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Something for the Boys

Iron John: A Book About Men

by Robert Bly
Addison-Wesley, 268 pp., $18.95

Fire in the Belly: On Being A Man

by Sam Keen
Bantam, 272 pp., $19.95

Transformation: Understanding the Three Levels of Masculine Consciousness

by Robert A. Johnson
HarperSanFrancisco, 105 pp., $14.95

King Warrior Magician Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine

by Robert Moore, by Douglas Gillette
HarperSan Francisco, 160 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Prisoners of Men’s Dreams: Striking Out for a New Feminine Future

by Suzanne Gordon
Little, Brown, 324 pp., $19.95

Feminism Without Illusions: A Critique of Individualism

by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese
University of North Carolina Press, 347 pp., $24.95

The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women

by Naomi Wolf
Morrow, 348 pp., $21.95

Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women

by Susan Faludi
Crown, 552 pp., $24.00


Dorothy Parker is said to have remarked to the authors of Modern Woman, the Lost Sex, “I bet you say that to all the sexes.” Reading these books together is like being locked in the coat closet at a cocktail party to overhear a muffled cacophony of half-truths, partial insights, and entrenched wrongheadedness, from which emerges the general impression of a society foundering in reproachful cries of loster-than-thou from all the sexes (cries which the events surrounding the Clarence Thomas hearings and the William Kennedy Smith trial have intensifed). The male writers, as usual, tend to find women essentially peripheral to their lives, and seem more interested (or more free of practical cares) to address existential questions of individual moral and emotional progress, while for most of the women writers, men are still the problem. Underlying the discussion are the abiding central questions of definition: What ought “real” men to be like? What are women really like? What is “masculinity”? Does a real man “feel”? Are “caring” and “nurturing” the essence of femininity?

While in all of these many books about men and women the reader may object to an absence of historical perspective and an abundance of arguable assertions, oversimplifications, esoteric private vocabularies, global abstractions, and naive prescriptiveness—Sam Keen’s Fire in the Belly has lists and quizzes—it should be said at the outset that something emerges from this profusion of viewpoints that, though not necessarily scientific or even sound, adequately describes what many people feel subjectively to be the state of things about men, or women, or themselves.

One has only to look at magazine photographs of anorexic fashion models wearing chains and decorative bruises to agree that Naomi Wolf is probably right (in The Beauty Myth) to see in the discomforts of fashion some sadistic backlash against women. (This is in fact something people have always said about fashion, designers who “hate” women and so on—but recent fashions for dog collars and penciled-on wounds and other references to torture and masochism make the perception somewhat more explicit.) Most people would instinctively feel that Suzanne Gordon is right to regret (in Prisoners of Men’s Dreams) that people consider nurses lower than doctors, or that an uneducated male janitor is paid more than a woman teacher. The deluge of books, especially on the “men’s movement,” also reminds that according to some unexpressed principle, by the time books about certain social problems come to be published they are already slightly out of date; that is, while Wolf sees an epidemic of victim-anorexics, the federal guidelines on ideal weight have actually been recently increased, and there’s a new fat Barbie doll called “Happy to be me.” And while men proclaim their wish to get back to masculinity, it is probably the emotional values acquired since the Sixties, of cultivating the “feminine side,” that make them aware of the need to do it.

Several new and best-selling books describe the process by which sensitive modern men, having agreed since the Sixties that the effect of what has come to be called “patriarchy” (war, rape, domestic violence, and environmental destruction) is unacceptable, nonetheless rather miss it, and are nostalgically seeking to reconstruct masculinity as a positive quality along traditional lines. The leading figure of this new men’s movement, Robert Bly, contrasts men today with an archetypal “1950s Man,” a boyish and optimistic, responsible, hard-working but domineering male who appreciated women’s bodies but had little sense of women as individuals, and “unless he has an enemy, he isn’t sure that he is alive.” Some of these men may have been or be good guys, but collectively they embody the repugnant “patriarchy” recently caricatured by US senators in the Thomas hearings.

In the Sixties, responding to the Vietnam War as well as to the claims of feminism, younger men became what Bly has called “soft,” by which he means that they rejected many of the values of aggression and dominance so important to their fathers, in favor of lives of richer emotional sensitivity—their so-called “feminine” sides. Today, feeling that they have gone far enough in that direction and, perhaps, in helping with the dishes, men are seeking to recapture “masculinity” without reviving a discredited patriarchy. A “real” man, in this new (or old) view, is not an inarticulate, testosterone-engorged bully, not someone who as Bly says is “a coldhearted survivalist, living in the Idaho of the mind with his dogs and an AK-47,” but a person who incorporates with the modern ability to “feel” and “care” some of the values we remember many men to have had even before the Sixties, of responsibility, protection of the weak, leadership, confidence, and virtue, rather as described in the Boy Scout Handbook or in accounts of ancient Athens. Added is a newfound fashion for crying, as Russell Baker noted recently (“All right, men, we now know you can cry, so could we just turn the manly tear ducts down to a trickle, fellows?”).

To judge from the popularity of these books, men must feel they have lost their way, and they use certain grim statistics to confirm it—that men (however willingly) are nearly 100 percent of the soldiers killed in war and most of the victims of murder, are two thirds of the nation’s alcoholics, 90 percent of the homeless, 90 percent of those arrested, four times as many suicides, overwhelmingly a majority among criminals and the imprisoned. Of course it has always been men who have filled the armies and the prisons, but only now have men come to see themselves as particularly victimized. And rates of all their afflictions are increasing.1

Commentators variously blame the economy, the imperfect social vision of our leaders, and, frequently, feminism for having unmanned the male, though Margaret Mead has observed that “the central problem of every society is to define appropriate roles for the men.” In Robert Bly’s view, manhood is to be recaptured by getting in touch with the “grief” arising from the shame past male behavior has brought upon men, because “so many roles that men have depended on for hundreds of years have dissolved or vanished,” and from men’s loss of connection to their fathers. Part of their reconstruction is to come when the severed ties are knitted up between young men and the elders of their tribes, just as in Africa, so that male lore and values, male cooperation and friendship, can in our society as in others welcome and nurture the young man, and also fit him for happiness and the society of women. In Bly’s view, this may entail rituals as simple as parades (for instance to welcome returning soldiers, helping to ease them back into nonwarrior status), or as amorphous as gaining what used to be called “the tragic sense of life,” perhaps, like the bookish Bly, from reading the great poets of Western culture, from Homer to Rilke.

Bly remarks that “the love unit most damaged by the Industrial Revolution has been the father-son bond.” The role of a resuscitated father is key. Male fears of regression or feminization are epitomized by the unattractive dad of TV commercials who, as one commentator put it, would cough his brains out if some woman didn’t tell him what medicine to take. American popular culture is full of these litthe dramas of male humiliation and female contempt, in contrast with societies where men are serenely unreconstructed. In response, American men have even taken to putting on Indian headdresses and carrying spears in the popular weekend retreats which Bly among others has been successfully sponsoring for a number of years—these retreats are perhaps analogous to the women’s consciousness-raising groups that arose in the Sixties, same-sex camaraderie that does not imply (but may include) dislike of the opposite sex.

Anthropologists have tried to explain the behavior of these modern tribalists. David Gilmore, a comparative anthropologist, was prompted to write his new book, Mankind in the Making, by “the explosion of feminist writing on sex and gender in the past decade [which] has expanded our knowledge of women’s roles,” and when he observed that most societies have some opinion about what “true” manhood is, and that, in most, men are confused or anxious about the same sorts of things. He attempted a “retrospective cross-cultural” study of a number of societies to see what ideas of manhood are pervasive or constant. Attempting to define masculinity and the ways in which it is reinforced in societies as diverse as the phallocentric machismo society of Andalusia and the tribes of hunting cultures of New Guinea, he maintains in his book that, in almost all societies, manhood is not just a matter of biological age and sex, but is a “special-status category of achievement,” an idea he also finds amply supported in earlier studies by other researchers (Erik Erikson, Arnold van Gennep).

Manhood and womanhood, or masculinity and femininity, or machismo, or whatever these constructs are called, are symbolic categories (for which other commentators are using the word gender) whose status must be earned. Though it does seem that a human tribe can be found that exemplifies any social arrangement whatever, in nearly all societies to be a “man” is not just a matter of age but requires trials and learning, and an initiation administered by the male elders, rather as the men’s movement is recommending.

Manhood, then, is a “culturally imposed ideal to which men must conform whether or not they find it psychologically congenial.” Gilmore argues that while one would not wish to defend all cultural definitions of masculinity, and in some cultures the definition may be unpleasantly uncongenial to some men (they may not want to kill bears or seduce women, say), the point is that a young man in each society, whether he is an Indian killing a deer or a young Jewish boy reciting chapters from memory, must stand up and perform a feat his tribe respects; and he believes that individuals who do not go through the process are more apt to be unhappy or marginalized.^2

Tribal variations notwithstanding, according to Gilmore what is held to be manly seems fairly universal: respected males in almost all societies are successful at impregnating females, at providing for and protecting their families, and at mastering the admired skills required to do these things.3 If the incidences of child support defection and female single-parent poverty are an indication, these are exactly the roles and duties many American men have refused or are being denied, which in turn would seem to support at least to some degree the men’s movement contention that modern social malaise is owing partly to the breakdown of the male structures, rituals, and obligations, through which, in Gilmore’s phrase, “narcissistic passivity is changed into selfless agency.” This is rather like Erik Erikson’s idea in Childhood and Society of stages of development from infant dependence to autonomy. The idea of a transition from narcissistic passivity to selfless agency may also be relevant to an issue within the women’s movement, where one faction deplores passivity and the other seems to equate passive narcissism with femininity.

  1. 1

    Andrew Kimbrell in The Utne Reader, May–June 1991 p. 66.

  2. 3

    In the recent male initiation movie City Slickers, three wimpy dudes prove themselves on a cattle drive, but the two black dentists, the lone woman, and two fat guys go tamely back to the ranch, disqualified from valor in the film maker’s mind, perhaps, by belonging to victim categories (black, female, and fat).

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