Men in the Muddle: Navigating the Confused State of Manhood
- Tuesday, July 31, 2007
"The concept of masculinity is in flux, leaving many confused about what it means to be a man.” (Tom Valeo, WebMD)
When I was 8 years old, I was in love. Her name was Sherry Collins. We met one morning at the air base daycare center and had our first “date” by week’s end. My parents drove us to a movie theater to watch who knows what—hey, I was in love.
To this day, I don’t know what Mom and Dad thought about our young courtship (I never asked them), but they used it as an opportunity to impart some important lessons of life. I clearly remember Mom telling me about my gentlemanly duties: “Regis, when in the company of a young lady, a gentleman opens the door for her, helps her into her chair, and escorts her on the traffic side of the sidewalk.”
That last item baffled me.
“Why’s that, Mom?”
“To protect her from a stray car or a rude comment.”
Even at my tender age, Mom’s instruction reinforced my notion that men are to be courteous and protective toward women.
At one of my high school reunions, I was talking to a lady from my graduating class. At some point in our conversation, the topic turned to the guys in our class and she remarked, “Regis, you were one of the nice ones.” The lady next to her nodded.
Make no mistake, I was no saint. Whatever these woman saw in me years ago, Mom and Dad get the credit. They instilled principles that became a standard of manhood throughout my early life. But during college something happened that rattled all I had been taught.
When I attended Georgia Tech, the male-to-female ratio was 50 to 1—a condition that was both blessing and curse. The lack of coeds meant one less distraction from the rigors of my engineering curriculum. But when the distraction could no longer be suppressed, it was exile on Testosterone Island.
For those of us without a car, an occasional four-mile hike to Emory—a cross-town university with a more balanced ratio—was in order. However, in spite of our Himalayan hopes, our off-campus adventures resulted in little more than gawking and wishful thinking.
On one such adventure I noticed two coeds walking toward the Emory student center. I should mention that this was during the late 60s when radical feminism and other anti-establishment ideals were challenging everything.
As they approached the door, a male student lurched ahead to open it for them. Instead of a mannerly “thank you,” one of the women rolled her eyes as she turned to her companion in a huff, “Oh my! That’s just what we need. Some ‘White Knight’ to help us frail creatures get about.” Her friend responded with an acknowledging smirk.
I remember the shell-shocked look on the poor fellow’s face. I shuddered knowing that had I been a moment quicker, I would have made the same “blunder.” Contrary to my upbringing, the modern woman had no desire for my protection, much less chivalry. Except for my reproductive value, I was superfluous to her.
My confidence in my role and responsibilities as a man wavered. Still wanting to be chivalrous but hesitating in the manly manners I’d been taught, I feared my actions would be seen as patronizing or chauvinistic. Worse, I feared public humiliation by a sharp-tongued female. I found myself in a growing muddle of men wandering an unfamiliar landscape with a map that was way out-of-date. Why hadn’t I seen this coming?
Rocking the Rolls
Since the time of the ancient Greeks, it had been generally accepted that purpose of a thing defined its nature and gave meaning to existence. But that long-held assumption was upended when Jean-Paul Sartre announced: “Existence precedes essence.”
Sartre’s simple jingle meant that there is no transcendent ideal that attaches meaning to life. Life is a brute fact for which each person is burdened to create meaning of his own. As to standards of truth, goodness, and beauty—they, too, are not universal ideals that have “dropped from the sky.” Rather, each person is responsible for crafting his own life-guiding principles.
Applied to human sexuality, Sartre’s catchphrase rocked the roles of manhood and womanhood. Nowhere is that more evident than in the ever-shifting views about masculinity.
Swings in Conventional Manhood
Last time we examined the biblical standard of manhood: the servant-leader—the man who accepts his manly responsibilities to family and community and fulfills them in love and humility. Co-existing with that ideal is conventional manhood which, over the last decade, has been changing faster than Clark Kent in a phone booth.
The Alpha Male
Driven by a desire to dominate and control, the “Alpha” male is the harshest form of the conventional man. He depends on prowess, strength of will and, if necessary, force to achieve his ends. For Alphas, manliness is measured by bravado, material acquisition and female conquests. At his best, the Alpha is like his celluloid archetype, James Bond—the man who can overcome any obstacle, best any foe, and seduce any woman without emotional attachment. At his worst, he is Adolph, Benito, or Bundy.
Feminism, in its various forms, has been largely a reaction to the abuses of the Alpha male. Armed with the scalpel of gender-neutrality, enlightened folk have set about to “fix” this Neanderthal. Flowing downstream from the Sartrian headwaters, gender-neutrality is the denial of the innate physio-psycho-emotional differences in men and women.
For example, the male affinity toward “taming the land” and the female affinity toward nurturing the family are dismissed as social constructions. According to the cultural elite, the solution to men behaving badly is not to inspire them to the high calling of their masculine design; it is to convince them to be more like their female counterparts. It has proven a successful strategy as evident in the meteoric rise of the “metrosexual.”
The Feminized Male
Today’s man, we’re told, is vulnerable and sensitive, in touch with his feelings and with those of others around him. He seeks participation, not leadership, basing his decisions on consensus rather than convictions. He is the “metrosexual.”
While not necessarily gay or effeminate, metros are preoccupied with things more closely associated with women: designer clothes, facials, and home decorating. They may be indifferent about the merits of various car oils, but eager to find the right skin toner and exfoliant. This softer, feminized male has been largely popularized by celebrity consultants like the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy “Fab Five.”
If your aim is to be nothing more than a girl’s best friend, a feminized persona might do the trick. Though doesn’t it seem odd that straight guys are looking to a group of gay gurus to tell them what women really want?
It does to screenwriter Lorene Scafaria. Fed up with having to take the lead in her relationships with men, Scafaria remarks, "I think women are wanting to feel safe and taken care of more these days, and I don’t really know that that’s the sensation you get with a metrosexual.” Anybody out there surprised?
According to a survey by the JWT advertising agency, 80 percent of women resonate with Ms. Scafaria. They want a more traditional man. Psychologist Dr. William Hoppock says that even high-powered and successful women express desire for a man “who takes responsibility—who makes them feel safe.” Again, any surprise?
Who is the new guy starting to muscle out the metro and woo his way into the hearts of women? Marian Salzman, author and JWT executive, says he’s the “ubersexual”—the man who lives out the positive aspects of masculinity, while rejecting its harsher expressions.
Think Bono—U2 rock star and global activist who Salzman ranks as the numero uno ubersexual. Confident in his manhood, Bono is passionate for social causes, comfortable leading, and respectful toward women—masculine traits that Salzman could have lifted right off the pages of Scripture.
Then again, her inclusion of Donald Trump and Bill Clinton in her Top Ten means that the ubersexual leaves much to be desired. New Yorker Jonah Meyers speaks for many men slogging through the muddle: “It’s very confusing. One day men are told to have a mustache, the next week, they’re told to shave their chest. It’s confusing, it’s conflicting.”
Whether it is Alpha male, Metro male, or the Uber male, each is a dwarfed ideal whose shelf-life is determined by popular whim. Together they form a kaleidoscopic vision that has left a generation of men clueless about their masculine identity.
The Authentic Man
Towering above the conventional man is the Son of Man. As discussed last time, Jesus Christ modeled authentic manhood whose measure is not power, fashion, or passion, but joyful responsibility, humble service, and courageous leadership. It’s an ideal of masculinity that women who want to “feel safe and taken care of” will be drawn to.
Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a Centurion of the Wilberforce Forum. His "All Things Examined" column appears on BreakPoint every other Friday. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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