being vulnerable is a strength, not a weakness
An exercise we run a lot in our drama workshops for secondary schools and drama workshops for primary schools is Word Race: Participants split into teams and take it in turns to run to the whiteboard, writing down as many words as they can that they associate with 'Man' or 'Woman' in an allotted time.
What's interesting about this exercise is despite having worked with over 5,000 participants and over 44 organisations, the same words always come up. (Generally speaking) 'Man' elicits words like 'Strong', 'Independent', 'Reliable', whereas the word 'Emotional' usually lies under 'Woman'.
When we tell a boy or man to "man up", we are telling them that we expect them to be strong, resilient, and self-reliant. But it's these expectations which discourage men and boys from seeking help or expressing vulnerability, reinforcing the notion that mental health struggles are a sign of weakness. (We explain this more in depth in an earlier blog post).
In 2023, let's work to make "Man up" an old fashioned term. We need to break the destructive cycle of man-shaming in order to become more confident and more secure in our expressions of masculinity.
If you have a question or would like to chat through something with one of the team, you can book a free consultation here.