Are We Not Men?

Don DraperReading Eye Weekly I came across this article about the disappearance of manliness. It appears to have been spawned by a film based on the exploits of a loutish sort of blogger named Tucker Max who freely admits that he is an irresponsible, mocking drunk whose sexual habits are a recipe for STIs. Writer Edward Keenan  points out that Tucker Max is a hero to a cadre of young men and that is a symptom of, “the slow, steady disappearance of manliness — and with it a popularly accepted, socially worthwhile role for men — in North American culture.”

Now being written in an alt-weekly, you know that this article is not going to be a simple pining for the “good old days” of yore. Keenan recognizes (rightly, in my opinion) that the old-time patriarchy had plenty wrong with it as well. I commend to you Mad Men or the UK version of Life on Mars if you start getting nostalgic for a time when women “knew their place” and so on. What happened though is that as women broke out their old roles confined to homemaking and child-rearing, men have sort of given up. Says Keenan:

“[M]en in increasing numbers have just decided to kind of drop out of the whole battle of the sexes thing and play videogames (or beer pong, or fantasy football, or Dungeons and Dragons, or just their iPods) instead. When women decided to stop taking orders from The Man, men decided to stop being The Man and focus on being The Dude. As women have realized that with great freedom comes even greater and more frustrating responsibility, men have increasingly realized that they can chase their bliss and reach self-actualization without owning up to any responsibilities at all.”

Keenan goes on to suggest that this isn’t because men have stopped being men, they’ve just continued to be men but in a more useless way:

“It’s not as if men have dropped many of the old annoying characteristics of manhood. They are as competitive as ever, they are as lustful as ever, they still shun emotionalism and embrace codes and statistics and structures. It’s just that all the socially redeeming things that used to accompany those easy-to-spot external characteristics — things like a sense of honour and a feeling of responsibility to something greater than oneself, be it family or society at large — have been shrugged off like so much paternalistic baggage.”

This is true in virtually every expression of 21st C. North American masculinity – video games along could be a case study: There’s competition, gratuitous cleavage, dispassionate killing, and of course any good first-person shooter game will break down the numbers after each round – how many kills with each type of weapon, how many head shots, accuracy and so on. Blogs, ahem, aren’t much better, WordPress, like any good blogging platform has all manner of statistics, many of which can be published to the actual home page of one’s blog so that one might boast about them.

It might be worth noting at this juncture that Keenan is careful to point out that these are of course tendencies and not universal truths, but that tendencies, like how men tend to be taller than women are not to be overlooked. There are of course slacker women and career-climbing men out there, but increasingly it seems like both of these are exceptional cases. Keenan has numbers: Women are more likely to attend university, more likely to graduate, and more likely to go into professional schools like law or medicine.

Keenan argues that we have our definitions wrong, that when we today speak of masculinity, we think of “shallow displays of toughness and vulgarity, of an obsession with balls (of various kinds) and breasts and booze and brawn” while earlier generations would have probably associated masculinity with responsibility to their families and communities. Moreover, one should not contrast masculinity and femininity: “Men haven’t avoided manliness to become more like women — if they had, we’d have no problem, really. They’ve avoided it to become more like children.”

Some Theses About All This:

  • We cannot go back – even if we would want to. Young women – even many of those who I encounter in evangelical church settings often have solid careers that I do not see them forsaking for 1950s family roles. Moreover, there’s a reason I put Don Draper up at the top of this post – there was lots to dislike about the “good old days” and certainly lots of men were reprehensible cads. No nostalgia, please.
  • Traditionally masculine values such as courage or responsibility have been subject to all kinds of abuse. My great-grandfather returned from Passchendaele physically (and likely psychologically) wounded – and for what? To protect the lands of Belgium’s monarchy? To stop Germany from threatening British naval hegemony? World War I was a complete waste of blood and treasure at the behest of incompetent upper class twits like Douglas Haig. Men were often just as exploited by the old patriarchy as women. If I had to choose, I’d rather my generation of men and our sons grow up as video gamers than as imperial cannon fodder.
  • The recent past is not the whole history of gender relations: for most of human history most men and women worked side-by-side in predominantly agrarian societies. That is not to say that gender didn’t serve as a means for the division of labour, but it would have been incoherent to say that one sex “stayed home” and the other “went off to work.” Even with the advent of industrialization, many women worked in factories (mainly in textiles). As the nature of work continues to change it is anachronistic to suggest that there are fixed gender roles regarding work. Who does what work is always up for negotiation.
  • Men dropping out and women picking up the slack goes a long way in explaining the so-called happiness gap. I am referring to the fact that since the 1960s women have reported being less and less happy with their lives while men’s happiness has generally increased. Obviously if men are focused video games/bands/the internet while women work on their careers while still doing the bulk of the household chores/child-rearing it’s no secret who will, in the short term at least, be happier.
  • The cohort of boys born in the late ’70s and onward and who had grown up in North America probably had, on average, the best material childhood and adolescence in human history. We enjoyed the best toys, games, and gadgets ever. Boys playing with the tin or wooden toys of yesteryear had mediocre simulations of real trucks or real soldiers or whatever. We had Nintendo, we had toy cars that became robots, we had, in short, playthings that were better than “real life.” It’s no wonder we don’t like the idea of growing up, it’s a downgrade from childhood. Girls meanwhile were still being exposed to the intense pressure to be physically attractive while simultaneously being expected to run for student council, play sports, and get into a good university. For girls growing up didn’t remove those pressures, but at least it afforded them a sense of autonomy.
  • If men are afraid to compete with women when women are on an equal footing, well, it should be obvious which is the weaker sex. Men were not defeated or victimized by feminism, rather we appear to have unilaterally surrendered – you can have the perfect kids and the great career – but we just unlocked the bonus level on this game. Is it any wonder, given the way we behave, that women want daughters more than sons? While some cultural conservatives want to depict men and boys as victims of feminists or something, my generation – men now in their 20s and 30s – did this to ourselves.