This article was written by TJ Martinell.
One of the worst things a boy or man can get called is a “loser.” It’s probably on par with “failure,” though the effect depends on who is delivering the insult.
What’s funny is that the word “loser” isn’t a cuss or swear word. It’s not profanity or crass. What makes it effective is how it taps into the fundamental aspects of manhood and masculinity. Whereas women simply are, men must become. To not do so is to fail at our very meaning and purpose.
It’s why the term “man up” works; everyone intuitively understands that men must perform to be men, whereas telling a girl to “woman up” is like calling her a “loser.” It means nothing.
Because of the destruction wrought on the masculinity identity more or less since the Sexual Revolution, calling a man a “loser” or implying he is, is an effective to control him, because most men don’t have a firm grasp on what it means to be a man. Yet, I sense they lack a similar understanding of what it means to be a loser.
What makes a loser a loser?
When most men think of a loser, they typically envision the stereotypical dork or dweeb they knew in school. The kid with crappy attire, poor social skills, few if any friends, and invisible to girls. The same dynamic could apply to the office workplace environment.
However, while this image may correlate with what we see of most losers, that’s not a loser. Quinten from the nonfiction book Rocket Boys fit this description before meeting Sonny Hickam. He eats alone at lunch and carries around a briefcase that holds his books (both intellectual and smutty in nature). But although he’s a social misfit, Quinten has an unmistakably sense of dignity and self-respect. He’s a nerd, but he is also unconcerned with what others think of him. He is genuinely being true to himself, and because of that he has self-honesty. Quieten is also not a coward.
I recently read newly released short novella by Andy Nowicki titled Columbine Pilgrim, a disturbing tale of a 30-year-old man named Tony Meander defined by his high school years fraught with bullying and mockery from the jocks and queen bees. As I was reading through the book, there was one passage in particular that gets at the heart of a loser (bold emphasis added).
By this time, of course, I’d become a history buff, and a sort of homemade Marxist, the latter in large degree just to spite the rednecks and right-wing fundamental Christians at my white-bread suburban school. I ostentatiously carried a copy of the Communist Manifesto, wanting everyone to see it; I smirked with haughty pleasure when they reviled me for my weirdness. I didn’t want them to like me; I wanted them to hate me, or so I thought, or pretended to myself.
The truth was that I’d have given my right arm or sold my soul to the Devil to be popular; I just didn’t want to admit this to myself. It was my most shameful secret, a greater reason to hate myself than being ugly or having bad hair or unsightly zits. The worst thing about being a loser wasn’t the state of being rejected: it was secretly lusting after acceptance.
Tony is not only self-deceitful, but he’s a coward, and in fact one could argue the fundamental trait of a loser is cowardice. It takes courage to admit to yourself that you want to be liked by others, but aren’t. It not only takes courage to change, but it takes courage to be who you are regardless of what anybody thinks. Instead, Tony takes the coward’s route by intentionally doing things to get people to dislike him, because it’s far easier than changing himself to be liked or simply about his life undeterred. His anti-social behavior is a defense mechanism is distract himself from the fact that his peers have what he wants - acceptance - but he is too afraid to pursue it.
There's nothing wrong with wanting to be liked by others. Humans are social creatures, and few enjoy being isolated. The trouble with Tony is that he turned acceptance into an unattainable idol or god. He had a dysfunctional understanding of what he needed to do to be liked. He's a fictional character, but real-life boys and men with similar personalities tend to want to be liked regardless of whether or not they deserve to be liked. They feel entitled to something without having to earn it.
The novel also has Tony recollect being bullied and not fighting back, despite his inner conscience begging him to assert himself. He won’t because he’s a coward, and that knowledge fills him with shame reflected in other parts of his life. Take cowardice away, and you don’t have a loser.
Even kids bullied day after day who stand up for themselves earn respect, either begrudged respect from the bully or the respect of others who see something admirable behind the black eyes and bruised face. That’s because the kid who gets beat up and still carries his head high is a fighter, and there’s something about that people appreciate.
Nobody watched Rocky and walked away thinking “wow, what a loser” because he lost the boxing match and got pummeled by Apollo Creed. Rocky isn’t an “alpha” by any means, and his life is filled with failures, but he never, ever quits or loses heart. That’s what made moviegoers love him.
Men respect men who can take a joke or elbow-jab in jest and carry on without whining or complaining, because they know the man is secure in who he is for reasons that seem good to him. That conveys a certain kind of strength. Cowardice is a manifestation of weaknesses.
A loser is someone who sincerely and genuinely wants to be different from what they are in a fundamental way, and for the better, but lacks the courage to do what is needed. All the shame, self-loathing and indignity we see on their face and in their actions are the symptoms, not the cause, of their loserdom.