The Prospects of Masculinity

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.

26 thoughts on “The Prospects of Masculinity

  1. Another fantastic post, TS. Both perceptive and articulate.

    You’re right that there’s so much more to masculinity than destructiveness and stoicism. Men create beauty and seek knowledge. Poetry is historically a masculine activity. Apollo is a god, not a goddess, and every bit as masculine as Mars.

  2. “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.”

    What our society does not seems to realize, and feminists in particular seem to be completely myopic about is that if you tell a group of people that this is what they are, at some point they will not shrink from this, but will in fact embrace it.

    It is a natural reaction of men to define themselves. The feminists can all go to hell. They have no right or authority to tell men waht they are, or can or cannot be.

    The men in the above example are slaves to their mistresses. That is a cruel fate for any man.

    Better to be a monster than a slave.

  3. That is true, and that is why I think that it is important to show the history of masculinity and manhood completely outside of any feminist context. Rather than attaching negative labels to everything, these forms should be examined for what they meant to the men who identified with them. That would allow boys and men to pick and choose what qualities they want to adopt and become more rounded individuals.

  4. Better to be a monster than a slave.

    While I do not agree with that line, I do think quite a few men reach that conclusion. If you treat a person like he is a dumb animal for long enough he will eventually believe it.

  5. It is beyond bizarre to allow those who will never be a part or of adopt an identity to define it.
    Yet they still manage to assert that men have no business speaking on what a woman should be.

    Yeah the current state of masculinity is messed up and I think that while feminists and women can add valuable input (if nothing other than how they wish to be treated by men) it is borderline hypocritical for them to try to define what it means to be a man for men.

    And one thing that I think Courtney missed was that not only does masculinity need to be defined by what it is but the individual parts themselves must be examined as well. I touch on that a bit here. Its all fine well and good to declare what parts should go into masculinity but I think it is just as important to examine why those virtues are being in embraced.

    Good post TS.

  6. “TS

    Better to be a monster than a slave.

    While I do not agree with that line, I do think quite a few men reach that conclusion. If you treat a person like he is a dumb animal for long enough he will eventually believe it.”

    If you are an oppressor, no matter what you do or how generous, there is no reason to be generous.

    If you are a user, selfish, no matter how kind, then there is no reason to be kind.

    If you are seen as lazy, stupid, no matter what you do or accomplish then there is no reason to contribute to society.

    If you are treated as an animal, no matter how civilized, then there is no reason to follow any rules other than the law of the jungle.

    Masculinity is defined by each personal man. No there definition is required. No other individual has any authority over what a man is. Society has abdicated their responsibility toward men, in doing so it no longer has any authority over them.

  7. Danny,

    I think that the Courtney Martin article was arguing that these young men, influenced by feminist thinking have to work out, for themselves, their own understandings of masculinity (and the challenges around this). I didn’t read it as Martin proscribing what masculintiy should be.

  8. I always like to take this kind of discussions (either by feminists or feminist critics) with a grain of salt. To say something like “the current state of masculinity is messed up” is in someway offending to the good and great men there are.

    I often think in those discussion the wrong words are used. Masculinity has and always will mean diversity, so the generalisation do not really work imho. I guess what we are talking about is stereotypical masculinity or masculinity as portrayed by the media. To give an example, I had several role models (aka male relatives) as a child that certainly do not fit into the stereotypical view of men there is. Be it the loving father who could de-escalate every argument with his sense of humor and his infectious smile, the grand father who cared for his mentally ill wife, who had no problem with telling what is right or wrong or sharing a tear when talking about the war or the uncle who was a technical genious and always helpful to those who asked him for help no matter what.

    There is nothing wrong with masculinity, there is something wrong with how masculinity is portrayed or talked about. The feminist-allys are a prime example on what is happening. “We are not that, but what are we?”

    Discussions among academics will certainly not help here. Male role models will. Demonizing men won´t bring us forward, but reaching out to men might do the trick.

  9. She used the pronoun “we” several times in the article, so I do not think she believes that feminist-allied men need to work it out for themselves. More so, she explicitly states “Models help us try on various identities and find one that is truly authentic. The more publicly feminist-aligned men we have, the more opportunities the next generation has to find a positive, masculine gender identity that actually fits.” That is essentially Martin dictating what masculinity should be.

  10. While there are numerous good and great men out there are, many boys and men from my generation — Gen Y — have not met them. Some of those boys and men grew up without any male role models, others only bad ones and others with role models who left them or pushed out of their lives. I think the situation is more drastic than in terms of perception than in reality, meaning that it appears much worse than it probably is. However, the situation is still fairly bad when the majority of the messages boys and men receive are negative, and with men my age I can see the wanting of at least one halfway decent role model who will not be attacked at a moment’s notice. What we need to see are more public instances of the various types of masculinity that we are all familiar with instead of the one macho stereotype.

  11. I think that any movement that addresses the issues of masculinity, or more appropriately how masculinity is defined and regarded, is a step in the right direction. There is one line in the post that sticks with me:

    “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.”

    The biggest mistake anybody can make is to define one’s self by what they are not. As the old saying goes, you can’t prove a negative, you can only prove what something is. This may seem like a semantic issue, but it really isn’t. For the past forty years, men on the whole have not been rapists or misogynists. They have behaved the way society has directed them to behave. It is thus a fair statement to say that men in general are not, and have not been either of these things. There should be not one second of time wasted in defining what we are not.

    Stick to the facts, and put your true face out there. It is true that it will be spat upon in equal proportion as not. Is it not better though, to live for and promote the truth?

  12. “The push to reclaim “traditional” masculinity is more akin to simply rebooting a computer infected with a virus”

    TS,

    Could you explain what you mean by ‘virus’? Is the presumption here that the ‘virus’ is culturally caused?

    My opinion is that the John Wayne/Clint Eastwood acolytes are more drawn to the leadership qualities, specifically leadership of men, that they exuded than to the part of their personalities that was detached. Similarly, a different group of men look up to the Cary Grant/Jimmy Stewart/Paul Newman archetype as the man ‘who women want to be with’. The way I look at it is that those men, in gereral, infer a common deficiency in their own character that they can offset by gaining info from these movie figures.

    “A man needs compassion, caring, the ability to empathize with others and not just think of himself.”

    Unfortunately, I don’t see how men, in general, can empathize with women because of the lack of trust and the dearth of shared experiences. On the flip side, women will avoid empathizing with men because to do so would almost certainly require them to acknowledge widespread discrimination against men, which would go against all they have been taught.

    Additionally, guys are quick to realize that girls will stereotype the qualities you listed above as indicative of a friend, rather than something more, and thus they overcompensate in the opposite direction by aspiring to the PUA model.

  13. Yet she keeps pushing that feminism as the one true way to redefining masculinity. And who is the center of attention when it comes to feminism? Women.

    So men need to redefine masculinity but it needs to be done under the influence of a movement that explicitly puts women first? Her wanting masculinity to be redefined is one thing but she is pretty much trying to ensure that women will have the major influence on what it is.

  14. Could you explain what you mean by ‘virus’? Is the presumption here that the ‘virus’ is culturally caused?

    By virus I mean the current cultural view of masculinity as nothing but stoic machismo. It is nothing more than a pale imitation of role models like Wayne, Eastwood, Grant, Stewart and Newman, but it is quite infectious. I think it is both culturally caused and innate within males. The things we see are not inherently bad. Male assertiveness, promiscuity, logic, protectiveness and such are all things that make the human species successful. It is just that without guidance those things can go terribly awry rather quickly. When combined with the greater cultural images that reinforce the most base expressions of these qualities, the result is what you see today, which is more a mess of who knows what than anything remotely coherent.

    Unfortunately, I don’t see how men, in general, can empathize with women because of the lack of trust and the dearth of shared experiences. On the flip side, women will avoid empathizing with men because to do so would almost certainly require them to acknowledge widespread discrimination against men, which would go against all they have been taught.

    That is why I think this line from Newell is so relevant: 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. One of the interesting aspects of all the former role models mentioned above is that every one of them knew when and how to say no to a woman. They knew the women they were interested in and the women who were interested in them. They did not waste time pursuing women who did not at the very least return some aspect of their affection. It had to do with self-confidence and self-respect. Trying to simply “bag” an attractive women says more about that man than it does about society in general.

    That said, I do not think it is impossible for men and women to learn about each other’s experiences or come to trust one another. It is more of a matter of understanding that everyone has issues and challenges and that one is not inherently better or worse than the other. That will require a cultural shift, but I certainly think it is doable.

  15. It pains me to see masculanity slandered and lacerated by ideological extremists who have no business defining what a man is by focusing so much on the negatives and equating it with men in general.

    Why can’t we ever look at the postive sides of masculanity without cringing? Or will this world simply abandon mascilanity and embrace feminity as the “Proper” paradigm to develope? If it hasn’t already.

  16. Wonderful post. Very well articulated.

    I think their is much to be learned from old stories and new ones. I learned a lot of how I act and what ideals of honour and chivalry I uphold from reading a lot of stories. Masculinity is so ill-defined I think that the only way to define it is to fall back on basic principles that have held through out time.

    It’s sad though. It seems to me that chivalry is very much dead in this day and age. Perhaps all we can do is teach what it is to be chivalrous and respectful and honourable.

  17. In a way it all ready has. I’m a rather effeminate male so at least from where I sit….

    Diversity is the key to this. If we can spread the base principles of masculinity thus setting the foundation, it will once again be seen as good and wholesome and smiled upon.

    Does that make sense?

  18. Chivalry is a core part of the problem. In a world of equality between the sexes, chivalry functions to elevate women at the expense of men. It’s an anachronism. Any future re-balancing of the situation between the sexes will have to do away with chivalry pretty much entirely. This is already the case in many countries outside the Anglosphere, because it was in the Anglosphere countries that chivalry reached its apogee under the Victorians. As it stands now, chivalry is an anachronism that hurts men. It needs to go.

  19. Any defining what is “masculine” in relations to women is a mistake and a failure.

    Whether is is “We are not” x

    Or we do x in relation to women.

    Masculinity is something that has to be self defined in today’s society, or culture is antimale, so that can not be the source of masculinity.

    Chivalry, as nova points out perpetuates the evils against men and boys and must be rooted out and destroyed. Anything that elevates the feminine over the masculine must not be accepted because it is a poison in an equalist society.

  20. Llyando

    Check out novaseekers’s blog.

    http://novaseeker.wordpress.com/

    You may also want to check into Roissy in DC, though I must warn you it is very explicit, offends pretty much everyone at times, and is kinda of nihilistic in outlook. It’s a “game” blog with some political and cultural commentary added in.

  21. This is so true. Our culture has made men afraid to be men. It’s where the *shudders* metrosexual trend comes from. Some women are happy with feminized men, but I think most instinctually want masculine men. They’re harder to find, so I think that’s where the dangerous female trend toward wanting a “bad boy” comes in. His good male counterparts are often so wimpy! Culture needs to relearn that being masculine does not equal being bad.

  22. Lyando: “Diversity is the key.”

    You’re absoloutly right. The problem is, it’s hard to even get people convinced about diversity in masculanity when the culture of “Men = Bad, Women = Good” is pervasive and has a greater influence than looking at variety.

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