Friday, April 5, 2013

Sixty-Five: Definitions

A friend who's something of a well-known figure in the blog world suggested that I write about manhood and masculinity, and about whether contemporary versions of manhood and masculinity are "suffocating and marginalizing". Interesting topic, and one that does bear thinking about. Manhood and masculinity are dangerous topics these days--- concepts treated with hostile suspicion in the age of the gender wars. They're also elusive topics, though they've been that way for a while.

I can recall envying boys who came from observant Jewish families, boys who were bar mitzvah'd. They had a cultural ritual for manhood: today I am a man. I grew up with no rituals to tell me I was "a man", and it's not a word I ever use about myself. I'll describe myself as "a guy", or as male, or by my professional credentials. I'll never say that I'm "a man". Doing that seems like setting oneself up to have the claim mocked or disproved, whether by fate or other people. 

I'm male, and of a certain age. I have post-graduate degrees, I have an office and a business card. But I don't have a wife or children, I don't own a house, I've never done anything physical. I certainly haven't done any of the things cultures have demanded of males throughout history--- I've never done anything martial, I've never fathered children for the community or my bloodline. 

Right there of course you can see the beginnings of a problem. "Manhood" involves a tangle of things, an overlapping of things both symbolic and concrete, a knot of biology and both social and class markers. If "manhood" were just about being a biologically-adult male, one capable of fathering children, then...well, it would be a simple enough thing. It's always been more than that, though. Manhood is social. It's about being accepted as a man by other males--- and, yes, it's about being accepted by other males at least as much as it is about being accepted by females. 

I suppose I should begin by thinking about my own definitions of being "a man" and where they came from. I always come back to the word "gentleman" rather than just "man".  I know that when I think of what manhood should entail, I think of what makes a gentleman.  There's a class thing there, of course. But then, I wanted those class markers. The personal markers I've associated with manhood are all things that have class overtones.

My own visions of being "a man" come with class markers, of course. Long, long ago I read an article where the author--- who'd been a combat officer in Vietnam ---wrote a eulogy for a friend, a fellow young captain killed in action. He compared his friend to the ideal of what a man should be in David Cecil's biography of Lord Melbourne. I was maybe sixteen when I read that; I had no idea who Melbourne was or what he'd been like. I found a copy of the book, of course. I made a point of finding a copy as soon as I could. I still have a copy. And I do rather like Melbourne--- I like that late-Georgian idea of the gentleman. But that's probably as much about class as about masculinity as such.

David Cecil's Lord Melbourne is a role model I could like--- grace under pressure, yes, and always projecting a sense of effortless competence. That vision goes back to Castiglione's "Book of the Courtier" and probably back to Hellenistic manuals. Just as a note--- yes, I am sitting here laughing at myself. My instinct is always to model myself on literary sources. My instinct is always to look into historical sources. My instinct is always to be a character in a book. Lord Melbourne rising in politics and salons, Castiglione's guide for the aspiring courtier, probably Lord Chesterfield's advice in his letters to his son--- my role models are all class-aspirational, and they have so little to do with manhood in the year 2013. 

There are phrases designed to sum up manhood. There's Hemingway's "grace under pressure" and Harvey Mansfield's "confidence in situations of risk". You can decide whether those two things are different and if so, how. And I do know that those two definitions aren't gender-specific. After all, isn't the motto of one of the old-guard girls' prep schools in Manhattan "function in disaster, finish in style"? I like all three of those, though I'll take the Hemingway line and the girls' school motto as essentially identical, and as more appealing than Mansfield's.

Vladimir Nabokov wrote that a gentleman is "kind, proud, and fierce". As a definition of a gentleman, of manhood--- well, I'd sign on for that in a heartbeat. It's an aspirational line in a number of ways. Class, too, of course. To be able to carry off all three of those things--- kind, proud, fierce ---requires a certain social position. One has to be able to afford those things--- and not just in money.

I define myself here as a roué, and that comes with its own class overtones. It's deliberate, of course. A roué may be a great many things that the gender warriors despise, but at least he's a gentleman. He may a fallen gentleman, or a louche one, but he is a gentleman. That does matter to me. I understand about being a gentleman, and I can use that as an alternative to the representations of "manly men" in contemporary culture. I can't meet the contemporary physical requirements for being "masculine". I am of a certain age, after all, and I was never physical. I can  be a gentleman--- that's about behaviour and attitudes. It's with the body that I start to worry.

Ripped abs and chiseled features are absolute requirements these days to symbolise the truly masculine. But that's a set of markers that's strangely contradictory. Depictions of "real men" focus on the hard, almost carapaced male body and focus on activities (outdoor, physical ones) that suggest blue-collar roles--- "real work". But...those are high-tech gym bodies, personal trainer bodies. They're not the bodies of actual cowboys or construction workers. Blue-collar work can build muscle, yes, but the sculpted and shaped bodies of "real men" shown in ads have to be won through lots and lots of specifically-focused gym work. That work requires the kind of money and free time that's hard to come by unless you're in a professional job or you're a trust-fund kid. That vision of the male body purports to celebrate "real work" and associates masculinity with blue-collar labor--- but the bodies seen in male fashion ads are luxury items. They're the result of expensive procedures in expensive gyms. The contradiction amuses me, even though I'm still all-too-aware that I can't have a "real man" kind of body to show as a marker to the judges and gatekeepers. 

We're already losing focus here. There are distinctions between "manhood" and "masculinity" that need to be kept in mind. I suppose that at some point I opted for a version of "manhood" that was based on class aspirations, on attitudes and behaviour rather than on anything physical. And yet...and yet...I am insecure and anxious about things physical. I don't know how much of that has to do with being of a certain age and how much of it is about simple fear of judgment by the gatekeepers of manhood, both other males and attractive girls.

My friend suggested that I write about the ways contemporary manhood is suffocating and marginalizing. I'll get to that in the next part of this. I suppose you can see some of the things I'll be discussing. Fear of physical failure is always key. A tendency to apologise for not being sufficiently physical and carapaced. I want to be seen as a gentleman. I want to embody those attitudes from the Nabokov quote. And yet I do feel a nagging sense of inferiority and failure, a fear that the judges and gatekeepers will look at me with contempt and shut me out of being seen as a man. 

I'm not sure what to do with this tonight. But I will have to keep thinking about what manhood means, and about what markers I want to present. I'll have to keep thinking, too, about what it means if ever the markers aren't seen as valid. Grace under pressure, yes. But there's always, always the fear that you aren't actually a man, and that (worse) others will come to see that you aren't.

1 comment:

ms.gylcerides wilde ride said...

Gender definitions are troublesome but they should be totally yours. You are what a man is. It's as simple as that.

I'm not married and do not have children I'm raising. I am generally not altruistic and I'm not a professional caregiver. I don't see myself ever taking care of my parents or anyone else really. I do not fit the accepted definition of a woman--mainly that I must live my life caring and focusing on others. I am very interested in myself and will remain that way. I have lovers and occasionally boyfriends. Boyfriends do not work out so well, so I will stick to lovers. I will define being female my own way. Limitless. Boundless. Mysterious. The way it should be.