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An Anthropology of Moral Masculinity

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II. Growing up

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Out of the three aspects pointed above, I think it is the nature of the maturity point/process that’s most salient to whether resulting masculinity is healthy or toxic.

Consider two cases in which masculinity goes right. In Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, the narrator is a 9-year old boy who for the most part is just terrified and confused at the rise of a pro-Nazi American president, and who tries running away from home twice just to get away from it all (once again, wildness!). But in the last chapter, Roth portrays his point of growing up as involving the recognition that others matter, that the desire to leave needs to be subdued for the sake of another. He finally understands the lesson in his father’s behaviour and mirrors it in his own.

And when I realized that my father, of all these men, was the most obstinate, helplessly bonded to his better instincts and their excessive demands. There were two types of strong men: those like Uncle Monty and Abe Steinheim, remorseless about their making money, and those like my father, ruthlessly obedient to their idea of fair play.

In Toni Morrison’s Love, this story of growth gets more complex. The sole major male character is the teenage boy Romen. Right at the beginning of the story, Romen’s friends have a drunken girl tied at the wrists with shoelaces, and each of them have a go at raping her. Romen too waits his turn, anticipating “becoming the Romen he’d always known he was: chiseled, dangerous, loose”. But when his time finally comes, he can’t do it. While “girlish tears” pour down his face, he removes her restrains and takes her outside, while the others stare daggers at him.

As the novel progresses, he finds himself a girlfriend, Junior, whose sexual attention preoccupies him. She brings out a wildness in him, and his “flinging a willing girl [Junior] around an attic” finally makes him feel “chiseled, dangerous, loose”. But at the end, when he finds out that Junior had recklessly left the two old women they both worked for alone in an attic in a strange house, he remembers his uncle’s advice to never let himself just go with the flow, and jumps to go get them.

“You left them there?”

“Why not? . . . Turn out the light, sugarboy.”

Romen was reaching to turn off the lamp but found himself scooping up the car keys instead. He got up then and dressed. Whatever Junior was saying, shouting, he couldn’t decipher. He ran — fast, down the stairs, out the door, chased by the whisper of an old man. “You not helpless, Romen. Don’t ever think that.” Stupid! Clown! He was trying to warn him, make him listen, tell him that the old Romen, the sniveling one who couldn’t help untying shoelaces from an unwilling girl’s wrist, was hipper than the one who couldn’t help flinging a willing girl around an attic.

For Morrison it isn’t just doing the right thing that marks masculinity, Romen always did that. It’s actually embracing and acknowledging the necessity, that it was truly the “hipper” path that matters.

There are then two distinct ways in which masculinity can become problematic according to this general framework- either the maturing process can fail, or the particular maturity goals can be bad. This distinction is important because there seems to be a serious difference between those influenced by a generally conservative society (think older men who display casual sexism) and young people whose adolescent misogynistic rebellion runs counter to the values of their society (think shooters like Eliot Rogers). While it might be true that they both display an attitude of entitlement towards women, simply classifying these two quite different kinds of toxic masculinities under one category obscures the underlying mechanisms at play.

On a tangent, it is noteworthy that there does seem to be something pig-headed about the moral necessity that is embraced as a part of healthy masculinity. Roth’s father is “ruthlessly obedient to [his] idea of fair play”, Roth’s narrator talks of how he “had no choice” but to help his aunt instead of running away, and Romen releases the girl through tears. This isn’t to say no reasoning is possible or that it is entirely unthinking, but there does seem something about this that’s less about being convinced in some theoretical sense and more about making a decision to accept the legitimacy of the moral. This is captures quite nicely at the end of Next to Normal, when the bipolar protagonist asks her husband why he’s stayed with her for two decades despite all their troubles, all he manages to say is

A promise a boy says forever
A boy says
“Whatever may come we’ll come through”
[…]That boy is long lost to me now

And the man has forgotten his reasons
But the man still remembers his vow

To continue without reasons comes off as pig-headed, but in a virtuous way. You might not be able to give a reason for obeying vows or doing what’s right, but that’s not why you do it. And that’s the state of mind that’s paradigmatic of moral masculinity.

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