“Real Men” (Return from the Holidays)

FullSizeRenderI’m not sure when I saw my first “Real men love Jesus” t-shirt, but I do remember thinking, “Hhhmmm, let’s use an essentialized notion of identity to change the essence of that identity.” Some time later, a college student-athlete told me about his favorite authority figure who, before each game, exhorted the players, “Let us not be men who hit women, but men who hit men who hit women.” Apparently, since violence couldn’t be purged from the purview of manhood, it could at least, in these Title IX times, be directed more appropriately. Recently, I’ve seen a spate of parenting advice for men that could be summarized as “Real men love changing diapers” or “Let us not be men who hit children, but men who hit men who question our love of children.” A third option seems prevalent in certain quarters: “Collapsible strollers are technologically as sophisticated as any smartphone, so it’s manly to comparison-shop baby gear.” In short, hypermasculine, essentialized notions of identity are being used to expand the realm of expected or accepted behavior for men. Odd? Or necessary?
Why not say instead, “People ought to help care for the people they helped create?” Probably because it doesn’t work as well, at least not in the short run, because you have to meet people where they are. But I’m curious to know if anyone has studied the options. After all, adding appendages to the “real man” paradigm likely won’t fix the problem that is the paradigm itself. Instead, it builds a Frankenstein of man and centipede, a Gregor Samsa of sorts. Maybe the monster eventually explodes of its own contradictions, but that’s what Marx figured about capitalism, too, and look where we are.
Nonetheless, it seems needlessly strident to dismiss any progress in outcomes (assuming some) because of the essentialist supposition behind “real men do X,” just as it would be silly to miss the fact that such sayings suggest that some men (however impossibly broad a category) are groping for a new identity. If we dismiss the confusion about “real masculinity” (merely) as the moan of the privileged having to learn to live like everyone else, we lose a chance to help shape the discussion. Real men are people, too, and they want someone to believe in them.