Act like a man (who knows what that means)!

A blogger sets out to answer what it means these days to be masculine.

Published April 15, 2008 1:00AM (EDT)

If you thought American men had reason to experience a masculinity crisis, just look at our northerly neighbors. In addition to soaking up plenty of American pop-culture poison, Canada is the birthplace of the following sexual symbols: Pamela Anderson, hockey and mullets. 1 (Note to my Canadian boyfriend: Sorry!) So, perhaps it should come as no surprise that, according to a writer for The Walrus -- Canada's New Yorker -- they have their own budding "boy crisis." On his new blog, "Act Like a Man," Edward Keenan is pondering what it means these days to be a man. For instance: Is it pummeling a guy's face into the ice at a hockey game? Or is it winning a fistfight with a bear?

Those questions are tongue-in-cheek, though, and "Act Like a Man" is a seemingly earnest endeavor. Keenan isn't an anti-feminist Harvey Mansfield type; in fact, he calls Mansfield's "Manliness" a "laugh-a-minute tome." He makes fun of men who are threatened by the feminist belief "that women and men (and those who fit neatly into neither category) should have equal rights before the law and should enjoy equal freedom to pursue their goals and ambitions"; he doesn't want to "romanticize the man of emotionless, aggressive chauvinism"; and argues that "acting like a man" shouldn't mean "stop acting like a woman."

Right on! But, that's where our agreements end -- or, rather, they end when he begins romanticizing that famous "Godfather" scene where Don Corleone delivers a slap to the cheek and the advice, "You could act like a man!" It's that exact directive that Keenan wrote on a Post-it and stuck to his bathroom mirror when he found himself moving back in with his parents in his late 20s. He writes: "...for all my pro-feminist awareness of destructive gender straightjackets and patriarchal blah blah blah, I did deep down think that what my pothead friends and I really needed to do was stand up and take some responsibility for the direction of our own lives instead of whining that The Man was keeping us down and ordering another pitcher." Great choice, really! But that has nothing to do with being masculine and everything to do with being an adult. He goes on to write:

Today, women generally still fill the roles they always did (bearing children, doing the heavy lifting in raising them, keeping house and organizing household finances and affairs) and they also shoulder nearly half of the "men's work" of earning and providing. Women were absolutely right to complain about the power imbalance in the old arrangement and in the lack of choice for both women and men in how they pursued happiness. But the resulting societal shift has meant that in the nuclear family -- the most significant organization most straight men will ever belong to -- males are reduced to an optional frill, desirable but not essential to the unit's success.

Ah, but -- hetero-speaking -- if men are optional familial frills, then so are women. If a man and woman divide the work of raising and supporting a family, it hardly seems that the man is rendered irrelevant. That would only be the case if you're still working, even on a subconscious level, within the outdated provider paradigm of masculinity. As much as Keenan resists defining masculinity in opposition to femininity, he also refuses to move beyond that definition; that's the cause of his confusion, I'd say. For instance, he says he believes in "honor and valour and prudence and courage and temperance" but argues that "the feminine virtues of faith, hope charity, sharing and caring" are also needed in the world. But, this is only a dilemma if those stereotypically masculine and feminine characteristics are mutually exclusive. I'd, of course, argue that they aren't; that they're all characteristics a man or woman can fully embody.

Part of the feminist aim is to move away from a single feminine ideal, and it seems that's what Keenan is unknowingly searching for in his masculinity quest. Maybe, instead of picking apart ideal masculinity, the better question is a seemingly simple one: "What kind of person do I want to be?" Regardless, Keenan is admirably sketching his own zig-zagging path across the gender minefield in an attempt to define for himself, and his newborn son, what it means to be a decent man. Asking the question is a damn good place to start.

(Thanks to Jezebel for the link.)

1OK, those last two are debatable. Back to top.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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