Men are aggressive. Men don’t show emotions. Men never avoid a fight. Men are reasonable. Men woo women. Men dominate women. Men wear suits. Men wear wife beaters. Men provide for wives. Men beat wives. Men look suave. Men don’t care about their looks. Men are sober. Men like hard liquor. Men burp and fart in public. Men are dignified. Men prefer sons. Men protect daughters.
The rules and constrains of masculinity are aplenty. Some are antiquated. Some are still common practice. And all are subject to debate. The damage inflicted by unconditional submission to the taxing demand to “be a man” is well documented. The permanent pressure to display aggression, to compete and succeed, all while inhibiting emotions, has been affiliated with feelings of inadequacy and various adverse mental health outcomes. One would, therefore, expect that men welcome the opportunity to rid themselves of the demands of traditional gender roles, and enjoy reduced pressure, more cooperative partnerships, and emotional liberation.
In practice, however, quite the opposite is often the case. Even a casual look at college campuses, gyms, workplaces, and even families, often reveals an astonishing extent of angry machismo, and the fierce embracement of traditional rules of manliness. Such hypermasculinity, especially the emphasis on the aggression and dominance related attributes, often leads to tragic consequences—for others, but also for the neo-machos themselves. Broken families, toxic relationships, social isolation, imprisonment, and even death are only some of the possible outcomes. Several studies convincingly relate hypermasculinity, with its focus on sexual conquest and promiscuity, to the global HIV/Aids pandemic. Given this wealth of negative outcomes, one is left wondering what could possibly get some guys to embrace such a destructive set of values.
The erosion of traditional manliness is the flipside of female emancipation. Underlying all brands of feminism—first, second, or third wave, prude or sex positive, ideological or pragmatic—is the assumption that sex differences don’t imply gender differences. While biological discrepancies are inevitable, the manifold social consequences affiliated with them are not. They are socially constructed and, thus, subject to change. The liberating potential of this insight for girls and women has always been obvious, even to women who reject it.
Men, however, are left with fear and lack of direction. Masculine ideals become debatable. Identities crumble. Certainties vanish. Restrictive as they are, the rules of masculinity provide clear goals, and standards of right and wrong. Now they have disappeared, or at least their absolute validity has. What is left is confusion, and a terrifying wealth of possibilities.
The philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandolla once declared indeterminism the defining feature of the human race. At odds with the religious dogma of his time, yet brilliantly capturing the humanistic program of the Italian Renaissance, Pico proposed the following allegory. God, he declared, created men without giving him any particular endowment of his own. His other creations, divine angels and brutish animals, are clearly restricted by their inherent nature. His latest achievement, however, was not constrained in this way. God explained to man: “We have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer.” Human beings must, within their biological constraints, create themselves.
Such vastness of choice is overwhelming. Too many decisions, too many options. What should we do? Who should we be? Worse, whatever we choose, we will never learn whether our choice was right, not even after the fact. Perhaps another identity would have suited us better, would have made us happier. Along with an abundance of options goes unlimited potential for regret. To escape the choice overkill, we are in desperate need of guidelines. Religions, ideologies, social norms, and cultural conventions are merciful masters. They provide us with direction and certainty. As for masculine identity, they offer comforting reassurance what a real man is supposed to be.
The erosion of traditional gender roles, however, destroys this much-needed security. The terrifying ocean of possibilities is rising, and many desperately cling to their personal islands of certainty. Hypermasculinity is a choice of fear. It is the coward’s escape to the safety of shackles.
Our choices are not limited to fear or desolation. Instead, we could embrace the wealth of possibilities, and scorn the lack of assurance. We could discard the shackles laughing, instead of whimpering. We have gained the freedom to decide what men we wish to be, and there are so many options, other than the hyper-masculine moron or the anti-masculine wuss. In the end, the problem of masculinity is but a special case of mankind’s fundamental challenge.
We must be artists as well as work of art. We must be the authors of our own identity.
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