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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Against Masculinity

It’s perfectly fine to be a “feminine” man. Young men do not need a vision of “positive masculinity.” They need what everyone else needs: to be a good person who has a satisfying, meaningful life.

I’m not a very “masculine” man, I guess. I like flowers, and I wear purple. I sip lattes and my hair is longer than average. I have a trace of a British accent, which makes me sound prissy. I do lift weights at the gym most days, but it certainly hasn’t turned me into the Hulk. When I’m sad, I cry, and when I am delighted, I laugh. I am tender toward animals. Does it add up to being “unmanly”? What would it mean for me to be “more masculine”? 

Donald Trump fits masculine stereotypes far better than I do. He doesn’t apologize, even when he’s obviously wrong. He doesn’t laugh. As far as I can tell, he’s never listened to music for pleasure. I am fairly sure he doesn’t read books. Trump relishes competition; personally I hate it. His philosophy is that you’ve got to be tough, strong, and ruthless. Mine is that you ought to be sensible, self-aware, and compassionate. Based on my limited understanding of what masculinity is supposed to be, he beats me at it.

I have never seen any reason why something called “masculinity” should be normatively desirable for persons of the male sex. But a lot of people seem to think it is, and that men who don’t display it are somehow worse than other men. There is even talk of a “crisis of masculinity.” As someone who has never felt any need to attain “masculinity,” and who has lived a perfectly contented and normal life with a mixture of “masculine” and “feminine” qualities, I find it extremely difficult to understand what these people are talking about. 

What is masculinity, even? Everyone thinks they know, but when you try to pin it down exactly, it ends up sounding either banal or ridiculous. For instance, Harvard political philosopher Harvey Mansfield wrote a whole book called Manliness. He begins by trying to define his term: 

This book is about manliness. What is that? It’s best to start from examples we know: our sports heroes, too many to name; Margaret Thatcher, the British prime minister who is the mightiest woman of our time (What! a woman, manly?); Harry S. Truman, who said “the buck stops here”; Humphrey Bogart, who as Rick in Casablanca was confident and cynical—cool before “cool” was invented; and the courageous police and firemen in New York City on September 11, 2001. Manliness seeks and welcomes drama and prefers times of war, conflict, and risk. Manliness brings change or restores order at moments when routine is not enough, when the plan fails, when the whole idea of rational control by modern science develops leaks. Manliness is the next-to-last resort, before resignation and prayer. 

So it’s a whole bundle of things. Confidence. Cynicism. Coolness. Drama. Risk. Conflict. “Bringing change when the plan fails.” Thatcher had it, and so did Truman, because he said “the buck stops here.” (And there is nothing manlier than dropping two atom bombs on helpless civilian populations.) Martha Nussbaum, in a savage evisceration of Mansfield’s book, noted that at one point he defines the central trait as “confidence in the face of risk,” but then as a “brute spirit of aggression…stubbornness added to rationality.” Laura Kipnis, in an essay defending a highly idiosyncratic concept of masculinity, says “a masculine consciousness favors liberty over bondage.” But is a belief in freedom not a human universal? Isn’t the whole point of feminism to oppose the “bondage” in which women have been kept? Pro-patriarchy writer Nina Power suggests “adventure” is masculine while “complaint” is feminine. (What, then, of the men complaining about the decline of masculinity?)

Josh Hawley, who thinks the left is waging a war on our Masculine Virtues, defines those virtues as “courage, independence, and assertiveness,” presumably qualities that women aren’t meant to have—or if they do possess them, it simply means they’re Manly women (just as Thatcher becomes an honorary man in Mansfield’s formulation). Let us note, by the way, that while Mansfield elevates 9/11 first responders as the embodiment of the masculine ideal, the female first responders on 9/11 were simply erased from the media narrative, including courageous women like Kathy Mazza, who reportedly “[used] her gun to shoot out a large plate-glass window so that more people could escape to safety” and was, along with several others, “carrying a woman in an evacuation chair out of the building when the North Tower collapsed” and killed her. This type of heroism would, in the Mansfield formula, simply make Mazza an especially manly woman, because traits of courage and risk-taking are claimed to naturally belong to men.  

Christine Emba of the Washington Post recently published a long discussion of masculinity, arguing in essence that in today’s world, boys and men have no positive visions of masculinity to find inspiration in, because contemporary feminism has stigmatized all masculinity as “toxic.” This, she suggests, helps misogynistic right-wing “manfluencers” like Andrew Tate find an audience. If nobody will speak to lost young men to tell them what kind of men they ought to be, people like Jordan Peterson will do it instead.

Emba’s argument is supported by Richard Reeves, author of Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do about It. Reeves says: 

I think that for a lot of young men, they feel as if the term “masculinity” is framed in an entirely negative way, and that’s bad if you happen to be a male. And so finding positive ways to talk about, acknowledge, and model masculinity is, I think, a real issue.

Another articulation of a similar view can be found in this tweet:

Rogan bad. Peterson bad. Tate bad. Tucker bad. Trump bad. I get it. Valid criticisms exist of each. But who do you propose as a positive masculine role model? The noodle-armed NPR guy du jour ain’t winning boys’ hearts and minds. 

To which I’d answer: why the hell do you need specifically masculine role models? My personal “role models” (to the extent I have any, which I actually try not to) are Emma Goldman (whom I’ve been told I resemble), Thomas Paine, Noam Chomsky, Angela Davis, Murray Bookchin, Hubert Harrison, Eugene Debs, Vera Brittain, A. Philip Randolph, Rose Pesotta, Dorothy Day, Paul Robeson, Aneurin Bevan, Shirley Chisholm, George Orwell, Martin Luther King Jr., Ursula K. Le Guin, and Ella Baker. These people all share traits I respect: courage, moral integrity, perceptiveness, commitment, strength in the face of hostility. Brittain was a pacifist horrified by war who nevertheless devoted herself in World War I to tending to men gruesomely wounded on the battlefield. Bevan rose from working in Welsh coal mines to become Minister of Health in the postwar British Labour government, where he started the National Health Service. This week I’ve been admiring Rashida Tlaib, the Palestinian-American congresswoman who had the guts to stand up against most of the members of her party and tell the truth about the apartheid in Palestine. Emba and Reeves worry that young boys don’t have good examples of people they should try to be like. I say let them admire Rashida. 

I just can’t imagine thinking about masculinity or femininity in deciding whom to look up to. What kind of young man fears having a female role model, except a boy irrationally terrified of appearing unmanly? Why do stereotypically male traits matter in the slightest? Some of the people on my list might be more “masculine,” others more “feminine.” When we try to organize people this way, we quickly run into confusion. Paul Robeson was a football player, but he also performed musical theater. Is the former “masculine” and the latter not? (Robeson was also a Stalinist. People are complicated, and it’s best not to admire anyone uncritically!) 

Men who consciously try to be masculine quickly become absurd, because they have to play a stupid mental game with themselves all the time called “Is this masculine?” Andrew Tate says, for instance, that only loser beta males read books, since real men are meatheads who don’t let others tell them what to think. There’s a whole thing about how soy products make you weak because real men eat almost nothing but meat.

You can see where this mental rabbit hole might take someone who gets obsessed. Literacy is for weak losers. So are vegetables. And being kind. And intimacy. And deodorant. And laughing at jokes. (Tate seems noticeably humorless in videos.) Music, the visual arts, theater? All somewhat gay, and therefore shameful. Real men just stand in place sweating and grunting 24/7, and punch anyone who speaks to them. The logical endpoint of this is a kind of radical Spartanism, a purely militaristic lifestyle devoted to conquest and devoid of sensual pleasure and leisure. To me, it seems perfectly horrible.

But isn’t there an alternative? This is what Emba and Reeves are pushing. Not the toxic masculinity that is arrogant, violent, dominating. But a healthy masculinity. Well, maybe, but I just don’t see what it would be. Because for it to be healthy, it would have to consist of almost nothing. To the extent that a “healthy masculinity” can be articulated, it consists of aspirations that suit any human regardless of their sex or gender identity: self-confidence without aggression, moral courage, an active lifestyle. To the extent that various virtues are worth having, they’re not distinctively “masculine.” 

Emba says that in writing her essay she kept hearing from men who accept feminism but would find a “kind of normative standard of masculinity meaningful and useful, if only to give them a starting point from which to expand.” I don’t get this, I really don’t. Why is it not enough to have a normative standard of the good life

In my daily life, I think a lot about what kind of person I want to be. I want to be a person who tells the truth when it’s necessary, even if it’s costly to do so. And when I see both men and women who don’t do that, such as the cowardly Democrats who recently voted for a resolution exonerating Israel for its apartheid, I think to myself: I don’t want to be them. I want to try to be a good person, someone who stands with the oppressed.

In fact, it’s when I think about the reality of injustice in the world that all of this talk of masculinity appears offensively stupid to me. Is Andrew Tate, a cigar-smoking misogynist who sits around getting massages, more daring and courageous than Berta Caceres or Marielle Franco? Of course not. So why shouldn’t a little boy grow up wanting to be Berta Caceres? Why should we try to find him a Good Man to emulate?

Reeves says that we need a “pro-social masculinity for a post-feminist world, and we need it soon.” I don’t believe this at all. I think what we need is to give everyone,regardless of their gender, models of what makes a fulfilling life, and what strong, courageous, inspiring people look like. Needing to be “masculine” is, ironically, not really compatible with the “masculine” ideal of self-confidence, because if you’re comfortable with who you are, you don’t worry about whether you are an “alpha” or a “beta” male. Personally I like my mixture of traits, and nobody’s going to make me feel bad or inadequate about them. 

Neither Reeves nor Emba is actually willing to articulate what the Positive Masculinity they want to see would actually look like. (Emba literally says “I find myself reluctant to fully articulate” “a positive vision of what masculinity entails that is particular—that is, neither neutral nor interchangeable with femininity.”) I suspect that’s because nobody can articulate such a vision without it seeming both ridiculous and sexist. In fact, I don’t think there’s any way to present a “positive masculinity” that doesn’t stigmatize boys perceived as effeminate. If there are masculine virtues, and a masculine ideal, then surely it’s better to pursue them than to not pursue them, and the non-masculine boy is inferior. So while Emba and Reeves disdain the right-wing “manfluencers,” I think their ideas inevitably lead to a similar place, which is the idea that it is normal and good and healthy for a boy to be Boyish and not good for him to be Girlish. 

But while I think it’s easy to expose every normative vision of masculinity as either too vague to be meaningful or too ludicrous to adopt, I think we should pay attention to the reasons Emba gives explaining our supposed need for a New Masculinity. She says that young boys are lost, hopeless, and in crisis. They kill themselves, or use drugs. There are deaths of despair. Boys are being left behind while girls flourish. Hence, the need for a new masculinity.

Of course, if you are a leftist, the idea that people’s despair requires some rearticulated gender norm is ludicrous. What we need, say socialists like myself, is to make sure everyone has a fulfilling life, to address the problems of both men and women. All of the problems that Emba says plague men affect many women as well as men. Let’s just care about everyone, men, women, and nonbinary people. Let’s have some solidarity, shall we?

I recently picked up a copy of a book by Ryan Michler called The Masculinity Manifesto. Michler gives life advice, such as:

Be aggressive. Own the fact that you are. And stop apologizing for embracing who you are. You don’t owe anyone an apology. You owe it to yourself and others to harness the power of aggression to lead them to a place passive men simply cannot.

Now, to me, this seems like a recipe for making yourself unbearable. How does he know you don’t owe anyone an apology? What if you do? But Michler can’t encourage readers to be merely confident, because that wouldn’t be distinctively masculine. Thus he has to encourage aggression.

His book contains some amusing examples of his masculinity in action. For instance, Michler relates an anecdote that he thinks makes him look good, in which he “defends” his home and his family. 

One evening last year, after my wife and I tucked our four children into bed, I made my normal rounds. I checked the five entrance points to our home, locked the doors that needed to be locked, ensured the exterior lights were on, and went to bed. I was awakened by a chime at around 2:30 a.m. A little delirious from sleep, I popped up and asked my wife, “Was that the doorbell?” “I think so,” she whispered. Immediately, I jumped out of bed, grabbed the Glock 17 on my nightstand, and went to work. I told her to pull up the security cameras while I went to look outside from the windows of the second story, where our bedroom is. I saw nothing. I went back to the bedroom to see if my wife had pulled up the camera. She had. There was a man standing outside our front door. At this point, I could hear him trying to open it. “Call the police,” I directed her. She did. I grabbed our four-year-old German shepherd and sent him downstairs. He didn’t alert but sat at the bottom of the stairs on the first floor. Strange, I thought. He definitely would have alerted if someone were at the door. I made my way back to the bedroom to take a look at the multiple security cameras we have set up around our home. Nothing. I went to the second-story windows and proceeded to check every window from that story (which happens to give us a 360-degree view of the perimeter of our house). I saw a white sedan sitting at the end of our driveway. At that point, a squad car arrived (I was pleasantly surprised by the speed of their response). The officer pulled behind the sedan, got out with his flashlight, hand on his firearm, and approached the vehicle. I couldn’t see much through the dark from inside, but I remained ready with my firearm and dog at my side.”

It turns out that the man who rang the doorbell was drunk and mistook the Michler family home for the church across the street, where he had hoped he could find a place to sleep. Michler sees the story as a demonstration of the proper role of the masculine man. That night, he says “the potential threat was neutralized without incident.” But it “could have gone an entirely different way… I may have found myself fighting for my life and the lives of my family members,” which “perfectly encapsulated the purpose of vigilance on a man’s part… it is our job to keep careful watch for danger, difficulties, adversity, and challenges on behalf of those we desire to lead.” 

To me, however, this is not a story of “neutralizing a potential threat.” It’s a story of macho paranoia. Pulling a gun out to deal with a bumbling drunk looking for a church seems to me silly, not vigilant. It also doesn’t strike me as particularly courageous. I don’t keep a gun in the house, because I’m frankly not afraid of bumps in the night and I’m confident in my ability to deal with any situation likely to arise without needing the assistance of a Glock. 

Michler has another chapter about how a man always has to be prepared to use violence. To illustrate this, he gives (I swear) the example of a time he nearly got into a fight with two men on snowmobiles after they called him an “asshole” at the gas station for not pulling up to the next pump. (It was out of order.) Michler said something menacing to the men and they went off. For him, using an implicit threat of violence proved he was capable of defending himself, and thus he protected his family. Personally, I would have just told them the pump was out of order. 

Frankly, reading Michler’s book made me think masculinity is even more toxic and destructive than I thought it was going in. I think guys like this create the world they think they already live in. In other words, they see the world as a violent place full of threats, and because they see it that way, they get into all kinds of confrontations that would have been avoidable if they had believed instead in good faith diplomacy. (The relationship of the U.S. to the rest of the world is similar. We see threats everywhere, menace people accordingly, and when they react, we see it as confirmation that the world is full of threats.) 

Phil Christman, in an excellent Hedgehog Review essay on masculinity, perfectly describe Michler’s type. It’s the man who believes that:

[O]ne must train and prepare for eventualities one has no reason to anticipate, must keep one’s dwelling and grooming spartan in case of emergencies, must undertake defensive projects that have no connection to the actual day-to-day flourishing of the people one loves. We’ve all known families in which the men putter away at Rube Goldberg schemes for ‘securing’ the family’s financial or physical safety while the women actually carry everyone through every day, anticipating every emergency, meeting every contingency. We’ve all known families in which such a man so exhausts himself in this way that he constantly increases the burden he places on those same beleaguered women, whom he then blames, perhaps, for not being “supportive.”

Indeed, it came as no surprise to me to find out that Michler’s marriage fell apart earlier this year. Men who live in accordance with “manfluencer” ideology must be impossible to live with. I always wondered, too, how someone as obnoxious as right-wing YouTuber Steven Crowder managed to stay married to a woman. Then he, too, got divorced, which he saw not as proof of his own toxicity, but as proof the divorce laws should be changed so that his wife would be forced to stay married to him.  

Christman, in his masculinity essay, discusses the fact that even the most seemingly benign “chivalrous” masculinity can end up being cruel and stupid. He told his wife at one point that of course, if it came down to it, he should be the one to lay down his life for her. And she had quite a good response: why should he decide unilaterally that she would be the one saddled with the survivor’s guilt and trauma that would come after that? Why shouldn’t she get to sacrifice herself for him? The only available answer is the grunt that “Biology” dictates what each person has to do, which is of course bogus, since biology can’t offer morality lessons.

There is no rule set down in stone for what men have to be like and what women have to be like. I do think there are rules for what people generally ought to be like, and I admire those who display what I consider to be the universal virtues. It’s true that many young men lead lives of quiet desperation. But I don’t see how masculinity has anything to do with the solution to that. You can be strong and good and helpful without being in any way traditionally masculine. The most admirable people to have existed have focused on doing good with their lives, not embodying some timeless gender archetype. Nobody is going to get me to care about whether I am masculine or not, and I encourage every other man to be similarly indifferent to it. Of course you should have self-confidence, courage, etc. Yes, take care of people in need. But let’s leave aside all discussion of what makes someone a real “man” and just aspire to become decent human beings. 

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