What are the types of experiences which contribute to modern masculinity?
I wanna answer the question at the top of this page because it’s what I’ve been thinking about for what seems like forever. What makes a modern man? And, here’s the thing: I don’t want to answer this question with some definitional account of masculinity. I don’t really care for those. No, I’m wondering—what it is that we, as future men, uniquely experience when growing up. In other words, on the way to manhood, are there things we all experience along the way? What is it that makes growing up as a guy different from growing up?
Most of us grow up with an understanding that there is something deeply wrong with us and the drives we harbor.
Of all the cultural understandings of masculinity that come to hurt us men, it is hard to find one more directly destructive than the notion that male passion is uncontrollable.
As I wrote a few weeks ago, our society talks about domestic and sexual violence in such a way that it is always focused on and blaming victims, regarding them as the impetus for harmful male behavior. The rape survivor sent ‘mixed signals;’ the victim of domestic violence ‘provoked’ her abuser; the partner was killed in a ‘crime of passion.’ These narratives are hurtful to the millions of men and women who come to experience violence and abuse, but they are accordingly hurtful to the millions of men who grow up under the powerful flip side of the equation. These victim-blaming tendencies come from an associated idea that men and masculinity are inherently, naturally flawed, characterized by drives that are violent, sexual, and altogether uncontrollable. Thus, the only way to civilize beastly, disorderly men is to outsource their self-control to women, through victim-blaming, or to constrain their behavior through codes of virtuous manhood. In the words of Christina Hoff Sommers, who argues for chivalry from these premises: “Masculinity with morality and civility is a very powerful force for good. But masculinity without these virtues is dangerous—even lethal.”
Regardless of whether we live through victim-blaming or labor beneath systems of chivalric law, the point is the same: we must do these things because, otherwise, men will be violent, sexual beasts. And, as we grow up, coming to know our sexuality during the roiling, intensely hormonal years of puberty, and coming to see our physical power in new muscles, sports, and fights, it is nearly impossible to not also grow up with the belief, argued by the culture around us, that these drives are dominant, scary, and outside of our control.
We grow up beneath a set of chronically low expectations.
To use a good quote from a bad president, the “soft bigotry of low expectations” for guys starts early as we grow up, and continues in a different form, but serving the same function, as we grow into guys.
The first incarnation, written about heavily and excellently here at The Good Men Project , is the saddest phrase of modern masculinity: ‘boys will be boys.’ Muttered and commented in light of bullying, rough-housing, abuse, and unkindness, countless teachers and parents allow ‘boys will be boys’ to serve as a sad excuse for boys’ behavior. I don’t doubt that this turn of phrase is harmless in a lot of cases, but it is certainly harmful in a score of others, as we use it to culturally institutionalize an expectation of boyhood. Those gendered expectations are usually a problem, but they are especially so when we assume that boys and young men will be inattentive, aggressive, reckless and dumb.
And, the second incarnation, written about less so here, but written about more so by a media that loves a bit of cultural decline, is a little different. To take it from the Wall Street Journal, “Where have the good men gone?” Look in the male rosters of television shows, the style sections of national newspapers like The Journal, the better-researched pages of best-selling cultural commentary, or listen to your female friends as they struggle through the difficulties of college dating. The point is always the same: it’s hard to find a good guy, and when one is to be found, he’s a hot commodity, a unique specimen of the highest order. Now, there might be some truth to these anxieties, just as there is some truth imbedded within the story of ‘boys will be boys.’ But I think that when we hear, over and over, that a good man is hard to find, we start to believe it.
We need to be needed, but our avenues for utility are not what they used to be.
In another topic that GMP has covered well, most notably through Noah Brand’s recent brilliance on the subject, “many, many men in our society feel they have to be needed…This is what being masculine means in our culture: to be necessary.” But, the problem with that tenet of manhood, or really, just one of many problems, is that “many of the traditional sources of necessity for men have evaporated, or at least been drastically downsized.”
For instance, the most historically dominant source of male utility, that of the lone breadwinner, has lost much of its unique meaning with the entrance of women into the workforce, the overwhelmingly male experience of unemployment in the last decades, and the decline of the family as a whole. The manufacturing sector, which provided a classically male source of purpose by involving millions in the collective endeavor of building a stock of physical, durable goods and a democratic economy, is a shell of its former self. And, the communal pillars of American life: unions, fraternal organizations, trade associations, and groups of all shapes and sizes, each of which gave a communitarian purpose to those who entered them, have declined greatly over the course of the twentieth century.
Sadly, the definition of manhood which prescribes this masculine “need to be needed,” but doesn’t do a very good job of focusing on the tandem, human need to be “wanted,” isn’t adjusting to the changing world around it. The areas where our fathers and grandfathers once found purpose and realized their manhood are, for the most part, pale imitations of their former selves. And, we don’t yet have a set of masculine values to account for that change.
I do not profess to know the best prescriptions for what we should do to deal with these characteristics of guyhood and growing up. I believe that they exist, but an is doesn’t immediately imply an ought. These facts of guyhood don’t imply anything. But, as each of us comes to grow up and move ever onward to our eventual full manhood, I think that the kind of men we eventually become is closely related to our ability to address the above ideas and expectations. What kind of man do I want to be? I don’t know yet. But, I sure as hell can’t have a good answer if I don’t know how to morally and meaningfully address the three experiences above.