Power, Sex and a Big TV

By Leland, John | Newsweek, September 18, 1995 | Go to article overview

Power, Sex and a Big TV


Leland, John, Newsweek


ABOUT MRS. FREUD'S QUEStion--what does a man want?--there has seldom been much call for investigation. Everyone knows what a man wants: power, dominion, maybe a big TV and a menu of amatory delights. As the French feminist Elizabeth Badinter notes in "XY: On Masculine Identity" (274 pages. Columbia University Press. $27.95), "Not long ago, woman was still the dark continent of humanity, whereas no one dreamed of questioning man. Masculinity appeared to be self-evident: luminous, natural, and the opposite of femininity."

Lately, though, things have turned around. Voices from all corners--feminists, gangsta rappers, fundamentalist Christians, gender theorists, evolutionary biologists, geneticists, biochemists--are re-examining the nature of masculinity. A half decade after the bloom of the men's movement, a handful of recent books posit that what a man really wants is ... well, power, dominion and the rest--but there's an explanation.

As Badinter reckons, masculinity--far more than femininity--is an abstraction, something to be achieved rather than simply lived out. From birth, girls are intimately tied to womanhood through their connection with the maternal womb. Boys are more distant, biologically and socially, from the manhood of their fathers; they have to learn their sexual identity from remote sources. Even in adulthood, men strive to "become" men, or to become "real men," as if genetics weren't enough. Badinter and the rest endeavor to construct men into a coherent class, in the same way that women, minorities, gays and other groups have been construed to form recognizable classes, with their own needs and histories. In the fractured universe of identity politics, men, it seems, need a segmented identity just like everybody else.

The new masculinist literature is alternately defensive or pitying. As Margaret Atwood writes in the ambitious recent anthology, "The Male Body," now out in paperback (310 pages. University of Michigan Press. $14.95), "men's bodies are the most dangerous things on earth." By these lights, all men are Packwoods waiting to happen. So where do we go from here?

In "The Masculine Mystique: The Politics of Masculinity" (368 pages. Ballantine. $23), Andrew Kimbrell argues that male bad behavior is really an awful burden for men to bear. Kimbrell, a lawyer, environmentalist and men's advocate, was named one of America's "100 Visionaries" by the Utne Reader. He contends that the components of modern manhood--competitive drive, appetite for wealth and power, devotion to work at the expense of family--form a "masculine mystique," a stereotype that has come to obscure a kinder, gentler "true" masculinity. …

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