“We teach boys how to wear the skin of a man, but we also teach them how to raise that skin like a flag and draw blood for it.”
(a bit of a content warning, in that this piece does eventually connect toxic masculinity to relationship violence, self-harm, violence against trans people, etc.)
Just to get this out of the way: I know it can be risky to re-release new versions of old work. I’m sure there will be YouTube comments pointing out how the original version, the one where I curse in the very first line, was so much better. But a “radio edit” of this poem is something people have asked for for years; there are other clean versions online, but this is the *definitive* clean version, and if it means more people can use it (in classrooms, youth groups, and beyond), that’s great.
And honestly, I like this version better anyway. I understand why the original took off all those years ago (over a million views on YouTube and 16 million on Facebook), and I have nothing against cursing in poems; I just think the shock factor or whatever doesn’t play the same way it did back then.
Speaking of “back then,” it’s the tenth anniversary of this poem, more or less. I performed it for the first time at the Artists’ Quarter in Saint Paul, sometime in January or February of 2012. The Button Poetry version that went viral is from a different show, and went up in 2013. The poem was a response to a specific series of beer commercials (here’s a Bitch Media piece with an overview of that campaign), and that phrase was part of “the discourse” at the time, from the work of Carlos Andrés Gómez (check out his book, “Man Up: Reimagining Modern Manhood” and TEDx Talk, “Man Up: The Gift of Fear”) to a very early commentary on it from political analyst John Dickerson: “Man Down.” A local poet named Jeremy Levinger also had a poem using the phrase as a jumping-off point.
With lots of voices critiquing something from lots of different angles, it can be tempting to feel like the culture has moved on from that moment, and in some ways, I really think it has. But only in some ways; I’ve talked about this before, but I don’t think it’s a matter of “things getting better” or “things getting worse” when we talk about men and masculinity in the US—I think it’s both, simultaneously. So the work continues. For poets, sure, but also for teachers, coaches, mentors, advocates, parents, and so many others- engaging young people (and not-so-young-people) about issues related to how we understand masculinity is foundational work for preventing domestic violence, sexual assault, mass shootings, and so many other things. Hopefully this piece can be useful.
This poem isn’t in my new book, “Not a Lot of Reasons to Sing, but Enough,” but its themes and ideas are definitely explored further there.
As always, I try to share my own work here alongside other resources:
Extended Thoughts on the Poem Itself
Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of comments informing me that the phrase “man up” actually means “to take responsibility and handle your business.” And it’s like, yeah, I know that. The point of the poem is not so much about questioning that advice (although there are times when it should definitely be questioned), and more about questioning why we gender that advice, why we don’t just literally say “toughen up” or “handle it” instead– why we always seem to equate competence, strength, and resolve with masculinity.
It’s also about what the implications of that are.
Because there is a bigger point being made here. This is not a poem about one specific phrase that I happen not to like. It’s a poem about language, and habits, and how the “little things” we don’t always think critically about connect to larger realities of harm and violence. If to be a man means to always be strong and in control, what happens when we aren’t? Or what happens when are, but that “strength” and “control” become violence? What percentage of mass shooters are men? What percentage of killers, abusers, warmongers, and exploiters are men? Why is violence so often associated with masculinity– in pop culture, in policy, and in everyday experience?
The poem doesn’t have room to answer all those questions, but it’s trying to point in a particular direction, and trying to make some connections. It’s also trying, if nothing else, to encourage us all to think a little more critically about the messages we receive about gender– where they come from, who benefits from them, and what kind of world we might be able to shape without them.
Resources, Readings, and Other Poems on Masculinity
A few weeks ago, Button also shared my poem “The Art of Taking the L.” Beyond the poem itself, the post I made here collects a bunch of great readings, videos, TED Talks, podcasts, tools, and other poems (from a range of voices) focusing on the topic of masculinity. I hope they can be useful!
Of course, I don’t just write poems about these issues; my background is in facilitation and social justice education, so a lot of my actual work is using poems as entry points into dialogue, critical thinking, and community-building. Lots more info, including potential program ideas, at my booking page.
The Full Text of the Poem
TEN RESPONSES TO THE PHRASE “MAN UP” (CLEAN VERSION)
1. I know what you’re trying to say. Man up means to do the difficult thing in the face of hardship, to take responsibility. As if women, and nonbinary people, never faced hardship. As if the people in my life who taught me responsibility were ever men.
2. You want to question my masculinity, like a schoolyard circle of curses, fine. Just remember: not every problem can be solved by “growing a pair.” You can’t arm-wrestle your way out of depression. The CEO of the company that just laid you off does not care how much you bench. And I promise, there is no lite beer in the universe full-bodied enough to make you love yourself.
3. Man up? Oh that’s that new superhero, right? Mild-mannered supplement salesman Mark Manstrong says the magic words “MAN UP,” and then transforms into THE FIVE O’CLOCK SHADOW, the massively-muscled, deep-voiced, leather-duster-wearing super-man who defends the world from, I don’t know, feelings.
4. Of course. Why fight to remove our chains, when we can simply compare their lengths? Why step outside the box, when the box has these awesome flame decals on it? We men are cigarettes: dangerous, poisonous, mass-produced.
5. You ever notice how nobody ever says “woman up?” They might imply it, but it’s not like a thing people say. Maybe because women and the women’s movement figured out a long time ago that being directly ordered around by commercials, magazines, and music is dehumanizing. When will men figure that out?
6. The phrase “Man Up” suggests that competence and perseverance, both generally good things, are also uniquely masculine. That women and nonbinary people—not to mention any man who doesn’t eat steak, drive a big pickup truck, and have lots of sex with women—are nothing more than background characters, comic relief, props. More than anything, though, it suggests that to be yourself—whether you, wear skinny jeans, rock a little eyeliner, drink some other brand of light beer, or write poetry—will cost you.
7. And how many boys have to kill themselves before this country acknowledges the problem? How many women have to be assaulted? How many trans people have to be murdered? We teach boys how to wear the skin of a man, but we also teach them how to raise that skin like a flag and draw blood for it.
8. Boy babies get blue socks. Girl babies get pink socks. What about green? What about purple? What about orange, yellow, chartreuse, cerulean, black, tie-dyed, buffalo plaid, rainbow…
9. I want to be free, to express myself. Man up. I want to have meaningful, emotional relationships with my brothers. Man up. I want to be weak sometimes. Man up. I want to be strong in a way that isn’t about physical power or dominance. Man up. I want to talk to my son about something other than sports. Man up. I want to be who I am. Man up.