What does it mean to be a real man in the 21st Century

The rise of feminism and the shift towards a more earth-centred paradigm has meant that the old models of patriarchal manhood are no longer acceptable. But our culture offers little in the way of healthy alternative masculine role models. Instead we have these masculine stereotypes presented in the media:

  • The Sensitive New Age Guy (SNAG) – trying hard to be in touch with his feminine and emotional nature, but without clarity and solidity about who he is and what he stands for.
  • The Idiot Man (e.g. Homer Simpson) – the butt of jokes and a staple of sitcoms everywhere. The Idiot man is basically the 1950s patriarchal male disempowered and seen from a feminist perspective. He is disconnected from his feelings, tries hard to conform to societal expectations and cannot function without the help of women.
  • The Nice Guy – a pleaser who says all the right things to make people (especially women) happy, but who is in denial about his own needs and, as a result, fails to keep his promises.
  • The Angry Warrior – on the surface a crusader for justice, but fuelled by resentment with a permanent simmering rage just below the surface.
  • The Addicted Male – a lost soul, numbing his pain through addictions to alcohol, drugs, porn, sex, shopping, social media, working, exercise or other.


Traditional cultures understood that psychologically and spiritually healthy men were essential to the wellbeing of the community, and this was too important to be left to chance or to be just the responsibility of the parents. Thus cultures throughout time have had initiation rites for men. In some cultures the men would come in the night and steal the boys away from the crying mothers (who were in on the act) thus symbolically cutting the ties between mother and son that would otherwise keep the male in permanent boy-hood.

What followed would be a kind of “hero’s journey” – a controlled and managed experience of danger and challenge where the boys would face their own mortality. They would learn to feel, own and master their own emotions of fear, anger, lust and shame. They would learn to support their peers who needed help, and they would experience feeling that support themselves. They would learn to put their own personal ego aside in the service of a greater purpose. Only then would they be a man.

Archetypes for growth

The Hero’s Journey is an archetypal journey of male initiation – a common pattern that is found in the great stories and myths across many cultures and times.

This story/myth pattern starts with the hero-to-be in his everyday normal environment. Then something pulls him out of his familiar world – perhaps a crisis or an unexpected discovery. This is the “call to adventure” – an invitation to leave the familiar and set out on a quest. Often the call is refused at first – there is reluctance and fear. But the call is persistent – perhaps there is a new crisis which makes it impossible to stay – and the hero sets off into the unknown. Soon he encounters a wise elder/mentor who gives him guidance and advice. There are various trials, in the course of which the hero acquires new skills and resources. Finally he must face his greatest test – alone! (The mentor cannot help him here.) This test involves facing his deepest fears, death, and may be symbolised by entering a place of darkness and doing battle with a monster/demon who cannot be overcome in the old traditional ways. Often the hero has to be ready to sacrifice his own life and/ego in order to pass through this trial, and the experience permanently changes the hero. Afterwards the hero takes the treasure/gifts he has won back to his own community where there is a process of re-integration and sharing of the treasure to benefit the community.

Archetypes are patterns that are hard-wired in us in the same way that the knowledge of how to fly is hard-wired into an eagle – though the eagle still has to learn how to fly.

Because they are deeply ingrained in human nature, working with healthy archetypes of masculinity is a way of accelerating growth. At a deep level, we already have this knowledge of authentic masculinity within us. Some potent healthy archetypes for masculine growth are:

The King: The supreme archetype of mature masculinity, the King draws on the strengths of all the other archetypes, holding them together in balance for the benefit of the kingdom. The King is strong leader, manager, chairman of the board, head of the family. He is what makes the kingdom flourish, in partnership with his feminine counterpart, the Queen. The immature/shadow form of this archetype is the Tyrant who has a sense of entitlement without wisdom and responsibility.

The Warrior: The one who takes action, who exerts his will upon the world to bring about change. He skillfully and wisely harnesses his anger at what is wrong to fight for change – understanding that healthy anger does not mean aggression, and that strategic non-violent action is the most effective way to bring change. The mature warrior always serves the kingdom, not himself. And he knows his limits – which battles can be fought and which cannot. His ego is not caught up winning or losing, what matters is the bigger picture of service to the kingdom. In his immature/shadow form his anger/resentment/jealousy controls him and he is attached to the giving/receiving of pain. This is the bully / sadist / masochist / vengeance-seeker / terrorist.

The Magician: This is the one who knows what others do not know – the specialised knowledge to tap into larger forces at work in the world – both natural, economic and spiritual. By working with those forces, the Magician can achieve far greater results than he could get just from his own strength. In his mature form he has a healthy respect for the dangers of working with these larger forces and recognises that they have their own path. In his immature/shadow form, the Magician believes that he is in control of these forces and seeks to use them for selfish manipulation in ways that are ultimately destructive and self-destructive.

The Lover: Poet, artist, sensualist, musician, soul-dancer. The Lover delights in living, moment by moment. He is wild, free, passionate, spontaneous, deeply in-tune with his body and his emotions, also deeply connected to nature. He can gaze into his lover’s eyes in full naked presence and vulnerability. He can weep in the depths of loss and in the heights of ecstasy. In his mature form, he connects deeply but does not try to possess the other. In his immature/shadow form he confuses living with having, resulting in addictions, co-dependency and impotence.

Meeting a contemporary deep need

Mainstream Western culture has no mechanisms for initiating or otherwise forming healthy good men. Sometimes is happens by chance, but often not.

Fortunately a growing number of men’s movements and programs are coming up to fill this cultural void. As with all human endeavours, none are perfect and none cover all the needs than a man may have on his journey, but they all have much to offer. I also offer mentoring for men, and run workshops on The Hero/Heroine’s Journey in Australia.

Some resources that I have found personally helpful are:

The Mankind Project
Men’s Wellbeing Australia


Manhood, by Steve Biddulph
No More Mr Nice Guy, by Robert Glover
He – understanding masculine psychology, by Robert A Johnson
The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden, by Robert A Johnson
Iron John, by Robert Bly
The Hero’s Journey, by Joseph Campbell