Towards an idea of Positive Masculinity

You’ve got to be a man first before you can be a gentleman

John Wayne, McLintock!

Modern society has a lot to say about men and we frequently hear criticisms. This is all well and good – accountability is the cornerstone of a liberal democracy and, as humans, if we can’t listen to feedback then we’re lesser for it. However, the problem is that if there is only criticism then we’re left with a basket of things we shouldn’t be and no idea of what we should be. In other words, there’s no ideal to strive towards, nothing that inspires action and is rewarded for its efforts. We need a positive idea of masculinity that inspires young men to make use of their latent energy yet one that keeps them from indulging in immature traits so that they can function in a civilised world. In the words of Teddy Roosevelt – we need to encourage the Gentleman Barbarian. A man that has the physical and social capacity to take action and revel in his strength yet with all the refinement of a man that can appreciate the modern world and the progress it’s made. 

On the topic of what men should do, one thing that many would point to is the idea that we now get to live in an age where men can open up emotionally. I’m not one to say that this is a bad thing – men’s suicide rates should prompt everyone to check in on their male friends more regularly – but the fact of the matter is that the idea of being emotionally more open is hardly inspiring. When men play out their fantasies by watching movies and playing video games, they’re experiencing the life of (fictional) men with traits they admire or find empowering and I’ve yet to witness a game or movie that will have men hand over their money because the male character is crying. In a previous article, I wrote about Jordan Peterson. He’s many things, but a man with a stiff upper lip is not one of them. My point here is that men can cry but that’s not what young men find inspiring about Peterson. This begs the question: what does inspire men? Better yet, what should inspire men?

Social critic and Feminist Camille Paglia has picked up on this question and argues that in today’s society, young men don’t have role models anymore. Where once Hollywood would find masculine men (“men who understood men, who had a natural density of personality”) like Clark Gable and Robert Mitchum in oil fields and working with machinery, now it finds actors who have been reared for the role from a young age and lack this ‘masculine’ experience. All in all, it’s fair to say that modern society – beyond fantastical creations like Kratos in PlayStation’s God of War series – has done a great job at holding men to account and criticising them but a very poor one at offering a positive idea of masculinity. 

In recent articles that have touched on the topic of masculinity, I’ve looked at actual, living men who’ve tried to offer their two pence on what men should be. Nonetheless, they’ve both run into heavy criticism from the public and have been suspended and banned from various platforms. This doesn’t change the fact that men – and young men in particular – need positive ideals to work towards. Without a shared idea of what a man should be, society is left with men who don’t care for what other people think of them (a situation which is more dangerous than it may first sound) and men that make nothing of themselves and fail to live up to their potential. 

Masculinity and ideas about what it means to be a man have interested me for a while now and within the ‘manosphere’, there are a variety of opinions. Brett Mckay, author of the Art of Manliness blog, argues that the universal traits of men throughout history are the abilities to provide, protect and procreate. Going back to the early ‘90s, Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette drew on Jungian psychology to argue that within every man are four masculine ‘archetypes’ or themes that all men collectively draw inspiration from – consciously or unconsciously – and that drive our actions. These four archetypes are the King, the Warrior, the Magician and the Lover and all of them have two ‘dark’ sides that are either too overbearing and tyrannical or too timid and underachieving but in their prime, they allow a man to maturely embrace his natural energies. What’s lacking in modern society, they argue, are rituals that help develop immature boys into mature masculine men. 

Finally, there’s Jack Donovan who takes a Nietzschean approach and argues that where modern society has gotten things wrong is that it doesn’t recognise that there’s a difference between a good man and a man who’s good at being a man. Someone like Don Corleone in the Godfather is a murdering gangster yet he’s clearly manly. Alternatively, for fans of a TV series like Vampire Diaries, there’s a clear difference between the ‘good man’ of Stephan and the ‘man who’s good at being a man’ of Damon. This is because, as Donovan argues, manliness is a practical thing. The finer things in life, at some point in history, required men to gang together and these men required certain ‘tactical virtues’ to succeed. These virtues are courage, physical strength, honour and mastery. This isn’t to say that women can’t demonstrate these virtues – they certainly can – rather that the idea of femininity is not defined by these traits while masculinity is. As he puts it, while it’s not his place to define what a woman is or isn’t, it’s generally accepted that a woman isn’t less ‘womanly’ or feminine if she can’t pick-up heavy weights yet if we were to compare a skinny version of Arnold Schwarzenegger with the Mr Olympia version, it’s clear to see which of them is more manly. The interesting thing about Donovan’s later books is that he makes the point that in our modern world, masculinity is not a requirement for the vast majority of people – one can be born a male and live a full and happy life while not possessing any of the tactical virtues. But that doesn’t mean you still get to claim you’re manly. 

All of the authors I’ve listed are articulate and bold in their approach. There are overlaps, lessons to be learned and ideas to disagree with. Certain societal talking points are re-framed and gives the reader food for thought. I’ve heard it said by critics that men act from a place of insecurity, that we’re insecure about ourselves and so the conclusion is that we impulsively lash out in various ways. The authors I’ve read provide an alternative take that men are inherently hierarchical and when ideals are clearly defined, there are also perfections which in turn means that masculinity is inherently insecure… and that’s not a bad thing. It encourages energy and effort to be invested for the sake of improvement and reward and allows shame to be used as an effective tool when an individual strays from the ‘right’ path. Furthermore, regardless of what you think of their reasoning, a young man is hardly going to be worse off for trying to be stronger, braver, more skilled and more respectable. 

My personal philosophy is one that takes inspiration from all of the authors listed as well as my own lived experience, but this article is here to provoke conversation. When you think of manly men, who comes to mind? When you think of what a man should be, what do you think of? How would you define masculinity? It’s easier than ever to criticise other people with the advent of social media but I urge you to take the time to think on these questions and discover your own philosophy of or towards masculinity. In an age where most people are tweeting and ranting about toxic masculinity, what would you encourage as positive masculinity?

Over-sentimentality, over-softness, in fact washiness and mushiness are the great dangers of this age and of this people. Unless we keep the barbarian virtues, gaining the civilised ones will be of little avail.

Theodore Roosevelt

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