We define manliness as being in opposition to two things. Those are the things we need to embrace.
The worst fears, for a man, are most often being seen as weak or being seen as a failure. Men do terrible things to themselves and others trying to avoid those two dread appellations. Men reading this, think about how much trying to avoid seeming weak, or being perceived as a failure, has twisted your own life. Where does this constant anxiety come from, and why? I fear we are led astray by our archetypes.
We all, as humans, absorb lessons from the culture around us as to how we are supposed to be, about what the ideal is for a person fitting our own identity description. If you’re a man in Western culture, you have millennia of male heroes to emulate, from Achilles to Superman, and that’s without leaving the “Action Heroes (Visible Nipples (Bulletproof))” category. And that’s not a bad thing: having role models to follow is awesome, whether you’re trying to emulate Robin Hood’s passion for economic justice or Lord Peter Wimsey’s magnificent sense of style.
But I think that too often we take the wrong lessons from our heroes. We see the heroes we want to be, but we only see their strengths and triumphs. We measure ourselves against those and always find ourselves wanting. We need to embrace our own imperfections, and that starts with understanding how our best heroes embody the very weaknesses and failures we’re trying to avoid.
Shana Mlawski wrote a brilliant article for Overthinking It about the painfully tedious and oddly sexist nature of what are called “strong female characters”, usually just bland success fantasies with big tits. She argues that what are needed are weak female characters, not weak in the sense of being weakly or badly written but weak in the sense of being flawed, complicated. Human.
Fortunately, men have no shortage of those heroes either. All our best heroic role models are defined as much by their weaknesses and failures as their strengths and successes. Let’s look at a few
We remember Indiana Jones as a badass action hero who saved the day, but strictly speaking, he spent all of Raiders of the Lost Ark failing. He lost the initial golden statue he nearly died to get, lost Marion, lost the Ark, lost Marion again, lost the Ark again, got the crap kicked out of him, got captured by the Nazis, lost the Ark a third time… it’s no wonder the guy can’t get tenure. This is not to diminish or criticize this classic character; instead, notice how his failure is heroic, is impressive, how it makes him no less of an awesome, memorable hero. Bear that in mind the next time you’re beating yourself up for failing at something.
Sherlock Holmes is the untouchable genius intellectual, the ideal for men who live by their minds. Except that if you actually read the stories, he was quite clearly severely bipolar and attempted to self-medicate with cocaine. He was flatly wrong in “The Yellow Face” (and had the class to ask Watson to remind him of that the next time he got too cocky) and frequently admitted to his own limitations and failings. We may remember him as infallible, but that’s not what’s on the page. Consider that other folks might remember your successes better than your failures as well.
John McClane is a fascinating example, because he started as a good character and became a bland, painfully boring one. In the original Die Hard, he’s explicitly just a working joe in over his head, and his most memorable moment of heroism is when he has to run across broken glass barefoot, a pain that, unlike gunshots and explosions, almost all of us can relate to. In the sequels, he has grown increasingly invincible, increasingly a marketing-driven hero whose very awesomeness is what motivates his villains, has progressed from everyman to superman, and in the process has gone from an interesting and exciting hero to another boring, interchangeable action figure. If you want to argue otherwise, start by finding someone who was more personally engaged and moved by A Good Day To Die Hard than by Die Hard. Take your time. We’ll wait.
The truth is, unflawed heroes are boring. They don’t even make good stories, when the narrative deck is stacked entirely in their favor. Why do we believe that being unflawed, that being a constant winner, would be a good thing in reality? We literally can’t even construct a system in which that’s a good thing, so why do we think that reality would have done so?
One might argue that real-world role models are better than fictional ones, not being bound by the narrative requirement of being interesting, but in practice we find they’re no different. Lance Armstrong admitted to a complex form of doping. Michael Jordan didn’t stop gambling even when it was ethically dubious. Winston Churchill, even on the terms of those saying he wasn’t an alcoholic, spent most of every day drinking. Martin Luther King Jr. cheated on his wife. William Shakespeare wrote some real crap in addition to his masterpieces. They were human, and thus flawed, and that is okay. Being weak, failing sometimes, does not diminish their genuine accomplishments. And yet we imagine in our daily lives that we, as men, are worthless if we’re not perfect and awesome all the time.
Whether you succeed or fail, it at least means you took a chance. After all, there are not a lot of sure bets in the real world, but there is at least one: if you plan on being perfect, on never being weak, or flawed, or wrong, if you plan on never failing or losing even once, then it is 100% certain that your plan will not work out. Instead, plan for a life in which you will screw up. Sometimes your own weaknesses will work against you. Other times things just won’t go your way. Still other times, those factors will conspire to create a massive clusterfuck of previously-unimaginable proportions, spinning wildly out of control in all directions, and you’ll want to blame yourself.
At those times, you will want to think that your story is over. In practice, it just means that your story is only starting to get really interesting.
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