Masculinity and manhood are in trouble. Over the past thirty years masculinity has gone from a respected, decently understood identity to a largely vilified, mocked and ill-understood shell of its former self. This cultural shift left one generation to question the masculine norms they grew up with while the next two generations grew up with no concise male role models. The effect of the absence of any men leading the way resulted in boys trying to sort it out themselves and women — particularly feminists — trying to create new masculine identities to better suit their needs, all of which served to only worsen the situation.
Being such, it comes as no surprise that when young, feminist-allied men are called to describe masculinity they come up with a very specific narrative:
Wong was one of the organizers of the National Conference for Campus-Based Men’s Gender Equality and Anti-Violence Groups, a long and clunky name for an unprecedented event that took place last weekend at his school. It was the first time that young guys from around the country — guys like Wong, who recognize that the kind of masculinity they are describing is toxic for men, too — gathered to share strategies for getting college men involved in gender-based activism and discuss the work ahead.
In attendance were about 200 individuals, representing 40 colleges and two dozen organizations, many of them sporting titles like Center Against Sexual and Domestic Abuse, Men Can Stop Rape, and Men Stopping Violence. Notice a trend here? This contemporary movement of gender-conscious young men is largely identifying themselves in terms of what they are against. They’re not rapists. They’re not misogynists.
It is far more problematic that in the session with 200 young men brainstorming about qualities associated with masculinity none of them could apparently come up with a single positive quality about masculinity. That puts the above mentioned groups and Courtney Martin’s article in a much different light. The men associated with the above groups are not identifying themselves in terms of what they are against. Rather, they are identifying themselves in terms of what they know feminists want to hear. This may be why feminist-allied men’s attempts to prove themselves trustworthy to feminists so often fail. Who would trust someone who only speaks of himself in the most negative terms?
That question could be asked of all men since most men also engage in a strange level of self-hatred and deprecation. For thirty years boys and men have heard the constant refrain that they are but a few steps above animals. Men only grunt and eat. Men only want sex. Men are inherently violent and aggressive. Men are incapable of reading or speaking well. Men are lazy. Men are selfish. Men want to use and abuse women.
The list goes on, yet the thing most missing from that list are the good things men and boys are.
This is not particularly surprising considering how prevalent the above refrain is. It is in every film, every television show, every song and particularly common on daytime talk shows and in media reports about gender. So it should come as no surprise that when men and boys only hear about the things they ought not be those same men and boys cannot come up with what they should be. Martin writes:
They’re also not particularly effective in imagining what they do want to be. Case in point: back to Wong at the chalkboard. The negative associations with masculinity poured off the tongues of these feminist-friendly college kids. They’ve taken Women’s Studies 101. When their buddy says, “That’s so gay,” they spit back, “That’s a sexual identity, not a dis.” They let a few tears fall during the Take Back the Night March. They devour Michael Kimmel’s Guyland and proselytize about Byron Hurt’s documentary, Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes. This generation is saying no to toxic masculinity.
But what are these young men saying yes too? We’ve all failed to envision an alternative.
It is curious that Martin would include herself in such a group because as a woman and as a feminist it is really not her’s or any female’s say in how men define masculinity. It is beyond bizarre to allow those who will never be a part or of adopt an identity to define it.
That said, she is correct that feminist-allied men are not particularly effective in stating that they want to be. To be honest, they are not that effective in stating what they do not want to be either. This lack of effectiveness occurs because feminist-allied men take their cues from feminists, and feminists have had nothing redeeming to say about men, masculinity or manhood. Worse yet, virtually any trait can be turned against feminist-allied men as another example of their “oppression” women, including the very traits feminists tell those men to adopt. This leaves male feminists in state in which they are damned regardless of what choices they make. They are left playing a perpetual guessing game in which the correct answer is constantly shifting — sometimes on a whim in the midst of discussion.
All this stems from a very basic point: feminists have no idea what masculinity is or why it is so important to men. They have sought to “deconstruct” it without understanding it and the effect is not unlike the current situations in Afghanistan and Iraq. The situations were already problematic, yet they were made infinitely worse by a group of people who took it upon themselves to try to “fix” the countries and cultures without having a lick of knowledge about them. When the situation did not go as planned and the people of those countries their directed their anger at the incoming forces, the leaders of those forces were shocked and awed and felt they were being unfairly attacked when they should have been greeted as liberators.
Martin engages in a similar diatribe:
We’ve certainly got plenty of pictures of men who are stubbornly clinging to the old paradigm of maleness, and sadly, they’re not acting — think Tucker Max and Bill O’Reilly. The men’s rights movement is making reclaiming traditional manhood a compelling project for young, lost men. These activists know how to paint a vivid, if delusional, picture of the kind of man who will overcome victimization at the hands of all of us hateful feminists: He’s righteous, he’s fighting back, and most important, there’s nothing feminine about him. He is the opposite of female in every way.
While it is true that some men’s rights groups do cling to “traditional” masculinity simply because it is older and therefore considered better, it is far more delusional to think that one can strip away an entire group’s identity and replace it with catch-phrases and a host of conspiracy theories and actually believe this will work. It is also incredibly delusional to pretend that masculinity has ever been about being perceived as feminine or as a woman.
On a practical level it makes sense for men to define themselves in ways not associated with women because males and females have many biological differences that govern quite a few of our behaviors, which help shape our identities. Likewise, it is a common human tendency for groups define themselves in ways that render them different from others. People like to be able to define themselves in very specific ways, some of which include not being thought of as remotely like other groups (coincidentally, the feminist identity is exactly like this). Ironically, current femininity is defined in a way that essentially makes being a woman the opposite of male in every way, yet the latter is not only accepted by feminists, but also hailed.
Nevertheless, what some men’s rights groups and feminists like Martin fail to understand is that masculinity was historically much more diverse. The push to reclaim “traditional” masculinity is more akin to simply rebooting a computer infected with a virus (while the feminist notion of deconstruction is akin to taking a bat to the computer to eliminate the virus). The reboot does not fix the problem and likely neither would a system restore. What is needed is a virus scanner, something to go through and clean out the infected bits while leaving the rest of the system secure and stable.
The masculinity some men’s rights groups push for and the masculinity feminists push for are both extremes on the different ends of the same spectrum. The former is a too cold and aggressive extreme while the latter is a too weak and unsure extreme. Neither result in a completely rounded individual, just one who is deadened enough to keep his problems to himself or one so conflicted that he just waits to be told what to do.
Unsurprisingly, most males reject both of these, although they are more willing to lean towards the more “traditional” form over the feminist version since the former leaves them with at least a semblance of dignity and self-respect. However, it is clear that these are not enough, which is why so many boys and young men turn to videogames, movies, tv shows, music and various fantasy stories. They are looking for the role models of old, looking for the guidance they know they need and desperately want. Young men cling to films like Fight Club and 300 because these are films about men being men. Granted, Fight Club borders on satire and 300 is a heavily modernized version of the Spartans (before the famous battle apparently the Spartans were combing each other’s long hair, something hardly viewed as masculine today) . However, both films feature men essentially defining what it is to be men. In other words, men guiding other males into manhood.
That is what is missing from modern Western culture. Gone are any real role models, good or bad. The men who hearken back to the stoic figures of the Man with No Name or John Wayne films completely miss the point. Those men were not role models anyone should have followed because being governed by cold reasoning makes for a very incomplete person (speaking as someone who is governed by such things, this is quite true). A man needs compassion, caring, the ability to empathize with others and not just think of himself.
These were the qualities that were in actual traditional masculinity. Amazingly, the further in history one goes, the more one finds this complexity being expected and demanded of not only the average man, but particularly those who hold modern society’s collective appeal as the pinnacles of manhood. Knights, samurai, the Spartans, all of these men had these notions of compassion and empathy as part of their central edicts.
This is not to say that men should embrace chivalry or follow to the letter the rules found in the Hagakure. However, it is to say that in studying those older forms of masculinity boys and men may find the role models they are looking for — and they may find them without the baggage, the misandry or the requisite self-hatred and forfeiture of dignity demanded by feminists. In reading the ancient classics, mythologies and edicts boy and young men may begin to see that is not a matter of males being one step away from animals or becoming emotional wrecks, but a matter of balance and control.
As Waller Newell puts it in his introduction to his book The Code of Man:
There is a beautiful image […] that compares the human soul to a celestial chariot riding through the heavens. […] According to this ancient image, the charioteer stands for the human mind. The horses stand for the two most powerful of human passions, love and valor. The proper ordering of a man’s soul requires that the passions of love and valor always be guided by the dictates of reason. If the horses are not sufficiently reined in by the charioteer, if they are allowed they own way, these powerful steeds will pull the celestial chariot out of its heavenly arc, plunging it into a lower world of chaotic lust and violence. If, however, the charioteer is firmly in control of his steeds, the chariot of the soul will continue to soar upward to the celestial heights of eternal happiness, fulfillment, and honor.
But — and this is crucial to the secret of manliness — it’s not just a matter of controlling the horses. It’s not just a matter of repressing the passions by the dry dictates of reason. On the contrary: the charioteer can’t make his chariot go anywhere unless the ascent to happiness is fueled by the energy of those powerful horses. If that energy weren’t there, the chariot would just as surely crash as when the horses are out of control. So it is in the soul of a man. The mind cannot achieve happiness unless it is fueled by the passionate energies of love and daring. The point is not prudishly to suppress these passions but to direct them away from bad goals, like coarse pleasure seeking and brutal aggression, and towards constructive goals — the cultivation of those moral and intellectual virtues that enable us to be good family men, friends, and citizens. The image of the chariot evokes the proper balance of love and courage in the heart of man. A man needs to know who — and what — is truly deserving of his love. Only then will he know when — and why — he may need to fight to defend them. The proper balance of love and daring on behalf of his family, friends, and country entitles a man to feel proud of himself, and deservedly so.