11/09/2011 04:00 pm ET | Updated Jan 09, 2012

Up With Stereotypes! Is Defining a Real Man Today Really Politically Incorrect?

I had dinner recently in Massachusetts with two men: one whom I referred to as "Real Man" in a blog entry here last December, and the other his good friend from Vermont who was in the area when I happened to be visiting as the leaves were changing colors. The friend, I'll call him Friend, had read this post in which I'd opined that a real man today has a small carbon footprint. And grows his own vegetables. Friend spent the better part of our sushi dinner explaining why he objects strenuously to and was offended by my use of the phrase "real man." He asked, "What does that make me? A fake man?" He also said that about 175 million other men in America were likely to have been equally offended. I thought to myself, yes, in my dreams 175 million men read my entries about the importance of having more compassion for men. But I knew that was not something Friend wanted to hear at that particular moment.

I stifled the impulse to get defensive in favor of listening and trying to see his point of view. Even though Real Man would later refer to the dinner as pretty decent cuisine-wise, except for the Janet-grilled-over-coals, I didn't mind taking the heat. My reaction was: if I offended one sensitive real man, then I may have offended ten, or twenty, or a hundred or however many men read it and didn't appreciate the tongue-in-cheek challenge to the stereotype, and my redefinition of it. Friend went on to ask, "How would you like it if we two men sat here now and started defining a real woman? How would that make you feel?" Honestly, I replied, I think I'd enjoy it. There are some ways in which I don't measure up to the American stereotype of a real woman, and some ways I do. Regardless, I wouldn't have minded hearing what these two guys had to say.

A week or so later, I watched the first episode of a new PBS series called "America in Primetime" about television as a lens on our society. Each of four episodes focuses on a different character archetype. The first episode, "The Independent Woman," presented all the fabulous female archetypes who have challenged our notions of women's role in America through the decades and have stood for change -- not only in the land of television but in our real world -- from the original subversive, Lucille Ball, followed by Mary Tyler Moore and Candice Bergen, on up to today, with desperate housewife Felicity Huffman making it okay to not enjoy the job of mothering, and Julianna Margulies, The Good Wife, making it okay to not always be a good girl. (Anyone care to attempt a definition of that?)

All these courageous women challenging "a woman's place" made me realize that stereotypes and generalizations serve a critical purpose. Controversial though they may be, they do contain validity and they crystallize our views. Women are nurturers; men are providers. We can argue endlessly about such statements, but we cannot deny that they hold some truth. Of course, not all women are nurturers, and plenty of women are providers. And yet, we have an undeniable urge to categorize and label, not to mention to argue about whether women qualify to be firefighters or front-line soldiers.

At pivotal times, stereotypes serve as just the platform we need -- something solid and obvious against which to rebel. Lucille Ball's antics on I Love Lucy were that funny because they were so not the proper behavior of a proper housewife in the 1950s. Did their slapstick humor ease the way for evolution in women's roles -- or reflect it?

We get into trouble when we rely fully or solely on the type instead of remaining open to perceiving the individual, with his or her own collection of characteristics. Dialog can get especially sensitive when it comes to gender, race and religion, so extra sensitivity is called for. But let's not back off. Let's talk and write about the stereotypes and generalizations. If we don't -- if we allow ourselves to be afraid to look at things in groups -- then we might be missing opportunities to examine what makes a group and why. As a health editor, for years I've read about African Americans suffering disproportionately from certain diseases such as diabetes. In the United States, they tend to be diagnosed with cancer at a later stage, which means they die more than Caucasians do from cancer. This from the National Cancer Institute: "For all cancers combined, the death rate is 25 percent higher for African Americans/Blacks than for Whites." There's an example of the usefulness of generalizations. A good thing it is to recognize them, because until we see that such unacceptable realities exist, we are not going to change them.

After watching "America in Primetime," my thoughts returned to that dinner in Massachusetts. Friend wasn't a distant reader in the blogosphere; he was a real man sitting next to me then at the table, and he made me think about stereotypes and generalizations, and also about how writers and editors put a premium on cleverness with the written word -- at what price? Hurt feelings in this case. "Cheap trick," Friend said. He suggested that instead of Real Man, I should have said something like "a fully realized man". No thanks; too sober, pop-psych-self-helpish for me. I kept listening.

Friend explained that his ex had hurt him deeply not long ago in a moment of emotional conflict while they were still married when she'd suggested he buck up and be a real man. To her, he told us, that meant stoic, uncommunicative, and less needy. Clearly, there was some history there -- Friend was made to feel inadequate and unmanly, and I figured this was fueling him over sushi. I said to Friend, "Real men have feelings, too." Just kidding. What I actually said was, "Hold on a minute. Let me see if I get what you're saying. It was simply my use of the phrase that offended you, no matter that I was rejecting a stereotype and defining 'real man' for myself in today's changed world. I am glad you spoke up, because if my point in writing about having compassion for men was compromised by misplaced humor, or the assumption that everyone has a sense of humor, then I should think about how I address an audience."

"Thank you," Friend said, sitting back in his chair. But then Real Man spoke up, coming to my defense in a very articulate manner. That made me feel good, even though I didn't need rescue. I needed dessert. "Fried ice-cream, please."

Real women don't eat dessert? Yeah, I've heard that. I think next time I see Friend, I'll suggest he check out this TV show and pay attention to the language of archetypes and stereotypes therein, particularly in the second episode, "The Man in the House," with its characterizations of male types sketched by the likes of Norman Lear and David Lynch. The show recognizes that it's not easy to be a man today struggling to participate, evolve and thrive in the shadow of feminism. In our real-life, everyday dialog, just as on television, generalizations can shine a light on our assumptions and expectations. I think they can help us keep our bearings as we navigate change. If not for Lucille and a host of other funny people who have made it okay--at least on TV and in our living rooms -- to be human, imperfect, and rebellious, we might still be tiptoeing on eggshells of political correctness. I've decided I'll stand by my man -- I mean, my words.