Is there any value in old-fashioned masculinity? Instead of being stuck in the past and doomed to extinction, are today’s refusenik males holding on to something worthwhile? Or are these retrogressive men, as sociologist Michael Kimmel says, anti-social and selfish? Do we need to get rid of any notion of masculinity, as so many feminists have said? These questions are good ones, and they need to be carefully thought through. Those who call for a new, “softer” man and those who cling to old ways may both have something to say to us.
Most belief systems, including belief in some code of masculinity, have a good and a bad side. Take religion, for example. Most religions promote a moral code that helps to maintain social order; the faithful provide comfort to the sick and the dying and solace in a random, unpredictable world. Religion helps many people cope with life’s hardships more effectively. On the other hand, as we know too well, religion can also foment intolerance that leads to hatred, conflict, and war.
Another commonality between masculinity and religion is their variety. There are many “manhoods” just as there are many faiths around the world: there is no single-sided “masculinity,” but rather diverse cultural standards with some traits in common. It’s important to distinguish between “manliness” and “machismo,” for example, the former relating to codes of honor, and the latter to boastful, intimidating, and sometimes crueler ideologies.
There is no single-sided “masculinity,” but rather diverse cultural standards with some traits in common.
Being interested in these matters as a cultural anthropologist, I studied a variety of manhood codes. After exhaustive cross-cultural research, I concluded that manhood codes everywhere have three things in common. First, all promote an attitude of protectiveness towards dependents (women and children). Second, they emphasize productivity (bringing home the bacon). Last comes procreating: to produce children by being sexually competent, virile, being able to “get it up.” This latter may be thought of as the phallic element of masculinity. Though all could become problematic, in themselves, protection, provision, and procreation are not necessarily bad things.
Some male codes stress other traits, such as honor, courage, decency, and respect for others. Take this definition of manliness from a novel by the Victorian Anthony Trollope:
The property of manliness in a man is a great possession, but perhaps there is none that is less understood… That personal bravery is required in the composition of manliness must be conceded, though of all the ingredients needed, it is the lowest in value. But the first requirement of all must be described by a negative. Manliness is not compatible with affectation… Before the man can be manly, the gifts which make him so must be there, collected by him slowly, unconsciously, as are his bones, his flesh, and his blood. They cannot be put on like a garment for the nonce, as may a little learning. A man cannot become faithful to his friends, unsuspicious before the world, gentle with women, loving with children, considerate to his inferiors, kindly with servants, tender-hearted with all—and at the same time be frank, of open speech, with springing eager energies—simply because he desires it. These things, which are the attributes of manliness, must come of training on nature not ignoble.
These qualities are indeed not “ignoble”: bravery, loyalty, sincerity, respect. Further, civilization depends upon certain underpinnings like these: some people (traditionally men) need to be brave and strong to fend off dangers—once wild animals but now mainly human enemies and natural disasters. Some of us need to defend the group, to produce economically, to provide for others in a material sense.
Historically, males have been given these “heroic” jobs, and women assigned to domestic care and childrearing. This seems to correspond to evolutionary biology, and made perfect sense in pre-industrial societies because men cannot nurse babies. So men hunted and beat back enemies, thus keeping society going. Nurturing? Yes, in an indirect way, if by nurturing we mean helping people survive and flourish.
So manhood may have some benefits—but many (not all) male codes also have an ugly tinge. Manliness, like all other belief systems, can easily get corrupted or distorted by fanatics and veer off into an atavistic machismo. The latter appears when men follow a rigid code of aggression and domination. This is the dark side of masculinity: brutality, misogyny, insincerity, and disrespect for others. Like religion and every other cultural institution, masculinity is both creative and destructive, a bundle of contradictions, a blessing and a curse.
Masculinity is both creative and destructive, a bundle of contradictions, a blessing and a curse.
Investigating whether manliness has any value opens up a slew of new questions. How can a code of manliness be adapted to an age of dual-earner families who rely on the police for protection and on reproductive technologies for procreation? That is, when men no longer seem crucial to protection, provision, and procreation, what aspects of manliness are left for men to pursue? Can we emphasize masculinity’s good traits, like bravery, while eliminating the bad? And why can’t more men be manly in Trollope’s sense, that is, considerate, honorable, and loyal husbands and devoted fathers?
Or why not salvage the good traits by removing them from the context of masculinity: why shouldn’t we encourage both boys and girls to be strong and courageous, sincere and independent? Maybe it’s question of class or breeding, but why must it be that? I can’t answer any of these questions: I’m not a social planner, but a mere social scientist. So I’ll leave these conundrums to the parents, teachers, community leaders, and cultural commentators who are shaping the future of masculinity.
David Gilmore is Professor of Anthropology at Stony Brook University, Long Island, New York, and author of Manhood in the Making: Cultural Concepts of Masculinity.