Time to get rid of “man up”

In an interview yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry laid down a tired old trope when asked about Edward Snowden (emphasis mine):

The bottom line is this is a man who has betrayed his country, who is sitting in Russia, an authoritarian country, where he has taken refuge. He should man up and come back to the United States if he has a complaint about what’s the matter with American surveillance, come back here and stand in our system of justice and make his case. But instead he is just sitting there taking potshots at his country, violating his oath that he took when he took on the job he took, and betraying, I think, the fundamental agreement that he entered into when he became an employee. And the fact is he has damaged his country very significantly in many, many ways. He has hurt operational security. He has told terrorists what they can now do to be able to avoid detection. And I find it sad and disgraceful.

There’s a lot to be annoyed at in that quote, but “man up” immediately had me shaking my head. I doubt he went into the interview with that as one of his talking points, but it’s telling that it rolls off the tongue. 

What Kerry essentially says here is that Snowden is a cowardly girly girl who won’t face the consequences of his actions. It’s ludicrous that this is coming out of the mouth of our nation’s top diplomat. Erin Gloria Ryan at Jezebel nails the absurdity:

Over the next few days, we can expect John Kerry to insist that his dad can beat up Edward Snowden’s dad, that Edward Snowden’s momma so fat, and that Edward Snowden plays ball like a GIRL. We’re but a few short masculinity questioning insults away from solving diplomacy, guys.

Heavily implied in “man up” is the undesirability of being associated with femininity. Don’t be scared, vulnerable, timid, wishy washy. Be a man instead. I don’t need to chronicle the hundreds, thousands, millions of brave women who reveal the irrelevance of these stereotypes. (I put just one example up above as I was blown away and inspired by watching a screening of Freedom Summer and seeing what a badass Fannie Lou Hamer was and how much she scared Lyndon Johnson. Man up, Lyndon!)

“Man up” is more disturbingly used in pushing beyond gender stereotypes toward a more toxic form of masculinity, one that is under a lot of scrutiny in light of the shooting at UCSB. It’s the idea of masculinity that says our foreign policy needs to be more militaristic and threatening. It’s the push to “man up” get out of the maligned “friend zone” (read if you dare) and get that romantic and sexual attention you’re entitled to that is getting some overdue discussion and dismantling this week.

We could take Dan Savage‘s route and start telling people to “ovary up,” but I’m all for getting gender out of the equation and just saying what we actually mean.


Author: Rebecca Griffin

I am a passionate advocate for progressive causes with over a decade of experience organizing for social change. That organizing experience informs the way I look at the world and the challenges we face in working toward social justice. I started Of Means and Ends to write about social issues I care about and share my thoughts on how we organize in a smart, strategic way. Please visit and join the conversation.

12 thoughts on “Time to get rid of “man up””

  1. I couldn’t agree more. Have you seen the video of Ten Responses to the Phrase “Man-Up”? It’s fantastic and very much sums up my feelings on the phrase (I’ll see if I can find a link).

    Since I work for Kerry’s organization I won’t say too much about him, but it certainly would have been more tactful for him to say something along the lines of he (Snowden) should accept responsibility for his actions and return to the United States… or something like that.


  2. So close yet so far. You started off great. “Man UP” really is a phrase that should go away. It is sexist bigotry. Then you failed to recognize the truth of why it’s sexist bigotry. “Man Up” is sexism against MEN, not women. It is not asserting that femininity is something undesirable (enforce the gender binary much?). “Man Up” creates an unattainable unrealistic unreasonable standard for what it means to be a man.


      1. For most gender issues the roles we play are interconnected and interdependent so yes for most issues you can’t reasonably talk about one gender and only one gender.

        “Man Up” is an exception. Simply put there are lots of things that are not men or women. Dogs, Trees, Cars, slugs. “Man Up” is not ascribing femininity to the person, but denying any gender identity at all.


      2. I agree with you, Rebecca. I think that “man up” is a phrase that simultaneously hurts men by projecting a preconceived and stereotypical notion of masculinity, while also maligning women by placing that form of masculinity (masculinity = good) in opposition to femininity (femininity = bad). It’s saying “act like a man, not like a woman, because womanly traits are inherently lesser.”



  3. Fannie Lou Hamer was seriously badass. I wrote about her (and other women fighting within the male-dominated civil rights movement) in my first book. She carried a gun, which was rare (and well considered) for which some people ostracized her. Given the very real dangers she and others faced, it was not unwise.

    That phrase is tedious. It’s too earnest and truthful to say “Be brave.” At root, that’s what we’re asking/hoping for, isn’t it?


      1. Blown Away: American Women and Guns; it’s neither pro nor con, but examines the many ways guns affect women in the U.S., whether they hunt, inflict violence or, more commonly, become victims of it. personally or in their families.


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