| December 4, 2017

A Man's Life, On Manhood

Why We Should Celebrate the Masks of Masculinity

Though he’s been called the greatest combat general of modern times, George S. Patton didn’t feel like a natural born leader.

In fact, as a boy he was rather sensitive, timid, and mild in disposition, and thought himself deficient in the military virtues. But becoming a courageous, inspiring, tough-as-nails commander was the great desire of his heart, and so Patton trained himself to develop the qualities he lacked. He exercised his body to the point he could compete as an Olympic pentathlete, voraciously studied the tactics of militaries from every time and culture, practiced martial skills until he had mastered them, and volunteered for dangerous assignments to get comfortable under fire. By dint of an ironclad will, Patton not only overcame his innate proclivities, but learned to outwardly project his inner sense of determination. As he said:

“A man of diffident manner will never inspire confidence. A cold reserve cannot begat enthusiasm . . . It then appears that the leader must be an actor, and such is the fact. . . . he is unconvincing unless he lives his part.”

Though Patton presented himself as supremely confident, that didn’t mean he never again felt fear; just that he didn’t let it control him. As he observed, “All men are timid on entering any fight; whether it is the first fight or the last fight all of us are timid. Cowards are those who let their timidity get the better of their manhood.”

Many of the greatest men of history have stories similar to Patton’s: they made of themselves what they wished, even when their innate dispositions pulled them in a different direction, and they became leaders who acted with composure, despite their own feelings of uncertainty.  

Theodore Roosevelt was famously a boy of great timidity and ill health before he decided to “make his body;” he spent the rest of his life trying to prove he was a man of great bravery and vitality, who could endure all the challenges of living strenuously “in the arena.” His stated approach to conquering his weaknesses paralleled Patton’s: “There were all kinds of things I was afraid of at first, ranging from grizzly bears to ‘mean’ horses and gun-fighters; but by acting as if I was not afraid I gradually ceased to be afraid.”

Winston Churchill was a sensitive, unathletic lad who deliberately transformed himself into the “Bulldog” of England and led his country through their “darkest hour.” Churchill’s spirit of resolution not only helped win the war, but perhaps just as importantly, made his fellow Englishmen believe they would win the war. He was not only able to form an inner conviction to never surrender, he was able to convey that assurance to others – to be the face of indomitability and act the part of the supremely confident leader; as his daughter Mary put it, even though his challenges were monumental, and he was prone to his own bouts of doubt, frustration, and melancholy, Churchill’s setbacks never “un-manned him.”

General Dwight D. Eisenhower also had times during the war when he felt beat-down, irritated, and demoralized, but he similarly refused to let his men see that. Instead, no matter what he was feeling inwardly, he outwardly projected a farm-boy friendliness and an easy, comforting confidence:

“I firmly determined that my mannerisms and speech in public would always reflect the cheerful certainty of victory—that any pessimism and discouragement I might ever feel would be reserved for my pillow. To translate this conviction into tangible results, I adopted a policy of circulating through the whole force to the full limit imposed by physical considerations. I did my best to meet everyone from general to private with a smile, a pat on the back, and a definite interest in his problems.”

These men (and the list of further examples would be endless) found success, lived with greatness, and left a legacy not by “being themselves” — at least not in the way we understand that injunction these days. They were not “true to themselves,” at least not to certain parts of who they were. Rather, they embraced a role, they acted a part — they wore a mask.

And we’re all the better for it.

Examining the Moderns Attacks on the Masks of Masculinity

In the last several years, there are have been books, articles, and documentaries put out deriding the so-called “masks of masculinity.” The argument forwarded is that men are damaged by the injunction to “be a man” and by being forced into a role where they have to act tough, aggressive, stoic, and like they have everything under control. They can’t be themselves. They can’t give full expression to their emotions. They are trapped by the masks they must wear, and these masks are not only metaphorically and literally killing them, they create a “toxic masculinity” that wreaks havoc on society.

If men would take off their masks, this line of thinking goes, they would not only individually find more success and happiness, but the whole world would benefit as well. This is in fact one of the arguments made for why men should embrace feminism — that patriarchy holds men back as well as women, and men should want to be liberated from the male “stereotypes” that keep them ensnared.

It’s all a very compelling narrative to be sure — but the argument relies on many unexamined assumptions, which, once unpacked, reveal numerous contradictions and logical inconsistencies.

Unexamined Assumption #1: Feelings Represent Your “True Self”

One of the underlying assumptions behind the argument against the “masks of masculinity” is that masks are bad because they are artificially created and imposed, while feelings are more pure and authentic and emanate from one’s “real” self.

Rather than being something that can be objectively proven, this is, of course, a philosophical argument — one that involves the very tricky question of what constitutes the “self” — and a counterargument to its premise can be forwarded on a couple of fronts.

First, to what extent are feelings truly “native” to ourselves? Perhaps half of our personality was baked right into our DNA and present at birth, so surely, yes, many of our feelings might be considered intrinsically “us.” But what about the other half of how we turn out? Since we were babes, we’ve been bombarded with millions of advertisements and media messages. Who we are has been shaped by our parents, our peers, and our experiences. If all of these external and “artificial” influences have molded our feelings, are they any more authentic than the other kinds of masks we wear?

Second, should we really privilege and trust all our feelings? If I don’t feel like working out and want to sit on the couch and eat potato chips, should I harken to that feeling as a call from my authentic self? What if I have a bad day at work and feel like quitting, should I?

What if I feel like punching an annoying person in the face, should I heed that urge? If I want to stare at an attractive woman’s breasts, should I give in to that impulse?

Critics of the masks of masculinity would of course answer these questions in the negative. In fact, in regards to those latter two, they would say that the urge to be violent or sexually aggressive is actually just another mask, rather than an authentic feeling (despite the fact there is ample scientific evidence that proves the innate, biological origin of the male drive for dominance). Because what they really mean when they say men need to get in touch with their feelings, is that they need to get in touch with their “nice” feelings — feelings that lead them to be more sensitive and vulnerable and gentle. More like, well, women.

But it’s logically inconsistent to say that masks are bad because they stifle your feelings, which represent your true self and must be accessed and liberated, but then to only apply that precept to some feelings and not to others.

The truth is that while feelings are important, nobody — whether man or woman — is well served by privileging them over other aspects of the self, like rational thought and volitional desires.

Every time we see an unoccupied car with the motor running, briefly think of stealing it, but decide not to, we’re wearing mask. Every time we want to reach across the table to grab the roll basket but politely ask for it be passed to us instead, we’re wearing a mask. Every time we want to check our phones during a conversation, but force ourselves to listen intently, we’re wearing a mask.

Every time we feel an impulse, but decide to act contrary to it, we’re wearing a mask.

Masks in fact provide the thin veneer between barbarism and civility that keeps the world spinning round. People complain that the masks of violence and sexual aggression are what cause some men to behave badly, when it fact it is the mask of civility which keeps most men from acting out. 

Masks are then no better or worse, nor more or less authentic, than our feelings. The latter should not be universally privileged over the former.

Unexamined Assumption #2: The Masks of Masculinity Are Stifling

Okay, so maybe masks themselves aren’t necessarily bad, but the specific “masks of masculinity” — masks of toughness, strength, competence, self-reliance, stoicism etc. — are. These masks are destructively stifling and prevent men from becoming their true, fully fulfilled selves.

But then we’re back again to the question of how to define one’s “true self” in the first place. When Patton and TR felt fear, but acted courageously anyway, was the fear their real self, or was the courage? When Churchill and Ike felt discouraged, but decided to act confident and composed anyway, was the discouragement their real self, or was the confident composure?

A stronger argument could be made that the men’s volitional action was more real, more “true” than their reflexive emotions. Further, their masks enabled them to act in the way they wanted to; rather than being stifling, the masks were liberating – they empowered these men to be who they desired to be.

Masks in fact can reveal, just as much as they conceal. They can enable you to be and act the way you want to, in line with not just your innate feelings, but your highest, deliberately chosen ideals. Indeed, roles aren’t such a bad thing. When a solider or police officer runs towards danger instead of away from it, it’s not because they don’t feel fear; it’s because the mask of their role — their uniform and mantle — helps them push past the fear and do their job. When you’re nervous walking into a pitch meeting, stepping into the role of successful, confident entrepreneur allows you to ace the interaction. When someone’s messing with your family, embracing the role of the strong patriarch can enable you to stand up for them. You can do great things when you’re “acting a part.”

But what if a man doesn’t like the stereotypical role of masculinity? Doesn’t feel like he fits into such masks? Well, this might not be popular advice, but he ought to suck it up and still try to wear them. These masks aren’t morally neutral; they’re superior values and keys to living a virtuous life (and this is true for both men and women alike, though there is more emphasis on men embracing them for reasons I’ll explain below).

Who, whether man or woman, would want to be fragile rather than tough, weak rather than strong, incompetent rather than competent, frenzied rather than stoic, dependent rather than self-reliant, cowardly rather than brave? Within the rubric of being tough, strong, competent, independent, and courageous, there is plenty of room for variations in personality and being who you are; such masks hardly create homogeneous clones. So let’s not get so relativistic that we say a man shouldn’t strive to live these virtues because it isn’t “him.”

Unexamined Assumption #3: Masks Lead to “Toxic Masculinity”

So maybe masks can empower men to take risks, to act bravely, and to lead others. But don’t they also push men to behave badly? To flee from intimacy, be homophobic, compete in destructive ways, and suppress their emotions?

If that were true, then over the last forty years, as there’s been a continual push for men to take off their masks, men should have become much more courteous, open, vulnerable, and sensitive than they were in archaic times past.

In some ways, they have; yet in others they’ve actually moved in the very opposite direction.  

While we like to think of history as having a continuous progressive arc, the men of today are in fact more emotionally restrained in some ways than men of the past, when the pressure to adhere to the code of manhood was stronger.

Go back to the 19th century, for example, the last time the traditional code of manhood was fully in place (it began to unravel in the early 20th, even before the countercultural movement, for reasons detailed here). Though the injunction to “be a man!” and keep a “stiff upper lip” was still very firmly in place, what you find in this period are men that were far more sensitive, civil, and comfortable with homosocial intimacy than today’s “New Man.” Victorian men emphasized fair play and good sportsmanship on and off the field (ever asking, “How are you playing the game?”), purposefully read sad poetry in order to give themselves over to a good cry, wrote florid love letters to their ladies, and not only referred to male buddies as “bosom friends” but expressed physical intimacy with them in ways that would in fact make most modern men rather uncomfortable. (Don’t believe me? Peruse this gallery and see for yourself.)

How can it be that men today could in some ways be more repressed than the men of the past, given that we’ve spent the last several decades dismissing and dismantling the validity of traditional notions of masculinity?

What society formerly understood, and what we fail to understand today, is that not only can men being open, emotional, and decorous exist right alongside a code of manhood that asks them to be strong and stoic, the latter in fact enables the former. That is, when men are given outlets for their natural masculine proclivities, asked to adopt noble aims in their behavior, and then celebrated and appreciated for the sacrifices living virtuously entails, they feel secure in their manhood, enough to truly be sensitive and let down their guard from time to time. (If you feel the whole idea of men needing to be secure in their manhood is silly, because the whole idea of manhood is silly and entirely culturally relative, I would refer you to this series, in which we detail at length the evidence that the desire to “become men” is both deeply biological and universal to every culture, time, and place.) For two thousand years, the code of manhood in fact required men to embrace both action and contemplation, to be both hard and soft.

Today, in contrast, boys and men are told that masculinity is silly and artificial and toxic, and are given no clear definition on what manhood even means, nor guidance on how to attain it. Yet they still feel the desire to become men. In this vacuum, in which males want to be men, but don’t know what that means, they grab at masculinity in its most stereotypical forms. With all the nuance of manliness having been stripped out over the years, all that is left is macho/alpha traits in cartoonish form. Such traits need balancing with softer virtues, but because young men, the bravado of their efforts notwithstanding, aren’t recognized and affirmed as men by mentors and society as a whole, and thus don’t ultimately feel secure in their manhood, these softer virtues are spurned and seen as a threat to their masculinity. Which only makes the more stereotypical masculinity they’re struggling to put on become more brittle, one-dimensional, and potentially destructive.

In short, toxic masculinity isn’t caused by the masks required by the traditional code of manhood, but by deterioration of the code in its fullest form.  

Unexamined Assumption #4: The Masks of Masculinity Were Created for No Good Reason, Serve No Real Purpose, and Can Be Jettisoned Without Ill Effect

Those who decry the masks of masculinity rarely dig into or explain why these masks developed in the first place. There’s a vague implicit sense that they were just created by the patriarchy to subjugate women, or something, and now are outdated and irrelevant.

But the masks of masculinity did in fact develop for some really important reasons.

In primitive times, for reasons of biology – males are on average physically stronger than women and more expendable (i.e., sperm is more plentiful and less valuable than wombs) – men were selected for the tasks of hunting and fighting. In such endeavors, men could not afford to break down or goof up; to do so would put not only their lives but the lives of their comrades in danger. Primitive women had to be pretty tough, strong, and resilient too, but because of this division of duties, more emphasis was placed on men developing these qualities.

Keep in mind that the masks of masculinity were typically not designed to suppress all emotions, all the time, but rather to enable a man to vent his emotions at a time of his choosing – one in which it would not be tactically disadvantageous or put his tribe in danger. It wasn’t that you could never cry or be sad, you simply couldn’t afford to emotionally collapse on the battlefield, and so had to be able to turn off those feelings and be tough when the situation called for it.

Remember that scene in Saving Private Ryan when Mellish is about to be stabbed, and Upham is coming up the stairs and can save his comrade, but he freezes and fails him? Even if a part of you understood he was shell-shocked and felt empathetic for what he was going through, his inaction still probably made you feel incredibly angry and frustrated. That visceral reaction really captures the deep way we still value the ancient masks of masculinity.

Now that society is relatively peaceful and food and resources are easy to come by, does that mean that the masks of masculinity are obsolete and unnecessary – that they’re mismatched with our current reality and can thus be entirely thrown out? The answer is no.

The masks of masculinity continue to be what enable men to take risks, if less predominantly on the battlefield, then in the marketplace. The desire to compete, to gain status, surely does come with some ill effects sometimes, but it’s also what always has and will continue to drive innovation and the advancements of civilization.

And while physical dangers are certainly more scarce these days, they haven’t disappeared altogether, and a division of duties between the sexes concerning emotional continence still continues to be needed at times.  

No matter how egalitarian someone is in their views, when the s**t hits the fan, men are still expected to lead and protect. When stories of heroism emerge from mass shootings, like the recent one in Las Vegas, one always hears about boyfriends and husbands shielding their girlfriends and wives from bullets and carrying them to safety, sometimes at the expense of the men’s lives. The story is never, “The wife took a bullet for her husband.” In the chaos of such emergencies, we expect that men will be scared, but will have the emotional wherewithal – made by possible by the mask of stoicism and courage — to hold themselves together. If they do not, then people — again, no matter how egalitarian their views — are disgusted; remember the consternation over the man who fled the Aurora movie theater shooting, leaving his fiancée and two small children behind?

The mask of masculinity is not only needed in such exceptional situations, but when families face more common sorrows. When Kate lost our baby when she was five months pregnant, both of us experienced enormous grief. But we couldn’t afford to both fall apart at the same time. Someone had to continue to take care of life’s basic day-to-day necessities. Kate was naturally a wreck, and I wanted to allow her to fully grieve the loss. So I took on the burden of initially holding things together. I took care of the things that needed doing, so she could be free to fall apart. Months later, when she was feeling stronger and felt able to re-shoulder some tasks, I finally allowed myself to really grieve. We took turns grieving in a way, and she went first, because of the old-school, supposedly outdated masks of masculinity. And you know what? Kate remains deeply, profoundly grateful for that act, and cried as she read this, saying, “That was one of the greatest expressions of love I’ve ever experienced.”

Masks don’t always stifle expressions of love, they can in fact liberate them; they can be the vehicle that propagates a distinctly masculine form of nurturing.

There are still times when a division of duties between the sexes is needed, when someone has to be the protected and someone has to be the protector. In a crisis, there’s no time to decide who’s going to take which role. In a period of grief, it is still a noble thing for a man to step up and act as the rock for his family.

One may say, “Well, alright, in those instance, the masks of masculinity can be useful. But otherwise, men should remove them.” But these masks are less like inanimate objects that can readily be put on and taken off, and more like muscles that must be regularly exercised; how can you expect to put on the mask of composure and courage in an emergency, if you’ve never practiced wearing it before?

And if you then think, “Well, it’s stupid to wear a mask all the time that you’re only going to use on rare occasions,” return again to the conclusion of point #2.

Conclusion

“Today, we tend to live within an ethos of authenticity. We tend to believe that the ‘true self’ is whatever is most natural and untutored. That is, each of us has a certain sincere way of being in the world, and we should live our life being truthful to that authentic inner self, not succumbing to the pressures outside ourself. To live artificially, with a gap between your inner nature and your outer conduct, is to be deceptive, cunning, and false. Eisenhower hewed to a different philosophy. This code held that artifice is man’s nature. We start out with raw material, some good, some bad, and this nature has to be pruned, girdled, formed, repressed, molded, and often restrained, rather than paraded in public. A personality is a product of cultivation. The true self is what you have built from your nature, not just what your nature started out with.” –David Brooks, The Road to Character

Some today have called for men to remove their masks, claiming that the injunction to be strong, stoic, courageous, competitive, competent, and self-reliant stifles men’s ability to be their true selves and leads to the dissemination of “toxic masculinity.”

But masks themselves don’t cause toxic masculinity; in fact, masks are precisely what keep it in check. The problem is not the masks men wear, but that in recent times, they haven’t been coupled with another: the mask of decorum, self-restraint, and civility.

Put another way, when men behave badly, the problem isn’t the masks created by the traditional code of manhood, but that the anemic state of the code in modern times has deprived these traditional masks from being molded with proper balance and nuance; the problem is not the existence of the masks themselves, but the way their shape has become distorted. We don’t necessarily need fewer masks, but better ones.

Masks can just as readily conceal as reveal, just as much liberate as stifle. Why wouldn’t you want to be brave and composed? Why wouldn’t you want to be able to give vent to your emotions at a time and place of your choosing, rather than being subject to their whims?

Masks can lead to expression just as readily as suppression. There isn’t a right or wrong way to do feelings or intimacy. The traditional feminine forms should not be privileged over the traditionally masculine. The world needs protective, masculine nurturance as much as any other form of love.

Finally, masks can empower rather than constrain. The paradox of masks is that though they are “artificial,” they can bring out our truest self — the self which we not only feel ourselves to be, but that which we desire ourselves to be. Our best self. What is more inspiring than the fact that our feelings are not our destiny — that we may feel weak, lazy, and cowardly, but make ourselves into men of strength, conviction, and courage?

Used the right way, the masks of masculinity empower the individual and are good for society. Masks are what allowed Patton and TR to become the leaders they wanted to be. Masks are what helped Churchill and Ike win a world war. Masks are what enabled explorers and inventors to plunge forward with risky endeavors and advance human civilization. Masks are what allow you to stand strong for your family and friends, to face major crises with competence and confidence, and handle everyday annoyances with calm and composure.

The masks of masculinity are what help keep the world spinning round.

So let’s celebrate them.

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