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The Theme of Conformity and Rebellion in Gretel Ehrlich’s “About Men”

The Theme of Conformity and Rebellion in Gretel Ehrlich’s “About Men”

“About Men” is a non-fictional account of the experiences and struggles of men with respect to the expression and suppression of their perceived masculine and feminine characteristics. Gretel Ehrlich gives an account of her own personal experiences with cowboys. Her account compares the common stereotypes and expectations of what it means to be a cowboy with the true nature of the cowboys. This essay embodies the themes of conformity and rebellion by men who try to imitate society’s expectations of their nature and suppress their feminine characteristics to become the kind of man society expects them to be. Do you need urgent assignment help ? Get in touch with us at

Theme of Conformity and Rebellion

            Conformity refers to a state where people adjust their beliefs, behaviors, feelings, or attitudes in order to fit into what is considered the norm in a particular group. On the other hand, rebellion is the suppression of factors that are not considered to be the norm in a group. In “About Men” the cowboys try to conform to the behaviors and attitudes that are considered to make a strong and masculine man. They have also learned to suppress the characteristics that are perceived as feminine so much that they have difficulty interacting with women in a manner that expresses emotion. The behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes of the cowboys in this essay are based on the American notions of manhood and masculinity.

Gretel Ehrlich compares the American notions of heroism which measure a man’s value in physical courage with the actual nature of the men she has interacted with. Men, especially the cowboys, are expected to be strong physically. They are supposed to express their courage by tackling things that would normally be perceived as dangerous without an expression of fear. As Gretel Ehrlich explains, such notions have perverted manliness. It has turned manhood into a self-absorbed race for cheap thrills (83). The media often represents the cowboys’ courage as an expression of their ability to directly face danger. They engage in thrilling activities that make them seem macho. Thus, their image is commonly used as a representation of masculinity. However, this essay has demonstrated that there exists some femininity in cowboys, which even they try to suppress in order to conform to society’s expectations of manhood. Gretel Ehrlich explains that manhood for cowboys is more about spontaneity than facing danger. Their ability to act spontaneously when helping the animals they take care of is based on compassion. For example, when a calf is born sick, a cowboy takes it to his home and cares for it (83). While their spontaneous acts in their line of work are expressed in the form of the external strength that makes them seem more masculine, it is actually a feminine expression of their love for the animals they take care of.

However, the cowboys also conform to the expectations that society has created for them. They lack the ability to express their femininity. Gretel Ehrlich stated that the only thing that the movies got right is the fact that cowboys do not complain. They rarely express their emotions to others for fear that it will make them less manly. Even young cowboys tend to be evasive with women because they do not know how to express the complexity of what they feel (84). They are only able to express themselves at night when they dance wildly. One cowboy who was able to express himself tells Gretel Ehrlich, “I feel as if I’d sprained my heart” (85). These experiences embody the rebellion of perceived femininity. The beliefs, feelings, and behaviors that are viewed as feminine are the ones that the cowboys try as hard as possible to suppress and hide.

The expression of conformity and rebellion in Gretel Ehrlich’s essay is not surprising. In fact, her essay is exemplary of the ideas of masculinity and femininity in contemporary society. Men are supposed to be strong on the outside and expressions of their feelings are viewed as feminine. However, it is still surprising to learn about the true experiences of cowboys given the very different perspective that is represented in mass media. The essay helps to understand that the cowboys are more than just the popular embodiment of masculinity. They are humans with feelings like anyone else, but they struggle with conformity and rebellion. The fact that this essay is non-fiction makes it more relatable. One can notice that it is not a creation in the mind of the author, but a representation of real experiences that men go through. Therefore, it makes the whole notion of struggling to conform to masculinity standards more relatable.

Works Cited

Ehrlich, Gretel. The Solace of Open Spaces: About Men. USA: Viking Penguin, Inc., 1985, p. 82-85


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Part 1:

Length Requirement: 400 – 500 words
Using one of the creative non-fiction essays we read in this unit, write an essay that demonstrates how and why that particular non-fiction text utilizes one or two of the literary themes discussed in Unit 2. What is the author saying about it? Why do you think he or she is saying it in this way? What surprises us about the text’s depiction of the theme? Also, address how and why the fact that the text is non-fiction influences its impact relating to the theme.

The Theme of Conformity and Rebellion

The Theme of Conformity and Rebellion

Literary Themes:

Love (Platonic, Romantic, or Filial)
The American Dream/Nightmare
The Quest for Identity/Coming of Age
In addition to discussing at least one of these themes, feel free to also explore other noticed literary themes that are not included in Unit 2. Be sure to use specific examples, details, and quotes from the text (use the author’s name in the parenthetical citation).

Essays to Choose From:

Gretel Ehrlich’s “About Men”
Annie Dillard’s “Living Like Weasels”
In order to start brainstorming for this essay, please see the following examples:

Ehrlich and Conformity: The premise for Ehrlich’s “About Men” is that a real, successful cowboy is a careful balance between what we typically consider masculine, a silent observer, and feminine, a compassionate nurturer. How does the cowboy embody the theme of conformity and rebellion in Ehrlich’s “About Men”?
Dillard and the American Dream: One main point in Dillard’s “Living Like Weasels” is that people, who are logical and live by choice, can learn from animals, who are illogical and live only by necessity. What choices are involved in attempting to live out the typical American Dream? How do those choices differ from living according to necessity? In other words, what is the difference between the lifestyles defined by the American Dream as opposed to those defined by minimalism?
Part II: In 400-500 words, write your own original, personal Creative Non-Fiction narrative based on the same thesis or theme that you identified in the essay you chose above. Be creative and use this opportunity to connect events in your own life to an aspect of the work you chose above (For example, if you focused on the theme of nonconformity in this week’s reading, in your own narrative you might describe a time when you yourself did not conform.)

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