NYMag’s Ann Friedman recently asked “what does manhood mean in 2013?” It’s not as though she was clueless; in fact, she had too many clues. She’d recently been told:
- guys are fairly simple. This from Bryan Goldberg, founder of Bleacher Report and some other websites, to New Yorker writer Lizzie Widdicombe. That may be the image, but it’s never been the truth. If it were, manhood wouldn’t be so confusing.
- patriarchy had ended. This from Hanna Rosin, who also announced The End of Men a few years ago. Newsflash for Ms. Rosin: men are still here, we haven’t disappeared, and we’re not even endangered. Ditto Patriarchy; more on that later.
- men say their children and their partners have had more an impact on their life and are more important than ball games, boozing, and boobs. This shows up in interview after interview in Esquire’s “Life of Men” project. If you’re surprised, then you’re spending too much time with stereotypes and missing what’s happening all around you.
- men are changing. This from market research firm JWT’s report on “The State of Men.” That’s news? I guess if you think men are simple or that modern day men are basically Neanderthals whose grooming habits and table manners have barely changed after a few millenia, then change would be news.
The reality is that masculinity is changing. As it often has.
What Friedman doesn’t seem to know is that masculinity is — and always has been — filled with contradictions and mixed messages. Many classic westerns, like Shane and Pale Rider, highlighted the tension between the settlers and the gunslingers. Neither trusted the other and, at least in those two films, each wanted to be like the other.
Contradictory messages about gender role are hardly new nor are they solely the province of men. The entire superwoman debate about whether or not women can have successful, high profile careers while also being the primary caretaker of their children is but one example.
The reality is that masculinity is changing. As it often has. Men have routinely adapted to the culture and times around them. American manhood has been idealized – or feared – in a variety of ways over the last half century. Here’s a short list:
- The Organization Man of the 1950s, who followed the rules and helped build the grand structures we now know as corporations.
- His children, the “delinquents,” the scourge of the 50s and early 60s. They chafed under his rules and were epitomized in West Side Story (especially the Jets) and the career of James Dean.
- The Sensitive New Age Guy of the 1970s, who explored his feelings, his sexuality, and pretty much anything else he could think of.
- The macho guys of the 1980s, epitomized by a new generation of action films starring guys named Schwarzenegger and Stallone. Reagan’s bluster and one-day wars also fit the bill.
- The 1990s saw another set of rebels, this time via the Grunge movement. They certainly didn’t look clean and their drugs were a lot harder.
There’s no particular rhyme or reason as to why these particular images of masculinity made it to the top of the heap, nor is there any meaningful way to draw a straight evolutionary line through all of them. The Organization Man doesn’t logically precede or contribute to the macho guys, while the delinquents and the grunge-rs don’t seem terribly different from each other.
Yet some parts of masculinity haven’t changed. We still teach and expect boys and men to be willing to sacrifice themselves for others, and thus require young men to register with selective service (but not young women). Despite the recent Mancession and Rosin’s claims, we still expect men to be the primary earner among heterosexual couples. Its part of the reason we can’t figure out how to talk about – and the census bureau can’t figure out how to categorize – stay-at-home dads; Esquire reminds us becoming a father is a defining moment for many men.
Instead of asking “what does manhood mean,” we should start asking what purpose it serves.
Hard work is still valued, as is leadership. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about heroes or villains, success is good. At mid-century, we gave real status to guys who joined and led community organization, but as Robert Putnam illustrated in Bowling Alone, those structures are dying out.
We still like the “quietly useful” guys, the men who show up to work every day, go home to their spouse and child, don’t particularly complain, and just make it work every day. Those Average Joes may not have the status of other guys, but we‘ve long loved them.
Instead of asking “what does manhood mean,” we should start asking what purpose it serves. The answer is simple: it’s a way to compare men to each other. We start young by teaching boys they need to prove their masculinity so we can “separate the men from the boys.”
Not only are boys expected to prove their masculinity in order to become men, they’re taught that masculinity is so precarious they’ll need prove it repeatedly throughout their lives. That’s why 73 year old Jack Palance did a series of one-armed pushups, on stage and in a tux, after winning an Oscar.
The importance of these male-male comparisons even shows up in our language. The question “who’s more masculine: President Barack Obama or President George W. Bush?” makes sense, but the parallel question “Who’s more feminine: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or Secretary of State Condeleeza Rice?” doesn’t.
And that, Ms. Rosin, is part of Patriarchy. It’s about giving societal benefits to the folks who most closely conform to gender-based expectations. It hasn’t ended; you don’t need to look any farther than ads for pickup trucks or beer. Man Law anyone?
So Ms. Friedman, I recommend that you recognize the changes and understand that manhood changes over time. You can greet those changes with open arms or clenched fists, as you see fit. If you try to understand why things change the way they do or try to make logical sense of masculinity as a whole, you may drive yourself nuts. Then again, you probably don’t do that for femininity, so why should masculinity have different rules?
-photo by jim orsini/flickr