Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Is "Manliness" Obsolete?

This blog entry is inspired by a discussion by my friend Karl and a commenter named dali at this Page. His post wasn't about manliness but certain reader comments did steer into that topic. In particular, the commenter dali said that men pushing buggies and taking care of children in the middle of the afternoon was effectively "unmanly", which Karl implicitly agreed with. This blog post counters the claim, namely by showing that "manliness", as defined by popular culture, is inherently arbitrary - i.e. just a bunch of ideas pulled willy-nilly out of thin air with little to no rhyme-or-reason about them. In fact, I conclude by saying that "manliness" is obsolete at best and even potentially counterproductive for a society with our level of sophistication and especially our level of technology.

Manliness is an elusive term in many respects. Personally, I stick to the minimalist definition, the one that makes the most sense scientifically because it’s the least ambiguous and most objective - “a physically mature member of the species Homo sapiens with an XY chromosome configuration that allows for unambiguously male physical reproductive traits and simultaneously unambiguously lacks any female reproductive organs”. Popular culture, on the other hand, while agreeing with this definition, goes a lot further. It adds traits that while not specifically male are usually associated with traits many (if not most) cultures consider to be characteristic of an adult human male: strength, decisiveness, take-charge attitudes, plus inspiring loyalty and respect in others.

My definition plus the popular addition is highly likely satisfy most people. Even so, plenty of others will go still further - namely all the above plus a tendency toward bluster, swagger, and a slightly cocky and aggressive mannerism. If we take these traits still further - and some people do - it conflates “manliness” with frank “douchebaggery”. Even where most people are concerned, they would still consider “douchebags” to be “real men, although of a very unpleasant and – ironically – immature sort”.

This last phrase shows a blatant contradiction. Either maturity is necessary for manliness or it’s not. Of course it depends on what one (or in this case prevailing societal opinion) means by "maturity". Even so, most people would consider mature behavior as necessarily including civility, consideration of others, self-control, judicious thinking, planning ahead, considering the consequences of your actions, and almost always refusing to break the rules of civility and etiquette. Even in refusals to abide by the last point, mature people break the rules only when there is absolutely no other choice if you are to successfully secure your life, liberty, dignity, and reputation - or those of your loved ones and friends. Yet for all this, many people would still consider douchebags as "real men".

This is at least one place where popular definitions of manliness are arbitrary. The only way to escape this contradiction is to say that the aforementioned douchebag traits (bluster, swagger, and a very cocky and aggressive mannerism) are more "manly" than the aforementioned civilized traits. Few, if anybody, will go that far; including many knee-jerk fans of douchebags themselves. So this definition of a "real man" ultimately contradicts itself.

The social and psychological sciences also imply there are mental and emotional components to maturity, although having more to do with the civilized traits plus my minimalist definition (to a degree) than to the popular definition. To this, these sciences add what is basically definable as "meeting my minimalist definition AND functioning independently in society" (though even "independent functioning" itself, ironically, inevitably depends on prudent interdependence with other functionally independent adults). Under this definition, mentally challenged male humans would not qualify for this definition of manliness. Still, in some contexts popular culture almost certainly would call this person one, albeit more in the sense of character strength and "giving it the hero's try”, as opposed to independent functioning in a financial and related senses.

Therefore, so far, I seems that “manliness”, the popular definition, is based more on imagery than productive content. I'm still open to alternative popular, widely believed-in definitions of manliness but so far the evidence seems to point to a popular definition of it that is very much arbitrary and contradictory, and therefore cannot stand up to logic and rational judgment.

In yet another way, the popular definition of “manliness” ultimately refutes itself, which further reinforces its meaninglessness. If “manliness” necessarily includes not caring deeply about what others think (and most of mainstream society does), then what about a so-called "alpha male"* who cares about maintaining an "alpha" image? This is especially so if he does so for reasons of his social status and sexual access. How is worrying about status among peers or sexual interests alpha behavior - especially in light of the next described man?

How also do we account for a widely-considered "beta male" or even an "omega male" who vigorously and passionately defends a guy's right to remain a virgin until after marriage on explicitly non-religious grounds, fully knowing the ridicule most "real men" will hurl his way?  Going against the crowd is not for the faint-hearted after all, certainly not public expressions of views widely ridiculed among many people.Never mind that he lacks social status in some way and/or has low to no sexual success.  Should we say that gutsy level of assertiveness - no doubt compounded by not caring what mainstream society thinks - not count as "manly" behavior?  If we say it does count as "manly", then how can that person be a true "beta" or "omega"?  This paragraph in conjunction with the previous one reveals a disproportion difficult to explain.

*Yes there is room to debate if this guy is a "true 'alpha male'".   Still, I think it's not that rare to find such men widely considered to be in the alpha-most 15% or so.

stay at home dad who helps take care of the kid and performs a lot of functions around the house – especially if he is, for example, studying for his PhD or working at home for a software company? Is he any less of a “man”. Furthermore, what if the man is a truck driver who has a week off? Surely the latter is entitled to spend even more time with his child because the child has fewer chances to see him, an important part of his or her life. Given that fathers are such an important part of a child’s life development, a man spending all the time he can with his children is far from being “unmanly”, it's more like being a good father. Surely you wouldn’t call “manly” a distant father who neglects the emotional well-being of his children, even if he is good at providing them a realistically humane standard of living AND good at protecting them from trouble.

Also, suppose a man backs down from a street fight because he realizes any benefits he may gain from punching them in the mouth aren’t worth the consequences (to say the least, getting arrested, which can very well hurt his resume. Even worse he might get stabbed, shot, or bludgeoned with a blunt object). That’s also far from being “unmanly”, that’s being judicious – a sure sign of real manliness, even by the standards of much of mainstream society itself. In fact, those same people would likely call risking the fight a rash action at best, lacking in self-control at middling, and childish at worst. Yet some people with a "Mortal Kombat" definition of manliness (basically the definition based on adolescent emotional reactions, only turbocharged) would call the guy backing down from the street fight a "pansy wimp" merely for being judicious. Yet another point at which the pop cultural definition contradicts itself, thereby rendering the "manliness" concept meaningless.

Or, what if the man may be physically timid but in a debate can hold his own in arguing his points convincingly, especially if he’s as experienced and well-trained in argumentation as any professional boxer is with his craft?

The other difficulties with manliness are legion. In the end, the closest thing to a coherent pop culture definition I can think of is "having physical survival skills, social dominance talents, and competence - especially as judged by our first intuitions,impressions, or animal instincts".

Even if this definition were complete and internally self-consistent, it still has the feel of someone throwing spaghetti against the wall - just chucking out initial reactions as they come out of the brain and mouth and hoping they'll stick to the wall and form some kind of recognizable pattern. It's one thing to define something in a way that's both complete and internally self-consistent, but entirely another thing say we should accept this as the only legitimate definition of the term. In this case, why should we accept those traits described in that definition as the only possible definition of "manly", thereby suggesting that any adult human male lacking in even one of those traits as automatically "unmanly". As I show below, anyone seeking to prove this as the only possible definition of "manly" will have a difficult task on his or her hands.

This 'best' popular definition of "manliness", even assuming it's very much defensible in the eyes of mainstream society, fails to take into account of the demands of a modern civilization, where the very means of making a living are incomprehensible to a hunter-gather or other Stone Age culture. Therefore, I have reason to believe that my proposed coherent pop culture definition of "manliness" is based on the demands of earlier ages - when physical survival skills were vital to even pick nuts and berries, let alone bring down mastodons with an obsidian-pointed spear and wolves with fire-sticks.

In short, I hold that contributing ideas and products that further humane development of civilization are far more important in the 21st Century than any conformity with society's gender expectations per my proposed definition above. This is because there's no logical relationship between pop culture definitions of "manliness" and ability to contribute high-valued, cutting-edge goods, services, and ideas that further widen the gap between ourselves and death/extinction. History shows that ideas and products are ultimately what create a world more pleasant and less painful to live in. The higher a society's level of organizational sophistication and especially it's level of technology, the more true this is and will become (although we in advanced technical societies certainly have pains and troubles that we did not have in the past).

Regardless of the pros and cons of 21st century living, we're here in this time and place and therefore we have to conform to its demands in terms of achieving prosperity and happiness. That includes creating new cultural and societal attitudes needed that allows us to achieve prosperity and happiness in our time on this earth. Common knowledge shows that "manliness" in the pop culture sense is not required for an adult human male to be a valuable contributor to society.

Therefore, even if "manliness" were somehow necessary in earlier ages (esp. the Stone Age and early Agricultural Age), the usefulness - even helpfulness - of the "manly" traits shrinks over time. It's time to put “manliness” in its proper context, respect it for helping us to survive and thrive as a species in earlier ages but today give it a respectful escort to the retirement home of ideas and behaviors that were perhaps necessary in their time, but no longer have any real usefulness in the betterment of the human condition.


Karl said...

filrabat, excellent post. As I acknowledged over on my own post, you're perfectly right about picking me up on the kind of sniping Dali and I indulged in. Again, as I said over, a happy, willingly participating father is infinitely preferable to a begrudging one, which is what I think Dali and I had in mind.

On a more general level, the cliched concept of manliness is certainly a curse on civilisation. The machismo, swaggering, cock-swinging egomaniac is surely a threat to any civilised hopes we have. Indeed, as someone put it somewhere, "All problems of the world come from men getting together in groups". Correct!

filrabat said...

TY Karl. I should have acknowledged beforehand in my own post you admitted that. I just sense that Dali is overly focused on traditional definitions of manliness - to the point where he can't conceive how any self-respecting man can engage in "motherly" kind of behavior.

Your more 'general level' comments definitely make a hell of a lot of sense. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that popular mainstream definitions of "manliness" are narcissistic or even semi-psychopathic. Then again,I read several articles online suggesting that more and more Western college students rank higher in narcissistic personality traits, which these researchers see as a harbinger of future social problems in the coming decades. We'll just have to wait and see how accurate their crystal ball is.

BTW, women can be just as bad as men too, although in a very different way, but no less horrific. Remember Phoebe Prince? That's what happens When Female Aggression Turns Deadly. Because Prince was an Irish immigrant, I'm sure this incident made the airwaves in the UK as well.

Anonymous said...


This was a well thought out, well written essay.

It has given birth to a twinkle of a thought in my mind:

I think of how the definition of manliness has changed over time. The paratrooper struggling in to the C-47 on the evening of June 5th, 1944 or the sweating Marine riding the Higgins boat as it grinds aground off of Tarawa used to be considered "manly".

Those two guys have very little in common with any "man" you see today on The Bachelor or MTV's Jersey Shore.

Yet those guys still exist - the paratrooper and the Marine. They have more sophisticated gear now, and they are fighting in different places, but they are certainly shadows of each other. These days, though, they are largely considered uneducated chumps, who joined up because they couldn't hack it in today's world/wanted free college/economics.

Not a complete thought, to be sure - just something that popped into my head.

Your blog is astonishingly well written, by the way.


filrabat said...

TY for the compliments. You are pretty articulate on HUS yourself.

I certainly agree the pop culture definitions of manliness have changed over time, although I will take you a bit to task for your comparison of today's troops with yesterdays. Yes, there's no draft. Yes, our armed forces fighting overseas likely do have a higher proportion of uneducated and poor and people joining up to go to college than in WW2. Even so, it's still a real stretch to say they are "not as manly" as their grandfathers and great grandfathers. To me, if they do their very best, reach down deep inside of them to do what has to be done AND do so in a morally/ethically right way (or at least easily defensible way), then I'll give them not just a pass, but a gold star of manliness.

Otherwise, you are definitely right about the comparison of soldiers in the field vs. Jersey Shore douches. Who knows, for all we know "The Situation" and the other male members of the cast, were they drafted into combat, might well prove to have manliness - though right now they display no evidence of such.

Were I to add to my own minimalist definition of "manliness" (and in fact, I WILL add to it), I'll say manliness is willing yourself to do the morally and ethically right thing, regardless of opposition that comes your way. Consequentially, I'd add open dissidents of brutal dictators and the early out of the closet gays to my "manly" list.