Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Mark Radcliffe - The Male Straightjacket

Title has been corrected - apologies for the lack of editing.

This piece by Mark Radcliffe was posted at the Good Men Project back in August. It's a brave and important statement about our need, as men, to be part of a community (and a community of men) in which we can ask for help and support when we need it, and offer it in return when others need it.

Around the time this was posted, President Obama made a speech in which he argued that personal and financial success in this country is the result of community effort, not a single individual. Even those people who seem to have done it all on their own - Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and son on - all had people who helped them and supported them along the way. He was ridiculed by the political right for his statements - they still hold on to the belief that success is an individual effort. 

But the era of rugged individualism, one of the false ideals of this country, is long past being useful - and was likely never really true. Two decades ago, Hillary Clinton argued that it takes a village - she was right then and it's true today. But men are taught that it's weak to need support, to ask for help, to admit that we don't know.

I have been working on this stuff for 20 years and I still struggle with those bullshit messages I was raised with in my family. I am grateful every day for the friends and colleagues who support and encourage me (especially my brilliant and lovely partner, Jami) - and yet I forget to ask for help sometimes when I need it, or I say to "yes" to one more thing because I should be able to do everything, and do it all perfectly.

It is a straightjacket - and it's killing us.

The Male Straitjacket


Mark Radcliffe tears up the myth of male independence.

I’m a man.

I’m supposed to be able to do it all on my own.

Chop my own wood.

Slay my own dinner.

Provide for my children (if I had any).

Charm women far and wide.

And still remember to call grandma on Mother’s Day.

I’m not supposed to “need” anyone. I’m supposed to be fiercely independent, bravely self-sufficient, and provide for others in my spare time.

But the secret is that, often, I’m barely keeping my head above water.

I’m trying to feed all of my dreams, like starving children I so desperately want to help flourish.
And the problem is: I always feel like I’m falling short.

Whether it’s a writing career I’m trying to manage, a new album of songs I’m trying to write, an essay I’m trying to finish, or a novel I’m trying to edit, or even a social life to keep afloat, the problem remains the same: after a certain point, I’m overwhelmed. I need a relief pitcher to come in and take over.

What’s worse: I can almost never admit it.

Because I pride myself on trying to finish what I’ve started. That I can be the Babe Ruth of my own personal World Series—knock in the big final grand slam with one last, brilliant swing.

I’m not a toddler, I tell myself. I’m not a teenager. I don’t need a coach. I don’t need anyone. I’m a self-sufficient achievement machine.

(Aren’t I?)

But the thing we don’t realize when we look at our heroes is that they all had their coaches and teammates and supporting cast. We just don’t see ‘em.

Jordan had Phil Jackson. Lance Armstrong had Johan Bruyneel. Bono had a nation of Irishmen (and women) behind him, not to mention a helluva band. No one makes it alone, we’re told, time and time again, but we forget it. Because we only see Phelps up there on stage. We don’t see his coaches. We only see Scorcese accepting the Oscar. We don’t see his high school film teacher. Or his manager. We only see Adam Levine getting a Grammy. We don’t see the guy who encouraged him to keep writing songs back in 9th grade when he was about to quit. Let alone his accountant, guitar tech, pilates instructor and girlfriend(s?) who keep him going each day.

It just slayed me. The notion that maybe the final act of being a man was to not achieve perfectly competent independence, but to rather so commit yourself to life that you can’t possibly do it alone, that you need someone to help you get through it all, someone without whom you’re utterly helpless.
So that’s why it’s crucial that we men take the humility step and just learn to lean on others to help us get to our goals. It’s okay if we only do 80% of the work instead of 100%. Especially if trying to do 100% keeps us from ever finishing anything. The novel. The career switch to being a chef. The act of being a better husband. The pursuit of working less and being a better father. Or any of the other countless goals we men dream up but don’t always get around to doing.

Because it’s hard to ask for help. To truly admit that we can’t do it alone. That in some sense, we are “dependent.” And that’s what we’ve been told not to do.

There was a DeBeers diamond ad years ago that was perhaps the only one of the whole campaign to reach me. I wasn’t really sure I’d ever marry, for a variety of reasons. But there it was, this simple line, that caught me at the right time: “Make a declaration of dependence,” it urged. It just slayed me. The notion that maybe the final act of being a man was to not achieve perfectly competent independence, but to rather so commit yourself to life that you can’t possibly do it alone, that you need someone to help you get through it all, someone without whom you’re utterly helpless. Or at least not the best man you can be. The goal for independence is the male equivalent of a straitjacket, and one that keeps us from truly embracing others in life.

So maybe the real goal of being a man, after a certain point, is to stop being superman, and to realize that you can make a lot more difference in this world if you’re part of a team than if you’re going it alone. Steve Jobs needed a Wozniak. Barack needs a Michelle. Kobe needed a Shaq. The trick is to realize it while they’re still in front of you.

And ask them if they’d care to join up as a team.

Here’s to the end of the Isle of Man.

About Mark Radcliffe
Mark Radcliffe is a writer and singer/ songwriter based in New York City.
You can read more of his essays here:
And check out his music here:

1 comment:

mike said...

This is a very enlightening article. The comment Barrack made about community as opposed to a single man is something we need to recognize and live by