My last post tried to pin down what I find troublesome about how conservatives sometimes engage with arguments about sex, violence, misogyny and masculinity — whether the context is rape on college campuses or the Santa Barbara murders. As a complement, let me try to pin down why the left’s framing of these issues often leaves me even colder, using as an example a particularly passionate argument from the left-wing gadfly Fredrik De Boer, in which he reacts to watching the video the killer left behind:
[The video] … is one of the more disturbing things I’ve ever seen. In particular, I am struck by what a performance it is. Even in his full-blown twisted revenge fantasy, this person is putting on an act. If I didn’t know how sickeningly real the video was, I would think it was some young actor making an audition tape. All of [his] complaints are cliches: he wasn’t noticed, he wasn’t respected, and most of all, he didn’t get laid enough, and so everyone has to die. Women are sluts and men are undeserving. We’re all guilty because nobody recognized his straight white male greatness … [It’s] a stream of masculinist fantasies so exaggerated, it could only come from someone trying to embody a vision of manhood he didn’t actually feel.
… 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 … They are told that they only have value if they embody an ideal they cannot think their way into.
And that’s why traditional masculinity has to die.
The association of male value with aggression, dominance, and power is one of the most destructive forces in the world, and so it has to be destroyed. Traditional masculinity has to die in just the same way that sexism and racism and homophobia have to die. It can’t be reformed, it can’t be rescued. It has to be replaced. It’s utterly infected, with the celebration of violence, sexual entitlement, throbbing misogyny, and a fake self-confidence that is almost always hiding total self-loathing …
The masculinity that replaces it will not be “anti-male,” whatever that could possibly mean. It won’t be anti-strength. It won’t be anti-confidence or anti-leadership or anti-toughness. It won’t be anti-sex … But it will reject utterly the strangled, stupid, pathetic association between male strength and the capacity for violence. It will stop associating a man’s value with the number of women he has sex with. It will recognize traditional masculinity for what it is: a broken, impossible fantasy that even its most enthusiastic proponents can’t achieve, a straightjacket that constrains men like [the Santa Barbara killer], crushing them, and calls it empowerment. Time for it to die.
I don’t have an quarrel with parts of this description of contemporary “masculinist” pathology; the emphasis on its performative quality, especially, seems astute. What frustrates me is De Boer’s analysis of what kind of role these men are actually trying to perform, and particularly the idea that it makes sense to depict their problems and pathologies as primarily or exclusively rooted in the doomed pursuit of a “traditional” masculine ideal.
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.
A Humphrey Bogart, a Jimmy Stewart, a Cary Grant, a Spencer Tracy — these were icons whose characters often dealt with female stars as equals, who had sex appeal to burn but weren’t defined by their libidos or their list of conquests, who dealt in violence sparingly or not at all. Likewise in Victorian fiction, in books as eagerly devoured by the masses as any blockbuster entertainment today: How often is a rake or cad presented as a worthy model, how often is a killer celebrated for his body count? How often does a Dickens or a Tolstoy or a Trollope leave the impression that the masculine ideal involves dealing violence indiscriminately and sleeping with every blonde who catches your eye? Is Steerforth the hero of “David Copperfield”? Is Wickham the male ideal held up by “Pride and Prejudice”? In Western literature, who better embodies “traditional masculinity” as an aspirational ideal — Vronsky or Darcy? Angel Clare or Gabriel Oak? Raskolnikov the murderer or Raskolnikov the penitent?
And so then for today’s toxic, self-deluded bachelors, it’s worth asking which image of masculinity is more likely to be leading them astray — a doomed attempt to “think their way” into some traditional, pre-sexual revolution masculine ideal, with its stress on self-mastery, self-containment, and self-possession, or the hapless pursuit of an ideal that I called “Hefnerian” in my Sunday column, with its vision of the world as primarily a field for sexual conquest, and traditional morality as the prison that needs to be escaped? Is it reasonable to describe today’s young male chauvinists, whether they’re running Silicon Valley startups or lurking in the darker corners of the internet, as prisoners of chivalry, as slaves to antiquated fantasies of dignity and honor, as straitjacketed by an ideal of gentlemanly conduct? Or are they trying to live up to a very different, much more current vision of the male good life, one that gained ground almost simultaneously with modern cultural liberalism, and that partakes more of post-1960s ideas about liberation and expressive individualism than it does of anything that deserves to be called “traditional”?
One possible rejoinder to these points is that even the positive-seeming aspects of Victorian or Old Hollywood images of masculinity depended on the sense of “entitlement” and the ”unthinking acceptance of the gender hierarchy” that De Boer (quite accurately) describes as central features of those eras, and so today’s more debased “ideal” is basically what’s left when the patriarchy can no longer promise men power in exchange for self-restraint, privilege in exchange for self-containment. Another possible rejoinder is that the traditional ideal was just a pure self-serving fabrication, that the Good Men of art and literature were always, inevitably Don Draper or Pete Campbell in real life.
I think the first rejoinder is partially fair (and gets at why a simple “neo-traditionalism” is problematic), the second one less so. But neither of them gets you to a “traditional masculinity needs to die” prescription for contemporary male problems. That is, the first implies that the older model is irrecoverable (and for good reasons), the second that it was just a self-serving lie … but neither explains why this lost/imaginary ideal needs to be constantly held up as the dragon that we still desperately need to slay today, the vanished Snowball who’s still somehow sabotaging our utopia, the prison from which our young men supposedly can’t escape even though its walls were torn down long ago.
Which is basically the root of my disagreement with the left’s writers on a lot of these issues. They look at the state of sex and gender, masculinity and femininity, and see an uncomplicatedly progressive social revolution that just hasn’t fully succeeded yet — that hasn’t brought men, especially, into the sunlit uplands of egalitarian enlightenment — because far too many “traditional” concepts and constraints still perdure. I see a social revolution that has brought good and bad, intermixed, and whose supporters could profit from the realization that some of the human goods they seek are actually more clearly visible behind us, somewhere back in a cultural past they still insist they’re fighting to overthrow, whose actual details the darkness of forgetting has almost swallowed up.
This article is re-blogged from The New York Times.
JUNE: An International Call to All Men to End Violence Against Women. Read more here.
If you could do something to end violence against girls and women, wouldn’t you?