Some Thoughts on American Masculinity

For any of us men who might be interested in educating ourselves about the role of men in twenty-first century America, the following collection of thoughts might well serve as a brief introduction, a teaser, if you will, to stimulate reflection. The first are quotes from the seminal book, Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity, by Robert Jensen (South End Press; Sep 1 2007):

We teach our boys that to be a man is to be tough, to be acquisitive, to be competitive, to be aggressive. We congratulate them when they make a tough hit on the football field that takes out an opponent. We honor them in parades when they return from slaughtering the enemy abroad. We put them on magazine covers when they destroy business competitors and make millions by putting people out of work. In short, we train boys to be cruel, to ignore the feelings of others, to be violent.

U.S. culture’s most-admired male heroes reflect those characteristics: They most often are men who take charge rather than seek consensus, seize power rather than look for ways to share it, and are willing to be violent to achieve their goals. Victory is sweet. Conquest gives a sense of power. And after closing the deal, the sweet sense of power lingers.

George W. Bush learned an unforgettable lesson about the anxious nature of masculinity in America when Newsweek tarred his father with the “wimp” charge, a perception Bush 41 never really overcame. The resolve never to be branded a wimp is the key to Dubya’s psychology: the you-talkin’-to-me? pugnacity and cock-of-the-walk swagger at press conferences; the cowboy bluster about getting Saddam dead or alive; the Top Gun posturing on the aircraft carrier, in a crotch-gripping flight suit that accentuated the Presidential Unit (leading G. Gordon Liddy to swoon — on Hardball, for Freud’s sake — “what a stud”).

Doesn’t all this chest-thumping machismo and locker-room homophobia protest a little too much? Paging Dr. Freud, pink courtesy phone: What can we say about a country so anxiously hypermasculine that it can give rise to Godmen, a muscular-Christianity movement that seeks to lure Real Men back to church with services that feature guys bending metal wrenches with their bare hands and leaders exulting, “Thank you, Lord, for our testosterone!”

And this, from Sam Keen’s book, Fire in the Belly: On Being A Man (Bantam, 1991):

When men define themselves by power they are at once driven by the impossible desire to become replicas of omnipotent gods and are haunted by their repressed knowledge of their semipotence. By definition they are able to feel their manhood only when they have the ability to make things happen, only when they can exert control over events, over themselves, over women. Therefore they are condemned to be forever measuring themselves by something exterior to themselves, by the effects of their actions, by how much change they can implement, how much novelty they can introduce into the slowly evolving history of nature. I did it; I made it happen; I exist.

And, finally, this by Barbara Ehrenreich, in her book, Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War

Men make wars for many reasons, but one of the most recurring ones is to establish that they are, in fact, ‘real men.’ Warfare and aggressive masculinity have been, in other words, mutually reinforcing cultural enterprises.

Just a little something to think about…

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