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A Real Man… Doesn’t Mooch off His Woman

24 November 2008

On the 20 November edition of the talk show “The View,” I noted with interest the comments being made about the recent divorce between pop queen Madonna and film director Guy Ritchie.  The two, having avoided a prenuptial agreement when they married, sped through the divorce process, Ritchie (ostensibly) giving up far more than half of their joint estate.  Madonna’s earnings are estimated at perhaps ten times that of Ritchie, and while he could have been entitled to around half of the sum of their accounts, he voluntarily forfeited hundreds of millions of dollars. 

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Whoopi Goldberg’s response to Ritchie was one of great admiration, going so far as to say that his actions showed he was “a real man.”  What she intimated by that, she explained, was that he wasn’t willing to act as a financial parasite upon his (ex-)wife, and was willing to respect her by not being dependent on her.

Granted, the whole settlement hardly represents anything of ethical significance; Ritchie could wind up a millionaire fifty times over or more, even with a most inequitable settlement. 

What strikes me as significant is that this case would be used as an opportunity to equate manliness with independence.  This, of course, is no new claim.  Independence lay at the heart of colonial and republican conceptions of manhood in America, and was defined in financial tones after the Industrial Revolution.  But since the emergence of feminism in the 1960s and 70s society has tried to counterbalance this expectation with talk of the need for male “collaboration,” “equality,” “cooperation” and dependence on others, even financially.  The breadwinning male too often came home from the office suffused with a sense of entitlement and unlimited power over his non-breadwinning family members.  The last few decades have been a trimming of that model, making room for women in the work force and reinventing modes of (non-business) male sociality.

What Goldberg espouses represents a gentle swing (and wobble) of the pendulum.   In some sense she probably means only a kind of boundary-setting.  Dependence must not mean economic childishness.  Boys must be men, they must not place a burden on their women.  Women rightly refuse to empower this pedantic neediness.  But the context of Goldberg’s comments suggests a double power play: the use of gender-norming language to shame men into a kind of provider role, combining it with legal claim: “See, what’s mine is mine.  Now be a man and support yourself.”

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