Jack Donovan introduces his book, The Way of Men, with this quote from feminist author bell hooks, because it encapsulates two of Donovan’s arguments about masculinity. The first is that there is a difference between being a good man and being good at being a man, and that men admire the latter a great deal more than the former. The second is that when it comes to defining and evaluating masculinity, only the opinions of other men matter.
“Ultimately, defining masculinity is a logic problem which then presents a philosophical problem,” Donovan wrote in our email interview. “I had to determine which virtues would be most specific to a small group of men depending on each other for survival—because that’s the social organization that made us what we are today.”
As Donovan sees it, contemporary society offers a “masculinity of convenience” that belies our true desires. Where once, our daily lives tested men, the 21st century offers fewer real opportunities for men to prove themselves in mastery, courage, strength, and honor. The virtues of civilization—art, culture, justice—are in the realm of “the good man.”
His point about “gangsta culture” is that as much as we say we admire “good men,” and say things like, “it takes a real man to be a father,” we demonstrate who we really admire, and reveal what is lacking in our own lives, by who we watch: killers, men who take chances, work outside the system, and demand the respect of other men. Donovan rejects the service sector worker-citizen and family man as a model of modern masculinity; this masculinity is thwarted, impeded by every cog of civilization. Americans don’t believe in this kind of heroism: the everyman who takes public transit to a dense urban center packed with men and women of all ages, toils in anonymity, and serves his family. We import Japanese samurai movies, not the very popular (in Japan) salaryman genre. In the West, the masculine ideal is a loner, not a husband or a corporate drone, who drives down the highway alone, impeded by no custom or law.
Watching samurais and playing Grand Theft Auto are just a couple of those socially sanctioned outlets for our masculine drives: the ones we trade satisfaction of, for greater comfort and security. Sports, war, and violent video games remain, but outlets with real stakes are fewer: in business, politics, sports, or war, traditional proving grounds of masculinity. Are men in worse shape as a result, with consequences to all of civilization? Will we devolve to a point of no return, and is this even a cause for concern: that we are shutting off all possible futures but the one in which we are utterly dependent, ignorant, and weak?
The machines by which we form and prove our masculinity are outside our control, except in choosing which machine to enter. On one hand, Donovan admits that the soldier shipping off today doesn’t know much about what he’s heading into, and doesn’t have much control over what he’s asked to do. The media and military-industrial complex, politicians and the economy all conspire to make signing up look as honorable as it ever was. Donovan seems to admire soldiers for showing more character than the people who criticize them, while also admitting that, among the main reasons soldiers join is not a burning desire to serve mankind, but a desire to prove himself among other men, and a paucity of options for doing so.
—Photo credit: newskin0/Flickr