Sunday, February 2, 2014

Is America Becoming Too Girly? A Timely Treatise on the Latest Charges that the Country is Turning Soft

Entertaining if thuggish New York Congressman Michael Grimm
On Tuesday night, just after President Obama's State of the Union speech, Rep. Michael Grimm (R-NY), who’s already entangled in a campaign finance scandal, got in a journalist's face on a Capitol balcony and threatened him physically. Grimm told Michael Scotto, a reporter for NY1 who had just asked Grimm about the campaign controversy, "Let me be clear to you: If you ever do that to me again, I'll throw you off this f***ing balcony.”

Scott replied that he was just trying to ask "a valid question."

"No, no,” Grimm responded. “You're not man enough, you're not man enough. I'll break you in half, like a boy.”

This isn't the first time that Grimm, whose troubling warning was captured on video and hilariously mocked last night on Saturday Night Live by Melissa McCarthy, let his testosterone do his talking. An attorney, former FBI agent and Marine who by all accounts served his country honorably, Grimm reportedly once pulled a gun on his date's estranged husband and threatened to kill him at a Queens nightclub.

But what's most interesting to me about Grimm's blow-up is that it happened just a couple weeks after Fox News pundit Brit Hume complained that politicians should not be afraid to be tough guys. Was Grimm inspired by Hume? In his rant, Hume suggested that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has only gotten a reputation for being a bully because men can't be “masculine and muscular” in the "feminized atmosphere” in which we now live.

If all this sounds familiar, it should. The feeling among certain Americans – men, mostly – that the country is turning too feminine has come up again and again, always as if it’s something new and that we are in the throes of a nuclear-level crisis. America’s more reactionary male culture critics have expressed concern about the state of the nation’s manhood since before the ink on the Constitution was dry. 

And apparently the best way to purge ourselves of this alleged feminization - which of course is offensive to women, who are as tough as guys in so many ways - is by bullying or participating in various other acts of twisted masculinity.

Teddy Roosevelt liked little-girl books and killing pachyderms
Teddy the Rough Rider 

Consider the 26th President of the United States, Teddy “Rough Rider” Roosevelt, who complained vociferously about our society becoming too feminine and yet was, according to historians, intent on exploring both his masculine and feminine sides. Roosevelt’s critics said his declaration of war against Spain in the 1890s and his penchant for shooting bears, lions, elephants and endangered rhinos were a form of overcompensation for being perceived as too sensitive.

After all, as a young boy, Teddy enjoyed reading stories written for girls. “At the cost of being deemed effeminate,” he once wrote, “I greatly liked the girls’ stories: Pussy Willow and A Summer in Leslie Goldthwaite’s Life, just as I worshipped Little Men and Little Women and An Old-Fashioned Girl.”

Similarly, I hear that Congressman Grimm is a closet fan of the sensitive prose of Sylvia Plath and the pensive poetry of Emily Dickinson, and that Gov. Christie enjoys wearing his wife’s pink bunny slippers after a long day. Well, no, not really. But it wouldn’t shock me.

Effeminate silent-film star Rudolph Valentino
The Roaring Twenties

When I hear guys bemoan how feminine our country is getting, I can’t help but think back to something I learned in a sociology class in college about the Roaring Twenties, when many male movie fans and a number of journalists complained that silent-screen heartthrob Rudolph Valentino was too damn girly. That didn’t stop these men from styling their hair like Valentino, of course, for the simple reason that women adored him, but they felt compelled to walk out of his movies to express their otherwise disgust.

In each decade of the second half of the 20th century, some guys expressed their discomfort with the fact that popular culture took its share of girly turns, as the definition of “masculine” was reshaped and expanded by the baby boom generation.
In the Sixties, boomer feminists and activists – both male and female - attempted to redefine masculinity by staging love-ins and be-ins and generally blurring the gender lines as much as possible without resorting to surgery. Some of this was probably sincere self-exploration, but I think some of it was rooted in na├»ve and narcissistic fads.
In the Seventies, a new kind of American male archetype emerged from his EST and primal scream sessions, dressed in tight pants and disco chains, trading rough-talking Spaghetti Western star Clint Eastwood for dancing and prancing John Travolta. Soon, this American man was chanting mantras and clutching such self-help books as I'm OK, You're OK by Thomas Harris, Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach, and Love by Leo Buscaglia.

Then there was the inevitable pushback, exemplified by the 1982 book Real Men Don't Eat Quiche: A Guidebook to All That is Truly Masculine, by Bruce Feirstein, which was ostensibly tongue-in-cheek – but was it really? A lot of men avoided quiche as if it were the culinary equivalent of cross-dressing and treated Feirstein's book as a how-to guide to living the manly life. 

By the Nineties, boomers had largely lost control of the pop-culture reigns and the proceeding generation, best known as Generation X, embraced the grunge movement and adorned themselves in proto-masculine attire – backward baseball caps, flannel shirts, and a permanent scowl, as if reclaiming lost ground.

Nick Sparks: The Ultimate Girlyman?

Which brings us to the latest outcropping of masculine navel-gazing and posturing. Today, among the many polarizing topics in the debate over the so-called feminization of our culture is the fine work of author Nicholas Sparks, many of whose bestselling novels have been turned into what are often derisively called chick-flicks.

At a time when pundits and politicians are insisting that our collective culture is not man enough, I just received in the mail a boxed set of DVDs of the seven Sparks-inspired movies – the first time they've been compiled for sale. It occurred to me that here was a counterbalance: Grimm, Hume and O’Reilly, the conservative throwbacks to a time when no one apologized for being masculine even when they were wrong, and Sparks, author of such hugely popular tear-jerking love stories as The Notebook, A Walk to Remember, Nights in Rodanthe, Dear John, and The Lucky One.

In much the way Valentino was in the 1920s, Sparks is widely reviled by American men and adored by hordes of American women.  

“A guy can be too in touch with his female side, which creates an imbalance,” argues Chuck Scott, a screenwriter from San Diego who is definitely not a Sparks fan. “His stories are unfulfilling dreck produced for the illiterate masses who don't want to bring a brain to their part of the compact between the writer and the reader.”

But unlike Valentino, Sparks isn’t a flowery Hollywood actor; he was, before becoming a rich novelist, a celebrated track star at Notre Dame. And he isn’t apologizing for perceptions of his work. Valentino, like Roosevelt, was extremely sensitive to his negative portrayal, to the point that he challenged one offending Chicago editor to a boxing match. 

Though the editor demurred, the New York Evening Journal’s boxing writer, Frank O'Neill, volunteered to fight in his place. Valentino won the much-publicized match, which took place on the roof of New York City’s Ambassador Hotel. That, it seems to me, represents an inordinate level of caring about one’s perceived gender role.

Charles Miles, a Gulf War veteran and bestselling author of thrillers and suspense novels including Just Remember to Breathe, is among the admirers of the Sparks approach, and concedes that the male characters in Sparks’ stories are at the opposite end of the spectrum from the belligerent prototype Fox News pundits admiringly describe.

“But they’re not wimps,” Miles said. “His characters are soldiers and other men who can fight but who love their wives and take care of their families. Like Noah Calhoun from The Notebook, who went off to war, built his house with his own hands, then took loving care of his wife when she was sick. He sacrificed everything for her. That to me is the definition of masculinity.”

The Most Interesting Man in the World

Among the more ubiquitous depictions of traditional masculinity we have in 2014 is The Most Interesting Man in the World, the handsome, charismatic Latino who pushes Dos Equis beer in TV ads. An amusing cross between Fernando Lamas and Ernest Hemingway, this character, played by actor Jonathan Goldsmith, is at once a man's man and a ladies man who oozes old-school macho and claims to have "once parallel-parked a train."

The ad campaign, which is brilliant because it portrays traditional masculinity as sexy even as it sends it up, has not surprisingly sold a lot of beer. I suspect it appeals to Grimm and Sparks fans alike. Like the quiche book 30 years ago, the character has struck a chord. The commercials work not just as satire but because they appeal to the portion of the male audience that longs for a time when men were as manly as they were uncomplicated.

Yet those two conflicting images – of the unapologetic manly man and the sensitive lover – continue to duke it out in American culture. Fox News host Bill O'Reilly had a point when he said a day after Hume's original rant that blunt guys sometimes get unfairly categorized as bullies. But O'Reilly's choice of President Andrew Jackson as an example of an admirable American tough-guy pol was a regrettable misfire. 

Yes, “Old Hickory" Jackson was a tough guy for sure, but he also killed several men in duels, supported slavery and betrayed his close friend and ally, the Choctaw chief Pushmataha, in his zeal to relocate Native Americans to open remaining territories in the Southeaster U.S. to white settlement, which culminated with the Trail of Tears.

Grimm, Hume and O’Reilly clearly feel the way many men in America have felt throughout the nation’s history: That they’re losing ground. Peter McAllister, an archaeologist and author of the recent book Manthropology: The Science of Why the Modern Male Is Not the Man He Used to Be, recently noted that he has a "strong feeling that masculinity is in crisis. Men are really searching for a role in modern society; the things we used to do aren't in much demand anymore."

I'm not sure who McAllister is hanging out with, but in my home, many of the things men “used to do” are still in high demand. Like being a supportive husband, father and friend. And of course the really important stuff, like killing spiders and mowing the yard. What is not in demand? Being brash, rude or bullying, or making unilateral decisions in a booming voice that leaves the womenfolk cowering in the kitchen.

The Real Meaning of Masculine

For me, masculinity has always started and ended with strength of character, courage, integrity and compassion, all traits that, if I may say, my own father had. Sure, physical strength and toughness are part of the mix; my dad was a great athlete who had a deep voice and was by any traditional societal measure "masculine." But courage and strength come in all shapes and sizes. And rudeness and bullying do not a masculine man make. Sometimes, in fact, bullying is an obvious compensation for men who are grappling with their own masculine identity. You listening, Congressman Grimm?

The definition of masculinity is certainly being challenged in a society in which gay men are now openly serving and dying for their country, and that is a complicated trend for some men to process. But I would hope and expect that even conservative commentators and pols would think twice before questioning the masculinity of a gay American soldier who just returned home after a fighting for his country during a brutal deployment to Afghanistan.

Man's man Ernest Hemingway
And in Miles’ view, it doesn’t make a guy less masculine if he’s tuned into his wife’s interests and emotions. “What has changed in the last century is the fact that men have to pay attention to their spouses now because these spouses can vote now and get a divorce,” he observed. “Men have to do more now than just provide. It is a power change, especially for white males. A century ago, they were 25 steps ahead of the rest, now they are just 10 steps ahead. To a lot of white males, that feels like losing.”

There will always be guys who resist change, subscribe to the bar-bouncer definition of what is masculine, and feel threatened by cultural developments that seem too wussy or otherwise upset the status quo. To take the opposing view doesn’t mean there’s anything inherently wrong with guys for being guys, with the love of hunting or playing and watching football or driving fast or climbing mountains or just pushing themselves to the limit.

As Miles pointed out, Hemingway was the perfect example of testosterone-fueled behavior. “He was the masculine ideal. In theory, at least," said Miles. "In reality, he blew his brains out. Why? Because he lived hard, drank hard, and had no sense of moderation in his life. But his characters lived different lives. They told a different story, especially Frederic Henry in A Farewell to Arms. He was really tough but was also a very sensitive guy. That was a part of Hemingway, too.”

And this duality exists in all of us, whether we want to acknowledge it or not. Personally, I could watch football or college hoops or Clint Eastwood westerns for 12 hours straight, easily, but I'm also a big fan of many so-called chick flicks, including any romantic comedy with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. And I declare right here and right now that if you are not moved by the ending of Sparks' touching and hugely entertaining book (and movie) The Notebook, you are emotionally disabled.

Gentlemen, it is OK to embrace both your masculine and feminine sides. No, really. You see, a true man's man understands the lay of the land and his role in it -- as it currently exists, not in some fancified or unrealistic version in his own mind.


  1. You are the best Reno! You captured so many different angles of this issue. Thank you for writing it.

    1. Many thanks, anonymous. Please share your astute observation with others. :)

    2. And please tell us who you really are! :)

    3. it just isn't manly to post something anonymously. :)

  2. Jamie:

    Very timely article considering what the manly Seahawks did to the Girly Men Broncos in the Super Bowl yesterday.

  3. For many years the ideal man was portrayed by Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch: towering strength and courage masked behind a gentleness and sensitivity that looked out for those with less power. Bullies and cowards use strength and power to oppress others; real men use their strength to lift. If you want to see who is a "real man" look at how he uses his power.

  4. Any possibility you may be wrong?

    1. only a very, very remote one. :)

    2. any chance you'll ever get up the courage to post using your real name?

  5. Other articles about this issue is plainly talking about how men should become that stereotypically tough guy, which I agree with, but you have dug deep into the true meaning of masculinity, talking about how we should handle it, and possibly change the modern atmosphere. Excellent work.

  6. Other articles about this issue is plainly talking about how men should become that stereotypically tough guy, which I agree with, but you have dug deep into the true meaning of masculinity, talking about how we should handle it, and possibly change the modern atmosphere. Excellent work.

  7. Seems we will disagree. It is your problem if you equate physical violence with masculinity, that is your cross to bear, don't push your burden on others. I know you are saying that some men think that, and there certainly are some, but those are just your typical meatheads. Yet you lump everybody in.
    However, it is you that is saying that is what others think masculinity is, not the rest of us. That is your preconception, not reality.
    You can claim all you want about what you think masculinity is, but your definition is well, nowhere near the actual definition. Your definition is a feminized version of what you want masculinity to be, not what it is. That is a fact. Pretty ironic huh? There is the root of the problem in my a man, I am not here to be what you want me to be, what your definition of masculinity is, your twisted definition to suit your own purposes and desires.
    Why do I think the younger generations are girly boys? They spend as much or more time on their hair as a woman. They dye their hair. They highlight it. They perm it. They shave their genitals so they can look like girly boys, and they do a good job. They spend an inordinate amount of time buying and trying on clothes. They wear as much jewelry as a woman. They spend their time gabbing on FB and twitter, no offense, like a woman.
    If needed, most of them couldn't defend their woman, because they have been castrated by women and society. I could go on. Of course it won't matter, because your generation knows it all despite being mere pups that haven't done a thing, havent seen a thing, yet you have it all figured out. You see a little snippet of this country, the little snippet you have been alive for, and think you know everything. The fact is this country was not built by girly men, it was built by actual masculine men that took care of shit instead of talking about it with their girly man friends. And the reason the US was dominant for so long and is now falling apart? The last 30 years have womanized men, and it coincides with the decline of this country. I am not a God and country man, not a military lover, none of the other stereotypes you will undoubtedly brilliantly counter with. I am a college graduate, work in tech, married for 20+ years, son and a daughter, etc.
    I just see the modern American man for what he is, a weak castrated shadow of his predecessors, undoing centuries of work in just a generation or two.
    You are getting what you want, I hope you enjoy the shitty economy and ever lowering status of this country that comes with it.

  8. Um, ok dude. I tried to get through your rambling, self-contradictory rant. But I kinda lost interest.

    1. you're a wingnut. full-on bonkers.