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“Traditional” masculinity: incoherent and odious

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In the case of Douthat vs. DeBoer, we find for DeBoer and reject Jonathan Chait’s strange finding that Douthat’s rejoinder to him is “persuasive and highly interesting.”*

DeBoer (writing in the immediate aftermath of the Santa Barbara shootings):

There’s an even deeper problem, though, for men who explicitly embrace traditional masculinity: there’s nothing traditional about knowing you’re embracing tradition. Whatever their virtues or vices, the manly men from long ago that these bros imagine they are emulating didn’t spend all their time thinking about what it meant to be manly men. Indeed: it’s precisely the unthinking acceptance of the gender hierarchy that gave these men the “confidence” (read: entitlement) that neo-masculinists want to emulate. But you can’t think your way to an unthinking prejudice. If you have to read a website to tell you to be traditionally masculine, you will never, ever be traditionally masculine. You can’t choose an unchosen attitude. John Wayne did not have a blog. And I truly believe that it’s the combination of this association between masculinity and the capacity for violence on one hand, and the ambient postmodernism we live in on the other, that creates these monsters.

The last two sentences strike me as a non-sequitur and a dubious overstatement, respectively; as Douthat rightly points out, Wayne’s masculinity is just as self-conscious and performative as the contemporary manifestations of toxic masculinity. But the larger point here is one I concur with quite strongly, and wrote about here: contemporary conceptions of masculinity are fundamentally toxic to both self and society, and anyone concerned with human freedom and flourishing should celebrate the relegation of the celebration of a meaningful, normative thing called “masculinity” to the historical dustbin.

Douthat’s response has half a point: Deboer’s discussion seems to conflate different versions of masculinity:

I mean, I understand his point insofar as ”the celebration of violence, sexual entitlement, throbbing misogyny, and a fake self-confidence” are problems that have always particularly infected the male half of humanity, and the sexism inherent in traditional gender hierarchies has allowed men to get away with violent, entitled, hateful behavior on an often-epic scale. But he’s making an argument about “traditional masculinity” as something distinct from “sexism,” as a cultural problem unto itself — an unworkable model for male aspiration, a life-ruining ideal, that straitjackets today’s young men with its toxic, sex-and-violence-saturated demands.

And I just don’t quite know what he’s talking about, because in our culture — Western, English-speaking, American — the traditional iconography of masculine heroism doesn’t really resemble this “Grand Theft Auto”/”Scarface” description at all. I mean, yes, if the “tradition” you have in mind is Pashtun honor killings, then I agree, traditional masculinity would be better off extinct. But where American society is concerned, when I look at the sewers of misogyny or the back alleys of “bro” culture, I mostly see men in revolt against both feminism and our culture’s older images of masculine strength and self-possession, not men struggling to inhabit the latter tradition, or live up to its impossible/immoral demands.

Take the one icon De Boer tosses off as example: The Western-movie hero, the John Wayne figure, the unselfconscious manly man. (Wayne himself, of course, was just as self-consciously performative in his way as any contemporary pick-up artist guru: He didn’t have a blog, but he was an actor with a stage name …) From De Boer’s description of what “traditional masculinity” entails, you would think that the archetypal movies of Wayne’s genre celebrated mass murder and sexual entitlement, or throbbed with palpable misogyny, or made true manliness look like a matter of imposing your will at gunpoint and then reaping your reward in bedpost notches. But watch some famous Westerns from the pre-Peckinpah era: Do you regularly see characters bedding a steady stream of willing women while shooting their way to fame and fortune? Surely not as often as you see men, in the style of the lead characters in “High Noon” and “Shane,” reluctantly shouldering a burden of violence and paying a heavy moral price; not as often as you see men (including Wayne in several of his most iconic roles) who don’t get the girl, don’t get sexual fulfillment (not a major theme of the genre, to put it mildly) or the life of domesticity they want, precisely because of their identity as gunslingers and the obligations and/or sins that accompany that way of life.

Now one can critique the “lonely gunslinger” trope on all sorts of ideological levels, but it’s very hard to see the kind of masculine ideal embodied by Shane and Will Kane as looming large, in any meaningful way, in the fantasy lives of contemporary misogynists. Whereas what clearly does loom large is a much more contemporary fixation: The male hero as lothario/ruthlessly effective killer predates the 1960s (every eras has had its outlaws, its fascinating anti-heroes, its Casanovas), but it comes in much more strongly in American culture with James Bond and Hugh Hefner and Howard Roark, and then with the ‘roidal action heroes and Bruckheimer fantasias of the 1980s. If you’re seeking a full-throttle of “celebration of violence,” the place to turn is “Bonnie and Clyde” or “The Wild Bunch,” not the work of Marion Mitchell Morrison. If you want “sexual entitlement, throbbing misogyny, and … fake self-confidence” layered on top, I recommend “Top Gun,” not the filmography of John Ford.

And the same point obtains if you widen your cultural lens beyond the Western and action genres, and look at “traditional” images of masculinity elsewhere in the imaginative landscape of the pre-sexual revolution past. De Boer says he wants a 21st century model of masculine heroism that isn’t ”anti-strength … anti-confidence or anti-leadership or anti-toughness,” that isn’t “anti-sex,” that avoids a simple “association between male strength and the capacity for violence,” and that doesn’t reductively associate “a man’s value with the number of women he has sex with.” I’d like that too! But I don’t see what’s particularly anti-traditional about that vision, since an image of masculinity that fulfills all of those conditions was not only present but ubiquitous all across the popular entertainments of the 19th and early 20th century.

Douthat wants to separate cultural conceptions of masculinity into two distinct and discrete models, pre- and post-sexual revolution, in order to rehabilitate the former and rescue it from the irredeemable taint of the latter. (Set aside here that he obviously overstates the non-sexual nature of the traditional image of masculinity.) Here’s why this can’t work: contemporary conceptions of masculinity draw haphazardly and inconsistently from both. It’s not, and has never been, a coherent ideology, so it can draw from both in entirely contradictory ways (consider our horrifying visit from “That Incel blogger,” a blogger in a movement enraged by the failures of pick-up artist techniques: he decries the evil of women not having sex with him on demand, while at the same time laments.…”a lack of female premarital chastity”). It’s less a narrative and more a pastische. Since both versions of masculinity are built on unearned and underdefended privileges and entitlements based on gender, they never made much sense to begin with. Both the modern and more traditional versions of masculinity are fodder for the confused, disconnected, and insecure to attempt to piece together a sense of self based on one’s genitalia and what it’s supposed to mean; expecting that to make sense or maintain internal consistency isn’t plausible or realistic.

 

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