Archive for September, 2008

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Presidential Manliness, part 1

24 September 2008

The 2008 presidential race presents all sorts of opportunities for examining masculinities in America. This has been the case in every election, viz., that the public judges the criteria for being “the man.” Does the candidate have a confidence and charisma, perhaps a little swagger? Is he a warrior, someone who can strike fear into America’s enemies? Does he have a professionalness to him? Does he look manly? Is he strong and assertive, sensitive and affective in the right combination?

Of course, this election year has some especially notable elements.
– A black man is running for president.
– A woman is running for vice-president.
– The candidates seek to replace a wildly unpopular president, a man despised largely on account of his public image.

Media news groups are churning out all sorts of highly gendered images. Here are a couple banner ads from Newsmax.com I feel are comment-worthy.

Here I want to point out how McCain, for all his professional demeanor and military identity, is portrayed as jovial. He is serious, but not so much as to lose his sense of humor. Grandfatherly, perhaps. Maybe (if we read the picture negatively) too happy, almost saccharine. Palin seems like a strange complement to the would-be president. Placed in McCain’s background, she looks nervous, even scared. She holds out her hand in a defensive, sort of explanatory posture. Is she leading a meeting – or does she have some explaining to do? Or are we to read the two portraits together: the president keeps on smiling no matter what, and the exculpating, codependent woman tries to cover up the family dysfunctions?

Obama and (especially) Biden strike more traditional, manly poses. Both are stalwart and serious, though Obama in particular has a look of ease on his face. Though dressed formally and clean shaven, they exude a sense of disarming self-confidence. Biden’s hand gesture is remarkable: he points out to the future, to the frontier. He is purposeful and, in contrast to Palin, right beside the presidential nominee.

In this case at least, the banner ads clearly favor the Democratic team, if only because their picture matches up with the tried-and-true archetypes for manliness in election years: they are the cowboys, the pioneers, the businessmen, the generals, “the man.” More to come on this.

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Open Forum: Why Is Jim Halpert the New Male?

13 September 2008

I hereby crown Jim Halpert (John Krasinski) the New Male.   As the superprotagonist of NBC’s “The Office,” Jim is liked by the guys and loved by the women.  A lot.  And I haven’t run into one exception so far.

How?  How did an unassuming, skinny, paper-pushing dude in middle management become the next über-male?  You tell me. 

GET THE OFFICE, SEASON FOUR HERE.

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Wild… er… Responsible at Heart

5 September 2008

When John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart came out in 2001, Evangelical men latched on to the existentialist bad-boy path to Christian manhood.  According to the book, the problem was that men in the churches had become sissified by a sentimental, moralistic, inauthentic environment.  The solution could be found in pursuing the “wild” road of authentic, manly living.  Eldredge’s indebtedness to the mythopoetic men’s movement shows through, albeit in a superficial way: William Wallace and Luke Skywalker replace the ancient fairy tales, Jesus Christ replaces the “I” to some extent.  Wild at Heart struck that perfect marketability for Evangelical men: conservative family values + shame-healing + anti-Victorian backlash + self help group therapy + badass role models. 

Seven years later, men’s ministries are holding Wild at Heart retreats, the latest cropping up in Peoria, IL.  Such men eagerly report that they go on such weekends to buck the system, to get fierce, to prove to themselves that they can be, well, “wild.”  It’s interesting, then, that the primary way these men demonstrate their wildness is by (to quote them) “learning to communicate.”  They admit their failing as husbands and fathers.  They confess their well-hidden wimpiness.  They acquire new skills to speak honestly with God, themselves, and their loved ones.  

Nomenclature aside, let me applaud this wildness.  Truth be told, most men struggle with fear their whole lives, often fears of emotional vulnerability.  Moreover, it seems that in this age young American men struggle with a fear of responsibility (a.k.a. permanent adolescence syndrome).  Christian men are no exception: they don’t cultivate inner strength, they don’t take risks, and so in self-defense insulate themselves from any kind of shame or public accountability.   Let us grant that it takes courage – maybe not the courage of a broadsworded Scot, but courage nonetheless – to put oneself on the line and say, “Yes, I’ve run away from my God-given responsibilities.” 

Masculinities trade in fecund contradictions.  Evangelical men, for this reason and that, spend time being irresponsible to the world around them, if only for a Saturday, in order to recapture the strength to dive back into their world of responsibilities and responsiveness. 

[Keep an eye out for future posts on John Eldredge.]