Image by K. Ho

Social Justice Synonyms #2: “Man Up”

Welcome back to Social Justice Synonyms, a column at The Talon that encourages inclusive language and provides alternative words or phrases for some of the words we use in our everyday language that can be offensive or problematic. For more insight, see last week’s SJS article.

This week’s phrase is man up.

It seems pretty harmless, right? It’s something we say on a daily basis when our peers are wimping out of doing the Ice Bucket Challenge or when a friend is too shy to ask for someone’s number. We use phrases to this effect so frequently in our everyday language because we are accustomed to the idea that masculinity equals strength and femininity equals weakness. Our society has taught us to believe that we must act stereotypically masculine in order to be perceived as fearless and courageous. Similarly, saying don’t be a pussy implies that vaginas are weak and shameful, which shames folks who have vaginas.*  It also exacerbates sexist discrimination against women, who are commonly associated with vaginas, and other people (such as trans men or non-binary folks) who are presumed to have vaginas.

These phrases imply that when someone does not have enough strength or courage to perform in ways that that men are traditionally supposed to excel at, such as confident, strong, brave, or in control, they are lesser. They are, as Zaren says, “a narrow and normative definition of maleness based on machismo strength.” This is problematic because not only does it stigmatise femininity as negative, weak and inferior, it causes men to suppress feelings and emotions. It also reinforces binary notions of gender.

As Dr. Michael Kimmel says in this video;

“We’ve constructed an idea of masculinity… that doesn’t give young boys a way to feel secure in their masculinity, so we make them go prove it all the time.”

Dr. Niobe Way adds:

“[Young men] really buy into a culture that doesn’t value what we’ve feminised.”

By using the phrase man up we insinuate that traditionally female qualities are bad. Sharing, nurturing, crying, and caring are deemed negative because they are associated with women. But are all women this way? Are we all separated into two distinct genders with obvious and inherent traits? No, we’re not. We are all unique individuals who sit across a spectrum of genders. As such, we should attempt to de-gender our language.

Here are some Talon-approved alternative phrases (to be used at your own risk):

Use/context Alternatives
Man up! In solidarity with you, comrade! Get it out of your system, if you need to.
Grow some balls! If you need some courage, I’ve got your back. Refill your ammunition and soldier on, friend! The sooner you chop the onion, the sooner you can have dinner.
Be a man! Be the person that you are! Be the best you! Be your own inspiration!If you can dream it you can do it!
Act like a lady, think like a man! Ignore social constructs of gender and be whoever you want! Realise your own boundless potential. Display the necessary characteristics for whatever it is that you wish to pursue.
Don’t be a pussy! Don’t attempt to imitate any form of the human anatomy, especially one as complex as the vagina.


*Why did I say “folks who have vaginas” instead of “women”? Because our genitals do not determine our gender! Some people are born with vaginas and therefore assigned female at birth but actually identify as men, boys, gender-neutral or whatever they like. Watch this video for an example of such a human.

  • Adam

    I just wanted to point out the common misconception that calling someone a “pussy” has something to do with genitalia. It is in fact referring to the term “pusillanimous” which is an adjective used to describe something as cowardly or timid.

    It’s great that people feel strongly about issues such as equality, but hopefully their opinions can be based upon fact and logic rather than assumptions and emotion.

    • Veronika Khvorostukhina

      Prioritizing “logic” over “emotion” is a century-old way of oppressing women and shutting out the qualities that society assumes to be “feminine.” This hierarchy of logic over emotion stems from the idea that women’s emotional response somehow invalidates their position. Nothing wrong with emotions, Adam, let them feelings hang out!

      • Adam

        Mmmm, I’m not sure I agree with you there. Your statement implies that women are inherently more emotional and less logical, but it seems to me that emotion/logic is more often determined by left brain/right brain thinking rather than gender. I know plenty of women who defer to logic, just as a know plenty of men who more often make impulsive, emotional decisions.

    • Neil

      This isn’t actually correct. I see this folk etymology of pussy = pusillanimous a lot and don’t really understand how people continue to spread it without verifying its accuracy. I guess its novelty as a “fun fact” outweighs the truth of the matter here.

    • Sarah

      So this argument shouldn’t have to be made, but I came across this linguistic takedown of the pusillanimous association today: http://ltsashakaidanovsky.tumblr.com/post/88326276296/velvetqueer-uhmwillowsomething

  • K.

    Adam, I contend that very few people who use or hear “pussy” think of “pusillanimous”. Misconception or not, the reality is that most people associate “pussy” with genitalia – and therefore the consequences are still real, harmful, and problematic. But anyway, cool – I learned something today.

    • Adam

      Haha yes, I completely agree. The way it is used colloquially is not really aligned with it’s academic meaning.

      I just thought I’d drop a little knowledge bomb, and hey, if everyone knew this there would be no negative connotation with the phrase!…which would be great because I use it more than I care to admit (in the academic context of course).

  • LLV93

    “Refill your ammunition and soldier on, friend! The sooner you chop the onion, the sooner you can have dinner.”

    I totally get what this article is trying to do (and it’s great), and I know it’s meant to be tongue in cheek, but posting ridiculous things what I quoted that no one is ever going to say make it seem like it’s a parody and that you’re one of those people who troll “Social Justice Warriors” (a term I hate) and are making fun of people who care about not having sexist language be so prevalent. But I totally agree with the point of the article.