Where does manhood come from?
Is it innate or culturally constructed?
Why has an emphasis on manhood receded in the modern day?
Throughout this series, we have indirectly been touching on these questions. Today we’ll tackle them head on. (We explored this subject a few years ago, but I had only skimmed Manhood in the Making at that point, and it deserves a much more thorough and critical treatment. We’ve now laid down enough context to really dig into it!).
This post is long. Like chapter-of-a-book long. (It was originally even longer, but I decided to break it into two back-to-back posts!). I made it so thorough for those who are very interested in this subject, and for those who will critically question how I came to these conclusions. (If you’re not so interested, skip ahead to the cliff notes version in the conclusion).
The length of this post, and that of all the articles in this series, does naturally give rise to an interesting question: is thinking this much about manliness even manly? In truth, I personally spend very little of my time thinking about “gender.” I’m not all that interested in analyzing manliness, or dissecting sex differences, or thinking about feminism. Perhaps that is surprising coming from a man who runs a site called “The Art of Manliness,” but I’m honestly a really simple, practical guy. If I had my druthers I’d write exclusively about setting goals and preventing swamp crotch. The perspective that most guides my own life and conception on manhood is Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia (a life of excellence and full flourishing), and thus I am most interested in practical ways to improve everything I do, and in things that can inspire me to be my very best.
So most of the time when I think about manhood, I view it through the prism of how a man differs from a boy, rather than how a man differs from a woman. I, and the Art of Manliness as a whole, is mostly focused on growing up well, and while I definitely believe there is something uniquely masculine about that growing up process for men, it can be understood largely intuitively – if a man is open to understanding and embracing that unique energy.
But therein lies the problem in our modern age: a lot of guys don’t know how to recognize and exercise that masculine energy because they’ve been taught it doesn’t even exist! No man can be his best or live a truly fulfilling life if he doesn’t understand the landscape of his psyche – the primal needs that lie in the very marrow of his bones. You can harness and channel these needs, but a man completely ignores them at his peril. Modern men are told there’s nothing real about manhood — that it’s all a silly, outdated cultural construct — and they sure work hard to believe it. And yet they cannot shake a deep sense of malaise, and they don’t know why.
While manhood has always been primarily concerned with what you do, men have always thought about what it means to be a man too, for, contrary to popular opinion, manliness doesn’t just happen – in any age. Perhaps we can say that for the ancients, the split between doing manly things, and thinking about manliness was something like 90/10. Today, maybe it needs to be more like 80/20. For our ancestors, manhood was basically like water to a fish — something they understood so intuitively it needn’t be explained. But that thread of understanding that ran through every culture for thousands of years has been severed. A modern man must then spend more time recovering the knowledge of the heritage of manhood, before he knows how to take his place on the manly path of manly deeds.
So I offer this post, and this series, as an extension of that thread in the hopes of helping modern men understand themselves, what society has expected of them in the past, and why society has stopped expecting anything of them today.
Manhood is intuitive if you’re not closed off to the idea. How it came to be so instinctual, and why we’ve still managed to lose touch with it in the present age, is what I aim to explain below.
Note: Unless otherwise noted, all quotes come from Dr. David D. Gilmore’s Manhood in the Making.
The Code of Manhood
Over the last several weeks, we have been discussing the 3 pillars of the ancient, nearly universal code of manhood. But what is unique about manhood isn’t simply its tenets, but that it is structured as a code at all.
In cultures all around the world, being a man has been differentiated from being a male. Being a male is a matter of pure biology – the result of being born with a XY chromosome. Being a man, on the other hand, is a title of honor: a prize that must be earned through struggle — through trials of courage, skill, and endurance. A boy does not become a man automatically, through the passing of years, but by striving to demonstrate excellence in the 3 P’s of Manhood, especially the tactical virtues of Strength, Courage, Mastery, and Honor.
Just as it can be earned, manhood can also be lost. Failure to live the 3 P’s brings a man shame, and diminishes his reputation and claim to manhood.
Gilmore calls this dynamic a “manhood-of-achievement.” As he examined the way in which widely varying cultures defined masculinity, this sentiment kept continually cropping up: “Real men are made, not born.” The Native American Fox tribe has perhaps my favorite name for manhood, one that well-captures this idea: “The Big Impossible.”
This conception of manhood continues to echo strongly even in our modern, nominally gender-neutral times; it is still common to hear people say, “Be a man!” or “Man up!” And men talk about wanting to become a man or making a journey into manhood
There are tellingly no true equivalents of this kind of language when it comes to womanhood. In cultures around the globe, womanhood is/was seen not as something earned, but as a state that develops naturally in concert with biological maturation. Gilmore further explains the difference between how manhood and womanhood have historically been evaluated:
“Although women too, in any society, are judged by sometimes stringent sexual standards, it is rare that their very status as a woman forms part of the evaluation. Women who are found to be deficient or deviant according to these standards may be criticized as immoral, or they may be called unladylike or its equivalent and subjected to appropriate sanctions, but rarely is their right to a gender identity questioned in the same public, dramatic way that it is for men. The very paucity of linguistic labels for females echoing the epithets ‘effete,’ ‘unmanly,’ ‘effeminate,’ ‘emasculated,’ and so on, attest to the archetypal difference between sex judgments worldwide. And it is far more assaultive (and frequent) for men to be challenged in this way than for women.
Perhaps the difference between male and female should not be overstated, for ‘femininity’ is also something achieved by women who seek social approval. But as a social icon, ‘femininity’ seems to be judged differently. It usually involves questions of body ornament or sexual allure, or other essentially cosmetic behaviors that enhance, rather than create, an inherent quality of character. An authentic femininity rarely involves tests or proofs of action, or confrontations with dangerous foes: win-or-lose contests dramatically played out on the public stage. Rather than a critical threshold passed by traumatic testing, an either/or condition, femininity is more often construed as a biological given that is culturally refined or augmented.”
The natural question that arises then is this: how did these different perspectives on the nature of manhood and womanhood develop?
The Origins of the Code of Manhood
To survive and thrive, every society must fulfill two basic categories of creation and replenishing: production and reproduction.
For reasons we have thoroughly explored in this series, men were tasked with being responsible for the lion’s share of the responsibilities of production (and defense), while women were charged with the lion’s share of responsibilities in the sphere of reproduction.
Within any given tribe, there were likely men inherently better suited to be caregivers, and women more drawn to being hunters and warriors. But individual proclivities were trumped by group needs. This division wasn’t fair (according to our modern idea of that concept), but it was efficient and effective – a survival strategy that had been honed over thousands of years. Perpetuating any culture “requires that enough people make certain minimal sacrifices and contributions” for the greater good – even if those sacrifices come at the expense of personal fulfillment.
To fulfill the imperative of reproduction, what societies most needed from women was to bear children. This is a process, that while quite arduous, begins largely naturally and continues forward unaided unless intentionally aborted. Menstruation arrives as a result of biological maturation, and once pregnant, a woman does not have to actively choose to remain pregnant each day. When the baby is born, he or she needs to be fed, and a woman’s body naturally produces the necessary food. Hormones released through nursing draw the mother and baby closer, solidifying their bond and motivating the mother’s care of the infant. This bonding process most certainly requires the woman’s willful patience and self-control, and it isn’t inevitable; despite our ideal of a mother’s unbreakable love, infanticide is surprisingly common in premodern tribes (and among primates as well). But in general, though childcare can be a difficult task, very much necessitating the qualities of endurance and discipline, it is at the same time also carried forward by natural, inescapable forces.
To fulfill the imperative of production and protection, what societies most needed from men was to hunt and to fight. These duties require an initiative that not only lacks an accompanying force of inherent, biological momentum, but in fact runs contrary to it.
Men likely have an inherent comfort and attraction to violence, and testosterone fuels a potent masculine energy that drives men to compete, explore, take risks, and seek status. In its natural state, this masculine energy is diffuse; left to follow its own course, it will be discharged in an haphazard way – in carousing, drinking, brawling, and so on. Men have a tendency towards social withdrawal and doing their own thing. The code of manhood thus seeks to counter these anti-social and unproductive drives and channel men’s energy towards constructive pursuits that benefit the tribe (and arguably the man himself, as well).
But hunting, protecting, and raiding are physically strenuous, highly dangerous, and possibly fatal jobs. The highest impulse in all humans, male and female alike, is towards self-preservation. Human warriors throughout time, and even gangs of chimpanzees as well, will almost invariably try to limit their attacks to times when they can employ the element of surprise and thus have the chance to discharge violence in a way that greatly reduces their own risk of casualties. When chimps perform their border patrols, for example, they will wait until a member of a rival gang is by himself, and then jump him. Even in modern warfare, troops have tried to avoid meeting directly whenever possible – waiting to attack until they think they have the tactical upper hand.
Humans are also highly reluctant to kill each other. They must overcome this reluctance by de-humanizing the enemy – viewing them as inferior beasts who deserve to be slayed.
The general human tendency away from constructive work and towards rest and pleasure is a powerful drive as well. Left to our own devices, we all tend to follow the path of least resistance.
Thus, while some highly energetic and competitive men likely relished the chance to fight and hunt, some men, likely most, understandably would have been tempted to sit around and relax – intermittently seeking sex and grappling for sport whenever the mood struck.
With the duties of womanhood, the effects of inaction were acute and immediate: a hungry, wailing baby. Anyone who has been subject to a baby’s caterwauling knows you’ll move heaven and earth to make it stop, post-haste.
Failing to go hunting on a certain day, on the other hand, wouldn’t have had any immediate effects. “Oh, we’ve got some bison jerky stored away. We’re fine. We’ll go next week maybe.” The temptation towards inaction and procrastination would have been strong.
The code of manhood, then, can be seen as encouragement to “resist indolence, self-doubt, squeamishness, hesitancy, the impulse to withdraw or surrender, and the ‘sleepiness’ of quietude.” It is ultimately a way to motivate men to overcome the human tendency for safety and passivity, and choose instead to strive to attain resources for their people — to work and fight (and to pursue women — despite the risk of rejection — as well). As Gilmore writes:
“In most societies, the three male imperatives are either dangerous or highly competitive. They place men at risk on the battlefield, on the hunt, or in confrontation with their fellows. Because of the universal urge to flee from danger, we may regard real manhood as an inducement for high performance in the social struggle for scarce resources, a code of conduct that advances collective interests by overcoming inner inhibitions. In fulfilling their obligations, men stand to lose — a hovering threat that separates them from women and boys. They stand to lose their reputations or their lives; yet their prescribed tasks must be done if the group is to survive and prosper. Because boys must steel themselves to enter into such struggles, they must be prepared by various sorts of tempering and toughening. To be men, most of all, they must accept the fact that they are expendable.”
Why did men accept the code of manhood if it pushed them to do difficult and dangerous things? Why did most men readily forgo the path of least resistance and decide to follow the “hard way” – “The Way of Men?”
Men who chose a life of danger and difficulty to serve the greater good were rewarded with the title of man – and given the honor, respect, and rewards (including increased opportunities to procreate) attendant to that status. Men who shirked this duty and sought a softer, easier path were shamed and stripped of their manhood. The desire for honor was so great that most shunned the sheltered life and heartily chose The Way of Men.
Still, though, why didn’t men rebel against the whole system – the whole idea of linking the imperative to “create more/consume less” to their very manhood? Well, certainly in a harsh environment, contributing to everyone else’s well-being not only helped women, children, and their fellow kinsmen survive, but helped them personally survive as well. A system that pushed all men to be their best and to pull their own weight was a boon to both the man and his tribe – it made life better and more comfortable for all. As Gilmore asks about the code of manhood: “Cui Bono?” (Who benefits?) The answer? Everyone.
But, I also think something else is at play — that choosing the hard way, though it involves overcoming one’s natural tendency towards dependence, fear, and passivity, is ultimately the most psychologically satisfying path to take. Part of this satisfaction comes from the fact that the manly imperatives can be seen “as modes of integrating men into their society, as codes of belonging in a hard, often threatening world.” While we often think we want to be completely alone, as social animals, we are happiest when strongly tied to others. Part of it also has to do with fulfilling one’s biological potential, and scratching the itch born of one’s innate masculinity. And part of it is rooted in the satisfaction only open to those who choose to be creators, rather than simply consumers. But to explore these ideas would mean straying into philosophical territory, so we’ll move on for now, saving this discussion for the final post in this series.
Sidenote #1: Why Vice is Considered Manly
Have you ever wondered why – despite a slew of well-meaning PSAs – we culturally have a hard time shaking the idea that things like drinking hard liquor and smoking cigarettes is manly? It’s not just the marketing – it runs much deeper than the Marlboro Man. It’s the same reason we think motorcycle riding and car racing is manly. Such “vices” are bad for you, dangerous, and could potentially cut your life short.
A man’s indulgence in such pastimes register in our minds as an embrace of male expendability – a fundamental tenet of the ancient code of manhood. Men who lived the code, men who were good at being men, gladly chose a potentially shorter life full of risk, danger, excitement, adventure, and glory over a life that was longer and safer but infinitely duller. Thus when a modern man evinces a casual indifference to prolonging his life, we instinctually feel he’d be the kind of guy we’d want on our team when guarding the perimeter – the kind of man who’d run towards the danger instead of seeking out the safest place to hide.
Likewise we’re instinctually wary of men who are super straight arrows – who abstain from any vices at all. Deep down we worry they hold to life too tightly – that their convictions might be a cover for cowardice.
It’s not completely rational, of course. Just because a man rides a motorcycle doesn’t mean he’d be good in a pinch, and just because a man is a strict teetotaler doesn’t mean he isn’t brave. It’s just the initial, visceral reaction we have when evaluating the manliness of other men – before their subsequent actions confirm or disprove this first impression.
Toughen Up, Young Man!
To prepare young men for their roles in a difficult and dangerous world, they are taught from an early age to be physically and mentally tough – strong, skillful, stoic. Their toughness is tested through rituals that determine whether they’ve developed these values enough to be considered a real man.
Such tests are often included as part of a tribe’s rite of passage – ceremonies in which a boy officially becomes a man. These initiations frequently involve physical challenges that require a young man to publicly demonstrate his stoicism and his competence in the manly arts. In more peaceful tribes, a boy’s rite of passage often centers on demonstrating his ability to provide, such as bagging his first antelope. In tribes that frequently engage in warfare, the rites typically involve testing a young man’s ability to withstand great physical pain. For example, in the Amazonian Sateré-Mawé tribe, a boy must stick his hand in a glove woven with bullet ants (the ant with the most painful sting in the world) and withstand wave after wave of their searing stings for over 10 minutes. He must do this 20 more times over the coming months and years as part of his journey into manhood. To pass these tests, each time he must endure the pain without making a noise; to cry out in pain during these rituals is to bring shame to oneself and to one’s family.
Such torturous rites of passage seem senseless and cruel to our modern sensibilities, but they were not arbitrarily designed and instituted. When a man’s prowess as a hunter and a warrior were paramount to the survival of his tribe, demonstrating his insensibility to pain showed his kinsmen that he would not fall behind when tracking prey and would not turn and run from fright on the battlefield. These tests of skill and toughness showed that a man could be trusted, and when you’re guarding the perimeter together, trust is everything.
Even today, central to the purpose of military boot camps is building a force where every soldier knows that his fellow brothers-in-arms have already been required to demonstrate competency in the basics of martial defense. The more dangerous a unit’s missions will be, and the more the men will need to rely on each other, the more arduous and challenging the required training and tests of their mettle — culminating in grueling programs like BUD/S. During BUD/S, stinging ant gloves are replaced with Hell Week, but the goal is the same: to ensure that only the elite go on – that each graduate is assuredly up to the task of being a SEAL and will not fail his brothers once out in the field.
Sidenote #2: Why We’re More Comfortable with Tomboys
Have you ever wondered why as a society we are a lot more comfortable with tomboys than tomgirls (which is, telling, not really even a common word)? Girls who want to be tough and do guy stuff aren’t usually much criticized, and in fact may be encouraged and saluted. When boys are “soft” and want to do girly things, on the other hand, people tend to look askance and even viscerally recoil at such displays of “effeminacy.” This has been changing somewhat in very recent times, with the push for even greater gender fluidity, but is still commonly the case.
The reason for this difference in our reactions likely comes from the fact that in primitive times, pretty much all women were “tomboys.” Women may not have been tested on their toughness in the same way as men, but life was hard for everyone, and women had to be pretty “hard” to survive, too. Living in the wild, taking care of children in the woods, and gathering food was no cakewalk. For example during harvest season, Yanomamo women carry 70-80 pounds of crops on their backs. Thus even women had to “act like men” sometimes, and tribes like the Blackfoot Indians admired women with “a manly heart.”
Even the most masculine women – those few who wished to accompany men on raiding parties — would probably still get pregnant and thus fulfill their most important social imperative. So there was no harm in women seeking toughness; if a woman could bear children and nurture them and be tough, all the better.
The same could not be said for men who wished to be womanly. A man who desired to stay home from a hunting or raiding mission was shamed as a coward. While a tough woman could still bear children, a womanly man could not fulfill his most important social imperative: to serve as protector. Soft and timid men thus weakened the tribe as a whole and left it more vulnerable to attack.
This dynamic has been true up through my great-grandmothers’ time. Tough pioneer women were an asset to a group crossing the plains, while effeminate pioneer men posed a vulnerability and a burden. Even today, in environments where toughness in both sexes is still an advantage, women remain “harder” than the average female – take a look at women who live in the wilds of Alaska, or the wives of gnarly biker dudes, for example. Studies have shown that modern men with high testosterone choose female partners with high testosterone – likely because of an instinctual judgment that such women will ultimately make better companions when traveling “the hard way.”
The reason we still worry about boys who are soft and timid, more so than girls who are tough, even in our plush, peaceful modern age, is something that we’ll get into in the next post.
Paradise Found: The Seeming Exceptions to the Rule
Gilmore argues that, “The harsher the environment and the scarcer the resources, the more manhood is stressed as inspiration and goal.” Basically, the harder and more dangerous life is for a society, the more precarious that people’s survival, the more men need to be men.
If Gilmore’s theory is correct, then what we would expect to find is that in cultures where resources aren’t scarce, where the livin’ is fairly easy, an emphasis on manhood would be weak or non-existent. And indeed, that is precisely what you do find.
In almost every culture in the world, there exists a code of manhood, and wherever these codes exist, they emphasize a man’s duty to protect, procreate, and provide. But there are a few very exceptional exceptions to the rule – cultures where a true code of manhood simply doesn’t really exist (or more accurately, as we shall see, exists more faintly).
For example, when the first Europeans landed on the beautiful island of Tahiti in the 18th century, they were greatly struck with how passive, gentle, mild, and comfortably effeminate the men seemed to be and how androgynous the sexes were in general. While the Tahitian men did initially try to fight off the newcomers, as soon as the Europeans displayed their superior firepower, they quickly laid down their weapons and sued for peace. The women, who were not submissive or deferential to their husbands, willingly gave themselves sexually to the delighted white explorers – and did so with their husbands’ blessing. A popular idea at the time was that there were yet-to-be-discovered native peoples tucked away in the world who represented a kind of blissful Eden from which modern man had fallen into greedy, violent, brutishness, and the Tahitians really seemed to be a perfect example of this kind of primitive paradise.
Men and women both contributed in the provision sphere and their respective contributions were equally valued. Almost without exception men and women performed the same tasks; the division of labor was flexible and based on what was practicable for each individual. The early Tahitians were agriculturists and land and livestock were plentiful and available to all. The men did not hunt, nor need to undertake dangerous deep-sea fishing trips. The people fished and gathered seafood from the island’s well-stocked lagoons.
The early colonists observed that male and female roles were not sharply differentiated. Men and women did not see themselves as having very different burdens, thoughts, or characteristics, and men did not feel the need to prove themselves as men. Anthropologist Robert Levy observed the same dynamic when he surveyed the culture in the 1960s: “Men are no more aggressive than women; women do not seem ‘softer’ or more maternal than men…the men seemed a little feminine and the women a little masculine.”
We find a similar story among the Mbuti — a hunter/gatherer tribe that resides in the Congo region of Africa. The tribe includes numerous bands, within which the people live as nuclear families. Everyone — mom, dad, and children too — hunt and gather together. The land yields sufficient plants and game for their needs. Both parents tend to their kids. Men and women hold political power and decisions are made together. The Mbuti generally eschew aggression and violence as a solution to problems; instead, those who disobey the tribe’s loose rules are shamed or banished.
Other conflicts are avoided simply by running away from them. Each band of Mbuti lays claim to an exclusive territory. A neighboring band can ask for permission to hunt and gather on that land. But if they cross the border without doing so, they are considered thieves and trespassers. If the two rival bands do not happen to meet up, all is well. If one band does encounter a group of interlopers, the potential conflict is resolved without violence; the offenders are expected to drop their fenced goods and high tail it back home. They are not pursued. The Mbuti explain this passive response to territorial trespassing by saying that because there’s plenty of food to go around, it’s simply not worth fighting over.
That answer also essentially explains the underlying reason for these cultures’ more peaceful ways and their lack of emphasis on sex differences and the code of manhood.
In the face of stress and danger, animals generally respond with either fight or flight. In most species, the response is completely instinctual. In humans, it is more of a learned choice.
Throughout history, only a tiny number of human societies have chosen flight as their predominate response to threats. These extremely rare cultures did so largely because their resources were abundant, and they thus did not feel threatened by the incursion of rival gangs who were interested in grabbing a piece of what they had. In such cultures, a code of manhood is very weak, as men don’t need to toughen up in preparation to be critical hunters and fierce warriors. When food comes easily and life is peaceful, men don’t need to be men. As Gilmore puts it, “Perhaps without typical manhood ideology, men are permitted the luxury of remaining passive and dependent, rather like stone-age Peter Pans.”
For thousands of years, the overwhelming majority of societies have chosen the other track — to fight. They have done so because men’s biology naturally predisposes them to this response (the human female reaction to stress is a third, until recently overlooked response: to tend and befriend). And they have done so because in nearly every case, choosing to fight yielded an evolutionary advantage. Until very recently, almost all the world’s people lived in a harsh environment with scarce resources — resources that had to be protected tooth and nail and sometimes obtained through raiding. And they resided next to other tribes that had the very same idea. Even if the world’s tribes had wanted to flee, there was nowhere to run. The continual conflicts and ever present dangers inherent to primitive life had to be met head on.
Paradise Lost: The Not-so-Exceptional Exceptions
In pointing to exceptions like the Tahitians, Gilmore posits that “these virtually androgynous cultures raise questions about the universal ‘need’ for masculinity in male development, and in my opinion suggest that cultural variables may outweigh nature in the masculinity puzzle.”
I was prepared to accept that the few exceptions to the rule did indeed buttress an argument for masculinity being largely culturally constructed. Yet when I looked more into them, they proved not to be so exceptional after all!
An emphasis on certain aspects of a culture, those that fit the observer’s preconceived perspective, to the exclusion of others that contradict it, is typical of both the first Europeans who came upon native peoples, and to a lesser degree even of modern anthropologists who invariably filter their findings through their own prism of beliefs – or simply don’t get a chance to see certain aspects of a culture during the time they are living among a tribe. This is true of primatologists as well. For example, when Jane Goodall first started observing chimpanzees, and sending dispatches to the world about these fascinating primates, what she saw was a delightful, peaceful, human-like group of animals. Their innocence seemed to point to an original peaceful paradise from which humans had fallen. Killing simply to kill was thought to be a uniquely human flaw.
But a decade after Goodall began her study of these cute, apparently fun-loving chimps, the group began splintering into two factions and fiercely turning on each other – brutally and senselessly slaying their former friends. In a series of bloody raids, one side completely wiped out the other. For primatologists it was a terrific shock.
Likewise, according to some anthropological surveys, 10% of hunter-gatherer societies are considered to fight “rarely to never.” Yet as Richard Wrangham points out in Demonic Males, “with the ethnographic record so sketchy and our time frame so narrow” it’s nearly impossible to know how long “never” really is. “An anthropologist settled into Western Europe for the two decades between 1920 and 1940 might report a Germany, France, Poland, and Czechoslovakia at peace.”
All of which is to say, early observers and later anthropologists often emphasized what they wanted to see, and what they got to see. How exceptional the supposed exceptions are, then, is largely about which side of the coin one is looking at.
Take those supposedly “virtually androgynous” Tahitians. While men and women did share in most of life’s tasks, men were responsible for almost all of the building and farming, while women did light agricultural work and devoted more time to gathering, childcare, and maintaining the household. Both men and women did cook, but women could not eat the food cooked by men, while men could eat the food cooked by either sex. While Gilmore argues that “there are no jobs or skills reserved for either sex,” canoe fishing was in fact the exclusive preserve of males. While women shared political power, they had to sit behind men at meetings. While Gilmore writes that “there is no concept of male honor to defend,” and that “men are expected to be passive and yielding [and] to ignore slights,” that is only true of the post-colonial period, when the French government had put an end to the island’s chief-led clans. Before the arrival of Europeans, however, these clans would frequently war, sometimes simply because of a chief’s hurt pride.
Gilmore does mention that Tahitian boys underwent a rite of circumcision, but notes that it was done for “health” reasons and in private, and thus lacked any connotation of testing. But he leaves out that there is another rite young men underwent that is very much like the manhood-earning challenges of other cultures. Before he could get married, a Tahitian man had to have his entire backside painfully tattooed. Men would get other tattoos all over their bodies as well throughout their lives. Their favorite designs? Spears, clubs, swords, and other weapons of war and figures of men engaged in battle, triumphing over a fallen foe, and carrying a human sacrifice to the temple. (Oh yeah, they made human sacrifices, too). Women received tattoos as well, but their designs typically centered on stars, circles, and coconuts.
And the Mbuti? While husbands and wives alike look after their children, their kids do not see their parents as interchangeable and associate “their fathers with authority, their mothers with love.” Men and women do hunt together – when they’re using nets. But when hunting is done with the bow and arrow, only men are allowed to participate. Both sexes collaborate when making political decisions, but men hold the leadership positions. And the young men also do in fact go through a grueling initiation into manhood; between the ages of 9-12, boys are circumcised and then taken to live in the woods for several months where they learn to hunt and fish. Each morning they are whipped to instill manly toughness. At times they are allowed to dance and sing, but otherwise their mouths are stuffed with leaves to ensure complete silence.
So much for our completely peaceful, totally androgynous utopias.
Indeed, I searched in vain to find a culture that did not include at least some gender role differentiation as well as elements of the code of manliness. (There is one, but it’s a very special case. We’ll get to it in a bit).
Gender role differentiation and the code of manhood has truly existed always and everywhere. How wide the divide between the sexes and how strong the code of manhood does vary – and it varies according to the abundance of resources in a given society.
So rather than saying that in societies where life is flush and easier, codes of manhood disappear, it is most accurate to say that as resources go up, an emphasis on manhood goes down. Yet even in the most resource-rich cultures, it persists.
Growing Up Is Hard to Do – Any Way You Slice It
What is most interesting to me about otherwise relatively egalitarian, resource-abundant, mostly peaceful cultures, is that they still include a rite of passage for young men into manhood. But if boys don’t need to be prepared to navigate a harsh world, and thus don’t need to prove their manhood and demonstrate their toughness, what then are such rites doing there?
As an ancillary/auxiliary explanation for manhood, Gilmore also touches on the psychological theory that all boys, in every kind of society, have a more difficult time growing up and becoming mature, contributing adults — creators, rather than just consumers.
The idea is that all babies begin life inside their mother’s womb: mother and child are completely one. As children grow up, they face the challenge of emerging from this primal unity, separating themselves from their mothers, and forging their own, independent identities.
This is not always easy, as the desire to “seek solace at mothers side, is probably a universal human tendency” – one that lasts in varying degrees throughout our whole lives. To enter into adulthood is to accept new privileges, but also new responsibilities and burdens. Adulthood requires mastering the art of delayed gratification and learning to embrace work – to do what needs to be done, rather than what we simply feel like doing. At times we all want to run from these demands and return to our magical childhoods where our every need was met and nothing was asked of us except to exist. Deep in the core of our identity, there is a part of us that wants to regress into “infantile narcissism” — to get back to the blissful, “primary, profound, primeval oneness with mother.”
Some psychological theorists speculate that fighting this regressive pull is more difficult for males. Not simply because historically the demands of adult manhood were so arduous and dangerous — so tempting to avoid — but because girls do not have to separate as sharply from their mothers; they can look to their moms as models of grown womanhood. Boys must make a more dramatic break as they seek their own, masculine identity and to find their own way in the world. In the absence of such a break, boys may flounder on the path to adulthood, having a harder time finding a sense of self and resisting the retrogressive pull towards an infantile passivity and dependency.
Stunted physic development is not only arguably bad for individual men but for society as a whole. Boys who never grow into mature men tend towards social withdrawal; eschewing a life of work and challenge for that of ease and pleasure; they do not embrace a “participating, contributing manhood”; they want to be served, rather than to serve, to consume, rather than to create. Even in the most peaceful, resource-flush societies, if half the population isn’t contributing, you’ve got a big problem.
To help young men avoid getting stuck in this state of arrested development, cultures around the world, even the more peaceful and prosperous, created rites of passage – symbolic dramatizations of the formation of a boy’s own masculine identity. In requiring the performance of great deeds or the completion of arduous tests and challenges, these initiations allow the young man to psychologically break away from his mother and his childhood. An initiate “reemerges a ‘man’ and childhood is dead, a victim again of manly competence.” Rather than stumbling around in the malaise and stagnation of man/boy limbo, his masculine energy stuck in a state of itchy, unfocused restlessness, a young man is launched into adulthood, with the confidence and self-perception that he is ready and able to do great and hard things – to serve his people and to reach his own goals as well.
In this view, then, the code of manhood can be seen as a “struggle against regression” — “a defense against the eternal child within, against puerility, against what is sometimes called the Peter Pan complex.” A culture of manhood may ultimately be understood as “a revolt against boyishness.”
Indeed, in tribes around the world, both the peaceful and the war-like, impugning another’s manhood is just as likely to involve comparing a man to a child, as it is to involve comparing a man to a woman. For example, among the famous Masai of Africa, becoming a man and a warrior takes a decade of training and a whole series of initiation rites. While on this decade-long journey, young men – called moran – consider the failure to grow, of backsliding, to be the worst deficiency:
“any failure of the moran’s code of behavior is met with immediate accusations not so much of deviance or immorality as of ‘immaturity,’ of ‘behaving like a child,’ which is worse. This type of criticism bites deeply enough to force the necessary reforms, since the accusation of retrogression is the most humiliating of taunts…the charge of being childish stokes a mortal blow to the progress of the moran towards the status of manhood, the goal of his ten-year apprenticeship.”
Perhaps my favorite manhood-related insult is found among the Papua New Guinea. Men who are cultural contributors and creators are honored for their constructive manhood and are said to have “strong heads.” The object of shame is a man who “consumes more than he produces,” and thus “fails in all the constructive masculine pursuits: he provisions no one, cannot protect his kinsmen from attack, impregnates few women, and contributes little that is new and useful to the economy, religion, or technology.” This physically and culturally sterile man is said to have a “soft head” — like a baby.
In addition to the Tahitians, the Semai are the other culture Gilmore uses as evidence that an emphasis on manhood is not truly universal.
And indeed, the Semai are the people who most meet the criteria of being exceptionally androgynous and egalitarian. There’s no code of manhood at all, or even a rite of passage for boys.
The Semai live at the center of the Malay Peninsula in Southeast Asia. Though they exist at a subsistence level, land for much of their history was plentiful and sufficient for their needs. Men and women both take care of the children and gather food. Though it isn’t strenuous or dangerous, hunting is an almost exclusively manly task. But the divvying up of labor is still very flexible:
“Few traits are distinctively ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine.’ The sexual division of labor is preferential, not prescriptive or proscriptive. That is, there are no rigid rules, and a man or woman may choose to do whatever he or she feels suited for without incurring criticism. However, the expectation is that someone skilled at an activity normally preferred by the opposite sex will be particularly good at it. For example, male midwives are especially talented, and female headmen are unusually powerful.”
The capacity to give freely of all that one has is highly prized. “There is not even the remotest notion of ‘protecting your own,’ as the concept ‘your own’ has no meaning to them.”
The most marked characteristic of the Semai is their thorough and unyielding commitment to nonviolence. They are likely the least violent people on earth. Aggression of any kind is strictly forbidden. There is no conception of male honor. Children are taught to be afraid of, and to flee from strangers. They are raised to be soft and timid and told that “there are more reasons to fear a dispute than a tiger” and that it is “safer to be cautious than to be brave.” If a Semai – child or adult — senses a threat, he or she will run away and hide.
Even competitive sports are verboten, since they foster aggression and the losers will be made to feel bad and inferior to the winners. Children “play” badminton without the net or keeping score – intentionally hitting the shuttlecock so that the other players can hit it back. The game is designed for exercise only.
There is no government, police, or formal leaders. Because they are so conflict-adverse, all disputes are settled through communal mediation. No one recognizes the authority of anyone else, and no one can be coerced to do something they don’t want to do. If continually entreated to perform an undesirable task, they’ll simply turn away and say, “I’m not listening.” Even the children are free to do as they wish; if a parent asks their child to do something they’d rather not, the child can simply say, “I bood” (basically, “I don’t want to do it”), and the matter is closed for discussion. There is no word for “adult” in their language.
Is this, then, at last the egalitarian, pacifistic utopia that disproves the idea that there’s anything innate about violence and about masculinity?
I’m afraid not. When one takes a closer look at why the Semai developed their philosophy of nonviolence, one finds that it is the product of very unique circumstances – very sad and dark circumstances at that.
Starting in the 19th century, Malays began raiding the Semai – killing the men, raping the women, and taking the women and children to be slaves. The children were sold to well-to-do families as household servants and playthings for sexual abuse. For a century the raids were continual but unpredictable. The Semai never knew when they were coming and their lives oscillated between perpetual dread and overwhelming terror.
Because the Malays were so much more numerous and powerful, the Semai felt that attempting to fight back would mean the wholesale destruction of their people. Thus they chose to respond to the raids by trying to run away and settle elsewhere. If they were still caught, they readily surrendered. The men accepted the blows that fell upon them as they watched their wives assaulted and impregnated by strangers and their little children carried off to a life of sexual slavery.
Anthropologist Robert Knox Dentan, who studied the Semai for four decades, traces the people’s adoption of nonaggression to a kind of cultural “learned helplessness.” Learned helplessness is a psychological term for what happens when humans are repeatedly subjected to stress and abuse that they cannot control or do anything to mitigate. Eventually they simply lose hope, give up, and no longer even try to stop the pain, even if it is potentially avoidable. Learned helplessness is linked with clinical depression, and there is some evidence that the Semai are particularly susceptible to dolefulness and despondency.
In modern times, though the slave raids have officially ended, the Semai are dependent on a very fickle government for protection and aid. Malaysian authorities have continually taken the Semai’s land and shuttled them into various “regroupment” camps. Through all this displacement, dispossession, and dislocation, the Semai have passively accepted their fate. Dentan argues that instead of the typical responses to threat – fight, flight, or tend and befriend, the Semai have chosen another path: surrender. While Dentan attempts to tease out the possible moral strengths and evolutionary upside of complete surrender to threat and abuse, the Semai themselves are not proud of their reputation for nonviolence, and know the Malays see them as cowards.
It’s not that the Semai aren’t capable of violence or don’t think about it. Young Semai men fantasize about fighting back, and dominating the Malay. They have simply learned to push this desire down. Yet it remains latent in their masculine make-up. In the 1950s, when the British military recruited Semai to fight Communist insurgents, the men were at first completely bewildered as to what was expected of them. But they quickly transformed into the fiercest fighters in the unit. According to Dentan:
“A typical veteran’s story runs like this. ‘We killed, killed, killed…We thought only of killing. Truly we were drunk with blood.’”
Even after living for years among the most peaceful people on the planet, Dentan muses that young men the world over are “prone to bellicosity,” and that it’s hard not to imagine that all men “have chromosomal, hormonal, or neurological predispositions, if not to physical violence, then to uncontrolled energy and the resulting wild behavior that prompt American authorities to drug so many of their boy-children with amphetamines.”
We’ve covered a lot of ground and I imagine it may be a little confusing. So let’s summarize and synthesize what we have discussed so far. Here’s a little crib sheet:
- Males have an innate, biological/psychological energy that includes a predisposition towards violence and a desire to fight, prove oneself, compete, and earn status.
- The code of manhood seeks to channel this raw energy into constructive pursuits that benefit the collective good.
- These constructive pursuits were historically hunting and defending the perimeter, and men were chosen for these jobs because of their unique biological potentialities.
- Because hunting and fighting are difficult and dangerous, men need extra motivation to embrace their expendability, overcome their fear and passivity, and fulfill these imperatives.
- To provide this motivation, maleness becomes differentiated from manhood. The latter becomes a desirable earned status that is dependent on excelling in these critical tasks.
- By excelling in these constructive channels of masculinity, a male earns this desirable status and the title of man.
- Men wish to earn the title of man, because striving in the code of manhood exercises their innate masculine proclivities and comes with honor, respect, and rewards – power and privileges and chances to procreate.
- Young men are taught to be tough, to prepare them for taking on the difficult and dangerous roles of manhood. Readiness for manhood and competence in these roles is demonstrated through public rites of passage.
- The harsher the environment, and the scarcer the resources, the more the code of manhood is emphasized. The harder it is for a tribe to attain and protect the resources necessary for survival, the more men need to be men.
- The more comfortable an environment, and the easier it is to attain resources, the less the code of manhood is emphasized. Men don’t need to be encouraged to do difficult and dangerous things for the culture to survive.
- The more resource-rich and comfortable an environment, the less a culture differentiates between gender roles. Who does what is not critical, when survival is not on the line.
- In a more resource-rich and comfortable environment, boys still frequently participate in a rite of passage that helps them psychologically embrace mature manhood. Boys may have a harder time embracing the responsibilities of adulthood, and even in flush times, societies need men to contribute – if not in hunting and defending, then in other areas.
- Even in a resource-flush society, elements of the culture and code of manhood persist, because traits of innate masculinity persist. Male biology and psychology do not completely change, just because the culture around men changes.
- Likewise, while men can be socialized to inhibit their aggression and concern for developing and proving their manhood, such drives remain latent in the male psyche.
So, at last, we return to the original question: is manhood innate or culturally constructed?
Well, it’s very much both.
Manhood begins with a male’s innate proclivities and biological potentialities, and then channels them into culturally-constructed pursuits. It asks men to serve the greater good, but the particular duties it lays at men’s feet are based on men’s inherent characteristics and drives. Manhood is thus made up of equal parts biological maleness and sociological demands. Here’s another way to put it: Masculinity is the energy born of testosterone; Manhood is how cultures seek to utilize that energy.
And once the code of manhood is instituted, it becomes a feedback loop, with the innate and constructed elements becoming so intertwined, it is impossible to tell where one begins and one ends.
What I mean is this: for thousands upon thousands of years, men have been chosen to be protectors and providers, as well as the initiators of procreation. They were chosen for these roles based on their biological make-up. For thousands of years, all across the world, men have spent every single day of their lives fulfilling this biological potential and striving to excel in these cultural imperatives. Striving to live as men. So whatever artificiality born of cultural construction men may have felt in taking on these roles at the very dawn of time, would have vanished over the ages as this way of life became more and more deeply engraved on the collective male psyche and the marrow of the masculine bone. In the end, what may have begun as a mix of biology and culture became inextricably melded together. So that manhood simply is.
As you’ve been reading along, you’ve likely already been thinking about how all this applies to our present society. Most obviously, as we live in the most resource-rich period in all human history, the fact that an emphasis on the code of manhood is currently very weak should now not at all be surprising. And yet a celebration of, and demand for, manhood has not died out altogether. The dynamics of the code of manhood in our modern society, and the reasons we’re so thoroughly conflicted about its place in our culture, is where we will turn next.
Read the rest of the series:
Part I – Protect
Part II – Procreate
Part III – Provide
Part IV – The 3 P’s of Manhood in Review
Part V – What is the Core of Masculinity
Part VII – Why Are We So Conflicted About Manhood?
 Tahitian Transformation: Gender and Capitalist Development in a Rural Society by Victoria S. Lockwood
 Oceania: The Native Cultures of Australia and the Pacific Islands, Volume 1 by Douglas L. Oliver
 The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty by Caroline Alexander
 The Cannibal Islands: Captain Cook’s Adventure in the South Seas by R.M. Ballantyne
 Demonic Males by Richard Wrangham
 Cautious, Alert, Polite, and Elusive: The Semai of Central Penisular Malaysia by Robert Knox Dentan
 Overwhelming Terror: Love, Fear, Peace, and Violence among Semai of Malaysia by Robert Knox Dentan