“In an age of relative uncertainty, this handsome, charming, unrepentantly chauvinist man is a reassuring throwback to a time when America knew exactly what manhood was.”
Isn’t it being prepared to do the right thing, whatever the cost? Isn’t that what makes a man? - Jeffrey Lebowski
Sure, that and a pair of testicles. - The Dude
Imagine a young male pop star releases a tender, heartfelt ballad called, “Not a Boy, Not Yet a Man,” about the complex transition from boyhood to manhood. He’d be laughed off the stage before he finished the first verse. Though American society has, commensurate with the rise of feminism, opened up its acceptable definition of masculinity, at least one old truth holds true: men are encouraged not to self-examine. Questioning what it means to be a man is akin to admitting that you aren’t one, which makes writing an article about what it means to be a man inherently tricky. And on top of that, men—at least the white, Anglo-Saxon, not-exactly Protestant class of men to which I belong—aren’t exactly in a bull market right now. The Atlantic declared “The End of Men” in July of 2010, but men are still around.
All of this makes figuring out what makes a boy into a man seem both hopeless and urgent to any hypothetical male in his early twenties – a male whose name hypothetically might be at the top of this article. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average life expectancy is 78.5 years, which means I’ve lived a little less than a third of my life already. If I’m not a man yet, I should probably start figuring out how to become one.
You can learn a lot about a time period by looking at its icons of manhood. The 1950s had James Dean, rebelling without a cause. The 1960s had Sean Connery, shooting and bedding his way through a series of James Bond films. The 1970s had noted mustache enthusiast Burt Reynolds; the 1980s, a feather-haired Patrick Swayze. These were men of their times.
But something interesting has happened over the past decade: the “man” of the now is the “man” of the past. If I had to choose a single contemporary icon of masculinity, it would be Mad Men lead character Don Draper. And yes, I mean Don Draper, not Jon Hamm (the actor who so effectively plays him). There’s a reason that Banana Republic is releasing its second consecutive line of menswear based on the series and that Draper and his scotch and suits have become the hallmark of Mad Men’s ad campaigns. In an age of relative uncertainty, this handsome, charming, unrepentantly chauvinist man is a reassuring throwback to a time when America knew exactly what manhood was.
The problem, of course, is that the times that were great for handsome, charming, unrepentantly chauvinist men were pretty terrible for everybody else. Contemporary manhood has been fractured, but I wouldn’t scale back the commensurate social and political gains by women and people of color for anything. The trick is finding out how to embody those stereotypical masculine strengths without requiring someone else to be weaker.
It’s a tough balance to strike. F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that “every one suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues.” But I’ve always suspected myself of one of the cardinal vices: pride. And my inability to separate my sense of pride from what it means for me to be a man—or, perhaps more honestly, my feeling that pride helps define what it means for me to be a man—has led to most of the mistakes I’ve made in recent years.
In fact, I have an example from as recently as yesterday, when I spontaneously did something pointlessly macho and short-sighted that I’ve been turning over in my head ever since. As I was crossing the street with my girlfriend late last night, a car sped through a red light and across our crosswalk, missing us by inches. As the car blazed past, I felt an impetuous cocktail of anger and alcohol surge through my veins, and I slammed my hand down on the car’s rear window—an action that had roughly the same impact as fighter jets have on King Kong. It did, however, have a notable impact on the driver, who screeched to a halt, climbed out of the car, and screamed, “Who the fuck did that?” I was at least smart enough not to turn around and yell back, “It was me, douchebag,”—though a part of me certainly wanted to—and I left the driver fuming in the street as I quietly shuffled away.
I can make several bullshitty justifications for the fact that I almost got my head stomped in by a road-raging stranger last night. I was drunk (ish). I was being chivalrous (I wish). But the real reason, which I haven’t been able to shake, is the weird sense of pride I felt – and still kind of feel – about the fact that I did something so stupid.
It’s that feeling, to me, that defines my own internal struggle for contemporary masculinity: the dissonance between my sincere belief in being a progressive, forward-thinking contemporary man, and my inability to suppress the occasional urge to do pointless chest-thumping. The irony, of course, is that trying to prove you’re a man is generally the least manly thing you can do. The real bravest things I’ve done fall under my practical idea of manhood—responsibility, morality, integrity, courage—which is, perhaps not coincidentally, pretty much identical to my idea of adulthood.
I can’t completely shed my dumb, archaic definition of what it means to be a man. I love boxing and Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, and crying doesn’t come easily to me (unless I’m watching the first 15 minutes of Up). And I make mistakes – sometimes bad ones. But I’m interested in manhood, not brohood, dudehood, or guyhood, and honestly acknowledging those mistakes is a part of it. Maybe, with time, I can even fix them. And maybe that’s all it is; like most of life’s “big questions,” the truest answer is the most clichéd. Maybe manhood is what happens while you’re making other plans.
Or maybe “a pair of testicles” is the answer after all.
Photo: angela n./Flickr