Un-Cancel John Wayne | Opinion

Sean Penn made headlines recently with comments about masculinity and American men. During an interview with The Independent, the actor blamed "cowardly genes" for men "putting on a skirt." Penn may have exaggerated when he said that "men in American culture have become wildly feminized," but he isn't entirely wrong about the direction woke norms are headed. Cancel culture tends to project its hyper-sensitivity backwards in time to trash the heroes of history, but if our ancestors had adopted woke norms, there would have been no such heroes, and there certainly would have been no America.

Had the Mayflower carried a bunch of sensitive snowflakes expecting safe spaces, its passengers would never have taken root in the new world. In fact, Americans have always ventured into spaces that were not safe, because out there—out West, and even out in space—lay exciting new possibilities. In fact, it was always the frontier that, as historian Frederick Jackson Turner argued, defined the difference between the old world and the new.

The American experience, its driving force, its optimism, its dynamism and its entrepreneurial spirit were all about venturing into the unknown. This was also the great promise of American life: "go west, young man!" Because unlike Europe, where land was scarce and labor plenty, in the great wide American open, you can always start over and find new opportunities. In the frontier there was also the promise of mobility. In America, unlike Europe, you are not bound by the circumstance of birth. If you dare, you can go as far as your talent will take you.

That, at least, was the ideal. And even if it wasn't always the reality, it was nevertheless a lodestar for millions.

The idea of "safe spaces" is the polar opposite of the risk-taking spirit embodied in the idea of the frontier. It is therefore—if we believe Turner—a direct attack on the promise of American life.

The American spirit does not run in our blood. It's not in our genes, either. It is a product of the way we bring up our young.

John Wayne statue
SANTA ANA, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 28: A statue of John Wayne is on display beneath an American flag in John Wayne Airport, located in Orange County, on June 28, 2020 in Santa Ana, California. Orange County Democrats are calling for the name of the airport to be changed and the statue to be removed due to the deceased actor's 'racist and bigoted statements'. Mario Tama/Getty Images

We now bring up our girls to be daring and to venture into the world. But we teach our boys to hate the very character traits that once propelled them to do the same. This is why the nation's boys are failing. They drop out of schools at a greater rate, they are more prone to addictions and delinquency. Even testosterone levels and sperm counts, studies have found, are on the decline. Teaching boys to hate themselves, and to see masculinity itself as toxic rather than honorable, will probably not solve their problem.

John Wayne—the star of classic Westerns like True Grit and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence—is in danger of being canceled out of our collective memory, and with him, all that he represented. The University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts removed a John Wayne exhibit from its main building due to derogatory remarks the actor made in a 1971 Playboy interview. The woke crowd has also demanded the John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California, be renamed. There's no need to defend inappropriate remarks in order to see the cultural value of Wayne's artistic work. As a society, it's time to draw lines in the sand; we need to unequivocally say this towering figure of American cinema is uncancelable, his legacy irreplaceable in our national memory.

If we are to help our children find positive masculine role models, we need to look back in time to when men were men. It is an illusion—and a dangerous one at that—to believe we can do away with toughness, resilience, rugged individualism and patriotism.

Some may want to blame the crisis of manhood in America on "patriarchy." Men, the story goes, are unhappy, even driven to suicide, because patriarchal "toxic masculinity" has taught them to suppress rather than acknowledge their feelings. But that's not enough of an explanation. The reason for the crisis of masculinity is far more straightforward. Since at least the 1970s, we have been teaching our young that good and evil are gender traits: masculinity is the toxic evil, femininity is benevolence. It follows from these assumptions that our men would cure themselves of toxicity the less manly—that is the more feminine—they become.

Self-hate, however, does not create better human beings. Pick any curriculum of gender studies, from grade school to graduate university programs, and you will find the same theme: men are never the soldiers who protected us in war, the firefighters who gave their lives to save the innocent, the construction workers who built our infrastructures. They are always—and only—the oppressor, the privileged class.

John Wayne—born Marion Robert Morrison and referred to as "Duke" by his friends—wasn't just an actor. He was a teacher of character who embodied what an American man could be, and how honorable a man can aspire to be based on his own character. If we want to get our boys back on track for happy, productive lives, we need to replace the self-hate culture with a new set of stories and role models like John Wayne. It is urgently needed at this time, our children will never have a second chance at the formative years of their childhood.

Bethany Mandel is editor at children's publishing house Heroes Of Liberty, which published John Wayne: Manhood and Honor.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.