I am not sure how I should title this post. I’ve worked on it for a few weeks, and I haven’t gotten it into a coherent piece. It’s thoughts in progress, a bit rough. But this is a blog afterall. So lemme just punk this out:
I appreciate Christine Emba’s article, from a few months ago, in the Washington Post about men and masculinity. I think it’s an important conversation to be had — men* are not doing well, in the sense that many lead unhealthy and unfulfilling lives and don’t do well for society and their relationships. Of course, this paints with a broad brush, and exceptions confirm the rule. I put an asterisk behind “men” because Emba and her interviewees, despite hemming and hawing, nodding and handwaving in all directions, really talk about straight cis men, not men more generally. That’s fine with me, as this is a group of men that tends to experience (and create) the problems noted above. I am part of them and thus am (I think) poised to join the conversation, and there is a need for conversation and (self-)reflection — and discernment. Also, I think it’s important to recognize that women, gay men, people with nonbinary and trans gender identities are not doing well either, and that they are usually still worse off in a patriarchal, modern, industrialized society. It’s just that men have to liberate, or at least modernize, themselves as well if society is to move forward in a productive, (excuse the buzzword) sustainable, and (gender-) equitable way.
I don’t think I can offer a coherent essay at this point, so here are only a few disjointed thoughts.
Is this a crisis of masculinity? Emba thinks and says so, but I am not convinced. Or at least I am not sure it’s a crisis of masculinity in the way Emba frames it. I agree that (many, to waffle a bit) men are not doing well and that they’ll need help. And I don’t think that the traditional conception(s) of masculinity, and the faux traditional conceptions offered by people like Peterson (or, Lord Have Mercy!, Tate), aren’t making things any better, and possibly worse. But I am not persuaded that a new conception of masculinity will offer a solution for men who are in crisis. Emba’s response is, to paraphrase, you can’t counter the likes of Tate and Peterson with talk about a general human identity, instead you’ve got to offer a different version of what it means to be a man. But in terms of how individual men think of themselves, I don’t think they will abandon charismatic, reactionary influencers that offer them a message of self-indulgent self-affirmation for non-charismatic, non-reactionary non-influencers who offer a non-reactionary message of less self-indulgent self-affirmation as men. And even if they did abandon their favorite reactionary thought leader in favor of Reeves or any of the other people Emba holds up, I am not sure they wouldn’t feel any less lost or at sea or psychologically in crisis, or be less prone to violence or self-harm. (Of course, I’d be delighted to be proven wrong here. But I’m not holding my breath.)
Still, I think it is useful to discuss masculinity — what it means to be a man in the 2020s and beyond, as different from the mythical retroactive versions of the 1950s, the Middle Ages, the Bronze Age, or whatever idealized past different talking heads, multicolor-suiters, or bare-chesters choose to create. But that discussion won’t be the therapeutic intervention that confused young men need; it’ll be the conversation we as a society need. As I write this, I am not sure what the precise focus of this conversation should be: What society values in (let’s say heterosexual cis) men, and how it is different from what we value in other groups? (Should we attach value to groups like that?) What roles men should fulfil in society? What men need to learn? Or is the question a different one? As I said, these are not very developed notes.
Considering that Emba (and some of her interlocutors) think they should counter the message that (young) men receive from the likes of Tate et al., the version of masculinity she and the people she interviews present is pretty reactionary. In a nutshell, it very much sounds like a kinder, gentler version of the old fashioned same. There is biological determinism (men are aggressive), which is then turned into the call to use those “natural” male characteristics for the good of society, for the benefit of women, for others. It’s the same old view of masculinity, combined with a call to use it for good and not act like an incel.
The vision of masculinity that emerges from Emba’s essay is condensed into the “provider and protector” trope. Emba puts it this way: “risk-taking, strength, self-mastery, protecting, providing, procreating.” That’s manly. But: the type of person that this list of attributes best describes is a pregnant woman, or a mother with a young child. Such a mother (at risk of sterotyping) has enormous amounts of strength, self-mastery, and takes plenty of of risks that most men would not dream of getting into. There’s obviously procreating, and actual, physical, direct providing going on. And think about a mother protecting her child! I know, I know, hashtag not all women, and not everybody with a uterus is a woman etc. etc. But still. That’s not characteristically masculine, quite to the contrary!
It’s not surprising that Emba and her interviewees arrive at such a, let’s say, weak conclusion, eschewing bold new conceptions of what men are. She is trying to propose a normative conception of what it means to be a man, to counter the normative conceptions of reactionary manfluencers. And the normative conceptions of masculinity that we have as a tradition seem to all drift towards the reactionary. I also find it hard to come up with a different idea of masculinity that completely bypasses traditional conceptions of masculinity and still feels and appears to be about manliness and is not some generic conception of the good human, or a new gender.
One solution, never mind what Emba thinks, could still be to reject the concept of masculinity (and femininity, for that matter, then) and ask what makes a person good. (I know we haven’t totally not discussed this question for the last couple of thousand years, have we?) If men are in a crisis of selfhood, let them go full Brené Brown and engage in some serious reflections of their values, their purposes, their roles, their emotions, their relationships, their vulnerabilities, and so on. This response should not be brushed away as easily as Emba does! But of course, such an approach denies the existence of gender, gender identities, and gender roles, which I don’t think cuts it; gender is important for us as humans.
My own preferred approach is not to try to define a single “new” masculinity but to accept that there are many masculinities, many role models that men can identify with, that they can affirm. I am thinking of the many subcultures among gay men — people who had to define, radically, their masculinity in contrast to traditional conceptions. Straight men would do well to learn from this experience and consider which men they admire, which men make them feel comfortable, which men exhibit values that they agree with, and so on. There will be those who are strong builders (incl. body builders), but also caregivers, dreamers, grumpy cantankerous skeptics, lively extroverts, and so on. There are many masculinities out there once we actually start looking!
Which gets me back to one of the weaknesses of Emba’s piece. As I noted, she includes plenty of caveats that of course not all men are heterosexual, cis-gender, etc. etc. But this seems simply to inoculate her piece from the argument that she’s just talking about, and looking at, cis-hetero men. Once we accept that there are many possible masculinities, then refusing to ask about the masculinities among gay men, or among transmen, is a serious error that undermines any argument about masculinity. Wouldn’t you want to know what trans men think makes a man a man, those who have experienced how it is to live as a woman and found that, in reality, they were men? And wouldn’t we want to know what those who are men and who have deep and intimate relationships with other men think? Wouldn’t they have something important to say?
This is the point where I *would* include a shruggie emoji.