My friend did ask me about the parts of contemporary visions of manhood and masculinity that "suffocate" and "marginalize" men. Well, that I'm uncomfortable ever calling myself "a man" has to be connected to that, doesn't it? That "manhood" requires constant re-affirmation, or that it's a title that can be lost in an instant--- those things count.
I've followed a few links my friend sent to articles about the failures and dangers of contemporary ideas of masculinity. I can't say that I'm too impressed with the articles. One kept invoking the idea of "hypermasculinity" in American culture, but never explained--- never tried to explain ---what the base line for masculinity was. Calling something hypertrophied means nothing if you don't know what the ordinary--- normal ---form is like.
And there seems to be a failure to look at the history of the concept. The articles all tended to focus on the idea that contemporary ideas of manhood are linked to physical force and physical strength and assert such things should have no place in a "true" vision of manhood. Okay, well, that's a respectable argument to make. But you have to be aware that over the last three or four thousand years, manhood has almost always been defined in terms of things martial. Manhood was something that entailed being ready to engage in combat. That's certainly true in the West, all the way back to Homer. It's true in the other cultures I know anything about, too. Make the argument if you want that it shouldn't be so, that there should be clear alternative paths to being seen as a man, paths that don't focus on physical force. Make the argument that the older ideas are obsolete and dangerous. But I think you have to have to recognise that martial prowess has been associated with manhood across all kinds of cultures for a very long time and ask why and ask why that link has endured. Asking that strikes me as key to finding a replacement.
There was also a tendency in the articles to turn a critique of manhood into a critique of male sexuality, to critique particular forms of sex (e.g., penis-in-vagina heterosexual sex) as being so linked to ideas of being a "real man" that they were somehow oppressive and morally corrupt in and of themselves. I understand what the original intent was. The idea was to argue that other kinds of sex--- meaning largely gay male sex ---were no less "manly" than PIV heterosex. The critiques managed to go beyond that, though, to end up somehow arguing that enjoying or wanting to have basic PIV heterosex is a sign of moral failure, or at least a sign of failure of vision.
I might have to laugh here for a second. At least one of the articles I read kept attacking ideas of manhood for promoting "stoicism", which it took to mean a kind of emotional deadening. I can look at the bookshelf by my writing desk and see a copy of Gregory Hays' 2002 translation of Marcus Aurelius and what goes through my mind is that no one writing in the articles has the least idea what stoicism was all about. Let's just leave that aside for the moment.
There are suffocating parts to contemporary ideas of manhood. I've always thought the most painful one is how risky it becomes to have male friendships. Aristotle wrote long ago that friendship was the highest good--- no one male would say that now. To have close male friends after a certain age (usually somewhere in one's early or mid twenties) is to risk being thought gay. And not just that. I want to be very clear on that. There's the fear that other males would think you're gay if you had close male friends once you were old enough to have graduated university. There's another social risk, too. Women might think you were gay, which would make hooking up much more difficult, and they might also dismiss you as a Peter Pan, as someone who still prefers "immature" relationships to a "mature" relationship with a significant other or wife--- i.e., to "settling down". I know that fear all too well. I've never married, of course. It's easy enough for anyone hostile to argue that I'm "really" gay, and that having male friends is a clear sign of that. I know that it's a fear that makes me afraid to still have male friends. I really have no male friends in the way I had them as a boy or as an undergrad---- people with whom you could share thoughts or argue about ideas, people you could go visit and hang out with. I understand about homophobia in both senses of the word, and I know what I've internalised. I know that I miss having friends, but I also know that I couldn't pick up the phone tonight and call anyone male and just...talk. There are girls I could call, girls I could talk with late into the night. Though...the girls who are my friends are almost all former FWB girls. It's hard to know quite what that means. What I do know, though, is that I am afraid--- or at least uncomfortable ---with the idea of having male friends now. I hate having to feel afraid, and I hate being afraid of being thought gay... I'm not sure what I'm more worried about--- social mockery by people (meaning other males) who'd think I was gay or having girls dismiss me out of hand as a potential sexual partner if I they thought I was gay.
Nonetheless, there you are. There was a time when men had friends, when friendship was valued. That's no longer true. And it does leave me sad.
There are other things, too. Fear of age, fear that as a gentleman of a certain age, I can't meet the visual and physical requirements of the contemporary of the muscle-carapaced, body-sculpted mid-twenties image of manliness. As a gentleman, though, should I need those things? Shouldn't I be able to rely on attitudes and values rather than on body armour? But...isn't fear of age something else altogether, something like fear of death, or of impotence in its generalized (and not just sexual) meaning of lack of power, whether that's vitality or the ability to attract girls?
There is so much here to think about. I hope my writer friend will respond, and I hope any of my readers will respond, too.