“Our time together, it’s a ritual, a symbol. It means something to your father. I hope it was not entirely forgettable for you. But it doesn’t make you a man. You do that yourself.”
– Inara Serra, Firefly
Episode 7, “Jaynestown”
I thought of this last week, while talking about boys and men, and how the former becomes the latter. It might seem a little redundant, but this, especially touches on something dear to me.
I remember, once, a long time ago, I had a roommate who had two country music CDs which he was always putting on for us to listen to. I endured it more to keep the peace than anything else, as I knew we weren’t going to be in company with each other for very long. Nothing against country music in general, just these two albums. One, I remember distinctly, was singing about a guy’s first time having sex, going into certain details about the full moon, the wet grass, etc. I hated that song, and still do, partially because I was raised to see sex as something sacred, and therefore too important to go bragging about. But I also hated it because of one thing it said about the girl he was with becoming a woman as he became a man.
You can probably guess why I thought of this while talking about how one does not magically turn a boy into a man. You don’t teach a boy to be a man, and becoming “a man” does not happen just because of a single act. And I don’t just mean sex, I mean everything. You don’t become a man by having your first fistfight, shedding your first blood, making your first kill as a hunter, getting your first job, or anything else.
I also want to make it clear, I don’t mean to diminish the importance of such milestones. Most cultures throughout history have had rites of passage, consisting of trials and ordeals and rituals where a boy achieved something and became recognized as a man for it. There is something to it, to having a specific accomplishment you can point to and say, “I’m a man now.” It’s a line one steps across, one which encourages a change of mindset, a development of mind and heart. If one is a man, after all, shouldn’t one act like a man?
However, I think, somewhere along the way, we got very, very lost. We started treating the symbolic act as the differentiation between boy and man.
And if there’s anyone who can talk about that, it’s Inara Serra. She’s a “companion,” which is to say a very high-class courtesan, perhaps even a priestess of sorts in her own right. She has, to put it bluntly, had a great deal of sex with a great number of people. In this episode, she was hired by a magistrate by the name of Higgins to bed his son and “make him a man.” The son in question was anything but a child, but still a virgin and probably disappointing to his father in some unrelated way. So, Inara did as she was hired to do, but didn’t stop at sex. She’s a people person, able to sense what they need and how to manage them, and so, in the time after their copulation, she offered this sage counsel as well.
The junior Higgins, for his part, is a decent enough fellow, but in the shadow of such a dominating father, he probably became quite passive, which is likely the source of both his previous status as a virgin and also his father’s frustration. After it’s done, he’s opining that he thought he would feel… different. I mean, isn’t he supposed to be a man now? That’s when Inara tells him, “A man is just a boy who’s old enough to ask that question.”
She explains her meaning with this quote. I heartily agree, and think it’s something our society has largely forgotten.
The things we do to separate “boy” and “man” in our society, all the symbols and rituals and rites of passage, they may be milestones, and sometimes important ones. But, in my view, becoming a man (or a woman) is a process, not an event. It is what we do every day that makes us who and what we are, and that includes manhood.
Heh, interestingly, the magistrate who hired Inara to turn his son into a man? Well, his son immediately did something that defied him, and he hated it. It was like, “Turn my son into a man! …no, I didn’t mean ‘turn him into a man who defies me!’” Haha!