November 12, 2003
The measure of man

It seems to be Testosterone Week here at my blog, but I'm still pondering the whole masculinity thing. Once again, I disclaim that I'm just a never-married chick with no special insight into the male psyche, so I speculate. But I've been thinking about a comment Sgt. Stryker made on the One Hand Clapping post:

Most of what passes for masculine culture is really just adolescence extended out into what used to be the adult years. In other words, "guy stuff". Wrapped up in the guy stuff is the posturing, the trash-talking, the need to prove one's toughness, the fetishization of sports and weapons, as well as what I'll simply refer to as the "Maxim" lifestyle. Those are guy things that have nothing to do with being a man and if you wish to defend that against "feminization," I can only wish you swift destruction at the hands of your enemies.

A man is someone who is quiet, thoughtful, respectful and harbors a deep sense of responsibility to others. He does not posture or overtly try to prove his toughness or "manliness" to anyone else. He doesn't have to. He thinks before he speaks, and when he does speak, it's usually brief and to the point. Moderation is his style: moderation in speech, in mood and in action. He is not quick to anger. He is fair-minded, yet firm in his application of discipline and adherance to rules. He works hard. He is strong in mind and body. If you wish to defend this against feminization, you have my support, yet this ideal of a man has suffered more at the hands of the "guy culture" than anything else and I'm afraid he's a dying breed.

I don't know if this would "feminize" it, but I'd venture to say those are good traits for women to cultivate too. (OK, we're limited in the bodily-strength department, but otherwise...)

Anyway, this seemed to me like an excellent point to add to the discussion of that Kim du Toit essay that started it all (for other good comments, see here and here). When I think back on the definitions of manhood I've read about from the past, they don't define it just as not-female, but not-child. In fact, probably the latter more than the former. A lot of cultures have some rite of passage marking when a boy becomes a man: a bar mitzvah, a ritual scarring, or a feat of derring-do. There are rites out there for women too (let's not get started on genital mutilation) but male rites generally have more hoopla.

Why? Male chauvinism is probably part of it. But I get the impression that for guys, growing up takes more effort than it does for women; it has to be maintained, as if one could slip back into childhood if you aren't on guard. For women, it seems to be more something that just happens. This may stem ultimately from their different experiences of parenthood. I've never had a baby, but I'd think that having a child grow in you, giving birth to it and feeding it from yourself could hardly help but change you. Men are more distanced from the process, have more option to leave, and are often expected to take on dangerous work to support the family (for 90% of human history, it was hunting), so one could see fatherhood more as an act of will.

When you define manhood in terms of fatherhood, it changes a lot of things. I remember a few years ago I asked my father why he stopped riding motorcycles. He used to adore them, but he abandoned them permanently when I was about two years old. He told me that it kind of hit him one day, when he was driving to work in really bad weather, that he was being stupid. "I have two kids now," he recalled thinking. "I can't afford to die."

Was this "wussification"? I don't think so. A child avoids risk because he fears for himself. A man avoids risk because others depend on him. It's not disempowering yourself -- just the opposite.

I think Stryker is right that, unfortunately, this grown-up definition of manhood isn't getting enough credit in our culture. One problem, as I see it, is that childhood has gotten so unnaturally stretched out in the industrial age. A century ago, there was no concept of "teenager." High school -- let alone college -- was not part of standard education, so after puberty (or even before) you took on adult responsibilities.

Teenage boys are officially minors and stuck in the dependent child role, but clearly they want to prove they aren't children. So without meaningful risks and feats of bravery to perform, they invent meaningless ones -- binge drinking, smoking, driving recklessly, etc. Not all of them do so, of course, but the more antsy and aggressive of them (of which du Toit was probably one) will keep running afoul of authority -- which, especially before college, is largely female. (Yule Heibel had a good post about the problems of institutional schooling recently, via Joel.)

I suspect that's why this type of guy often looks at egalitarian marriage and parenthood as a step backward, a return to a world ruled by mothers and pseudo-mothers. Unfortunately, a lot of society seems to support that idea, speaking of women as "taming" men, as if it were some kind of conquest. That seemed to be the insinuation of the Cheerios ad that got du Toit so incensed. (I haven't actually seen it though.) On the one hand, I see nothing wrong with saying stuff you did when you were younger was stupid. Stupidity is part of youth. But maybe a better way of answering the kid's question would have been, "Yeah, I ate stuff that was bad for me before I met your mother. But now I don't want to die before you grow up."

Noah Millman wrote about this issue in a post last year, concerning his attempts to educate teenage boys about date rape. Ultimately, he decided, boys want to know how to be men -- how to be adults. So what does that mean?

Being a man is fundamentally about mastery. A weak man tries to master those weaker than himself: he abuses women, dominates his children, picks on smaller boys. He's a bully, and real men should despise such a person. A stronger man tries to master those who are a match for him - or stronger. He tries to win at competitions, test himself against other men. And he does so fairly, in a sportsmanlike manner, because there is no honor in cheating. But a truly strong man tries to master himself. We are pretty consistent about telling our young people not to pick on those weaker than themselves, and we send strong cultural messages in favor of competition (however much the P.C. crowd tries to stifle them). But we do not send out a strong cultural message in favor of self-mastery; far from it. And that failure is at the heart of the incredibly poor relations between the sexes that obtain on our college campuses - or at least, they did when I was there, and by all reports they are as bad as ever.

Now, saying "being a man is about mastery" sets off some sexist alarm bells. But if you take manhood in terms of adulthood, and that this takes more willful effort for males than females, it makes a lot of sense. And Noah's right that self-mastery is drastically underrated. We tend to see acting with caution and prudence in childish terms of "following the rules," as acting from fear for self or obedience to authority. Seeing it as deliberate self-discipline, as a purposeful restraint of one's own recognized power to do harm, is all too rare.

I think that women, by the way, are not immune from these same forces. Really, this is a general human tendency, though it's more pronounced as has worse consequences in men. In fact, I think one reason I'm worrying this subject so much (and why I sympathized with Donna Minkowitz in the previous post) is that I have some of the same issues myself, hetero though I be. So maybe this post is one giant projection. Oh well, what are blogs for?

Posted by Camassia at November 12, 2003 03:58 PM | TrackBack

Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop of Chicago, said this in a speech last month: "André Malraux once asked a priest to name the single biggest lesson he had learned from hearing confessions. Without skipping a heartbeat the priest said, 'There are no grown-up people.'"

A too-glib way of putting it is that men need to love something other than themselves to grow up, while women need to stop loving everything equally.

Posted by: Tom on November 13, 2003 05:14 AM

One of the biggest shocks growing up was to find that growing up isn't necessary. When I was in grade school I thought high schoolers would be mature. In high school, collegians. In college, those in the real world. I was stunned to learn that maturity is optional.

Posted by: TSO on November 13, 2003 08:08 AM

Hmmm... Tom, I'm not sure what you mean about women loving everything equally. That certainly hasn't been my experience. Most women I know certainly hate things as passionately as they love things.

Posted by: Camassia on November 13, 2003 11:01 AM

I did say it was too glib. How about: men have to learn how to sacrifice themselves, women how not to.

Posted by: Tom on November 13, 2003 11:21 AM

Maybe I'm too ingrained in my own third-wave theory with a fair amount of extreme deconstruction thrown in, but I am wondering about the "essential" nature of men and women. Does Christian theology argue for or against any essential gendered human nature--beyond the essentialism (i.e. eternal, unchanging, permanent) soul?

I raise this because the idea that there is anything that men and women absolutely are or are not; must or must not learn; that the soul is "male" or "female" is completely foreign to me. What metaphysics and theology I dabble in are based in the idea that whatever might be essential, it is certainly not gendered. I'm not sure this is what Tom means in his comment, but it is the question his comments provoke.

Posted by: andi on November 13, 2003 07:19 PM

Does Christian theology argue for or against any essential gendered human nature? Yes.

Me, I argue for it, and I think I'm with most of the Christian tradition on this (to go by Catholic and Orthodox teaching on priesthood and marriage, for example). It's not hard to find Christians, though, who think I, along with most of the Christian tradition on this, am all wet.

But I'm not sure what I mean by "essential." It's not clear to me that it makes sense to speak of a "male soul" that is essentially different from a "female soul," since I'm not sure how to say that without meaning that men and women are different species.

Still, men and women are different biologically (and chemically, and physically), and our bodies are not an accidental addition to our souls.

Posted by: Tom on November 13, 2003 07:35 PM

Actually, there's a long tradition in Christianity of thinking of all souls as feminine, which led to some interesting metaphors; Puritan men, for instance apparently spoke freely about giving themselves as brides of Christ and that sort of thing. There's also St. Paul's line that 'in Christ there is neither male nor female.' So basically, souls are not differentiated by gender.

Genesis 2 has Eve being made from Adam's rib, which is sometimes taken to indicate her inferiority. But the moral of the story the writer of Genesis draws from it is: 'Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.' It seems to emphasize that they're made of the same basic stuff, which is why they are drawn together.

Speaking as a former psych student, I'd say there's a lot of evidence that there are hard-wired differences between male and female minds, but there is also greater variation within the sexes than between them, and there's loads of overlap. It can be strangely difficult, when talking about gender, to keep both of those facts in mind at once.

Posted by: Camassia on November 13, 2003 08:13 PM

Great discussion over here, Camassia. If I haven't recommended it before, let me do so now: Don Browning's Marriage and Modernization. It discusses the pressure that modernization brings to bear on gender roles from a sociological standpoint and adds to it an excellent discussion of Christian history in hopes of bringing a Christian contribution to the solution to what he terms the "male problematic."

Short of the book, there is a discussion online at the Martin Marty Center (U. of Chicago).

Posted by: Allen Brill on November 14, 2003 04:14 PM

I tend to combine the creation myth in Genesis 1 with that in Genesis 2 and 3, in thinking of Christianity and gender. In Genesis 1, man and woman are created both in the image of God, and both told to be fruitful and multiply and to have dominion over the earth. This expresses our fundamental equality before God. We've tended to assign the "fruitfulness" part of that blessing to women, and the "dominion" part to men, but that isn't really how we are meant to be; both are shared. And the point in the story where Adam gets to dominate Eve comes only after the fall; the conflict between them is part of the Fall, not part of what they were originally meant to be.

Catholicism makes much of our being embodied, of the significance of incarnation, and its relation to how we view sex and gender. I've thought a lot about this, because, on the one hand, that emphasis on incarnation and embodiment is one of the things in Catholicism that resonates with me, but on the other hand, I just do not see the extension of the embodiment argument which draws the conclusion that belief in incarnation should lead to belief that only men should be priests (I have, on occasion, heard Catholics, Orthodox, and certain conservative Anglicans describe support for ordaining women as "gnostic").

I'm going to pull together Tom's remark, "Still, men and women are different biologically (and chemically, and physically), and our bodies are not an accidental addition to our souls." and Camassia's "Speaking as a former psych student, I'd say there's a lot of evidence that there are hard-wired differences between male and female minds, but there is also greater variation within the sexes than between them, and there's loads of overlap. It can be strangely difficult, when talking about gender, to keep both of those facts in mind at once."

So, I would agree with Tom that no, our bodies are not an accidental addition to our souls. But I would also say that their meaning somehow has to be connected with what the variation between the sexes really is, in the real world where we differ but have loads of overlap, and often resemble the average "opposite sex" person more, on some point, than the average person of our own sex, rather than being the meaning of somebody's ideal vision of what masculinity or femininity should be (as the whole "pussification of the American male" post that set off this whole blogosphere discussion would have it).

Posted by: Lynn on November 19, 2003 07:19 AM
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