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The Mannest of Men in a Man's World

kayla's picture

Let’s start from the beginning.
This is the story we have: Genesis, Chapter One.
1:26: And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. 
1:27: So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he himmale and female created he them
1:28: And God blessed them, and God said unto themBe fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. 
Then, just a short time later:
3:6 And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.
3:9 And the LORD God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou?
Eve screwed up, so man had to answer to god, then he had to handle everything. He needed to provide shelter for his female so she and his children would be protected from the forces of the earth. He needed to slave away at some pointless 9-5 job in order to put dinner on the table. Man had to wear the pants.
Man had to write hundreds of sonnets and plays to hold an entire country together (To be, or not to be—That is the question). Man had to wow the world by walking on the moon (That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind).
Man had to do everything, and be everything.  
The concept of “masculinity” has been in a long process of development, weaving through every rise and fall of humanity, through dark ages and light ages and every intellectual advancement and creative triumph we have made as a species. Centuries of responsibilities are at play in creating the very definition of masculinity, the way in which we understand a man and what he is supposed to be in this society; are these definitions even attainable for today’s modern, Western man?
In Masculinity in the Modern West: Gender, Civilization and the Body, Christopher Forth points out the troubled male experience that existed as early as the 18th century (and undoubtedly before):
“…the complexity of definitions of masculinity was such that no man could hope to embody all the recommended qualities under the given conditions of modern civilization, with the greatest tension revolving around the contradictions between physical as opposed to moral or mental attributes…For much of the century the männlich(German, manly) was defined in robustly martial terms and illustrated with adjectives like “brave,” “strong,” “forceful,” “valiant,” “resolute” and “unyielding.” During the 1780s these ideals were complemented by more “civic” qualities like learnedness, seriousness, wisdom and gravity…By the turn of the nineteenth century, the qualities implied by männlich ranged from the aggressive and martial to the civic and moral…”
In addition to these contradicting associations already firmly in place, men today have grown up with images of who they should aspire to be thrown at them from all directions. As suspected, the men of Disney know exactly what makes a man:
We must be swift as
the coursing river
With all the force
of a great typhoon
With all the strength
of a raging fire
Mysterious as the
dark side of the moon
-“I’ll Make a Man Out of You” from Mulan
Ev'ry guy here'd love to be you, Gaston
Even when taking your lumps
There's no man in town as admired as you
You're ev'ryone's favorite guy
Ev'ryone's awed and inspired by you
And it's not very hard to see why
No one's slick as Gaston
No one's quick as Gaston
No one's neck's as incredibly thick as Gaston's
For there's no man in town half as manly
Perfect, a pure paragon!
-“Gaston” from Beauty and the Beast
A survey.
Considering the wide variety of definitions for masculinity, none of which I suspect relate to the way in which men would choose to define themselves today, it’s a wonder a man can even begin identifying who he is and why he is the way he is. Using adjectives taken from these Disney songs, the Oxford English Dictionary and the terms that developed out of the 18th and 19th centuries from Forth’s text, I created a short survey that I asked random male students on campus to fill out—they were directed to “Circle what applies to you”—without regard to their race, economic background, religion, hair color or anything at all. The purpose was not to come to any conclusive evidence, and while class and religion are always important factors to consider when conducting any type of study about people; my basic goal was simply to see how a man would describe himself from a list of words that, as society dictates, should all apply to him.  
My inspiration for this short “study” comes from a photography project by Chad States called “masculinities.” The photos of the male subjects are accompanied by their reflections on their masculinity, shedding light on the sensitive male, the insecure male, the confident male and everything in between. Intending to give men and opportunity for self-definition, I handed out my surveys to any male willing to go through this process. In some cases, even though the survey was anonymous, I can match a survey with a specific individual, depending on how he folded it or if he discussed the project with me after he completed it. Others will remain forever anonymous. It’s an interesting experience, seeing the words people chose and being able to associate that self-identification with how I view and others view that individual. I noticed that one person circled “attractive” and then later erased it. And, with most of the surveys I have, every man circled at least two of the words typically associate with femininity that I threw in as small diversions. Certain conflictions come out in the chosen words, proving more that men are just as complex as women (it’s part of being human, right?) rather than the notion that men can be everything at once. From a survey I was able to identity (I’m keeping his identity anonymous here), the words “intimidating” and “brave” were circled along with “compassionate” and “tender.” Another was simultaneously “strong” and “resolute” but also “emotional.” At the same time, another’s response included 25 circled words out of 38; more than any other response. While he made sure to stay clear of obvious words like “aggressive,” “forceful,” “angry” and “graceful,” he did present himself as the most characteristic male. And he also made it a point to alter the survey as I created it, drawing an arrow to show that he is intimidating because of his height and build, and emphasizing his attractiveness with a quick exclamation point.
Given such a difference between even just these participants in my quasi-experiment, what are men today?
Advertisements with slogans like “Be All That You Can Be” or “Army Strong”, for the United States Army of course, seem to reinforce the image of man as a composed, in control, physically strong and driven being. But it’s absurd to uphold the image of man who can fulfill all of these roles, with the additional roles portrayed in the more recent military slogans that also grapple with things like political correctness by portraying family men, men working with women and young recruits concerned (“thoughtful”) with the way their parents might handle their enlistment. And while the men who live in the Army Strong commercials have no problem playing the part, the men on the streets, the men in the skyscrapers and the men that are my friends are definitely struggling with the pressure of their patriarchy. It appears, then, that it is impossible to fulfill manhood (That can’t be true, can it?).
Khan from Mulan and Gaston from Beauty and the Beast represent, for me, the hyper-masculine man, the kind of man we’ve built up in our collective minds as the man of all men. This has led to the creation of what Sherry Ortner refers to as the big man bias. In her essay “The Problem of ‘Women’ as an Analytic Category” she states, “We take the privileges of certain men—leaders, or elites, or last-born sons, or whatever—and assume them to apply to male actors in general. We thus obscure (and thereby unwittingly collude with cultural ideologies) what many men have in common with women in general, or with specific sectors of women” (Ortner 133).
The man who actually fits into these beautiful wingtip suede slip on shoes is, if not merely a figment of our imagination, a big-shot who practically lives in his office-with-a-window on the 70th story of a high-rise building. The man is McDreamy and McSteamy, Fitzwilliam Darcy, Richard Gere in Pretty Woman and Barack Obama—cool, sexy, composed. They have a lot of power, and by all means they deserve this power. The world rests on the shoulder of this man. His third child takes piano lessons every Thursday afternoon and the other two are on the varsity baseball team, and his wife runs a charity organization out of her home office. There is a bathroom to each bedroom in their home, and Consuelo has dinner on the table by 6pm every night. At work he makes decisions that affect the entire company; he meets business partners for lunch in Manhattan; he fires those who cannot keep up.
He fires Chris Wares’ Jimmy Corrigan because Jimmy is a little man with no drive. Jimmy couldn’t even stand up to his father.  
Like Jimmy, though, Fitzgerald “McDreamy” Obama can also fail. He can fail and become so humiliated and angry that he resorts of aggression and anger because that’s the only emotion he knows how to do. He can work hard, but he works long into the night and all through the day and misses his daughter’s piano recital, sexually neglects his loving wife for weeks—he disappears. Things fall apart. Before anyone knows what’s coming, all the sudden he’s cracked, mentally and physically abusing his loving wife. The world is too heavy. His report that was supposed to be done two weeks ago is hiding in a drawer under a stack of other equally important papers. The pressure is too much for him; it’s been a whole year and he has yet to accomplish any of the goals he promised to fulfill during his campaign. Everyone is disappointed. Because it turns out he is pleasant and polite, but aggressive and angry; he’s both caring and cold; he can’t always keep his promises; he’s lost and incapable of holding himself up against the weight of his responsibilities.
Suddenly, that Jimmy Corrigan working at his cubicle across the aisle doesn’t seem all that bad. He has his problems, too, but at least he can make it to work every day.
Curiously, when I spoke with a real, live man about Ortner’s big man bias and the various contradictions that threaten his very own masculinity, he responded in an unexpected way. “I’m not sure if we’re still completely stuck in a big-man culture,” he said. “I think there’s a small but growing niche of not just acceptance but desire for a different type of man.” A new man? The only thing I could think of is the tight pants, the side-parted, longish hair—the men in college who write poetry and express themselves and their emotions without being ashamed of it. I think of how it almost seemscool for a man to talk about his feelings; or at the very least a strategic move on a first date. My real, live man admits, though, that there is no provocative question confronting men and their place in the world, “aside from a man finally asking his inner self if he is who he wants to be or should be.” While the lack of a real question forcing men to evaluate their identities is a shame, what lies beneath it is the simple notion that man is a human being. He is something other than the constructed image of what he is supposed to be.  
               In Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us, Kate Bornstein addresses these issues of male identity as someone who has witnessed male privilege from both inside and outside of this no-girls-allowed club. “Male privilege is woven into all levels of the culture, from unearned higher wages to more opportunities in the workplace, from higher quality, less expensive clothing to the better bathroom facilities. Male privilege extends into sexual harassment, rape, and war. Combine male privilege with capitalism…and the mass media…and you have a juggernaut that needs stopping by any means. Male privilege is, in a word, violence” (Bornstein 108). As much as I love her, Kate might be missing something, however, when she claims that male privilege is not given to men, but taken. In its purest form, male privilege exists in a name, more precisely, a family name that contains within it all the precious possessions and reputations of a respectable family. For a son, especially the first born, this name is practically his ticket for exercising his privilege. With it, he has control over the entire estate, over the family’s finances, over the lives of the women in his family and the poor who work for him. Male privilege is something he learns from his father and his mother, from his teachers and from his friends. Male privilege seems to be something that is inherited, and the eradication of the male identity—or rather, the identity of gender in general—would ultimately lead to the destruction of male privilege…it doesn’t have to be the other way around.  Because when the root of the problem is eliminated, it usually follows that everything else will crumble too. Besides, something seems inherently wrong and unfair about blaming modern men for the patriarchy and male privilege that they had no hand in building, [1]especially when it is hurting them too.

[1] Of course, at this point they have not had much hand in trying to resolve this issue either, though the problem is not solely theirs to fix. 



Influences and sources:

Kate Bornstein, Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us (New York: Vintage Books, 1995).

Christopher Forth, Masculinity in the Modern West: Gender, Civilization and the Body (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).
Sherry Ortner, Making Gender: The Politics and Erotics of Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996).
Image sources:
Dockers ad:
Chad States:
Atlas holding the Earth:
Jimmy Corrigan panel:
Vitruvian Man: