Dale Thomas Vaughn responds to the question: “What Does It Mean to be a Man in 2015?”
The fact that we’re even asking this question in America is itself a signifier of where we are in the process of evolving our societal concepts of manhood. When this kind of social question is itself acceptable in the mainstream, it implies the social system does not have a single answer (it’s like a quarterback controversy).
In fact, in 1995, R.W. Connell published the book Masculinities. This was the first time an academic social/psychological scientist acknowledged the possibility that there might be more than one definition of “masculinity.” If there are plural masculinities, then the cultural concept must necessarily be subjective…and maybe even expanding. But where did this question start?
It is my hypothesis that American society has entered the nascent era of what I call the “post-violence” masculinities. Since 1973, when the American tradition of the citizen-soldier was erased with the draft, the vast majority of American men have never been or even considered ever being a “warrior.” For the first time, we’ve had back-to-back peaceful generations of men.
Have there been wars? Yes. Have men continued to be violent? Yes, and I don’t mean to suggest we have achieved world peace; but the fact is currently only 0.5% of the American population is a member of the military. It has been 40 years since a wartime when every man over 18 was living with the looming eventuality of conscription.
If the identity of a man has been so directly tied to their ability to fight for eons, and suddenly back to back generations of men are free to consider a life without being enlisted for war…then we are really only 40 years into a new era.
Imagine you are born today, it’s possible your father and your grandfathers were born in this era without the military as a barometer of manliness. Throw on top the fact that women and openly gay service members now enlist, and even the military’s definition of the warrior has expanded (the internal friction from this expansion also serves as a barometer for where we are as a society in accepting these changes).
Not coincidentally, I believe, the first conference on Men and Masculinity was held in 1975. The mid-70s saw the foundation of “Masculism” and the men’s movement—really a continuation or reaction to the women’s movement. These men were basically pro-feminist (or simply anti-sexist), promoting similar egalitarian social ideals. It’s obvious that feminism and masculism go hand in hand, right? We’ve seen things like father’s rights and paternity leave come along as an offshoot (bringing with them more societal value of good fathers—and the devaluing of bad fathers). You’ve also seen a lot of these men standing side by side with women’s and LGBT groups to work on issues like sexual assault prevention and care, reproductive rights, and gay rights.
The conversation around modern masculinity is like what might happen with an unattended chalkboard in a class of 10th graders (which is about when boys start self-correcting based on social norms of “manhood”). The boldest, most rebellious dude would approach the blank chalkboard and the first thing he’d draw is probably something phallic, right? The easy laughs come cheap. Other kids will be encouraged to join in on the fun. You’ll get everything from cartoons, signatures, games, and poetry to some kids abstaining altogether in order to watch the chaos unfold.
At some point after the initial rush, a leader or two will emerge and the chalkboard might start to get organized. The leaders ask what to keep and what to erase (that’s where we are now in this metaphor). There will be some drawings that everyone agrees are great, they will stay and may even become the centerpiece for a new theme or game. There will be some drawings that everyone agrees are haphazard messes, they’ll be erased. Eventually from that tangled mess, there’s a chance something beautiful and poetic will comb out during the detangling.
Right now, it’s obvious we are working on the foundation of what it means to be a man by graying the lines of what it means to be “tough”, de-linking violence and aggression as surefire signifiers of manliness, bringing back some of the more intrinsic traits of the natural man (beards/wilderness, present fatherhood), and discovering new opportunities for masculinity that are more possible now in a culture of relative peace (Bro-mance, interdependence, work/life balance). It’s also obvious that these standards of masculinity fluctuate among generations and regions, much like any other value system.
I think when we’re done detangling this mess, we’re going to find we’ve got a new definition of masculinity that is more balanced, more prosperous, and generally better for everyone.
Photo: expertinfantry / flickr
Men at Munsan-ni, preparing for inspection prior to acting as honor guard at signing of armistice at Panmunjom, Korea. Navy men shining their shoes. July 23, 1953. (Navy)
Also by Dale Thomas Vaughn
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