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.



21 responses

17 06 2010

I think people forget John Wayne was not a cowboy, he was an actor – a faggy actor (all actors are by definition faggy). The power of the unreal image is so powerful most do not even know they are basing their argument for ‘masculinity’ on a mirage.

17 06 2010

I agree that popular film is illusory. This illusion is not without profit: any mass-media constitutes not a spurious “mirage” cast into a social void but a barometer of socio-economic trends.

Film is a bidirectional phenomenon. People watch film to indulge fantasies. In turn, directors create films based on the illusory needs demonstrated through past successes and failures at the box office. The grand ballrooms and sweeping vistas of Depression-era movies provided an escape from tired feet and hungry mouths. Two hours of peace for a quarter. Similarly, how many films during the Reagan 80’s perpetuated the Wall Street broker or working woman stereotype? Our desires are the silver screen. The tropes of the screen are our cliches. These cliches “give life” to film’s illusions.

As for “faggy actors”: I presume “faggy” means “fake”? Sure, screen masculinity is “fake” so far as movie macho men don’t change diapers or do 4 AM baby feedings.

17 06 2010

No, its all a mirage. As one with some experience in such things, it’s all fake. Yes, there is a back and forth between media producer and consumer, but it’s a back and forth about nothing real, not truly real – just a simulacrum of an over- or under-developed piece of the whole.

“Faggy” is meant as slang, jargon, and not really having to do with homosexuality – and not trying to limit itself to “fake”, either. It’s meant in the way it is used when applied to actors before they become movie stars and make a lot of money. An unsuccessful high school actor is really just “faggy” when compared to the more “manly” types. My point was that the stereotyped boxes people are put into regarding “manly” and its opposites applies just as much to the faux manliness of the mirage of a cowboy, John Wayne, as they do to the emasculated (and equally faux) masculinity this original article rails against.

The icon of the perfect human being is a woman: the Mother of God. (Jesus is perfect human and perfect God, so…)

17 06 2010

I don’t know what’s up with all the “manly” stuff. There have always been poseurs, but within the past decade especially it seems we have perfected manliness-as-dressup. Harleys and Hummers everywhere, country songs celebrating nothing but how great it is to be country, great white hunters swaggering about in their new Cabelas gear, etc. I suppose the simplest explanation is that this brand of manliness is such a profitable commodity.

On another note, isn’t it a shame to see Catholics citing Gibbon(!) to score culture-war points?

17 06 2010

My favorite part about the new online gentleman’s club facilitated by the Art of Manliness and its satellites is that it decries the modern feminist movement, while participating in trends that inspired it. I’ll believe that you’re a man when you stop having to say what you’re doing is manly.

17 06 2010

Very true about the learning yoga and cooking part. If you want to meet women, go to where they are and learn (at least a little bit) about what they like.
Women do suffer more than men, but being a victim does not make you morally better or mean you have a total monopoly on suffering.

17 06 2010
Arturo Vasquez

I would agree in principle that women do not have a monopoly on suffering. What is being asserted here is that if we are going to look at the condition of women in general today, we have to look to more places than just middle class white America, and there to be a woman still poses more challenges overall. Really, I am not making a moral call, but am just presenting the way things really are.

18 06 2010

I didn’t say you were doing this but was heading off a point that sometimes pops up in these discussions.

17 06 2010
Dauvit Balfour

Wow, how many times can he say “manly virtue” and “rugged individualism” in the same piece?

I think it is true that in the last fifty or sixty years, partly as a result of the feminist movement, we have seen a decline in real men, but I refer to men who are mature, humble, selfless, responsible, and compassionate. The identification of violence and war with manly virtue and of caring and compassion with evil womanliness is particularly disturbing. It’s a false bravado that prates about how we’re better off killing foreigners than loving our wives and having Charity for all souls.

17 06 2010

I think the day of the repressed woman left us long ago. Products are more often than not marketed to women, be it cars or groceries. Women have achieved wage equality once factors of mobility are taken into account. Even that should go away over the next day as the number of households with a female as the higher earner approaches parity. Divorce and child custody laws grossly favor women in this country. There is an old joke that the first English phrase a Mexican woman learns upon entering the US is “I want a divorce.”

Not being a feminist, I’m not all that confident that what feminism has brought has improved the lives of women. That “manliness” nonsense isn’t anti-feminist though. The manly men are thoroughgoing feminists with a Sarah Palin for President sticker on the back of their SUV that has occasionally dinted a gravel road. They go into the BS that women are incompetent and never choose abortion but are pressured into by their boyfriends. Their vision of family doesn’t go beyond the nuclear family. In the end they are as you say just making happy consumer choices.

17 06 2010
This week’s link roundup « J.S. Bangs

[…] finally, traditionalist Catholic gadfly Arturo on American and Mexican masculinity: Mexican masculinity has a lot in common with this. My two prime examples in life for how a Mexican […]

17 06 2010
Jared B.

I agreed with about 1/2 of the article. It is a problem that traditional masculine virtues (I don’t know if masculinity can really claim nationality, like American vs. French masculinity) are treated like personality disorders or worse.

What I see as a problem with the John Wayne / Harley / Cabelas attempt to “recover manliness” is that it’s too self-conscious. Specifically masculine traits may be hard to pin down but I believe one of them is a certain lack of self-consciousness. That’s why you raise an eyebrow if a guy asks Do I look okay in these jeans? but see nothing amiss when a woman asks the same question of you.

If you’re overly self-conscious about your identity as a male, you’re not being as masculine as you think, no matter how many metal studs are on your biker jacket.

17 06 2010

Bravo! Good article Arturo. I am glad that someone out there understand what compassion is. I am a student nurse who is male who applauds this article.

17 06 2010

I’m always amused when folks confuse John Wayne with the characters he portrayed. I find both the actor and his characters interesting. A fake? Only to the extent that a representation isn’t identical to what is being represented, and that’s what art entails, ipso facto. Art isn’t biology.

I don’t have a problem with America’s colloquial view of masculinity, just as I don’t have a problem with anyone else’s. For example, my side of the Adriatic draws a bright line between monks and warriors. That bright line impacts our colloquial view of masculinity, which necessarily differs from America’s, in which monks play no role, but enterprising risk-takers do.

18 06 2010
Kip McNebbinsworth

Promoting “manliness” isn’t manly. And pointing that out is also not manly. Pointing out hypocrisy is a classic beta-male move. It’s hard to escape though, probably because I’m beta.

What is manly is just resisting female will-to-power as it shows up over time as feminized males. This resistance can and should be done without a word. Talking about it only feminizes it.

And yes, that includes my comment. Hey, I’m not manly–case closed, end of story, boo-hoo. Look, when the sun burns out, who will be there to remember my “shame”? Oh nevermind that. Just enjoy the new manliness lifestyle, people. Everyone needs a hobby.

18 06 2010
Kip McNebbinsworth

I’ve never before read a comment more beta than Kip McNebbinsworth’s. I think ‘m gonna hurl. Sickening.

19 06 2010

On the money, Arturo, as usual. What a nauseating heap of pidgeon-chested suburban fascism.

19 06 2010

Enterprising risk-taking is really enhacing the quality of life on the gulf coast, i see. Only nancy-boys hate the smell of petrochemicals.

20 06 2010

The most repellant thing of all is that squeaky-clean, buzz-cut, peculiarly All-American, sentimental paganism. Transport it in your imagination, mutatis mutandis, to the household of Herr Heinrich Himmler, around 1925.

22 06 2010
Arturo Vasquez

As a mandatory appendix to this post, I should tell a personal anecdote. Recently, I was at Lincoln Center seeing a presentation of the New York City Ballet. While in the bathroom, I overheard two commiserating young gentlemen speaking about how they were only there to please their girlfriends and had to feign interest in the presentation. I thought this quite sad, since I like watching ballet, especially with my wife, since she knows more about it than I do, and when done well, it is immensely moving. More on that later.

19 05 2011

I think it’s important to note that many sociologists write about “masculinities” (plural) rather than masculinity (singular). Basically, there are many ways to enact masculinity in America. There’s the manly man, then there’s the rich executive. I wrote about this on my blog:

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