A Debate About Manliness: Too Little, Too Weak

Inspired by the sight of actors getting facials in a new Morgan Spurlock documentary and male strippers with waxed chests in Magic MikeThe New York Times' "Room for Debate" feature asks "Are Modern Men Manly Enough?"

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Inspired by the sight of actors getting facials in the new Morgan Spurlock documentary and male strippers with waxed chests in Magic MikeThe New York Times' "Room for Debate" feature asks "Are Modern Men Manly Enough?" In the introduction to the debate (in which 3 women and 5 men offer up their various thoughts), the editors tease the issue a bit trollishly, writing, "Is all this exfoliated, chiseled perfection what women really want? And should men really be making it a priority?"

These are questions guaranteed to get reactions, but that doesn't mean they're the right questions, or even particularly effective at representing the debate that follows. (How many men are really making exfoliating and chiseling a "priority," to start with, and do we actually care if they are?) More relevant and compelling is the question of how we re-define or re-envision words like "masculinity" and "femininity" so that they fit the society in which we're living rather than standing as some old-fashioned reminders of expectations that we've progressed, or are trying to progress, past.

Intellectually, most people know that the qualities we might be tempted to describe as "manly" or "womanly" can arise in many different forms, in male and female genders alike—that "being strong" or "bringing home the bacon" or being "nurturing," for example, are not qualities owned by men or women. So it's disappointing that the discussion doesn't go further in terms of challenging the same old mores, and that the pieces seem to assume a blanket gender equality that isn't, in actuality, all the way there.

Mark Simpson, who writes a response titled "We Need Nuance, Not Lumberjacks," says we wouldn't dream of asking the opposite question, "Are Modern Women Womanly Enough?" (Yet it's a question at the heart of much of the criticism of powerful women like Hillary Clinton—she's not "pretty" or "feminine" enough.)  He continues, "But you can’t really have one question without the other. The continued acceptability of this question in regard to men represents a cultural time lag. We’ve adjusted to the idea of women becoming everything that they can without being held back by gender conventions, but not, apparently, to the corollary – that in this brave new post-feminist world, men can adopt and appropriate traditionally 'feminine' behaviors too. If women won’t be women for men anymore, why on earth should men be men for women?"

I agree with Simpson that we need nuance and that the debate's very question seems dated, but the idea that "women won't be women for men" or men won't "be men for women" seems to throw us right back to those traditional roles and expectations. We shouldn't be defining ourselves based on some kind of categorical other; we should be defining ourselves based on who we actually are. At the same time, if we look at recent history in which men and women have been judged and treated and "defined," there's a very good reason the Times can make this debate something of a joke when talking about men while they wouldn't do the same thing if the topic was women. Women were only given the right to vote in this century (i.e., within the last hundred years). The majority of CEOs and top executives are still men; there's still a wage gap as relates to gender; we're still struggling with questions of "women having it all." Because of that, there's still a strong mechanism to weed out and fight against gender stereotypes and inequalities as related to women even as we like to think of ourselves as existing in a society in which it's expected that men and women are considered equal. Are we really in a "post-feminist" world? We are and we're not, which is why every time an awards list comes out that doesn't feature equal numbers of men and women—and there are almost always more men on those lists—there's a reaction against it.

This also means there's a little more room to make this debate into yet another joke about the "feminized" male. That doesn't mean the joke is funny, though, or that it's not offensive to define "manliness" as something that is the opposite of facials and spa treatments, or to say that wanting those "feminized" things is somehow weak and girly. In fact, that kind of definition—and the picture that appears in the intro to the debate, which features a guy at what appears to be a spa, his feet post-pedicure, clad in a robe and reading the paper with a masque on his face—actually mocks women, if you think about it, not men.

And that's exactly what a lot of this Times debate ends up being, kind of an antiquated joke instead of a debate for the times in which we're living. Which is sad, because really, there are interesting things to talk about in this regard. And there are ways to be funny and bring the discourse further, but it's not  rehashing the same old stereotypes—oh, tee hee, men get facials! Women are always shoe-shopping! Whatever do we do with these metrosexual dudes who are afraid of bugs and take longer than we do to do their hair? Women aren't women unless they love children and know how to cook!

As Lego, a commenter, wrote in response to Joel Stein's plea for men to rediscover their inner Don Drapers (great!), "Sexism and gender roles are alive and well even at the NYTimes. I hope this is not foreshadowing a dumbing down of this newspaper." Jezebel's Dodai Stewart argues that "we need to accept that there's a new concept of manly" in her piece on the debate today. And Simpson, who makes some really good points, acknowledges that this discussion of semantics is kind of silly: "Men aren’t the new women. Men are the new everything. Just as women have been for some time. Stop worrying about it and get used to it," he writes.

But I think we need to go further than that. The words "manly" and "womanly" are fraught with judgment based on old conceptions, and they hardly go far enough to say what we really mean. We need to start using real words to describe real people, not just generic gender-based adjectives to define something that, after all, is a matter of opinion. "Manly" and "womanly" are as much in the eye of the beholder as is "beauty"; women and men have as many individual differences within their particular genders as they do outside of them. Lawrence Schlossman writes that to be manly, "How about being a good guy, a good person. Just be honest, kind, tolerant, open, intrepid, self-aware, inquisitive, etc. — you know, all the things that have made our greatest men (and greatest anyone) great when we boil it down." And Shawn Taylor adds, "Any man who does not have a code, especially when it comes to being a father, is no man at all." The only things that make those descriptions "manly" are the words "guy," "man," and "father."

And that's the thing, again: This is not about men or women. It's about being people. The goal of any person should not be being manly or womanly but being a self-fulfilled, self-actualized human who takes responsibility for what he or she does and cares for people and tries to be his or her best self. Be whoever you are and not some expected, put-upon standard of yourself, particularly not one based in gender norms. That's a recipe for disaster, I think we've seen.

At the same time, maybe there's value in this Times debate in that it pushes us to, next time, ask better questions and actually move forward in this discussion, instead of falling back on the same old cliches for old-school yuks. Trying to stir up controversy about a guy getting a facial in this day and age just plays as kind of, well, weak.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.