It is probably the coffee, or the academic tomes I’m sloughing through right now on the cheery subject of various medieval religious polemics attacking religion (Islamic vs. Christian vs. Jewish). And then in a coffeeshop, you overhear other people’s conversations. I don’t like the brand of masculinity that is cultivated in snickering frat boys. It makes me sick and want to cry.
Masculinity can be incredibly precious, but the particular strains of “masculinity” that are cultivated in our postmodern era are anything but. The pig-headed jock who goes after women as if they were things and thinks loving violence makes him a man; the whiny and self-congratulatory sensitive male who is so proud that he doesn’t like football; and the general ‘nice guy’ whose stellar claim to moral superiority is that he doesn’t rape people and doesn’t hate other races, though he is sure that everyone else would. To all, the zeitgeist pressure: they have to apologize for their existence, which some try their best at (however clumsily) and others rebel against in a show of the-best-defense-is-offense, or worse still, embracing the slur in a fit of take-that-hah. And in all the cacophony, who will remember what it is to be a man? Amidst the swirling whirlpools, the Scylla and Charybdis and so many other countless ones, how many can even make it, to steer their ship true, to the place the stars chart out?
Oh God. It’s like that scene in Captain America 2, where some people try to get into the little fighter planes (parked on the deck of the aircraft carrier) to go to the aid of Captain America. Every single one of them is shot dead before even being able to get in the air. They go up in flames on the deck. That’s about the state of manhood in America today. Boys never even get a chance to be good men. They never even have a chance to try.
Craving moral heroism is not a bad thing. It can be something rather sweet in the young. And I suspect it is inborn too. Newborns scream in their cribs for the touch of another human being, for the sound of a human voice singing in the darkness.
And then by 3 or 4 years old, many of them are tripping about with their blocks and sticks and pillow-case capes, already yearning to be heroes. You could say that the fairy stories we tell them are the cause of it (I remember over-hearing my toddler kid sisters’ make-believe universe populated with tea parties, difficult pregnancies, and dragon slayings), but I suspect it is the reverse: fairy tales were created by the harried grown-ups because kids demanded it. It is the kids that crave moral heroism. They crave a world of good and bad, where good must struggle, but ultimately win.
I think it is a part of human nature— and, that like all the forces of nature, it must be respected and perhaps tamed, but never extinguished. If you attempt to extinguish it, it will blow up in your face. You can only repress human nature so far. Attempts to stymy the craving for heroism (e.g. ‘idealism is dangerous! look at the nazis or the bolsheviks!) will lead to things just as bad as the nazis and the bolsheviks. Actually, I wonder how many wandering idealists in the 1800s and 1930s latched on to those ideologies precisely because no-one else offered an alternative. Dostoevsky said that more than man craves for food, he craves for worship — to find something to fall before and worship. If he isn’t given that, he will go mad. In our era that tries to eliminate moral heroism, males have had it disproportionately worse. It’s a downward spiral–the symptoms are taken as the root, and the cure is banned as the cause.
A large part of the crisis in masculinity today is precisely this effort to eradicate a male-specific moral heroism (e.g. chivalry, or ‘how men should treat ladies or those weaker then themselves’) because of the inherent side effect of paternalism/condescension that inevitably comes with any system of morality, however constructed. But when you successfully eliminate male-specific moral heroism from a culture — you (surprise) have not actually gotten rid of the male, and hence male-specific XYZ-ism. And what it gets replaced with is something cruder: male-specific macho heroism, without a moral sense. That celebrates raw power, raw sexual prowess, raw violence, untrammeled by any moral specifications.
Ride the subway in any large city in America, walk along the rougher parts of town, and you see the cost of it. Boys barely men, trying so hard to prove their manhood by the only thing they know is “manly”: their only male-specific heroism being something that is an odd mixture of gang violence and knocking up as many women as they can. Their eyes, large and bright and young. And so many of them will be dead before they turn 25 years old. They have testosterone, they have a desire for male-specific heroism. But this amoral void gives them none of it, and they must construct what they can from the garbage heap. It is a costly thing, devouring what could have been: lover’s pledges kept steadfastly, homes peaceful, men strong and gentle, hands clean of blood.
It isn’t just the urban poor that are paying the price. You see the same painful cost in the suburbs (though not as costly in lives–for the wealthier have more buffers–more leeway with the police, more therapists, more help). Boys, craving for male-specific heroism, turn to an odd amalgamation of sexual braggadocio (e.g. porn, or sex-as-an-impersonal-thing-i-grab-for-myself) and obscenely nihilistic fantasy violence now scrubbed clean of moral purpose. For example, current violent video games that pride themselves on their moral high-ground by intentionally having no moral heroism (but plenty of gore and boobs).
Eliminate the “serve and protect” purpose for male violence (e.g. chivalry and save-the-world ideologies) and what do you end up with? Violence for its own sake. Machismo without any fig-leaf of chivalry. Raw masculinity without any honor. And then they are told that manly men are just pigs and d-bags. But what other options are they given?
A typical example of this is the videogame Skyrim. Like most high-resolution first person games, the violence (unless you are playing as a mage with glowing blasts) is gory, up-close and personal.
To add insult to injury, the advertisement campaign was totally, totally tapping into young adolescent boys’ craving for moral heroism. Here is the original trailer that got so many of them to buy it, which shows a lone warrior defending the women and children and civilians from an attacking dragon.
It is such a scam. Instead of what is advertised above, in the gameplay, you are forced to first-person slash up women alongside men (there is no setting to disable that), and oh, it turns up that there are no goodguys. Here’s a dorkly comic that makes the point: (from The Skyrim Dilemma)
In a world where there are no good causes, the best thing to do is just fight for yourself. So you fight like a bandit, kill other “bandit” women and men you come across (they automatically attack you too, so you don’t have much of a choice), and grab stuff for yourself. Oh, and you have this side-kick female who is a really hot (and strong too, to appease the feminists) who basically acts like a traditionalist wife of the semi-servant variety, carrying your luggage and serving you devotedly.
Postmodernism, in an effort to tear down the mistakes of brash (wannabe heroic) modernity, tears it alldown, and we will cycle back into pre-pre-modernity, the era of the tribe and the patriarchy in its rawest, most untamed form.
If we try to get rid of condescending would-be heroes…all we will get rid of is the attempted heroism. Then we are left with condescending, brutal thugs.
If you remove male-specific moral heroism from a society, everyone suffers.
I was at some big fancy professional conference-y panel, with a thousand or so people, it was mostly american but there were some international people there. I started talking to one woman, middle-aged, careworn, and Korean. She was from North Korea. She had her daughter with her–who seemed to be a ditzy 11 year old brat. Then I learned that her daughter was 27, but had been stunted by malnutrition and environment. Her eyes looked a little weird, but she acted this way because inside she was very sad. I tried to get her some fruits&protein food from the reception table, but I rememeber thinking–it is too late–she is too old now to ever grow, it is too late. The lady was a bit jumpy, someone who was genteel but frightened of the whole world, as if it was one large horror novel.
And then, it was. We were in a giant gilded mansion built by some American robber baron from the nineteenth century. It was repurposed now, full of American ivy league undergrads who seemed by turns giggling and nervous. They were all talking about the artistic serial murders that were happening around the mansion we were all staying at. They were sadistic and staged. It fascinated them, they were all looking at the pictures (the murderer took posed black and white photos of his victims and left them around the house ), though of course we didn’t know who would be next. When they kept discussing the murders and looking at the pictures, I couldn’t tell if it was genuine fear for them, entertainment, admiration, sadism, morbid curiousity, or all of it. I think it was mostly fear though. They were dressed very stylishly.
We were all standing around in a circle in one of the large rooms of the mansion. I thought I recognized the murderer from the photos. He was a white male, but there was this Indian “woman” with a square jaw who was smiling at me in a sick way. I thought the dark skin looked paint, and the hair like a wig. But I didn’t say anything, because he was there, and also, I thought if I was wrong, they would all be upset at me for being cruel to a woman for having an irregular body type.I was sick with fear, especially for the North Korean woman and her child, who already expected the worst to happen anyway.
Then Mal was there (the guy from firefly) dressed in his western gear. This was the action part of the dream. I remember running alot, running into forbidden darkened rooms, grabbing guns and things (including a magic flower). Mal got the undergrads to band together, and they fought the serial murderers.
We left the mansion in some mayhem, but it was cleansed of the sadistic laughter and the lurking darkness among the gilding. I think the undergrads were trying to organize a new government or some semblance of order. We (I was now a young boy, following Mal) were leaving now, headed for a prairie farm in middle of the desert. His wife came out of the farm to greet us. She was not pretty, but there was something about her that was very womanly— she carried herself ram-rod straight, long apron and hair tied in a bun atop her head, hands calloused and tanned, her arms strong and her voice steady. She had a gun, but she was not bloodthirsty, and just by looking at her you could tell that she had long experience with harsh wildernesses and stubborn animals. With her coming across the desert was a crowd of strapping young prairie boys from about 9 years old to 16–they were old enough to try to be men, but weren’t men yet either. They were her and Mal’s sons.
I thought all was well now, the chickens and the animals lowing to be milked, the chores and the windmill. There were occasional moments when Mal started acting strange. His face would get clouded and confused by turns. We tried to ignore it though, and hoped everything would be alright. Later I was running around the farm with Mal’s sons, and then we came up on the edge of the desert and froze. Mal had dug this oddly-shaped ritual-like pit about 10 feet wide in a perfect circle, and at the center of it was his wife who he had tied to a stake. It was all very bizarre. I looked at his face, and he looked at us without recognizing us–there was some kind of struggle going on in his face, and it would keep changing expression–one minute looking recognizable but confused, the next minute this hungry animal look was overtaking his face. I realized he had been infected by whatever had infected the serial murderers–he had come into contact with them in the fight at the mansion, and now it was getting him too.
Then his wife spoke. She was clearly exhausted from a previous struggle, but her spirit was unbroken. She told her sons to go home to the farmhouse and wait there, that mommy and daddy would meet them there. I realized she didn’t want them to see this and become zombified. She was also completely unafraid. I could tell she was very sad, but she hadn’t given up. From the sound of her voice, I could tell she hadn’t surrendered.
We turned and walked toward the farmhouse. I knew the boys were in cognitive dissonance, if we tried to tie down Mal and rescue their mother it would just end badly–they were shaken and Mal was armed and much stronger than us. We headed back to the farmhouse. I was planning to get the guns ready, so that when Mal came for us, I’d at least try to shoot him from a distance, through a window. He was a much better shot than me, but this way I had a chance. I didn’t think his sons would be able to handle fighting him, and I didn’t want him to get them too.
We waited at the farmhouse, and then, outlined against the desert sky (it was either a sunset or a sunrise–I couldn’t tell), I had my gun loaded, and was looking out through the upstairs gable window. Then I saw two figures walking. It was Mal and his wife, unharmed. They were walking hand-in-hand. I looked at his face, and it was human again. The zombie-virus had been overcome. The kids ran up to them, and the animals were lowing. I put down the gun and ran downstairs, to feed the chickens.
I didn’t see this Disney cartoon as a kid because I figured it was lame. It was the biggest flop in Disney history (I think it cost $140 million and domestic box office was $38 million). Anyway, now that I’ve seen it, all I can I conclude is that the box office gods are inscrutably whimsical & beyond understanding.
It’s the best Disney movie I’ve seen. It’s even better than the good stuff like Mulan or Tangled (or the older stuff like Jungle Book, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, etc.).
It’s still a kid’s movie, but one that touches on real stuff in a real way that makes it funny and moving, because life is like that. OK, I’m doing a bad job explaining it. Just go watch it–its only 90 minutes and it’s free on Netflix.
So this clip won’t mean much to you if you haven’t seen the movie already. And it’s kind of a spoiler. So go watch the film first if you haven’t yet.
I only saw it once, when I was around 11-13 years old, at a friend’s house. I was manically crazy about it, but didn’t get a chance to see it again till yesterday. I was expecting it to be not as good as I remembered it, but it held up pretty well to those early memories.
Even the “I’ll make a man out of you” song I was crazy about held up pretty well. It’s a hymn to macho manhood. The singer is a macho marine sergeant type vowing to “make a man” out of his pathetic draftees, particularly one he thinks is hopelessly unmanly. Of course, she’s really a woman in disguise, who ends up saving the kingdom, and his life too. It’s as awesomely inspiring and hilariously ironic as I remember it. Just as manhood should be. 🙂