When the subject of manliness comes up—or at least, when I’ve brought it up in conversation in relation to this project—people often jump to the conclusion that the key distinction to be drawn about how men behave (or should behave) is how it differs from the way women do (or should). Masculine vs. feminine.
That’s certainly one element of the discussion, and one I expect we’ll get into as I begin rereading and discussing Harvard Professor Harvey C. Mansfield’s laugh-a-minute tome Manliness over the next couple weeks. (Here’s a taste: “Today’s women want power, but they are not so eager to accept the risk that goes with seeking power. An indication of this failing is the willingness of women to claim solidarity with other women in the ‘women’s movement.’ … A men’s movement would be more divided against itself, each individual man looking out for himself and caring less for the general cause of his sex.”)
But an equally interesting distinction to me is manliness in opposition to what I am tempted to call “guyliness” (alongside six other brave internet lexical pioneers). It’s what I was driving at in my opening post explaining my premise, the old question of separating the men from the boys, except that today, the boys remain boys into their thirties and forties and fifties and prefer to be called guys.
This preference is actually an important question of identity to a lot of men. When, as a teenager, I once called some stranger on the bus “sir” (he was probably in his thirties, still rocking the mullet and Zepplin uniform), he got angry and said “Don’t call me sir! That’s my Dad’s name! I’m not old enough to be a ‘sir’!” And I thought, what am I supposed to call you, Ace? Homeboy? Buddy? I was just trying to be polite. But his goofy response seemed sad to me then—people, male or female, who feel threatened by being treated like adults always make me sad, even if I understand the impulse more now that I’m no longer 15 years old. That’s what so many of us are kind of doing in suspending adolescence into indefinite guyhood.
An acquaintance of mine wrote me after my initial post to tell me he’d be thinking along similar lines:
When I was 36, someone described me as ‘an interesting man’ and I realized I was disconcerted at being described as a “man” (rather than, say, “guy”). And I thought how ridiculous that was, given that I was *36*. At that point in life my Dad had already had several responsible careers, and was married with two kids.
So when I write about “acting like a man,” I generally don’t mean “stop acting like a woman” or “stop acting feminine” (although, maybe sometimes—we’ll see as we go along). Usually I mean “stop acting like a guy.” Let’s compile a quick chart to help demonstrate that distinction:
|“Nice to meet you too, sir.”||“Hey now, call me Skeez”|
|Uses tools||Likes gadgets|
|Building a career||Working for the weekend|
|Quietly obsessed with sex||Loudly obsessed with sex|
|Enjoys The Daily Show||Get news primarily from The Daily Show|
|“Here’s why you’re wrong”||“Shut the fuck up!”|
|Plays guitar||Plays Guitar Hero|
|Jokes about homophobia||Makes homophobic jokes|
OK, I’ll stop there and abandon my plan to compile a long and hilarious list, because already I can see it’s less helpful than it should be (and less funny, too). The thing is, as much as I’m concerned with behaviour (hence “Act like a Man”), it’s an underlying outlook on life that’s the key distinction, and any one preference is not that important (I’m sure Guitar Hero is fun).
So here’s a big wild stab: a man has a sense that his life should come to mean something, that on the great cosmic balance sheet the world will be a better place for his having been in it. Traditionally this can manifest itself in ways great (leading an army to redraw the world map) or small (providing for a family) or in between (fighting fires). The endeavour could be writing a novel or writing a symphony or fighting a revolution or solving physics problems or just being a part of a corporate team, but traditionally there’s a feeling of responsibility—even obligation—and an often inflated sense of importance that accompanies manly projects. This is true even in cases when the importance of the project is only symbolic; listen, for instance, to professional athletes and those who care about their objectively meaningless occupation (no offence—I’m one of them).
Boys, not yet grown, play cops and robbers and fight in the schoolyard and otherwise fool around with the elements of what they perceive to be manly, but they’re just kids and don’t feel the weight of responsibility or the threat of consequences.
The innovation of guyliness as a standard way of living is that it takes the boyhood shunning of responsibility and consequences and makes them permanent, celebrates them as values and mocks the self-importance and antiquity of anyone who thinks that’s a problem.
Is the same true of women? Not that I can see, really, or at least not to the same extent. There is no great epidemic of women abandoning their children to just flake out with their friends. Women are afraid of growing old in many ways, but they aren’t so afraid of growing up. In my own (fairly diverse, in economic and cultural terms) circle of acquaintance, I don’t see women tending to avoid excelling in school or getting a career-path job and claiming that avoidance as a point of pride. If I see women delaying family life, it is because they are dedicated to careers. I know women who are flaky and screwed up, but they aren’t that way on purpose—they don’t reject the very idea of adulthood as a tool of oppression trying to padlock their individuality. Of course, there are still fairly acceptable ways to be womanly that involve having other people foot your bill, but that’s probably another subject.
Guys, on the other hand, resist adulthood at a time in their lives when their actions should matter, when they should feel the need to contribute to something. Just shooting from the hip, I’d guess that at least part of the explanation for this is the much-remarked-on growing obsolescence of males. There’s plenty of crap to justifiably heap on the pre-feminist patriarchal society, but one virtue of it was that everyone had a role. Today, women generally still fill the roles they always did (bearing children, doing the heavy lifting in raising them, keeping house and organizing household finances and affairs) and they also shoulder nearly half of the “men’s work” of earning and providing. Women were absolutely right to complain about the power imbalance in the old arrangement and in the lack of choice for both women and men in how they pursued happiness. But the resulting societal shift has meant that in the nuclear family—the most significant organization most straight men will ever belong to—males are reduced to an optional frill, desirable but not essential to the unit’s success.
(This discussion is all very heteronormative, of course, and I’ll right that imbalance in some ways in future posts. But in the broad societal trends I’m looking at, the 90 per cent or more of the population who could possibly fall into conventional “normal” families are the, um, norm. And no need to write: I’m familiar with the concept that no one is normal.)
Plus then there’s the fact that we just don’t expect anyone to grow up anymore.
I could be overstating the novelty of this. Shakespeare’s greatest character, Falstaff, is maybe the prototypical guy, masculine but not manly. His role is as a foil to Prince Hal, the epitome of the cowardly and pointless joie de vivre that Hal flirts with as a young prince as a phase, before rejecting Falstaff and all he stands for to take on the responsibilities of his royal role.
So a warning there maybe against assuming that this moment is, in this respect or any other, historically unique. If anyone has further suggestions for where to look in history for guy vs. man comparisons, I’d be thrilled to hear them. And wild specualtion and argument as to the reasons for the apparent ascendency of guyliness are encouraged, from women, men and guys alike. And from anyone in between.
I Come by it Honestly: Teenager fights bear. Wins.
Who da man? A brief and possibly irrelevant list of possible qualifications
Is This What You’ve Become? It all began in an east-end pigsty