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P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
16.4 (Fall 2016)
The Polis and Pop Culture
The Gender-Confused Era’s Paradigm of the Manly Man
Peter T. Singleton
There can be little wonder that some people in our time seem to be very confused about whether they’re male or female when the essential notion of a “manly man” has fused with that of a an adolescent punk.
The long-defunct Arcturus Press was kind enough to publish a little book I wrote years ago, upon the editor’s request, titled Return to Chivalry. Now the editor of Praesidium (same one) has requested that I consider whether the “bathroom flap” inspires me to make further observations about gender. I believe he is preparing his own treatise on the subject for this issue. I hadn’t really pondered it much myself as a gender issue, since the whole constellation of issues is so very obviously aimed at culturally deprogramming all young citizens of the Western world within reach of the propaganda machine and overwriting their tastes and morals with the dictates of central authority. Nothing there to do with gender at all.
But I found that I did have a little diatribe gnawing away inside me on the much-abused topic of manliness, and I decided that this occasion was a very welcome opportunity to release the beast. Especially since my protest is ostensibly against those on the side of the political aisle opposite to the “open bathroom borders” crowd, I found my suggestion well received; for Praesidium, in my long experience of it, has always been on the side of common sense rather than sitting around one of these two meaningless political polarities that describe a secret circle.
My complaint dates to an afternoon when I overheard a certain high-profile radio commentator say of a certain high-profile political candidate words to this effect: “That’s why they hate him. He’s a man. He’s not afraid to say what he thinks, and he doesn’t back down from it. And women voters love that. Even feminazis… they won’t admit it, but what they all really admire is a real man, not some member of the new castrati.”
Well… excuse me, but “yes” and “no”. Let us first autopsy this “manly man” as described in the radio laudation, and then pass all of his qualities in review to determine just how manly they are, or to just what kind of man they belong. Most of the list below expands upon the first two qualities in a way that our worthy talk-show host took as implicit, since all of his listeners would have associated several specific incidents with the touted generalities.
According to the image as filled in both explicitly and implicitly, then, the Manly Man:
* speaks his mind whether he stands to catch hell for it or not;
*sticks by what he says rather than retracting or modifying it after a flood of protest;
*will not admit to failure, mistake, or even moral sin before the eyes of God;
*calls people names who oppose him and threatens them (with lawsuit or physical assault) if they don’t back off;
*makes course jokes (about women’s looks, about genitalia, etc.) without second thought or subsequent apology;
*believes that a woman in public life today should not protest molestation if she gets pushed around like “one of the boys”;
*has little expert knowledge about complex issues and is proud of it, considering most specialists to be sissified eggheads;
*enjoys the carnal pleasures of life and advertises rather than conceals his indulgence in them;
*views every physical confrontation as a game of “chicken” and banks heavily on his “cowboy” image to intimidate the other side;
*views every moral confrontation as a quibble over airy abstractions and lets it be known that concessions may be had at a price.
A very loud disclaimer here: I am not campaigning against any candidate or advocating on behalf of any candidate’s opposition. Those who read my comments as political are entirely missing the point. It may well be that a candidate possessing these “manly” traits is very well suited both to run for office and to rule over masses of people. It may be that twenty-first century democracies respond favorably to such types, and it may be that they are best suited to get results in geopolitical crises. Vladimir Putin hasn’t brought Russia back from the brink of chaos by sending out Valentine cards.
I admit that the radio host’s description makes me personally think of a seventh-grade bully: a punk who talks big and loud, who looks for smaller kids to push around, who leaves art on bathroom stalls, who claims (without evidence or witnesses) to have brought it off with a cheerleader, who introduces classmates to words their parents would have preferred them not to know, who vandalizes school property when no authority is watching, and who somehow cheats and sweet-talks his way to passing or even respectable grades. He is probably over-disciplined by his father but disciplined very erratically, and from his doting mother he derives the notion that women are worshipful doormats. I’ve known two or three of these; you must have known a few, too.
You and I would not call them manly, let alone models of manhood. We would call them spoiled brats, rude punks, or cowardly bullies. In my undergraduate days, with Shakespeare swirling in my excited brain, I might even have hazarded the phrase, “woman’s heart wrapped in a tiger’s hide.” Today there would be two high-risk elements to that utterance, of course. One is the suggestion that any difference at all separates a man’s soul from a woman’s; the other is that our New Age warrior, as championed by the most booming voice on talk radio, is really effeminate deep down. I will return to make a defense of both points.
But to reiterate: though my expanded list, as I have just admitted, inspires a kind of disgust in me, I do not offer that disgust as political criticism. I am infinitely more irritated at the radio personality for offering this portrait as the paradigm of manhood. The fact that he appears to be right in ascribing his view to a large proportion of the American electorate brings me to even lower depths of contempt. The candidate in question has not held a gun to anyone’s head to stir support. If anything, he appears to have been as shocked at his enormous popularity as anyone else. The people are the authors of this popularity. It is the American public of the twenty-first century’s second decade that deserves full credit for holding up the class bully as the new standard of virility for us all to admire.
My own standard appears to have aged more than the Sphinx’s nose. In Return to Chivalry, I explained the classical notion of manhood, perhaps best condensed in the ideal of the Stoic sage. Here was a man who sought control over himself above all else. He realized that what made him a human rather than an animal was not his strength or his fury (lions are both stronger and more furious when roused), and certainly not his ability to eat or to sire offspring (lions win the “size” test on all counts, even when they have stubby toes). The humanizing factor is the will. Men are able to assert this will even when their animal drives are running very high. An angry man, if he is a “real man”, can suppress his anger completely or channel it appropriately. A man who feels the magnetism of food or of a beautiful woman can fight off the pull and ensure that his final choices are directed by reason. His strength lies not in the size of his appetites, but in the power of his rational mind to keep those appetites in check.
When Achilles faces Hector in a final showdown, Homer has him say that he wishes he could devour his adversary like a predatory animal; and when he abuses Hector’s corpse day after day, a disgusted Hermes compares his wrath to a lion’s. It is not a compliment. The Greek champion is forced by the gods to rein in his brutal nature and recover a measure of humanity. Even in Homer’s day, a man who embodied the conduct of a ravenous beast too thoroughly ceased being greater than a man at some point and became less than one.
In the Middle Ages, this paradigm was refined by Christianity into the notion of chivalry. The somewhat off-putting clinical aloofness of Stoicism was replaced by the fervor of service and sacrifice. The chivalrous knight turned defense of the weaker party and clemency to the vanquished party into a kind of allegory whereby he imitated the example of Christ. As Christ chose to die at the hands of his persecutors rather than crush them in a supernatural display and to forgive penitent offenders rather than to punish them with eternal damnation, so the knight did not exploit superior physical power to the point of exterminating opposition mercilessly. He equalized the terms of combat when they were uneven, and he gave quarter when it was asked. In particular, he submitted to the will of his lady like a lamb, accepting that her moral and psychological insights were probably finer than his crude warrior’s mentality could produce, just as body submits to spirit; and any female who was being harassed for any reason had his sword and shield at her command, for it was a categorical conviction in him that right never prevails through brutal oppression. Humility was high on his list of virtues. So was a confessional sense of guilt that covered his unconscious lapses as a fallen being as well as any particular slips of overheated flesh or twisted reason. Here was a man for all ages to admire…
Until now. Now we have… the class bully.
Feminism gone off the rails undoubtedly has much blame to bear for this. I am of that generation (the same generation that claims Radio Host and Super-Candidate: a further point of disgust for me) when men won scowls for holding doors or vacating chairs for females. On one such occasion in about 1980, I was treated to quite a tongue-lashing. Women were now officially no different from men. They were fit to serve in all ranks and capacities of the military and the fire department. They could enjoy recreational sex without stigma or fear of pregnancy. They could cuss a blue streak if they felt like it and fire employees left and right as they climbed the corporate ladder. They were thugs: they were bullies. They were the class bully in your seventh grade.
One “carry away” for me, then, in this redefinition of the manly man is that he is gender-neutral. As a thug and a bully, he really has no gender-specific characteristics at all: he’s simply the complete recipe for success in our brave new world. “Win” is the only thing he knows, and he will do whatever it takes to come out on top. Substitute “she” for “he” in that last sentence, and you have deleted absolutely nothing from the “manly” skill set. Sleep with anybody? She’ll do that. Backstab anybody? She’ll do that, too. Rake a wimpy employee over the coals in front of colleagues? Yep. Fling accusations and threaten to take it all to court? Of course—every day. This is no manly portrait we’re painting. It’s a portrait of the Person with Balls. Nowadays, those are the definitive anatomical features of the “man”—not the strong arm or the stout heart, and certainly not the reflective brain. And who among us has these so-called balls? Why, more often than not, women. Women are wearing the balls in our society.
These pop-cultural stereotypes are always shot through and through with an essential and very informative contradiction. The ones I am invoking now are no different. The Iron Fraulein that our Iron John has become clings to perhaps one crucial distinction, as a man: his proud know-nothing stupidity. The true (i.e., the female) Iron Fraulein actually reads journals, reviews data, consults analysts, and sometimes collects advanced degrees. Not Iron Johnnyken. He didn’t waste much time on his lessons in school—too busy shoving smaller kids into lockers—and now he’s almost forgotten how to read. And he will tell you so, too. He’ll boast about it. Show him another man who has read fifty books about a country whose foreign-sounding name he cannot even pronounce, and he will deride the poor bookworm for his puny size or his sad eyes or his square haircut or his frail voice. It’s the way a sexagenarian shoves another guy into a locker. His adoring fans love it, too; for they, too, know not much of anything, and finally they have found a champion. So he can’t pronounce “Erdogan” three times in a speech without saying “Cardigan”? Look over here… pronounce that!
I’ll grant that it’s quite possible that the New Woman is attracted at some level to this overgrown brat. In fact, it makes perfect sense. In the new everyone-versus-everyone marketplace, where sex is a tactic but never a distinguishing characteristic, the Iron Fraulein has to be cheered to see that her male competition consists of pompous know-nothings. Pitting her résumé against theirs would be like racing Whirlaway against Mr. Ed. So the “threat” factor that can so often complicate sexual relationships has been greatly reduced. These guys, as long as their jokes and language don’t offend you ladies, are no threat at all; and they make with the jokes and the language only in a show of bravado aimed at political correctness, but they’re very quick to deplore “Redskins” as a name for a football franchise if they sense a boycott looming. The truth is…
The truth is, they’re New Age teddy bears. They have all the manners and habits, in fact, of the eponymous talking stuffed animal in the tasteless flick Ted. They’re homework-hating, uncouth, stupid boys: they’re the little boy that the Iron Fraulein is never going to have (unless she opts for artificial insemination at forty-two). Iron Johnnyken is not so very “iron” at all, and his belching and flatulating and sarcastic sassing are beaconing vibes of early adolescence, where he is forever stuck. I see a lot of young men these days who apparently want to be Ted, and I can imagine with a little effort how the Manly Woman might want to stroke her teddy’s made-in-China hair once in a while before sending him to time-out.
It’s the mother in her. There, I said it. Women have a maternal instinct—and a lot of other inclinations on the sensitive side, as well.
Again, the ancients seem to have realized even before recorded history that females are more of a lightning rod for emotions than males. Females feel. Except for Ares, virtually all of the Greek gods associated with any great passion are goddesses; and even in battle, Ares is surrounded by Alecto, Tisiphone, Megaera, Enyo, Eris, and other female spirits when the fighting gets wild. Christianity channeled this banshee energy into mercy, compassion, the mystical side of faith, and other uplifting inspirations of the heart that infuriate feminists for no better reason than that they dwell above the daily scrum of male competition. Yet even in my youth, the same feminists who would spit in my eye for holding a door open would also insist that women would bring greater sensitivity to the boardroom and the statehouse. I might say that blatant contradiction is to be expected of highly emotional people if I wanted a slap in the face as well as a good cussing out.
If it may be allowed that women, for whatever reason, are more in touch with their emotions, or at least more likely to express them, then I am prepared to fit the final piece of this almost nonsensical puzzle into place. If you recall the list of ten bullet points above, you remember that many of them had to do with what is popularly called “venting”. The “manly man” shoots off his mouth when he feels like it, allows to come out of it whatever comes out, and refuses to take any of it back. He’s very confrontational unless vague ideas are involved, where he’s always willing to compromise because, to him, ideas don’t really exist. This person will never leave you in any doubt about how he feels. He wears his heart on his sleeve, and others just have to live with it. Every day in his presence is a ride on the radiation storms of an emotional supernova.
To someone of my persuasion, this is effeminate in a man. In civilized circumstances, women of yesteryear were often encouraged to share their feelings, not only because they were believed to have some pretty perceptive ones, but also because there was no risk of the expression spilling over into physical violence. The chivalrous male, on the other hand, not only recognized that he might not have the woman’s sixth sense about the human universe’s invisible side, but also knew that freely vented emotions could lead to blows in his case. He bottled up his more aggressive opinions in order to keep the peace. Especially if his adversary were a weaker party, like a woman or a very young or very old male, he declined to create a crisis where his physical maturity would place him at a distinct and unfair advantage.
Not now. No more. The manly man celebrated by “America’s radio talk-show host” is as womanish in unleashing opinions of all sorts in all directions as a fishwife in a Sicilian piazza. This is the new mark that our young men are to emulate, and this is that Rushmore-worthy silhouette after which many American women secretly pine.
No wonder we can no longer figure out which bathroom to enter.
After a teaching career spanning three decades, Peter Singleton now lives in semi-retirement in the North Texas area, where he is a freelance writer and part-time teacher.