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Commentary

 

Sex Ed

March 15, 2006

By Kay S. Hymowitz

Manliness
by Harvey C. Mansfield
Yale. 304 pp. $27.50

Self-Made Man:
One Woman's Journey Into Manhood and Back Again
by Norah Vincent
Viking. 290 pp. $24.95

THE AMERICAN male has been feeling blue. Whether from a loss of power in a postfeminist society, a dearth of dependable jobs, or the absence of compelling role models, he is said to be in the throes of a "masculinity crisis." Worse, the problem has trickled down, becoming what Newsweek has belatedly noticed as a "boy crisis." Young males tend increasingly to be poor readers and restless students, and to lack the interpersonal skills demanded by our information economy. In higher education, as has been widely reported, 58 women now enroll in college for every 42 men, with the ratio worsening by graduation time as males drop out in larger numbers.

These two new books add to what is by now a sizable literature on the troubles of today's American male. In many ways, they could not be more dissimilar. Harvey C. Mansfield, the author of the brusquely titled Manliness, is a distinguished scholar of political philosophy at Harvard. Norah Vincent is a hip, young New York journalist and self-professed "dyke" in Self- Made Man, she recounts her journey into American life disguised as a member of the opposite sex.

Vincent's book is the ovular answer to Mansfield's seminar. Where Mansfield is tweedy, formal, and analytical, Vincent is personal, streettalkin', and journalistic. Where Mansfield wrestles with Aristotle, Hobbes, and Nietzsche, Vincent spends time in "titty bars," a bowling league, and an encounter group: Mansfield's often dense contemplations are likely to appeal most to a scholarly readership; Vincent, by contrast, has already achieved celebrity, with her book being featured on 20/20, in People, and on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. Finally, where Mansfield comes to praise manliness, Vincent concludes that the condition is a Sisyphean burden.

A more unlikely duo is thus hard to imagine—which makes their points of agreement all the more striking.

HARVEY MANSFIELD sets off into America's treacherous sexual wilderness with a clear destination in mind: to rescue manliness from the bear-like clutches of its enemies, in particular feminists and advocates of a gender-neutral society. As he notes, the opponents of manliness have tried to depose the term altogether, in favor of "masculinity:" They want to expose manliness as a mere social invention, a rationale for male power.

But this, Mansfield observes, begs the question of why men have always had the power in the first place. He finds the answer in manliness, which he defines as "confidence in the face of risk," an "easy assumption of authority" that leads to an abundance of corollary qualities stereotypically associated with the male of the species. If the womanly tendency is to seek intimacy and personal warmth, the manly tendency is to dominate.

Mansfield concedes that the manly man is not always appealing. He can be willful and boastful, and patronizing toward women. But these annoyances are part of a pack¬age that makes the average Joe capable of greater heroism and command than the average Josephine. More open to facing risk, he is more likely to gain and wield power and to make his mark in the world. There can be manly women—Elizabeth I and Margaret Thatcher come to mind—but they are rare.

Male power is not a social artifact, Mansfield argues, but a reflection of our nature, as much a part of biological reality as testosterone it¬self. This explains the failure of the androgynous utopia promised by the 1960's. Even after decades of re¬educating the young, the line between male and female activities has been "blurred" but not erased. Men, he points out, still drive trucks, fly planes, fix cars, and mow lawns. Women still teach kindergarten, empty hospital bedpans, and clean the kitchen.

The most popular current explanation for this divide is to be found in evolutionary biology. To Mans¬field, however, Darwinians mistakenly tend to reduce manliness to raw aggression and dominance. Like scientists in general, they fail to see that manliness is a moral quality (a subject beyond the reach of their methods), and so they miss its essence. A deeper understanding, Mansfield insists, is available in literature and, above all, in philosophy.

THE ANCIENT Greeks in particular had ideas about- manliness that Mansfield considers instructive for the contemporary mind. Both Plato and Aristotle described an element in the human soul called thumos, a kind of animal spiritedness or "bristling" that vies with our reason, especially in men. Thumos, Mansfield observes, has "no natural end beyond itself." It is an impulse that must be tamed and trained, channeled into the virtue of manly courage. Even while recognizing the danger of men's natural assertiveness, the philosophers understood that a good society had to "give it its due."

Modern thinkers, according to Mansfield, followed Darwin's lead in turning their backs on this valuable ambiguity and sense of balance. Nietzsche, William James, Rudyard Kipling, Teddy Roosevelt—all were "manly nihilists," advocates of assertiveness for its own sake, of "transcendence with no stated goal." Feminists, starting with Simone de Beauvoir and continuing with Kate Millet and Germaine Greer, also threw in their lot with such nihilistic thinking, simultaneously denouncing men for their animal aggressiveness and demanding the same self-assertive rights for women.

What really ails men, Mansfield concludes, is that their manliness is "underemployed." Feminism is only one of its enemies. Just about every modern tendency is hostile to the manly urge: the bourgeois yearning for comfort and security fails to channel manly excitability; professionalism rejects manly courage; even democracy, which defers to equality and reason, is no friend. "Manliness favors war, likes risk, and admires heroes," Mansfield writes. "Rational control wants peace, discounts risk, and prefers role models to heroes."

Mansfield hardly imagines that we can return to a society where men go off to be manly and women stay at home. Instead, he argues, we should revive a core distinction of liberalism: the divide between the public and the private. Sexual stereotypes would be discouraged in public life, but in private we "should admit that they are true"—and that they are what makes for mutual interdependence. The fact, for example, that women are physically weaker than men requires women to be "more aware, more realistic." The two sexes need each other in order to be fully themselves—and to be truly free.

MANSFIELD WOULD no doubt find it fitting that Norah Vincent's journey into the gender jungle is altogether more pragmatic and "realistic" than his own. It begins with her applying artificial stubble to her chin, getting a haircut and eyeglasses to harden the angles of her face, flattening her breasts inside a tight sports bra, and bulking up at the gym. But if all of this seems like gimmickry, Vincent is more method actress than transvestite. Her goal is to inhabit the experience of her alter ego who goes by the name of "Ned"—and she does so successfully enough that by the end of the book she winds up in a psychiatric ward, exhausted and depressed by the pressure of maintaining an alien identity.

Her first adventure—joining a bowling league—leads her into foreign territory not just because it is male but because it is working-class; her team includes a repairman, a plumber, and a construction worker, most of them at or near middle age. A feminist and an educated blue-stater, Vincent is caught off guard by how much she likes these new comrades. She enjoys the natural warmth of their handshakes and how "tacitly attuned [the] men are to each other." Their easy camaraderie arid directness are in sharp contrast to her usual experience with women's guile and "dime-a-dozen intimacies." No one reacts to Ned's inept bowling style with scorn or one upsmanship, as Vincent implies that women might; in fact, the men are generous with pointers and quietly respectful when other men demonstrate especially impressive skills.

Ned's experience on the dating circuit also yields unexpected sympathy for men. In looking for love, Vincent finds, men are required to slog through a purgatory of rejection, hostility, and ambiguity. When Ned tries to talk up a few women at a bar, the lovelies "looked [me] over like inferior produce in the super¬market" Many women, carrying wounds from past relationships, would greet men with the "presumption of guilt," so much so that "they seemed incapable of seeing any new man as an individual." If that is not burden enough, men have to make sense of the female's "warrior/minstrel complex." Women want a man who is strong and will take the lead—who is manly in Mansfield's sense—but at the same time "expressive, intuitive, attuned." "Expectation, expectation, expectation," Vincent frets. "Finding the right balance was maddening."

NOT THAT Self-Made Man is a panegyric to the male sex. Recounting her stint as a door-to-door salesman, Vincent shows us American masculinity in its crudest, most boastful frat-boy style. The worst part was her fellow salesmen's sordid conflation of financial success with performance in bed. "Everything about the business was sexual or an extension of male sexuality—conquest, confidence, capability."

In another chapter, Vincent patronizes strip clubs, discovering so big a gulf between female and male sexuality as to make her especially grateful to be a lesbian. Strip clubs wipe away "emotion, seduction, imagination, mental connection—the things that are, perhaps, the hallmarks of female sexuality" The grindingly mechanical lap dance appeals to the "painful compulsions" of the universal male urge. The men she sees brooding over their whiskey seem miserable. For many of them, Vincent speculates, the persistent craving for sex can only be a source of humiliation. If they objectify the strippers, it is not misogyny at work but the opposite: an effort to exorcise their shame and helplessness in the face of the priapic imperative.

What disturbs Vincent far more than men's vulgar sexuality is their emotional aloofness. When she spends time at a monastery—she was a religious Catholic in her younger days—she finds men who are desperate for "approval and support" but too rigidly reliant on masculine codes of reserve to look for solace. She sees the flip side of these same pent-up emotions in an all-male encounter group inspired by Iron John, the 1990 bestseller by Robert Bly. That the men make a point of hugging each other at every turn shows that, like the monks, they "needed a man's affection and respect, a man's approval, and a man's shared perspective on their feelings." During a bizarre weekend retreat that includes incense, tribal drums, and a large carved phallic talisman, they yelp freely about the emotions they have been forced to suppress.

For Vincent, in the end, American men are in crisis for a reason long stipulated by some feminists. They, too, are "victims of the patriarchy." They, too, suffer from "the toxicity of gender roles." Society asks them to play it strong, to give off "the illusion of impregnability," but as a result they lose touch with themselves. By the time Vincent goes on her Iron John retreat, she has decided that all men wear masks to satisfy society's impossible expectations. Her own disguise, she observes, "was the one thing I had in common with every guy in the room."

NEITHER OF these two timely books will entirely satisfy anyone trying to figure out what men really want. Mansfield's Manliness is tough going—even, I dare say, for the manliest of readers. When philosophical, it is too often abstract and mannered. (Virtue is "a combination of knowledge and manly spirit, each factor encouraging the other to do its worst or its best. To be altogether bad you have to be good at being bad, thus good.") When topical, it sometimes grates. ("War is hell, but men like it"; "women show a secret liking for housework and diaper changing.")

A more substantive problem with the book is conceptual. How do we distinguish Mansfield's idea of manly self-assertion from ambition, or a more general desire for recognition? "Manliness likes to show off and wants to be -appreciated,"Mansfield writes; it "expresses the importance of the individual." But surely women also want public notice, especially in a society like today's in which professional achievement more than domestic virtue defines personal merit. They may be less brash, but that hardly means they lack their own ways of becoming an alpha.

As for Vincent, she can be as naïve and simplistic as Mansfield is arcane. She expresses amazement that her working-class bowling partners are—imagine!--neither racists nor homophobes, and that men of¬ten see their privileges as a burden rather than an entitlement. Even more problematic is the way Vincent relies for her conclusions on a sampling of men at the margins. Her diagnosis of "masculine angst," for example, is drawn largely from her experience in the monastery and the Iron John group. This is a bit like visiting a hospital and declaring an entire country unhealthy.

A still larger problem—and here she would have benefited from a hefty dose of Mansfield's philosophical discipline—is Vincent's confused analysis of the nature of manliness. "Manhood is a leaden mythology," she writes. "You're not allowed to be a complete human being." The implication is that the world would be a better place if men were more like women. But this raises questions that never seem to occur to Vincent. Can men become more like women? And if they could, would they (or women) be more content?

Fortunately, Vincent's powers of observation are so astute as to override some of her more tenuous ideas. And what she actually observes recalls Mansfield's fundamental point: our sex is utterly basic to our identity. Indeed, Vincent's own homosexuality lends greater power to this insight. Although she is a masculine woman—as a child, she dressed "like a ranch hand" and was "a hard-core tomboy"--her X chromosomes will not be denied.

A monk notices that Ned's "mannerisms are pretty effeminate" (an observation, Vincent quips, that had never been made about the mannish Norah). When she shops for cologne at a men's fragrance counter, she finds herself rubbing the inside of her wrists together before sniffing, the way women do; a hapless salesgirl notices and looks away in embarrassment. In a priceless moment, 'after she has confessed and finally convinced a bowling-league buddy that Ned is in fact Norah, the stunned man blurts out: "Wow, you're a f—in' chick! No wonder you listen so good!"

Vincent's concealed femininity guarantees failure on the dating circuit for similar reasons. She had assumed that women would be attracted to Ned— "the ideal man being essentially a woman, or a woman in a man's body." She was utterly mistaken. Women look for men who project confidence and authority; they want "brawny, hairy, smelly, stalwart, manly men; bald men, men with bellies, men who can fix things and, yes, men who like sports and pound away in the bedroom." Could it be, Vincent wonders, that there is "a preprogrammed and possibly inescapable grammar of gender burned on our brains?"

It is this deep psychological structure that Mansfield tries to bring to the surface. He has only partly succeeded, and his proposal that we play "me Tarzan, you Jane" in the kitchen while observing sexual neutrality at the office seems unworkable on its face. But he does make a compelling case that the natural "grammar of gender" clashes in basic ways with the vocabulary of contemporary aspiration. There remains a rift between the mystery of our sexual natures and the demands of our rational, bourgeois order. That being the case, the masculinity crisis is likely to be with us for a long time.

 

 
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