Is Masculinity Under Attack in America?

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Look at Bush at his “ranch.”  Look at that belt buckle!  And you dare claim masculinity is in decline?

W.J. Astore

Is the American male dead?  I’ve seen enough articles and books espousing a “war” on men and boys, amounting to a concerted attack on masculinity, to suggest that males are, if not dead, very much in decline in America, threatened by a “feminized” society that devalues manly virtues.

An article at the National Review, “Understanding the Inescapable Reality of Masculinity,” suggests that men as men have an “essential nature,” one that is “physical, aggressive, violent,” but that these traits are under attack as wider American society works to deny men their “inherent masculinity.” The article further argues there aren’t enough male role models in the lives of young boys – especially fathers and father-figures. This is a well-worn argument on the vital importance of the nuclear family with a man like Ward Cleaver in charge of it.  There’s nothing wrong with that, except not all fathers are patient, kind, and intelligent mentors like Ward on “Leave it to Beaver.” Sadly, more than a few drive young boys to be aggressive and violent in selfish and dangerous ways.

Leaving that aside, it seems odd that this narrative of the decline of masculinity persists so strongly in Trump’s America.  Now there’s a man!  He’s physical, aggressive, unafraid to boast of pussy-grabbing or the size of his penis.  He’s urged his followers at rallies to get physical with protesters.  He supports torture and even hints at shooting immigrants as a rational “get tough” policy.  Posing like Winston Churchill, he scowls and frowns in a simulacrum of manly determination.  If the president is America’s chief role model, Trump’s doing his best to project masculinity as he understands it.

Indeed, you might argue Trump won the presidency in part because of his unapologetic “masculine” posing.  Contrast this to Hillary Clinton, often portrayed as a “ball-buster,” an emasculating female.  (Indeed, I had a Hillary nutcracker, a novelty gift from a friend.)  Male voters (joined by a majority of White women) in 2016, perhaps looking for a “real” man to vote for and turned off by an alleged nut-cracking harridan, broke for Trump.

Trump’s win—and continued tolerance of his bullying, boastful, and bellicose manner—give the lie to the decline of masculinity narrative in America.  Why does it persist, then?  Because it’s yet another way to divide us.  Consider similar narratives of an alleged war on Christianity, or that higher education is driven by hegemonic liberal/leftist agendas.  In fact, Christianity is more powerful than ever in America—just look at Mike Pence and the influence of evangelicals in the U.S. government—and higher education is increasingly about serving the needs of business, industry, and the military-industrial complex.

But truth is unimportant when the object is stirring up divisiveness.  Tell American men they’re threatened: that radical feminists, effete city dwellers, Ivy League elites, and other disreputable elements are out to get them.  Then urge “threatened” males to vote for retrograde (fake) tough guys like Trump.  It may not be the most subtle tactic, but it works.

In this narrative, masculinity is defined in “can-do,” action-oriented ways.  Man as Alpha male, as doer, as fighter, whether in a bad way (as a killer) or in a good way (as a protector).  It’s warrior-and empire-friendly.  And indeed U.S. foreign policy today is distinctly masculine, with loads of emphasis on domination, on bossing other peoples around, simply because we’re bigger and badder than them.

What’s truly worrisome is not false narratives about masculinity’s decline but how it’s narrowly defined in violent and aggressive ways.  We forget that macho posturing by America’s “leaders” has created enormous problems.  Just think of George W. Bush and all his macho strutting before and during the Iraq war.

America needs fewer calls about putting on “big boy” pants and more emphasis on engaging in negotiation and diplomacy, along with action to end America’s chaotic and unwinnable wars.  America is already carrying a big stick.  It can afford to speak softly instead of shouting.

7 thoughts on “Is Masculinity Under Attack in America?

  1. No absence of “masculinity” with this 12-year-old boy and Kendrick Castillo, the 18-year-old young man who gave his life to save others during yet another school shooting in America

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    1. I think he is a great example of what American “masculinity” lacked: a sense of responsibility and selflessness.

      The phrase “alpha males” is actually quite apt when it comes to the people it describes. They are more like hungry wolves clawed at each other for the meat. Less human, and more animal.

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  2. I for one could never take articles like the linked NR one as anything other than a political con by conservatives. They’re essentially the old grade school-yard taunt we heard “what ah you, chicken?” (ie; when peers were trying to manipulate other males into doing something stupid and/or dangerous) with pseudo-academic trappings for impressionable adults, with the tacit purpose of trying to get a lot of people to believe man’s inherent nature is violent & aggressive and can’t be overcome, so by extension we always need to be fighting or preparing to fight, so vote for aggressive, loudmouth assholes or we’ll end up being victims! Very arguably, that MIGHT(?) have been somewhat true 200 yrs ago, but in today’s world, that kind of ‘masculinity’ is obsolete, except for accidental throwbacks like John Bolton, unfortunately.

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    1. It hasn’t ever been true. That’s a myth perpetrated by an academic establishment hell-bent on making Greco-Roman philosophy the sole legitimate foundation for science.

      Actual empirical work ranging from James C. Scott’s “Moral Economy” concept, Kropotkin’s “Mutual Aid,” practically all of the field of Political Ecology and a bunch of other research groups in the social sciences show that the natural human tendency is to clump into groups in order to gather and share resources.

      That’s a key human evolutionary advantage, not the naive “competition” economists and pundit pretend is the natural order of nature.

      Something confirmed from yet another angle by systems ecologists like H.T. Odum. Organisms tend to avoid conflict where they can because it wastes scarce energy. Most fill a niche specifically to avoid direct competition.

      But there’s a powerful academia-media-political complex sustaining the old, mistaken, ascientific ideology of the rational, self-absorbed, self-sufficient, always masculine individual. Big part of why I left academia and stopped writing my dissertation for the time being.

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  3. All sorts of pejoratives are in use in attacking Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Face book feeds I see in some cases are simply out right lies and then the photo shops trying to make her ugly or deformed.

    Woman who stand up have long been labeled Femi-Nazis by the Right Wing.

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    1. Yes, I’ve seen “deformed” portrayals of AOC. I suppose if you don’t laugh at them, you’re accused of being too serious, of lacking a sense of humor. Such images encourage unthinking misogyny. Because we dare not consider her ideas. Let’s make fun of her instead.

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