No One Knows What Manhood Is Yet No One Will Stop Writing about Manhood

Just as I planned to write on new books about manhood—Time’s Joel Stein and Man-Made: A Stupid Quest for Masculinity , and GQ’s Glenn O’Brian and How to Be A Man–The New York Times goes and publishes a magazine cover story on the same topic, “Who Wears the Pants in this Economy?” an excerpt from a forthcoming book by Hanna Rosin.

Manhood, it turns out, is a deceptively elusive subject.  If the obscure definition of obscenity is “I know it when I see it,” then the definition of masculinity is even vaguer. Taking the two books and Times article together, here is a definition of manhood: We don’t know it when we see it, we don’t see it when we know it, or we don’t know when we don’t see it.  And I thought Flight of the Concords had this all sorted out in “Think About It”: “What man?/ Which man?/ Who’s the man?/ When’s a man a man? What makes a man a man?/ Am I a man?/ Yes. Technically I am.”

(see 1:18)

Take Stein’s book.  Please. [rimshot] The High Concept is this: the new father of a boy, Stein fears that his effete, metrosexual lifestyle will not allow him to raise his boy to be a real man, so he attempts all of the most stereotypically manly activities he can imagine, one per chapter—essentially hanging around with other men like Marines, day traders, hunters, and ultimate fighters—in order to learn the lessons that he’d like to pass on. Call it The Year of Living Manfully. The result is sometimes funny—“When I played Dungeons & Dragons, I was never a fighter or an assassin; I was always a magic-user.  Even in my fantasy life, I was a nerd”— and just as often not funny: “I am no human resources expert, but I believe Great Point Capital might have a much easier time recruiting female employees if it didn’t feel so much like Rape Point Capital.” But to pull off the conceit, Stein is too accepting of standard out of the box masculinity, pretending that decades of academic research into gender—across fields of sociology, psychology, literature, and entire fields of gender studies—never happened.

I guess that could be OK—this book is clearly part humor, part AJ Jacobs-stolen stunt memoir. Except that Stein keeps defining himself as an “urban intellectual” seemingly without irony (I thought post-William F Buckley, the word “intellectual” was now officially an insult) and therefore in opposition of the kind of manly adventures he chronicles here.  What kind of intellectual is this juvenile?  OK, I take that one back. But what kind of intellectual appears to have read nothing on the subject of his book, including parenting books? And while Stein will intermittently bring up race, class, and his suburban Jewish upbringing on rare occasions, he seems not to think of manhood in sociological, political, or class terms, even as they clearly, inadvertently emerge that way. As a result, the book mostly ends up supporting stereotypes about masculinity—men don’t like to talk; men like to kill things and sleep outdoors—at his own self-deprecating expense, since he isn’t like this. But the stereotypes are also at the expense of exploring, developing, and  challenging—or, if it suited him,  defending—traditional conceptions of manhood. Stein begins the book believing that driving a fast car and firing a tank will make him more of a man, and concludes that, surprise, they have.  Self-consciously calling his book a “stupid quest” does not inoculate it from the charge that it is stupid. It is.  But that’s actually OK.  My problem is that it was never even a real quest at all.

Glenn O’Brien’s book seems at first as though it is exactly what Stein did not set out to write. Stein: “I’ve decided to make a list of tasks that I hope will turn me into a man. My list will not include anything I have ever read in GQ or Esquire: I will not learn to fold a pocket square, mix cocktails, build my triceps, look up word bespoke, or get the right haircut for my face shape. That’s being a dandy. My book could beat up that book.” But it turns out that O’Brien did not write that book either, not exactly.  While there are plenty of sections on shirts, drinks, and style—not to mention that O’Brien clearly celebrates dandyism—what O’Brien has done it construct a deft collection of essays on topics related to manhood in the 21st century, while at the same times suggesting that some aspects of manhood are, indeed, timeless and archetypical.

So despite pages riffing on ties, O’Brien is far more intellectual than Stein—and therefore does not ever need to call himself one—suggesting that “A gentleman is reason personified” and referring or alluding to Socrates, Emily Post, the religious concept of acedia, Brad Pitt, Muhammad, Rocky Marciano, Andy Warhol, and hundreds more, in a way that seems erudite rather than namedroppy or shoehorned in.  So nothing about tanks, but rather, a confident book of ideas that I don’t always agree with but respect. And respect is a word that Stein reserves for his new friends but not himself—or at least the fake funny-guy persona he tries to foist on the reader.

Meanwhile, I can’t help but think of the Mark Twain adage, that to the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The Style Guy sees manhood in style.  In Stein’s book, rich men see manhood in money; martial artists in punching; hunters in hunting; ballplayers in playing ball; firefighters in fighting fires.  But what happens when they lose their hammer?

That’s where Hanna Rosin comes in, in The Times.  Her article is about men who have not only suffered the indignity of losing their jobs, but also of SEEING THEIR WIVES SUCCEED! Which is somehow salt on their wound, as opposed to, I don’t know, “Thanks, Wife, for saving my ass.” Quote after quote reinforces their sorrow: “Probably no one has had their wife move up the ladder as far as I’ve moved down,” says one; “We’re in the South,” Rosin quotes another. “A man needs a strong, macho job. He’s not going to be a schoolteacher or a legal secretary or some beauty-shop queen. He’s got to be a man.”  This is Stein stripped of all humor, purpose, and self-consciousness, manhood not as fodder for jokes but just fodder, or just a joke.

Of course, manhood’s perceived strength—which is, um, strength—is its weakness.  Part of Rosin’s point is that women feel less entitled to start at the top and are more flexible employees, and therefore are better suited to contemporary employment needs. Yet Rosin also misses that man’s rigidity means that her thesis is old news, destined to spark controversy before disappearing for another few years, when suddenly it is rediscovered, kind of like John Travolta.  Previously, in April 2003, the New York Times Magazine also published “Commute to Nowhere.”  with its thesis that “By the numbers, women have been hit as hard as men, but white-collar men tend to experience unemployment differently, organizational psychologists say. For most women, survival trumps ego; they simply adapt and find some job. For men, grappling with joblessness inevitably entails surrendering an idea of who they are — or who others thought they were.”

And in light of at least one other 2011 New York Times article, “The Gender Pay Gap by Industry,” maybe the problem of manhood is overrated to begin with: “Over all, women who worked full-time in wage and salary jobs had median weekly earnings of $657 in 2009. That’s 80 percent of what their male counterparts earned.”  Women are still only earning 80% of the pants.  They wear the shorts in the family.

In the end, if manhood can mean anything to anyone, then it doesn’t have any meaning at all.  In some ways, that would be a very good thing, especially to Rosin’s subjects.  I recently found out that Marlboro cigarettes, of all things, were originally marketed to women, pretty much proving that, at least in some arenas, gender is a total construct and fabrication with no intrinsic truth at all.  And that cigarettes’ flavor is whatever people believe it is, since the same ones are “mild” for women and full of “flavor” for men.

But in other ways, I’d like to see manhood stick around.  For all the emphasis on the South, the men of Rosin’s Times piece don’t know the first rule of manhood, inspirited by Rhett Butler: a man doesn’t give a damn about what anyone thinks about his manhood.

And personally, I’d like to think that I do know it when I see it.  And technically I am.

Time: 90 minutes. And I had to force myself to stop.

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6 thoughts on “No One Knows What Manhood Is Yet No One Will Stop Writing about Manhood

  1. Jaime Gully Brown says:

    Men really worry about teaching their sons to be manly? I worry about teaching mine to respect women, be kind to animals, not to litter and who the hell is going to teach them to iron a shirt? Certainly not me (says the housewife that maybe doesn’t even own an iron). Maybe I should pick up O’Brien’s book.

    • Hourman says:

      It’s funny that respecting women is not a part of Stein’s book at all. Look, I know he was trying to be funny, but it is interesting that every example from every chapter involves Stein leaving his family to hang around with a bunch of strange men and no women. O’Brien actually talks about women, although sometimes it’s a little weird. It’s more of a library book for me, though–not sure if I’ll look at it again. Thanks for reading and commenting, Jaime.

  2. Thank you for the insightful overview of the books and cover story. Your close reading demonstrates the challenges confronted when tackling such a universal topic. In thinking about your assessment, what struck me is that these books, in particular, also point to the problems inherent in publishing.

    Specifically, what big publishers demand, more than anything else, is that authors have a “platform” that will potentially sell books. Thus, writers like Stein and O’Brien get book deals based on their resumes, rather than having anything interesting or new to say. As a result, for instance, Stein can then write a book bereft of research, while trying out the worn persona of effete, sensitive dad who does not feel like a “real man.” This perspective makes falling back on stereotypes almost automatic. Same with O’Brien, who falls back on the “dandy,” but still a man line.

    What these stereotype-riddled books do is further accentuate the line drawn between men and women, as exposed by the Rosin article. Rather than an equal partnership – as you rightly identify as the best scenario – we have men who gladly accept the stereotypes associated with gender.

    As a society, will we ever move past the romantic comedy version of life, in which men are either overly-aggressive apes or bumbling, sensitive thinkers and women are either conniving bitches or misunderstood, hidden swans? Not with books like these that drive a simplistic vision of gender and equality.

    • Hourman says:

      That’s a great observation, Bob. It really may be a publishing issue as much as anything, in that a thoughtful, insightful, probing book about masculinity–and in mentioning Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs, I realize I’m preaching to the choir–had no chance of reaching the big market that these two books are shooting for. Chabon had no concept, doesn’t write about a stint in boot camp, no snappy table of contents like O’Brien, and has nothing at all to say about suits. He isn’t even trying to be wise or funny. Yet he’s the one who has the most to say about childhood, fatherhood, being a husband, and being a man, and he knows how to write better than anyone. Obviously, it was not a mass market phenomenon.

  3. Doug says:

    Maybe Stein’s book has little desire to say anything worthwhile, but in the context of this conversation, it’s the one that bothers me most. I’m all for self-deprecation, but when someone has the initiative to confront something as weighty as male identity, it’s disappointing to see him file down his own teeth as if he’s afraid to take a risk or make any serious discovery. And that’s not manly at all.

    • Hourman says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Doug. Again, Stein’s idea seems a platform for making jokes, and familiar ones at that (see Bob’s comment above). It has all the trappings of risk but no real risk. And you’re right–the implication is that manhood is something to laugh at. And it is, but not all the time.

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