Home > Uncategorized > “Man up!” and why we need a better expression for toughness

“Man up!” and why we need a better expression for toughness

December 19, 2009

My great-grandmother was, by all accounts*, an immensely tough person.  She was Cockney English, came through Ellis Island with her husband, headed for the West coast.  They spent a long winter in a shack in Iowa or North Dakota or some other forsaken place, during which time she learned that in this country, it was at least theoretically illegal for a man to beat his wife.  Frying-pan in hand, she met the fellow at the door and from that point he was no longer an element in the story.

She made her way to San Francisco (the story does not relate bear-wrestling occasions that I assume must have occurred) where, as a single mother, she owned a series of grocery stores, which she brought to profitability and sold at a profit.  She got up in dark hours, baked bread*, managed accounts and cleaned and stocked, and dealt with whatever hazards faced small businesses in dodgy neighborhoods in the city in the early part of the twentieth century.  When I think of a tough person, I think of her.

Today we have a popular expression; “Man up!”  And similar expressions such as “grow a pair” and “don’t be a pussy”, which all portray a cultural ideal of stoic toughness as an exclusively male characteristic.

The idea that male equals tough is apparent in the adulation that Arnold Schwarzenegger receives as the star of the movie; The Terminator, in which a robot from the future tries to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton).  In this movie, Arnold is the robot and he has about eight lines, of which some are even in Connor’s mother’s voice.  The role could have been performed by a robot for all the acting skill it required.

Hamilton’s character starts out as a waitress leading a directionless life; by the end of the movie she destroys the killing machine herself.  She goes on to become the inspirational combat-mother of the human race, narrating a moving scene at the end.  Now, that’s character development.  She, and her future-soldier friend Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) are the heroes and she is unequivocally the real star of the movie.  But if you do an image search for “The Terminator”, you will see page after page of Arnold with a huge gun.  And all he did through the whole movie was kill people and destroy stuff.

In the second movie, Arnold re-creates his character using his newly-acquired acting skills, and Hamilton eclipses him a second time in her Sarah Connor role.  But once again he was hailed as the star of the movie.  What, exactly, would a female character have to do to make toughness and endurance part of the popular conception of femininity?

Maybe she could kill a hideous alien.  Sigourney Weaver did that in Alien and her reward was Beavis and Butthead saying; “That Sigourney Weaver dude kicks ass, even if he does look a little bit like a chick.”

I have some male friends who self-identify as “feminists” and to be honest, I don’t understand. To me it makes about as much sense as patriarchy, so I self-identify as a humanist.  Which leads to the question of this post:  What would be a better expression than “man up”?  Steeped as I am in patriarchal culture, I have a difficult time coming up with one.  But we need such an expression, and a really good gender-neutral pronoun as well.  The floor is open!


  • My great-grandmother’s story began more than a century ago, I heard it second-hand at a young age, and am reciting it from memory.  Some details may have, shall we say, “evolved” but it is presented here as the element of my thinking that describes personal toughness.

  • As a child I was privileged to have some of her bread, toasted and covered in butter.  It was a culinary delight well worth the trip from Iowa to California.  I can’t help feeling sorry for people who are satisfied with Wonder Bread.  Today I bought some Ciabatta bread at a local bakery and it reminded me of her, which led to this post.
  • Popular culture confuses the effects of testosterone on behavior with toughness.  Often, the reverse is true; aggression causes self-damage and leads to a weaker position.
  • The two trailblazing examples I gave here are from the 1980’s, and rumor has it that other movies have been made since then.  I do think cinematic progress has occurred (think Helen from The Incredibles), but our language still lags behind.
  • Television has made progress too.  In the Star Trek pilot, captain Pike was unhappy with the presence of a woman on the bridge of his ship (even though, or perhaps because she was demonstrably smarter than he).  I’m sure captain Janeway would find that amusing.
Categories: Uncategorized
  1. December 19, 2009 at 17:31 | #1

    “Wuss” is about the only pejorative that I can think of along those lines that isn’t gender-specific. At least, as far as I know it isn’t.

    I’ll disagree with you about Arnold’s acting abilities. The sort of physical acting he did in Terminator is difficult. It’s a part of the craft. The fact that he convincingly played an android in some earlier roles that didn’t call for it could, I suppose, be viewed as preparation.;-) He eventually learned enough to be good at what he did, though certainly not worth the fabulous sums he earned.

  2. negativechris
    December 19, 2009 at 18:59 | #2

    Japan’s “herbivore” men shun corporate life, sex

    More to the point: I don’t know a solution because I only use sexist epithets ironically.

  3. December 20, 2009 at 00:08 | #3

    How about “Rough and tough”?

    It’s weak yes, but all I got.

  4. December 20, 2009 at 08:46 | #4

    Arnold is not now, and never has been an actor. I disagree about “physical acting” being either acting or difficult. As a body builder, anything Arnold did in movies had to be laughably easy. Of course, it was us he was laughing at.

    I have no real answer for your question. Why do we need to have euphemisms for “tough?” Do we value slang over meaning? Better yet, don’t tell me someone is “tough.” Tell me what they did if you (the general “you”) find it worth relating, and then I can assess.

    Of all the difficult things to do, painful things, important things, women give birth. Try that for “tough” Arnold.

    In our warlike, violent society (meaning human society in general), maybe we should find more ways of describing gentleness, tenderness and kindness.

  5. December 20, 2009 at 10:47 | #5

    Language is full of shortcuts, and they’re just as inevitable as the tracks where architects thought people would walk 300 feet out of their way instead of 50 feet across the grass.

    In this case the need is for a shortcut that fits into an admonition. 

    I should say here that toughness is a quality of mind, and it’s nearly the polar opposite of instant-gratification, consumer culture.

  6. December 20, 2009 at 14:40 | #6

    YES!  I think the same thing every time I hear that phrase.  And you even used as examples my 2 favorite movies. :)

    May I suggest be an adult?  That should mean willing and able to make sacrifices for the good of someone else, as well the ability to reason and take care of herself and others, as your grandmother did.

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