It is a phrase which has become ubiquitous in recent years. You don’t feel like having another beer? Man up. Crying because you’ve just been dumped? Man up. Worried about a difficult conversation? Man up. The interesting thing about this phrase, though, is that no-one ever has to have it explained to them. It’s obvious. To man up is to be (more) like a man. What’s difficult about that?
But it is precisely the obviousness of the phrase which makes it so compelling as a comment on our contemporary sense of gendered identity. And because it is so obvious, so blunt even, it is easier to use the phrase in an ironic or tongue in cheek way. In this sense, man up can even apply to women. Stop complaining, be stoic, be like a man. As this (mis)use indicates, there is a contradictory doubleness or duplicity within the phrase, whether applied to men or women, which needs to be unpicked. Judith Butler, drawing on the work of Monique Wittig, points out that popular discourse about gender and traditional philosophy both assign it the quality of ‘being’ (Gender Trouble, p.29). Your gender is what you are, whether you like it or not. This ‘fact’ is what allows us to utter the apparently unproblematic statements ‘I am a man’ or ‘I am a woman’. Language demands that we make this statement about those around us every day, almost with every utterance, whenever we say ‘he says’ or ‘she says’. The phrase ‘man up’ seems solidly part of this tradition, assuming a fixed, knowable core to manliness. It is clear what it means to be a man, the phrase tells us: it is an absolute and unchanging essence, firmly ensconced in the realm of the ideal. This is why the phrase operates as a convenient shorthand, indeed, why it can be used at all.
At the same time, ‘man up’ expresses the injunction that we must become a man, telling us as directly as possible that we are not one yet. In this sense, it operates like the famous Aretha Franklin lyric picked out by Butler: ‘you make me feel like a natural woman’ (30). Aretha does not tell ‘you’ (the man) that he makes her intoa natural woman (the corollary of the ‘natural man’ of ‘man up’), only that he makes her feel like a natural woman. This subtlety of phrasing indicates that the concept of the natural woman (or natural man) is fundamentally alienating, enforcing gender identity as an ideal which it is impossible to attain. This is why for Simone de Beauvoir one is not born, but rather becomes (or, we might add, does not quite become) a woman. Gender is not being but becoming. Nevertheless, ‘you’ make ‘me’ feel like a natural woman. For Butler, the man enforces gender on the woman here as difference (from himself). In the most negative reading of this relationship, we might say that the man imposes upon the woman both the necessity of attaining her ‘natural’ gender identity and the impossibility of ever achieving more than a simulacral approximation of it. Her gender identity must therefore always be one of absolute alienation, something which she is never allowed to forget.
With the phrase ‘man up’, all of us can now take part in a similar process. We allknow what it means to be a man (even if, like St Augustine, we can’t precisely define it when challenged), but we also implicitly recognise that every time we say ‘I am a man’ (if we do) the impossibility of positioning gender as being forces the statement to turn back against us, responding ‘you are not a man’. What the phrase ‘man up’ allows, and the reason why it is always self-ironising, is the ability to point out the alienated identity of those around us, and at the same time of ourselves. Using the phrase makes us into the ‘you’ of Aretha Franklin’s song, telling the other that there is such a thing as a man, but that you (and I) will only ever be in the process of becoming, and never actually be it. We know every time we use the phrase that it is an impossible injunction – it is the injunction of gender itself – but this is why we revel in it. The impossibility does not stop us using it but rather encourages us to use it again, and again, and again.