The Mask Of Masculinity

Prof. Harvey Mansfield is Harvard's conservative. Well, all right, he is one of Harvard's handful of conservatives, a.k.a. The Saving Remnant. A few years ago he received a call when a distinguished colleague retired. The caller, a young woman journalist, wanted a comment on the retirement. Mansfield obliged, saying he particularly admired the colleague's "manliness." An awkward silence ensued from the other end of the line. Then the reporter asked Mansfield, "Could you think of another word?"

What might be wrong with that word? That is a (literally) academic question, now that professors and somber quarterlies are creating a new discipline: masculinity studies. That subject is being, as it were, married to "women's studies" to round out "gender studies," as at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, where there now is a Center for the Study of Women and Men.

Well. In olden days, before these things were understood with today's clarity, people thought that when they studied subjects such as philosophy, history, politics, sociology, anthropology, art, music and literature they were engaged in the study of women and men. But back to Mansfield's journalistic interlocutor. The problem she had with the word "masculinity" probably was twofold.

First, the word is stained with the supposition that manliness is a virtue. Advanced thinkers execrate the idea of a virtue that is not a gender-neutral, equal-opportunity virtue. Both men and women can be brave, frank, aggressive, competitive, loyal, stoical. Is manliness anything more than a tossed salad of those attributes? If so, can a woman be manly? (Was Francois Mitterrand suggesting androgyny when he said Margaret Thatcher has the eyes of Caligula and the lips of Marilyn Monroe?)

Second, leave aside the question of whether "manliness" should be celebrated as a virtue rather than condemned as a social virus that causes wars, sport utility vehicles and other testosterone spills. But perhaps manliness is (because everything is) a "social construct." Here is the heart of "gender studies": If all human attributes are consequences of social arrangements, then clever rearrangement of society can produce whatever results the rearrangers want. If so, neither biology nor history nor nature is destiny. All is nurture and ephemeral, nothing is instinctive, innate, permanent. Nothing is destined. Everything is a matter of choice. Free at last, free at last...

One tool for striking the chains from woman's wrists and ankles is a noun that has become a verb: parent. It makes fathers and mothers interchangeable, their differences fungible, their duties negotiable.

And why not, now that The New York Times reports this bulletin: "Masculinity is not monolithic"? Indeed. Mark McGwire cries. Male peacockery flourished before and after Henry VIII donned silk stockings to show off his legs. The Times cites a professor in Indiana who has written a book on masculinity as portrayed in the movies of Jimmy Stewart, Jack Nicholson and Clint Eastwood. The professor asks, "What if masculinity is a construction, something we unconsciously work very hard on making ourselves into that we've all conned ourselves into believing is natural?" The professor seems to think he is entertaining a daring idea, but nowadays nothing seems more natural than disbelief in the natural.

Manliness is usually thought to involve, above all, courage, especially in battle. In American literature, manliness is famously acquired by the young man in "The Red Badge of Courage" who acquires that red badge--a wound. Manliness, says Mansfield thoughtfully, celebrates action over thought, so "one could even say that thinking is in itself a challenge to the superiority of manliness."

If womanliness (which is not a synonym for femininity) is the opposite of manliness, womanliness is more reflective, even philosophical, and less animal, more human, hence higher. Males are not flattered by what Mansfield calls "the asymmetry of the sexes." Aristotle said men find it easier to be courageous and women find it easier to be moderate. Mansfield suggests that this is because women are more thoughtful. Would a really '90s Man, caring and sensitive, want the largely animal attribute of manliness, or regard it as virtuous? We speak of speed being a virtue in a racehorse, but horses cannot be virtuous.

But wait. Perhaps the '90s Man himself is inherently insidious. Perhaps he is sneaking patriarchy--the subordination of women--back into society, from which it was so recently expelled. Gallantry, which everyone knows is condescension, may now come quietly, on little cat feet, disguised as sensitivity.

Perhaps what everyone knows is false. Maybe the gallantry of opening a door for a woman expresses disdain by asserting that the man is stronger. Then again, physical strength is a merely animal attribute. And opening a door may express sincere rather than guileful deference. Mansfield: "The woman does go first."

Then again, male sensitivity was not born yesterday. Some of the stuffed animals that children cuddle are called Teddy Bears because on one famous occasion the man who was the rough-riding personification of self-conscious manliness was too sensitive to shoot a wee bear. Yes, Teddy Roosevelt. That (18) '90s Man thought war was splendidly bracing for a nation, and that if a war was not handy, war's moral equivalent, football, would have to suffice.

Mansfield says that feminists fault masculinity primarily for its antidemocratic exclusivity. They want society reconstructed so they can act as masculine as men have to, and they want men reconstructed so they will act a little less masculine, more sensitive. Feminists' real complaint, says Mansfield, is with femininity, the "mystique" (Betty Friedan) of mildness that men supposedly have foisted on women to keep them in their place, which is down, as the "second sex" (Simone de Beauvoir).

"Why can't a woman be more like a man?" ask some feminists. It is a fair, and complex, question famously asked in "My Fair Lady" by Professor Henry Higgins, no feminist.