American men are in crisis, as many an American man with a media platform will tell you. They aren’t working hard enough; they’re hypnotized by video games and online porn; and most of all, they just don’t know how to be men anymore in this confusing world. “No menace to this nation is greater than the collapse of American manhood,” writes Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) in his new book, “Manhood: The Masculine Virtues America Needs.”
Like most of the crisis-of-masculinity-mongers, Hawley has little in the way of practical recommendations to fix this supposed problem. But if American men are really overcome by such anxiety, here’s a solution: Stop listening to conservatives telling you that masculinity is in crisis.
The manliest thing one can do might be to stop caring about masculinity altogether. That’s not to deny that men face some genuine problems, especially when it comes to educational achievement — even as they still dominate almost every facet of public life, from politics to religion to business.
But when Tucker Carlson suggests you tan your testicles to boost your testosterone, he isn’t just worried about rates of admission at medical schools. Instead, it’s the feeling of anxiety among men that he and others are playing to.
As much as this anxiety is described as a response to rapidly changing ideas about gender, it’s decades, if not centuries, old. In fact, it is often built into manhood itself.
In many societies, one can find the belief that girls become women almost inevitably through the process of physical maturation, while a boy’s passage to manhood must be earned through the completion of some kind of ritual, often involving the demonstration of physical courage or the ability to endure pain. Even in societies such as ours in which those rituals are no longer formalized, the idea that manhood is an earned status persists. And if it has to be earned, it can be lost.
Manhood requires public performance, and it has to be performed repeatedly, because it’s so fragile.
Your manhood can be taken from you in many ways: by a romantic rival, by another man besting you in a physical altercation or even by an economic setback. But if a woman’s husband cheats on her, no one says, “She isn’t a woman anymore.” Women might wake up every day anxious about many things, but being robbed of their womanhood is seldom among them.
The result of men’s anxiety is what has been termed “precarious manhood.” Studies suggest not only that people perceive manhood as easily lost but also that when it is lost, it’s because other people no longer view that man as a man. Perceptions of manhood are intensely social.
Conservatives claim that men are being bombarded with messages delegitimizing masculinity. Such messages do exist, but “traditional” masculinity is still everywhere in popular culture. TV and movie screens are still full of hunky leading men who solve problems through violence.
And if the “manly virtues” include strength and stoicism, it’s hard to see them in the collection of hysterical whiners who make up today’s right. What exactly is “masculine” about finding a transgender influencer promoting Bud Light on Instagram so threatening that you have to respond with a public display of violence against beer cans?
In fact, that response — which included Kid Rock shooting beer cans — was predictable, too. As one study noted, “physically aggressive displays are part of men’s cultural script for restoring threatened gender status.” Recent history shows that even seeing someone else challenging gender norms can make some men so threatened that they have to show everyone that they’re still men — often through the performance of violence.
While that impulse is not new, today’s right reinforces it at ear-splitting volume, greeting every new challenge to gender norms with the message that you should be angry and afraid about it. Those stories are accompanied by the insistence that we are experiencing a crisis of manhood. Ordinary young men feeling the alienation everyone experiences at some point in their lives are encouraged to understand it as a product of the supposed attack on manhood.
But deciding that your personal problems derive from a crisis of manhood will only make it worse. As one group of social psychologists wrote 15 years ago, “Because of the precarious nature of manhood, anything that makes salient its precariousness, or calls one’s manhood status into question, should be especially anxiety provoking.”
Like reading Hawley’s book. Or watching Fox News.
So how can men free themselves from the anxiety elite Republicans want them to feel? Stop worrying about whether you’re properly expressing manly virtues or whether other men are judging you. Don’t listen to the people who want you to be constantly terrified about the prospect of losing your manhood. Nothing is less manly than that. You want to be a man? Stop worrying about whether you’re man enough.
In the words of a song beloved by little girls everywhere: Let it go.