The Beginning of Men
The recent trend of declaring the “end of masculinity” is gaining much purchase recently, such as in the piece that ran September 20 in Newsweek Magazine asking us if it was time for a “new macho” and Hanna Rosin’s well researched article “The End of Men” which ran in the July/August issue of The Atlantic. I have few disagreements with Rosin’s thesis or with Newsweek’s piece which discuss trends with which we have long been living—the accomplishments of women, the politics of the household, and men’s struggles to understand their identity in a world where women are beginning to dominate in classically male professions, and girls outstrip boys academically and socially from pre-school to college. These are indeed trends that every parent and every partner should be aware of.
But I’m concerned that we are declaring an end to something, and heralding a beginning of a brave new era for women before we’ve fully looked at the causes of men’s failures. I’m concerned that these failures are being linked to the achievements of women. When in reality this is a story about men and other men.
Men are not demoralized and emasculated by women’s successes, nor are they simply a weaker sex that managed to hide this fact for centuries because of backward laws and cultural mores preventing women from fully contributing to society. The story of men’s failures lies in a topic so obvious, so part of our everyday lives, we look straight though it. Masculinity throughout all of human history has been linked to acts of extreme criminal violence and to the socially sanctioned potential that exists in every man to use force instead of language or compromises to get what he wants.
The aesthetics of violence, especially violence against women permeates American culture as entertainment, and the reality of violence is broadcast daily on the evening news, with men always cast in their all too familiar roles of rapists, murderers, wife beaters and pedophiles, soldiers or terrorists. The primary indicator that a human being will be prone to violence is not poverty or even a history of trauma, it’s gender: a Y chromosome.
Depending on your sources either one in three or one in four American women is raped in her lifetime, usually by someone she knows. Close to one and a half million women are physically abused by their spouses annually, and three women a day are murdered by their boyfriends or husbands. Men commit 100 percent of rapes, 92 percent of physical assaults, and 97 percent of stalking offenses against women. Men also commit the majority of violence against men including 70 percent of rapes and 86 percent of physical assaults. It does not go without saying that these are just the reported cases. Nor does it go without saying, when we talk about the percentage of women who are raped and murdered, we are also talking about a corresponding number of men that live among us who are rapists and murderers or boys who will become these things.
Like many women I’ve been close enough to brothers, friends, boyfriends, husbands, sons and colleagues to see the ambivalence and fragility in masculine identity. To see what violence, enacted and received or observed does to men; the facts in the news and the facts learned in history class that can’t help but carry with them the connotations of irrationality, and deeply histrionic, anti-social behavior; the sense that something should be done but maybe that something is too private too inextricably linked with their own bodies, to begin to approach it.
Men are crippled by the idea of what they are. And who can blame them? Their bodies fill prisons, battlefields and graveyards. And these facts that surround us, that permeate our lives, and form the basis of an inordinate amount of entertainment consumed in our country, are not lost on those who share the same bodies and are learning what to do with those bodies, learning what it means to be men. Neither are these facts lost on girls and women that are coming of age in a world so recently free of the kinds of prejudice that prevented them from equal standing in their own homes, schools, and workplaces.
As women are taking on more of the roles traditionally held by men, the depiction of women’s behavior in media is becoming increasingly more violent. Only in this instance the violence is playing to a much different audience. An audience that has a long cultural and often deeply personal history of trauma. The message of female on male violence resonates not simply as ‘cool’ or ‘powerful’ or ‘the way it is’ with women but as inherently political, evening a score, leveling the playing field of fear.
Where once women were seen in fiction as plot devices, reasons for men to kill one another in stories so cliché (and so common) you could simply fill in the blank: “I killed him because he raped/killed/stalked my wife/sister/girlfriend/daughter,” now women are doing the killing themselves.
The popularity of Steig Larson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is certainly evidence of how pleasing an idea women’s retribution is. And the recent movie Salt, staring Angelina Jolie, makes it clear that action roles and their implicit subtext are not just for boys anymore. But perhaps the best example of this new aesthetic, and the resistance to its meaning is the controversial, comic-book-based film Kick Ass—a movie that got a lot of attention because of a cursing little girl, and was equated with kiddie porn by the New Yorker because of a scene in which the main character dressed in a school girl uniform. While Kick Ass was unprecedented in its depiction of a pre-pubescent girl assassin, the writing about Kick Ass still managed to discuss the character as if she were a victim—and the actress as if she were being exploited, not introducing an new paradigm of power. What was missed entirely in the reviews and criticisms of Kick Ass was the fact that a little girl—someone who shares identity, shares the morphology of the victims we read about and hear about and know all too well, gleefully murdered dozens of men, shooting most of them at point blank range in the head.
How we could begin to discuss the academic, social and emotional failures of boys and men without discussing the real and fictional murders, rapes, and beatings carried out by men is a mystery. The confusion and self-loathing and sense of powerlessness that comes from either affiliation with abusers and aggressors, or with apathy and inaction is a part of the masculine experience. Just as fear is a part of the feminine experience. And we do not like to talk about these things. But we need to. Because these are the kinds of feelings that breed violence. If there is to be any honest discussion about a “new masculinity” it needs to start here.
I don’t want to see an end to men. I want to see a beginning.