Real Men are Post-Modern! Is there a crisis of masculinity?

I suppose I began to notice it a few years ago. I’m not sure if it was the increasing number of Fight Club quotes posted on facebook, by friends still clinging to the receding tide of adolescence. Or perhaps it was the abundance of sports supplements advertised towards men who, presumably required essential amino acids to replenish the muscle tissue damaged during a high intensity masturbation session.

Whatever the locus was, gradually over the years the message that men of my generation are undergoing an identity crisis of epic proportions has been broadcast louder and louder. At first it seemed like a fringe concern, but like the gradual and daunting bathtub realisation that you are slowly soaking in your own filth, this message is now permeating my conciousness from all angles.

I was motivated to write my thoughts on this topic after a friend devoted not just an article but a whole website to tackling this crisis of masculinity. According to my friend and the numerous psychologists, journalists, philosophers and writers whom he cites, men, quite simply, are not what they used to be. We have forgotten how to be men, and instead have devolved into a morass of porn obsessed, effeminate, pusillanimous, juvenile delinquents, who are either too spineless to stand up for our true masculine values or too much of an obnoxious ass hole to devote ourselves to a life of chivalry.

To quote my friend:  “[Men are] sitting somewhere between Homer Simpson and Clint Eastwood, men, as journalist James Wolcott says, are “torn between the need to cuddle and the urge to swing from trees and bring home a fresh kill for dinner”

I am grateful to my friend for setting up the way points of Simpson and Eastwood, without which I would be bereft of self-definition. I never knew I was such a tortured soul, who when engaged in an intimate cuddling session, was really dreaming of the jungle wind rushing through my hair as I swing from vine to vine. But this does explain the recurring homo-erotic dreams of Tarzan that I’ve been having these last few years.

To be fair to my friend (after all he is my friend) he does have half a point (well perhaps 49.99999%, I can’t let him have the majority now can I, that wouldn’t be very manly would it?). From my discussions with him, it seems he is more concerned with the different psycho-spiritual (if that’s not any oxymoron) needs of men which are not fulfilled in modern day society, rather than the establishment of a hegemonic form of masculinity.

However, I am inclined to think that the predominant cause of modern male angst is due to competing narratives of what masculinity is, rather than a lack of fulfilment of fundamental male needs. This inability to reconcile competing definitions of what it means to be man results in an existential crisis, which may very well lead to feelings of anxiety, depression, detachment from society and in some extreme cases the search for a fundamental archetype of what it means to be man. However this proclamation of a male archetype is simply another means by which to establish a secure definition of masculinity.

An often cited reason for the crisis of masculinity is the increasing empowerment of women in society. It is argued that the encroachment of women into traditionally male gender roles has resulted in a generation men feeling as if their place in society has become undermined. According to the champions of machismo, this annexation of traditional male roles by the female of the species, has resulted in a rise of male suicide (4x that of women in the UK), low testosterone, rampaging immaturity, and an addiction to porn and video games. While all these may well be true, (though, there is no direct evidence that links them to a crisis of masculinity) It tells us nothing about the virtues of masculinity in and of itself.

For example, consider the gradual abolition of slavery throughout the world during the twilight years of colonialism.  What is often not mentioned is that there was a concomitant crisis of Caucasianism, among previously powerful white slave masters, as they suddenly felt that their traditional, ethnic and social roles were being challenged. As David Lambert. writes in ‘White Creole Culture, Politics and Identity During the Age of Abolition’ (2005) ‘Like black enslaved identities, then, white colonial identities were a site of struggle during the age of abolition’ (page 2). I’ll hand you over to the genius Louis CK to summarise:

However, suffice to say the poor white slavers got over it (well at least some of them, US Republican party notwithstanding). Over time they were able to construct new self-definitions of what it means to be white, which were consummate with the evolving progressive values of the time.

The point that I am making is that the issue is not that men have strayed away from the righteous path of masculinity and simply need to be guided back to it by good shepards like my friend. The problem is that men are still giving credence to the anachronistic road signs which point to such paths. There is nothing particularly salubrious about the traditional and idolised definitions of masculinity. Rather, it is the simple fact that receiving any form of mixed message which prevents you from fully committing to an identity will cause an existential crisis. In this light, the cries for men to become men again, are actually exacerbating the problem by muddying the water, preventing them from fully embracing new definitions which are not in conflict with their modern roles in society.

We all posses an internal set of self-definitional meanings which we use as criteria to audit our role in society. As we interact with others and the world at large, we engage in a constant process of comparing our internal set of meanings to the external meanings which we perceive in the environment. If the two sets of meanings do not match, then we are unable to verify our sense of self, and thus we feel anxiety and distress. Social psychologists call this self-verification theory, and argue that it is a fundamental psychological requirement for mental well-being. According to self-verification theory, our behaviour is motivated by the desire to alter the external meanings in the environment until they accord with those held internally. For example, a person who holds an internal self-definitional meaning of being Macho, will look to the environment for meanings which confirm this identity, such as others being more effeminate or commenting on how masculine he is. In this light, much of human behaviour is motivated by the need not to become better or different versions of ourselves, but to create situations which allow us to verify who we already think we are. Perhaps this is why our closest friends are those who allow us to be ourselves.

Analysing the so called ‘crisis of masculinity’ through this lens, we can appreciate that the existential crisis many men feel is not because they are lacking the vital male essence as Base Commander Jack D ripper from Dr Strangelove would argue, but because their internal set of self-definitional meanings cannot be reconciled with the external meanings of post-modern society. In other words there is a crisis of meanings not masculinity.

Don't worry Mandrake, we'll find your essence!

Don’t worry Mandrake, we’ll find your essence!

Thus, if we reject the notion that there is a normative form of masculinity, which men have a fundamental biological need to adhere too (which is an untenable claim in and of itself), the cries for males to return to a pre-lapsarian definition of what it is to be a man, are simply a matter of aestheticism. And, as the Latin saying goes; ‘de gustibus non est disputandum’, In matters of taste, there can be no argument.

Masculinity is simply a matter of taste, as one can see if they take even the briefest of strolls through history. Over the centuries, the definition of masculinity has changed so much, it’s quite obvious that today’s criteria will be deemed problematic in future generations, thus leading to a recurring cycle of masculinity crises.

For example, I’m sure by now that you would have encountered a meme like this:


This meme is intended to cause us to lament the fading ember of the golden age of men. But what happens if we take this idea further back throughout space and time?


And back further:


One last time?


I could keep going, back before males even existed but I think you get the point.

In the words of that hunk of masculinity Benjamin Franklin:

The golden age never was the present age.

Even if a committee of the manliest of men’s men convened and decided to set the standard for what being a man is, how would they determine what counts as authentic masculinity and what does not? This topic is often problematic and sexist in it’s own right, even when framed in seemly progressive, liberal sentiments. One often hears remarks such as, ‘to not be afraid of who you are, and to take charge of your own life is what it really means to be a man’. Oh really? So are women not expected to heed this dictum as well? Is a women who acts this manner now being macho and ignoring her femininity?

When attempting to develop a definition of authentic masculinity, the result either merely reinforces sexist stereotypes such as ‘men must be the provider’ or ‘real men don’t get bossed around by their wives’ or on the contrary is framed so liberally that it is equally applicable to both sexes, e.g. ‘real men accept their feelings, and respect their partner’.

Now, I admit that I ascribe to and even derive comfort from several traditional masculine values myself. For example, I have the regrettable and chauvinistic urge not to earn less money than my girlfriend, an impulse that she is not in total disagreement with. But the fact that I hold this value as a solely individual one is precisely my point. Pressuring a person to reject definitional values can cause as much anxiety as being unable to reconcile several competing ones. As such I don’t hold this standard up to other males. Although, as many readers may have clocked, there is a danger of cultural relativism inherent in this sentiment, and as such it is worth trying to produce a universal standard which we expect all members of civilised society to adhere to. Though this is perhaps necessarily an impossible task, a good starting point is to allow people freedom to express who they are, as long as this expression does not impinge on the well being and freedom of others. The calls for men to regain their lost masculine values are a form of social straight jacket, which impede on each person’s freedom to define who they are themselves, thus making them feel as if they were failed human beings. As Karl Popper said:

We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.

It is the inability for males to develop their own sense of what it means to be a man, unfettered by the chest pounding of the Tyler Durdens of the world, that is responsible for my generation’s existential angst. Things were much simpler 100 years ago, when a man could snuggle into his standardised tuxedo of masculinity, knowing that it will fit perfectly and suit the occasion every time. However, in the fancy dress party that is post modern society, what is important is that we allow men the social freedom to create and nurture their own self definitions, consummate with their own evolving nature and relationships. It would be a crime against their very humanity not to, and that wouldn’t be very manly of us, would it now?

Sitting somewhere between Homer Simpson and Clint Eastwood, men, as journalist James Wolcott says, are “torn between the need to cuddle and the urge to swing from trees and bring home a fresh kill for dinner” – See more at:
Sitting somewhere between Homer Simpson and Clint Eastwood, men, as journalist James Wolcott says, are “torn between the need to cuddle and the urge to swing from trees and bring home a fresh kill for dinner” – See more at: