To be a girl today is to be the beneficiary of decades of conversation about the complexities of womanhood, its many forms and expressions. Boys, though, have been left behind. No commensurate movement has emerged to help them navigate toward a full expression of their gender. It’s no longer enough to “be a man”—we no longer even know what that means. ∼ Michael Ian Black
When I was eight-years old, I was in love. Her name was Sherry Collins. We met one morning at the air force base daycare center and had our first “date” by week’s end. My parents drove us to a movie theater to watch who knows what—hey, I was in love.
To this day, I don’t know what mom and dad thought about our young courtship, but they used it as an opportunity to impart some important lessons of manhood. I clearly remember mom telling me about my gentlemanly duties: “Regis, when in the company of a young lady a gentleman opens the door for her, helps her into her chair, and escorts her on the street side of the sidewalk.”
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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That last item baffled me.
“Why’s that, mom?”
“To shield her from traffic.”
Even at my tender age, mom’s instruction reinforced my notion that men are to be courteous and protective toward women.
At one of my high school reunions, I was talking to a lady from my graduating class. At some point in our conversation, the topic turned to the guys in our class and she remarked, “Regis, you were one of the nice ones.” The lady next to her nodded.
Well, I was no saint. Whatever these women saw in me back then, mom and dad deserve the credit. They instilled principles that became the standard of manhood throughout my early life. But during college something happened that rattled all I had been taught.
When I attended Georgia Tech, the male-to-female ratio was 50 to 1—a condition that was both a blessing and a curse. The lack of coeds meant one less distraction from the rigors of my engineering curriculum. But when the distraction could no longer be suppressed, it was exile on Testosterone Island.
For those of us without a car, an occasional four-mile hike to Emory—a cross-town university with a more balanced ratio—was in order. However, in spite of our Himalayan hopes, our off-campus adventures resulted in little more than gawking and wishful thinking.
On one such adventure I noticed two coeds walking toward the Emory student center. I should mention that this was around 1970 when radical feminism and other anti-establishment ideals were challenging everything.
As the two young women approached the door, a male student lurched ahead to open it for them. Instead of a mannerly “Thank you,” one rolled her eyes as she turned to her companion and sneered, “Oh my! That’s just what we need, some ‘White Knight’ to help us frail creatures get about.” Her friend responded with an acknowledging smirk.
I remember the shell-shocked look on the poor fellow’s face. I shuddered knowing that had I been a moment quicker, I would have made the same “blunder.” Contrary to my upbringing, the modern woman had no desire for my protection, much less chivalry. Except for my reproductive value, I was superfluous to her.
Confidence in my role and responsibilities as a man wavered. Still wanting to be chivalrous but hesitating in the manly manners I’d been taught, I feared my actions would be seen as patronizing or chauvinistic. Worse, I feared public humiliation by a sharp-tongued female. I found myself in a growing muddle of men wandering an unfamiliar landscape with a map that was way out-of-date. Why hadn’t I seen this coming?
Rocking the Rolls
Since the time of the ancient Greeks, it had been generally accepted that the purpose of a thing defined its nature and gave meaning to existence. But that long-held assumption was upended when Jean-Paul Sartre announced: “Existence precedes essence.”
Sartre’s simple jingle meant that there is no transcendent ideal that attaches meaning to life. Life is a brute fact for which each person is burdened to create meaning of his own. Furthermore, standards of truth, goodness, and beauty are not universal ideals that have “dropped from the sky”; rather each person is responsible for crafting his own life-guiding principles.
Applied to human sexuality, Sartre’s catchphrase rocked the roles of manhood and womanhood. Nowhere is this more evident than in the ever-shifting view about masculinity which, over the last few decades, has been changing faster than Clark Kent in phone booth.
The Alpha Male
Driven by a desire to dominate and control, the “Alpha” male is the harshest form of conventional manhood. He depends on prowess, strength of will and, if necessary, force to achieve his ends. For Alphas, manliness is measured by bravado, material acquisition, and female conquests. At his best, the Alpha is like his celluloid archetype, James Bond—the man who can overcome any obstacle, best any foe, and seduce any woman without emotional attachment. At his worst, he is Adolph, Benito, or Bundy.
Feminism, in its various forms, has been largely a reaction to the abuses of the Alpha male. Armed with the scalpel of gender-neutrality, enlightened folk have set about to “fix” this Neanderthal. Flowing downstream from the Sartrian headwaters, gender-neutrality is the denial of the innate physio-psycho-emotional differences in men and women.
For example, the male affinity for “taming the land” and the female affinity for nurturing the family are dismissed as social constructions. According to the cultural elite, the solution to men behaving badly is not to inspire them to the high calling of their masculine design; it is to convince them to be more like their female counterparts. It has proven a successful strategy as evident in the meteoric rise of the “metrosexual.”
The Feminized Male
Today’s man, we’re told, is vulnerable and sensitive, in touch with his feelings and with those of others around him; he seeks participation, not leadership, basing his decisions on consensus rather than convictions. He is the “metrosexual.”
While not necessarily gay or effeminate, metros are preoccupied with things more closely associated with women: designer clothes, facials, and home decorating. They may be indifferent about the merits of various car oils, but eager to find the right skin toner and exfoliant.
This softer, feminized male has been largely popularized by celebrity consultants like the Queer Eyes New Fab Five. However, it strikes me as odd that straight guys would look to gay gurus to tell them what women really want. If your aim is to be nothing more than a girl’s best friend, perhaps advice from a feminized persona might do the trick. However, men who are angling for more are adopting more of a traditional role.
The Über Male
Combining the best characteristics of traditional masculinity—strength, courage, honor, and confidence—with some more closely associated with females, like compassion, cooperation, and good grooming, the “übersexual” can be nurturing, communicative, and stylish without ambiguity about his sexual orientation. Think U2 rock star and global activist, Bono—who is the icon of this trend according to liberal fashionistas.
The True Man
But whether it is Alpha male, Metro male, or the Uber male, each is a dwarfed ideal of true manhood with a shelf-life determined by popular whim. Together they form a muddled vision that has left a generation of men clueless about their male identity. Author and comedian, Michael Black speaks for this generation of bewildered men:
Men feel isolated, confused and conflicted about their natures. Many feel that the very qualities that used to define them—their strength, aggression and competitiveness—are no longer wanted or needed; many others never felt strong or aggressive or competitive to begin with. We don’t know how to be, and we’re terrified.
Towering above these conventional men is the Son of Man, who announced that he “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many,” thus giving us a true model of manhood that is measured not by sexual prowess, sensitive vulnerability, or hip fashion but by servant-leadership. More on that to come.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “Courtship” painted by Henry Mosier.