The Good and the Bad about the Culture of Manliness

It is almost impossible for anyone, even the most ineffective among us, to continue to choose misery after becoming aware that it is a choice.
-William Glasser

One of the resources for men I really enjoy is The Art of Manliness, and I hope that in the near future I have have gone over it thoroughly enough to honestly feature it in a Resources I Love entry. For now, however, I wanted to discuss one particular article that drew my attention entitled “Manliness doesn’t Just Happen” which itself was a response to an article from AskMen entitled “Male Identity“.

“Male Identity” is one in a long line of recent media that suggests that Men, having lost their previous roles in society, are at a point of confusion and uncertainty, and are looking for a new masculinity that fits the new realities between Men and Women, which in itself is a problem. The author, Ian Lang, suggests that this search for identity has made us vulnerable to consumer exploitation, that corporations have exploited the need for a masculine identity by creating a slew of beauty products, magazines, decorating styles, etc., to sell young men “Manliness.”

With men so unsure of what makes them men, plenty of retailers, authors, and media outlets are happy to prescribe their own brand of manliness. It’s one thing to have the occasional existential crisis, but it’s a sad commentary on our gender and society as a whole when we’re apparently so eager to craft an identity via media and commerce.

And to this point I agree with him. Corporate America really has turned this anxiety into a marketing coup. Products like Men’s Fitness and Maxim magazine and “Axe” body products (which I admit I use myself, but that is a long story) are exploiting men with the same slick marketing savvy they have always been able to use to manipulate women.

Where I disagree with Mr. Lang’s article is where he goes from there. “Male Identity” goes to suggest that the whole confusion with male identity, while understandable, is a sham. He suggests that there is no need for it, and if we stopped worrying about our identities as Men and just got on with living our lives there would be no problem.

He suggests that many previous generations of Men have never had the need to consider the role of Manliness, and just kept doing what needed to be done; An echo of Susan Faludi’s suggestion in Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man that Men would be better off if they stopped trying to be “Men” and just started working on being “Human”.

The notion of “being Human” is one I have plans to explore on its own in this Blog later.

The problem with this assertion, in as short as I can put it, is that Men are still Male creatures, with innate needs, drives, hormones, and perspectives that are not neutral. There are parts of who we are that come from the bodies we wear that can neither be ignored nor changed. As I suggested in Understanding the Sexes (pt. 2) when you fail to nurture these impulses to the positive, they instead manifest in the worst possible way. The same impulse that leads men to work in charitable groups like Habitat for Humanity when well-tempered, leads to drive-by shootings when boys are left to raise themselves.

“Male Identity” focuses on a very superficial corporate marketing vision of Manhood, and he misses a vital point. Our Grandfathers and Great-Grandfathers may not have worried about what food was “man food” or not because they were worried about their Manliness, but they chose to marry, raise children, and serve the community – rather than rape and murder their way across the West – because that was what “being a man” meant to them. “Manliness” meant holding yourself to a higher standard of decency than bandits, thieves and animals.

Perhaps what we are seeing in that article is that elusive and nebulous force of “privilege.” Men who subscribe to this argument has lived lives devoted to hard work, enterprise, industry, charm, peace, and individualism, and often fails to notice that these were values taught to him via his male role models, and is a model of Manhood he strives for every day. Perhaps the gendered quality of how he pursues them is invisible from the inside looking out.

The response of The Art of Manliness’ Brett McKay, “Manliness doesn’t Just Happen”, caught my attention because it captured some ideas I have been working on articulating very clearly:

One of the most important things that our ancestors understood, and we have forgotten, is that left to our own devices, humans will take the path of least resistance. Every time. In life we are constantly swimming against a great current–once we stop making an effort, the current pushes us downstream. Real life long-distance swimmers must consume a great deal of calories to fuel their progress. We too need fuel to drive our manliness–we must constantly be filling our tank with the best advice out there, writings from websites and books, advice from friends and family, to fuel our actions.

Manliness, the article suggests, is something we must seek out, idealize and maintain in order to keep us from falling into the path of least resistance. In this case, pettiness, selfishness, indolence, childishness, depression, banality, and meaninglessness.

The only thing that I feel needs to be added to this: the path of least resistance in this sense is an utter waste. Whatever your belief, right now in this life you have one chance to add some value and some joy to the world. Whether you believe an afterlife, reincarnation, or oblivion comes after, spending a life that is unhappy, uncreative, sluggish, and full of anger is no way to spend it. Not when you have the choice of something greater and more pleasurable.

Choosing to write about study, and seek Manhood, or “Manliness” as Mr. McKay puts it, is the way to ensure we, as male-bodied human beings make something grand out of our lives.