Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Endangered Man

I'm almost certain this is not a new thing, but it certainly seems to be coming to some sort of crux, at least in the media. The September 27th issue of Newsweek's cover story was "Men's Lib," a call to "reimagine masculinity at home and at work." The cover proclaimed "the traditional male is an endangered species."

Then, on Monday, Slate's partner site Double X ran "Real Men Cry and Do Laundry: An anthropology of the new male self-improvement mags."

Together, these two articles and the studies and concepts they reference piece together a rhetorical trope that's picking up steam: men need to change their idea of masculinity or risk getting steamrolled into oblivion.

"Men's Lib" focuses primarily on the fact that the jobs of the future are the ones currently dominated by women. There is growth projected for teachers, nurses, home health aides, and customer-service reps, but decline for machinists and manual laborers. This prompts the authors to conclude "the next generation of Homer Simpsons will have to stop searching for outsourced manufacturing jobs and start working toward teaching, nursing, or social-service positions instead."

Though the underlying message of this piece rings true to me (that is, the landscape of American professions is changing and people are going to have to change with it), the doomsday scenario for masculinity does not. I find myself in agreement with Rachel Sklar's critique of this piece when she says:
 "I challenge the framing of the issue: That men are in crisis, on the decline, and “going off the rails.” In fact, the framing of the male-female ratio as being more ‘dangerous’ to men as it equalizes or, in some (very limited) situations, inverts, is not only wildly skewed but also completely fails to appreciate, consider and include the full context – i.e. how gender parity might actually be better for all concerned."

She then precedes to do a close analysis of individual flaws and holes in the piece, most focusing around the fact that it's not as complete of a picture as it presents itself.

The Double X piece has a lighter, more positive tone, positioning that this juncture "leaves an opening for newer, younger voices who face the twilight of the patriarchy head on—and yet also provide a formula to restore men's cultural potency."

It also talks about new websites and magazines tackling these issues, particularly the website The Art of Manliness, which--in addition to articles about what to bring on a first date, how to buy a used car, and how to swing from trees like Tarzan--includes articles like "Three Moments Every Father Dreads (And How to Cope)."

Though I certainly can't analyze everything that's going on here in a single blog post, I am interested at looking at how we are conceiving of "masculinity." Obviously, it's a loaded term and like "feminist" (which was the topic of another recent, and contentious, Slate piece). Terms like these are frequently defined by those who self-identify as a member of the group but are often steeped in negative definitions: they define who belongs by disqualifying those who don't. (For example, Gloria Steinem says that you can't be a feminist if you don't support legal abortion.)

This sort of exclusionary language ends up with people drawing smaller and smaller boxes around themselves until (at the extreme) the definition only fits the speaker. This certainly doesn't open up discourse about the concepts and it makes them more or less meaningless.

Furthermore, any time that we are going to categorize someone as different (be that on the level of class, race, gender, in-group status, lack of in-group status--basically anytime we can place someone on the "them" side of the us/them dichotomy), we have to use some sort of culturally constructed cues and markers.

The authors of the Newsweek piece mention some of these markers for masculinity when they mention a "rapper's saggy jeans, a hunter's concealed weapon, a suburbanite's man cave, a hipster's obsession with Don Draper: all might be seen as variations of the same coping mechanism. The impulse transcends race and class." They go on to recognize (though not with much depth) the problematic aspects of these markers: "Conceiving of masculinity as something to be"--a part to play--"Turns manliness into [something] ornamental, and about as 'masculine' as fake eyelashes are inherently 'feminine.'"

I guess my problem with this is that fake eyelashes are as capable of being "inherently" feminine as they are of being "inherently" anything else. What I mean by this is that I don't think we have to knock down the cultural markers of masculinity in order to transcend the current boundaries. This is the same impulse that makes me cringe every time someone suggests a woman wearing lingerie cannot be a feminist. Ultimately, the Newsweek article arrives at a conclusion I can get agree with: "If today's men want to be hunters, or metrosexuals, or metrosexuals dressed in hunting clothes, they should feel free. But they need to be more than that, too." But doesn't that seem a little obvious. If today's women want to be bakers, or dress seductively, or bakers who dress seductively, they should feel free. But they need to be more than that, too. In fact, we all need to be more than the external markers that allow us to be pegged into certain groups. It's called being human, and learning to accept that stepping outside of those boundaries doesn't have to threaten our entire identities will make a world of difference in the way we talk about these issues. Men don't have to be endangered.

1 comment:

  1. It's interesting how much tone affects impact (that's my entry for Understatement of the Year--do I win?). Could it really have been lost on every editing participant that the fundamental basis of liberation is oppression and that, well, sorry, but when you are a member of the dominant group that's a hard look to pull off? How demeaning, on multiple levels. Amazing how coloring it as progressive and expansive could make it sound encouraging rather than troubling.


    Slow Newsweek, so to speak.