WARNING: this essay contains mild language and themes some readers may find disturbing.
I wonder how seriously to take the recent Unofficial Goldman Sachs Guide to Being a Man. Seriously, seventy-nine pointers? Many are good, like “If you perspire, wear a damn undershirt.” But even God stopped at ten. It’s too long, esoteric, and inclusive to memorize, much less actually use. Yet it reminds us of something many men forget: being a man is something we do, a choice we make daily.
Men, overall, jealously guard roles of manhood, desperate to ensure everyone recognizes their innate, unshakeable masculinity. While some men may overtly embrace feminine roles or feminine traits, these men remain outliers, and often get mocked by other men for their lack of manfulness, unless they find rapid success in whatever feminine endeavor they pursue. Despite years of progress, modern boys still aspire to become Rambo or John Wayne.
But we don’t necessarily have recorded standards of manfulness anymore. Societies once catalogued what traits constituted manfulness, training youth in these rules, ensuring they knew how to follow manly standards, and when to disregard them. Codifying manful rules was something of a pastime, and every dignitary from the Roman poet Ovid to George Washington compiled lists of how to remain manful in changing times.
Somewhere, those lists got shanghaied. “Virtue,” from the Latin for “masculinity,” once implied highly male standards of conduct, including justice, valor, and honesty. But say “virtue” now, and people imagine Victorian schoolmarms instructing girls how to sit in skirts. Lists of standards become inflexible laws, and inflexible laws become sanctimonious limits on manfulness. The solution becomes an entirely new problem.
Whether fairly or not, former standards of manfulness are now perceived as feminizing. And this leaves us with an important new definition: masculinity is whatever femininity is not. We define men’s characteristics oppositionally. I remember, in third grade, being told by a peer not to stand with one foot resting on a curb, simply because a girl nearby was doing the same. Thus we become men only by what feminine influences we reject.
This creates entirely new problems in today’s milieu, where women are welcome into male domains in ways men aren’t welcome into female domains. Women have embraced many stereotypically male jobs and hobbies. When Theresa Vail, Miss Kansas 2013, talked about enjoying bowhunting, and didn’t conceal her tattoos during the swimsuit competition, she received thunderous male applause nationwide this month.
Men cannot embrace feminine activities this way. When my father used his military retirement benefits to enroll in nursing school, he literally couldn’t find any nursing-related goods for men. Cards and souvenirs invariably used female pronouns, and he had to purchase his work clothes at military uniform stores. Comedians like Ben Stiller and Jimmy Carr openly belittle men who become nurses, because obviously, only spineless men and “faggots” do a woman’s job.
As women pursue vocations formerly exclusively male, men simply fall back. Hard science and math once belonged exclusively to men, because society believed women lacked the head for difficult empirical research. But when women proved both capable and willing, men ceded the domain. Something similar happened in classical music: search any conservatory, and you’ll find preponderantly women. Flute and violin, once entirely male instruments, have almost no male students today. Men are missing from modern science and humanities programs.
The Church of England didn’t formally ordain women priests until 1994. But within ten years, British seminaries were graduating more women than men. Though men still control the hierarchy, those men are rapidly aging, and fewer male candidates arise to replace them. Fearful of being called feminine, men who feel drawn to religion fall back on increasingly conservative denominations, which only reinforce adversarial gender roles, worsening the problem.
This adversarial attitude turned ugly this year when Robin Thicke’s repellent single “Blurred Lines” spent the entire summer at #1 on the Billboard charts. This disgusting recitation of sexual dominance, backed with a video that blatantly treats women as transport for breasts, demonstrates the nasty consequences of today’s oppositional manhood. If men must squelch their own femininity, it’s a short, lazy step to squelching and destroying actual women.
Goldman Sachs has joined a panoply of other organizations that have attempted to create modern masculine codes, including Miller Beer, Maxim magazine, and Glenn Beck. These lists have failed to take hold, probably because audiences recognized the listmakers’ self-serving goals. Yet people keep making such lists, because we recognize an unmet need. Some magnanimous philosopher needs to commence the tough work of writing a man code for the modern age.