This is one of our many responses to our weekly Call for Submissions posts, which was, “Has Science and Technology Softened our Need for Manliness and Brute Strength?”
Out of all the many dimensions of physical prowess, including dexterity, speed, stability, precision, and so on, strength is often proclaimed to be of superior value and relevance to men.
David French’s recent article reinforced the old line that men are supposed to be tough, not like today’s men who allegedly, through the laziness and luxury afforded by advancing technology, have lost their bulky physique. In one sense, French is probably right, we maybe don’t have the physical strength of the average joe from the 50s, or the 1550s. But, what French hides underneath his swift disapproval is a burning question that more men might need to ask themselves: to what extent is physical strength necessary to a sense of masculine identity today?
In one sense, the answer is very circumstantial. Men don’t all live and work in urban, white collar environments with all of the conveniences and infrastructure they offer. Step outside the city and you might see a very different culture where there isn’t a professional service and equipment rental for every physical need.
But, then again, technology is not strictly within the hands of the urbanites.
Coming from a farming community, I have witnessed the investments more affluent farmers make to have equipment that is more automated and minimizes the burdens on their bodies. All of that to say, when we talk about the connection between masculinity and strength, there’s not one right answer because in different places there are different demands on men’s bodies to carry out their work and home responsibilities.
Whatever David French and other defenders of the brute ideal morally judge as true manliness, it cannot be applied wholesale to the various worlds of men.
Should men feel weaker these days?
There is a more insidious side to this issue though: should men feel responsible for (not) being strong? There is a palpable push to shame and blame men who do not meet this one, arbitrarily isolated physical display of male dominance. For example, in the first paragraph of French’s article, he implies that teenagers who are targets of bullying have been culled from the herd because they are visibly weak and can’t defend themselves. He essentially comes to the conclusion that if they had pumped some iron and worked on their dad’s car, they would somehow become immune to peer aggression. I suppose the case can be made that if you knock the big man out, you take his place, so French’s solution to bullying is actually pretty straightforward: become the bully yourself. In his follow-up article, after the backlash to this absurd argument that promotes a culture of bullying, he can’t even acknowledge that he’s put the sprinklers to a slippery slope.
In fact, French doesn’t stop there; he takes on all the “emasculated dads” who need to reclaim their rightful place as both home and homeland security. He uses hollow hypotheticals and anecdotes (basically playing on parents’ fears of their children dying or their homes being invaded) to suggest that if dads don’t hit the gym and bolster those biceps, then they’ll wear the scarlet letter for not being able to perform a very specific selection of physical duties in an emergency. Strength is not the solution to all, or even most, problems in daily life, and while it may come in handy, to argue it is a moral duty of men is to reduce their social role down to that of a workhorse. Men can be more than brute physicality, especially when space is opened for them to participate in other ways. More on this later.
The myth of the weak modern man
French’s article is but one example of a growing myth told by today’s conservatives—that men are becoming weak and losing their ‘natural’ life purpose. They can no longer be the local heroes in their community by helping their new divorcee neighbors unpack moving trucks, replacing flat tires for older women, and rescuing other female tropes in distress. On second thought, most of these examples could be solved by a simple-to-use tool almost anybody can access safely and effectively, like a dolly or a car jack. Or, by including one or two other people to distribute the workload. The conservative narrative of men’s purpose pines for the idyllic past when men and women knew their place in the social order and had their paths scripted out in advance so that they didn’t have to face any bothersome existential questions.
Sounds lovely, right? Actually, those days sucked for a lot of men and women who had all sorts of goals and purposes, but didn’t or couldn’t pursue them because they went off script.
The male claim to strength is so dreadfully moralistic because, as is obvious in this whole discussion, physical strength isn’t an inherent trait of the male sex; if you don’t build it, it won’t come. It doesn’t sprout like genitals in the womb. Men do have an easier time building muscle than women, owing to higher testosterone levels in their bodies, but that hardly means they own strength as a natural right. Exercise communities across the globe—from joggers to weightlifters to sports athletes—know that the easier path is not always the best path, as it leads to complacency and prevents you from testing your boundaries and expanding your potential.
Do men need to be strong?
Maybe “strength”—as defined as the physical ability to lift and manipulate weighted objects—is the appendix of masculine identity; it is for many men a vestigial virtue. Needing to be strong has been a long-standing narrative of dominant male culture, but it is losing its reach in today’s shifting social and cultural environments. In response, French and other gatekeepers of dominant masculinity are floundering to compel men to preserve the old story through damaging moral judgments and threats of emasculation. Don’t get me wrong, there is still a place (in work and recreation) for physical strength to be valued and displayed, but most home and work related tasks today don’t require it. Personally, I would choose quick reflexes, balance, and agility when it comes to my daily tasks, like supervising and protecting my mischievous son. To achieve a relatively seamless dynamic in my home, I would choose patience, communication, and empathy over physical strength every time. All of the above are also tremendously useful in emergencies.
The point is, physical strength is only one way to get the job done. In another of his moralistic anecdotes, French recounted how his strength got his injured son to an ambulance on time; though he gave a respectful nod to his wife, with whom he took turns heaving their child uphill, he dropped the ball on the most important lesson of his own story: that it was coordinated teamwork, not individual physical capacity alone, that ultimately shaved minutes off their mad rush to the ambulance. Most defenses of male strength try to rebuild individual-centred silos of exclusive masculinity and discourage more relational virtues within men.
The necessity of physical strength to survive and thrive in today’s world is quickly diminishing. The argument could be made that strength was never really required, if men had reoriented themselves toward more collaborative and innovative approaches to problem-solving. After all, even in ancient times, people were surrounded by other people and by technology.
Nevertheless, alongside recent social and technological revolutions has come needed reform in the expectations and responsibilities of men and women.
Releasing men from the vestigial virtue of brute strength may be one important step toward opening the field of possibility in how men sculpt their bodies and identities.
Photo: JD Hancock/Flickr
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