In the aftermath of national tragedy, we have been convulsing in a desire to discuss the role of firearms and violence in American society. It has been noted in very few places, however, that another trend is formed throughout these massacres – they are almost all perpetrated by young men. Gun violence is not the exclusive purview of men in their teens, twenties and thirties, but almost all spectacle public horror shows are authored by hollow-eyed young males, each looking deficient and twisted in their own way. There are men in the forties and fifties who occasionally show up to shower a public place with bullets – almost always their current or just-past workplace – but those cold visages (of names I shall not mention) are almost all callow and beardless.
We have a crisis of masculinity in America. Young men are failing to reach mature adulthood in massive numbers, mostly for lack of role-models and reasonable paths toward success. Yes, some are so lost that they create bloody sideshows to express their pain – but the real issue lies in manhood itself.
The world after feminism
The 20th century was a critical time for women around the world. Undeniable progress was made in most countries toward freedom, justice and opportunity for females. Laws were written to make women voters, property owners, athletes, and equal partners in the creation of our society. You could no longer treat women like children when it came to their own health – especially reproductive health. You could no longer legally keep women from any profession except for combat soldier (Israel excepted.) Women were no longer to be treated like helpless infants when they went away to school. All of this was reflected by the popular culture, from the Flapper 1920s to the Rosie-the-Riveter 1940s to the Gloria Steinem 1960s and 70s.
In the past few decades, this progress has blossomed in ways I’m sure the original activists would never have dared dream. Women have either run or been elected to head the governments of Great Britain, Iceland, Germany, France, the United Stated, Chile, and many more nations. Women are 51% of the graduating medical school classes in the West. They are CEOs, engineers, national security advisers – as well as holding their original societal roles as mothers, wives and family matriarchs. This is not without conflict – witness the perennial tussling over women “having it all” – but the dialogue is vibrant and continuing to have an effect. Feminism is a rousing success.
But what about men? Where has my gender been during this century-long transition? Some men have cheered women along on their path toward self-development and societal recognition. Many men have been on the defensive, arguing against these changes as deleterious to society as a whole. Either way, we have gone along on the journey and found ourselves in the early 21st century with women in a largely peer position. We are raising daughters in this new environment, and it is doubtful that they will return to the dynamic of 1875.
Which leads me back to – what about men? What have we been doing to analyze the role of men and how it is changing? Ask that question in any social setting and prepare for quizzical silence. What do you mean the role of men? They are the guys in charge, right? Their only role, one supposes, is to cede their unfair advantages over the feminine gender and…what? Keep just doing whatever they should be doing, right?
Actually the sand has been slipping out from beneath the feet of men – not because of feminism, mind you – but because of the economic and cultural institutions in society. Men are crying for help – and we have not yet evolved the ability to listen to this cry of distress and do anything about it.
Men caught in the vice between myth and reality
Being a male in America is a confusing affair. Manliness is supposedly very important for Americans, and we have several mythic images to which we should live up.
One of the original images of manhood in America is the rebel soldier, the George Washington figure who is supposed to be able to fight oppression with guns and bring honor to his native land.
A powerful image of the American male is the homesteader, out in the prairie of this “uninhabited, savage” land (read: with Indians still around) – expected to both till the Earth and protect his family from the elements (and the Indians, who are still around.)
There is the farmer, cultivating the land with nothing but a plow, a horse and the muscle and sinew of he and his sons.
As we move into the cities, the image of the prominent and wealthy businessman – say, Andrew Carnegie – enters the national consciousness, thrust into our imaginations by way of the wealth he created with his own work and ingenuity.
Then there is the pater familis of the mid-20th century, the Ward Clever image of a man safely andcomfortably in control of his home environment, providing for his growing family by way of a reasonably prosperous middle class job.
Which of these images are likely to be attained by males in American society? How can we reach up to the heights of these mythic images? Before you answer, consider the following images that have been foisted on American males to the contrary of our deepest archetypes.
As a young man, what does this Pepsi ad tell you about men in society? It deals with class issues and alpha males, right?
And how does this Doritos ad inform us about young men and/or corporate culture?
“Come on, Eric,” you’re thinking. “This is just some harmless humor when young American males are involved. It’s not like our advertisers are coming straight out and saying that American men are hapless victims with nothing left in their life but juvenile sensory pleasures.”
And to answer that, I present you with the Most Horribly Insulting Advertisement In History about the Dodge Charger – a car that helps you accept that you’re a loser with no choices whose best hope for happiness is going vroom-vroom on the way to and from your soul-killing, unstable corporate job.
The American male isn’t trapped between its mythical images and its crushing reality? Then why are advertisers using these images to sell to us? Because they know it touches a nerve.
American masculinity, modern style
Every male in America grows up with these older images of masculinity – soldier, cowboy, farmer, family man – and fewer men than ever are able to connect their real lives to those archetypes. Something in recent years has changed for men. I contend that America is now a very anti-masculine place – and not for the reasons one usually hears about liberal political correctness.
Consider that today’s America is a place of cradle to grave institutions. Our images draw a picture of man against the elements, man in his natural state using his wits, man as a strong-willed individual in a world of uncivilized chaos. The reality of living in America is being funneled into one sclerotic, outdated institution after another.
Men from coast to coast are sent into the school system somewhere around age five, if not before. There, they will encounter an institution that prizes conformity and quiet acquiescence, even from ages eight to fifteen, when such behavior for males is unreasonable if not impossible. They will be judged on a national standard and separated into tracks with the goal of entering the university education system and continuing the process of sitting and studying for another four to seven years. To leave this system is to be labeled a “high school graduate” alone and face jobs whose wages are falling beneath the poverty line.
So you do your best to thrive in the school system, repressing any innate desires to proceed at your own pace, explore different avenues of your personality, and heaven knows, buck any authority figures. You study up and get some great SAT scores and go to a Good School. Maybe even a Well-Regarded Grad School. Now you’ve won entry into another gargantuan pyramidal structure – perhaps a megabank, a top consultancy, a pharmaceutical behemoth, or the DC Beltway Patronage System. Enjoy your cubicle. Perhaps one day, if you’re lucky and tenacious, you’ll win yet again another opportunity to climb to the top of these structures and watch young men try to scurry upward while you reap the rewards of the rentier.
As an individual man, what sides of you are being tested all throughout this process? What are you showing to compare yourself to the soldier, the homesteader, the farmer, the pater familis in your mind? Is it your ability to prove your manhood through individual tests of bravery? Strength? Individualism? Resistance against the madness of crowds? Where are you dealing with the chaotic power of nature using spirit and skill?
Nowhere. Where did you get such a silly idea that society needed things like that? This society prizes a sensitivity to the conventional wisdom. It rewards those who would never dare outshine one of the Bosses. It promotes those who turn Inevitable Office Politics to their advantage, outpacing their rivals the old fashioned way – by sucking up to the Assistant Director, who may become VP at some point.
Ooh. Manly. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and say the last thing we want is for you to act like a man, defending his territory, irreverent toward authority, protecting his pride, willing to brave the elements of nature rather than go mad in captivity. Maybe that works in the movies, kid, but it’s not something for the office.
The demented new visions of masculinity
It’s not that our young men are lacking role models, it’s just that they are perverted versions of our old mythical images. Let’s say you’re going to be a Man’s Man in today’s America. What images will you use?
You can tune into professional wrestling, or its realistic cousin, Ultimate Fighting, which show us muscley, tattooed pugilists hoping to Ground And Pound™ their weaker opponents. (Click here to see how they do versus actual Marines.) Hand to hand combat is classic masculine stuff, though this version seems more vicious than the old days of Cassius Clay and his poetry about bumblebees.
In business, we’ve replaced actual industrial bootstrappers like Andrew Carnegie (who was not a saint, incidentally, but was surely a self-starter) with the square-jawed sons of privilege like Mitt Romney, or banking sociopaths like Jamie Dimon.
Even our legitimate heros who don’t depend on giant bureaucracies for their success have been faltering. Maybe the last one we could really hang onto was Lance Armstrong. He was the modern image of man against nature, a cancer survivor on a bike against the Pyrenees and Massif Central. It was thrilling to watch – but we’re forced to admit that after all these years, he seems to be just another guy working the system, intimidating critics with his lawyers and bending the rules to his own ends.
We still have the military to provide us with masculine imagery, but after a decade of wars abroad, we’re also face to face with the trauma that goes along with the archetype. The pure imagery of the soldier is contrasted with the strain we have put on these men, resulting all too often in their infirmity, suffering, and suicide. These remain men to look up to, without question, but the reality is chastening. It’s a very complicated image now.
A generation of men without heros
Think of these flawed images of masculinity when you see young who look directionless, hopeless, and empty. James Howard Kunstler talks about the youth of America looking like a bunch of “sinister clowns.” Men of the lower socio-economic classes are taken with body modification and droopy pants, a clear statement that there is no image of manhood to which they aspire.
Look into the eyes of men sitting in the cubicles of Middle American bureaucracy.
Look into the eyes of men sitting in the plush offices of Top American bureaucracy.
Do you see anything heroic? Any sense of a man steeling himself against nature’s test? Any clear sense of pride?
And is it any wonder that we get ads like this one from Bushmaster about their assault rifles?
Some men of strength carve out a space for their pride and individuality somewhere in the land of overgrown bureaucracies. And some are not strong enough. Some men have mental weakness or character defects and they fail to find a path through this thicket of confusing archetypes to emerge and become a man. They are in pain. They are searching.
Is it any wonder that they come upon gun violence, one of the last sure signs of masculine power? The firearms manufacturers are sure to capitalize on that image of masculinity. The movie studios that produce films with Real Navy Seals capitalize on that image. We all “know” that violence is for the strong. For the average person, that realization is not so important that they would turn to violence.
But for men in crisis, men with no hope of power, no spirituality, no internal peace, no heros, no past and no future – that violence may be the least worst option. They can end their sad lives and demonstrate their suffering to all. I couldn’t believe in my own power – but you will never forget it.
We need masculinism
Feminism developed because society could not progress while denigrating half of its members. We couldn’t expect women to build battleships while the men were fighting in Europe and the Pacific, and then expect them to take a lower position in society. Feminism was urgent.
Masculinism is urgent too. We are a people that puts a great premium on masculinity, but provides ever fewer paths to achieving it. Our heros are absent, and our men are sick. We hear their cries in the sad regularity of tragic gun violence.
We will be tempted to focus on guns, with good reason. But we cannot give up this chance to make healthy, whole men in our society. Let us dedicate the next century to it.