Theaters all across the country were packed last weekend for the release of Steve Harvey’s new film “Think Like a Man.” The movie, which was based on Harvey’s book Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, gave humorous insight into the contemporary dating scene and portrayed the book as the holy grail of relationship advice””whoever had it held the power. The women used it to improve their relationships with men””players, mama’s boys, dreamers, and non-committers””who were each lacking in some way. Once the men learned the ladies’ secrets they used the book to their own advantage. Predictably, the film ended with each side getting what they wanted from the other.
Steve Harvey is most well-known as a comedian, radio host, and media personality, but the success of his book is due to his status as a self-proclaimed expert on men. This part of his public persona is the one that gives me pause. I know that no one film will capture the breadth and complexity of the human experience, so I’m not upset that the film didn’t represent me or many of the men I know. My main concern is that the film’s characters and storyline are more representative of today’s men than I would like to believe. “Think Like a Man,” much like a great deal of commentary on men and relationships, places a disproportionate amount of the responsibility for the success of relationships on women. It also represents a world where men don’t grow up until women force them to.
I tried to share my perspective with my fiancÃ©e, but she couldn’t understand why I found parts of the film disconcerting. I used our own relationship story to illustrate why accepting this version of manhood without question or critique is so dangerous.
We started dating at a time when I was actually in a position to be in a serious, committed relationship. I wasn’t attached to anyone else, so she didn’t have to worry about my heart being pulled in multiple directions or question her place and priority in my life. I was also at a point where I could sustain myself financially and felt secure with where I was professionally. In addition, I was actively pursuing a personal, committed relationship with God. I was regularly attending church, active in a community group, and participating in ministry.
My point to her was that when she met me I was already a man. I was a person who was already committed to growing and developing spiritually, socially, personally, and professionally. I wasn’t waiting to find somebody who could do the hard foundational work of becoming an adult for me. In short, I was ready for a wife, not looking for another mother.
I tried to give her a sense of what things would have been like if I had been in the mold of the “Think Like a Man” characters. For one thing, she would have had to figure out whether I had cut ties with old flames and given up playing the field. She probably would have had to push me to look for a better job in hopes of me becoming the provider she envisioned her ideal mate being. In addition, her desire for spiritual compatibility would have put her in a position where begging me to attend church would become a weekly ritual. If she still decided to pursue a relationship with me, she probably would have found it tiring to constantly try to get me to see areas in my life where growth was sorely needed but consistently absent.
Framing it that way made the contrast abundantly clear. I wasn’t ready to be a husband five years ago, but now I’m mature enough to have someone in my life who can partner with me, inspire me, support me, and challenge me. She is able to love freely in our relationship knowing that she has been the beneficiary of my life change, not the cause. She can also rest in the knowledge that my self-image is not threatened by her success. She doesn’t need to become less of the woman she is so that I can feel like more of the man I should be.
I know firsthand that a woman can contribute to the betterment of her man, but she should not be saddled with the burden of having to manage her life and his. Transformation driven by external sources tends to be fleeting. When the original stimulus relents, oftentimes so does the change.
Consider a man who has spent years pursuing women like prey, consuming media that uses the commodification of women’s bodies to drive profit, and reacting to social cues that draw a direct relationship between a man’s sexual conquests and his masculinity. Meeting the perfect woman might encourage him to change his actions for a period of time but it does nothing to counteract the deep imprint left by years of unhealthy attitudes toward the opposite sex. If he refuses to do the hard work of change for himself, he will be tempted to revert to his old ways. That’s why we find it so unsurprising when we hear about a married man who still has girlfriends on the side.
The other problem with the film’s overarching narrative is its characterization of the interactions between men and women as a game. This perspective trains men to view women as prey instead of people. The former reflects the simplicity of films like “Think Like a Man.” I have no problem with Steve Harvey discussing the importance of protecting “the cookie,” but that guidance is woefully incomplete if it’s not accompanied by advice to men about the dangers of being a “cookie” monster. Relationships promote collaboration; games thrive on competition. That latter might make for great rom-coms but it leads to terrible relationships.
I hope this film will spark a conversation about what it means to be a man and inspire men to reassess what, and how, we think about women. To me it means realizing that the preparation for becoming a husband and father should begin long before walking down the aisle. It means being accountable for your actions and cultivating relationships with women that are characterized by honesty and respect. It means having the confidence to pursue your life goals with passion while remaining humble enough to still be teachable. It means constantly reminding yourself that growing old is mandatory but growing up is optional. I hope someone writes a relationship book for men about how we think. That conversation is long overdue.
BMWK, what does “thinking like a man” mean to you? Do you think advising women to think more like men is helpful? If not, what type of relationship advice do you think is more beneficial to both women and men?