The social construction of American masculinity

17 06 2010

The impetus for this post comes as a response to this one.

American masculinity is a product just like American religion is a product. There are certain things “men don’t do”. According to the authors cited above, men are not supposed to be compassionate, do yoga, get manicures, or love their mothers too much. A man is supposed to be an individual, he is supposed to be a warrior. He should like meat and potatoes above all other foods. He is supposed to act like John Wayne (though John Wayne was arguably a draft dodger). A man should not watch soap operas with his wife, and he definitely should not cook or clean.

Mexican masculinity has a lot in common with this. My two prime examples in life for how a Mexican man should behave are my father and grandfather. My father is a mechanic, a Vietnam vet, used to box, and has lots of tattoos: quite masculine to be sure. My grandfather could gut a pig as unpretentiously as most people brush their teeth. My father-in-law, a Louisiana Creole of color from a sharecropper family, can probably do the same, though it has been decades since he lived on the farm. But the odd thing about my grandfather, at least, is that he cooks. You see him sitting at the table, quietly taking small stones out of the pinto beans and placing them in a pot. Women’s work? You can tell him that if you know Spanish. He also likes to sit by my grandmother and watch soap operas with her. I have never seen someone be so tender with someone else.

But why is John Wayne the model of masculinity? Why not Fred Astaire or ballet dancer Jacques D’Amboise? They were good looking, strong, and good with the ladies. And they did no more nor less for their country than John Wayne. In many countries and cultures, good men are expected to be graceful and agile dancers. The first real ballet connoisseurs were very straight and very masculine men in France and Russia. So why should a man not emulate their example? Let me give some advice to single men out there. If you want to find an attractive and intelligent wife, why not take up yoga or learn about ballet? Do you honestly think you are going to find more women somewhere else?

But most of all, what really bothers me about the tone of the essay above is how whiny and childish it is. Compassion is a masculine virtue par excellence. Its Latin root derives from two words: cum + pati – to suffer with. But the compassionate man has compassion because he is in a position to do so. He does not have to suffer with the poor and the weak because he is already strong. That is what I have seen in the men I have tried to emulate. It wasn’t weakness; it was the ultimate show of strength. Lack of this just shows you are a prig plagued by self-pity.

Women suffer more than men. They get paid less, they are under more pressure to conform to the media image of the perfect women, and (for crying out loud) they have our babies. In most parts of the world, beating your wife is not a crime, and it isn’t even a source of social stigma. Even if “masculine virtues” are under attack in some corner of academia, admiring John Wayne won’t solve anything. Neither will whining about it like a little bitch.