The Mask of Masculinity: Is Manliness Natural or a Social Construct That Causes Wars and Sport Utility Vehicles?

By Will, George F. | Newsweek, July 19, 1999 | Go to article overview

The Mask of Masculinity: Is Manliness Natural or a Social Construct That Causes Wars and Sport Utility Vehicles?


Will, George F., Newsweek


Prof. Harvey Mansfield is Harvard's conservative. Well, all right, he is one of Harvard's handful of conservatives, a.k.a. The Saving Remnant. A few years ago he received a call when a distinguished colleague retired. The caller, a young woman journalist, wanted a comment on the retirement. Mansfield obliged, saying he particularly admired the colleague's "manliness." An awkward silence ensued from the other end of the line. Then the reporter asked Mansfield, "Could you think of another word?"

What might be wrong with that word? That is a (literally) academic question, now that professors and somber quarterlies are creating a new discipline: masculinity studies. That subject is being, as it were, married to "women's studies" to round out "gender studies," as at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, where there now is a Center for the Study of Women and Men.

Well. In olden days, before these things were understood with today's clarity, people thought that when they studied subjects such as philosophy, history, politics, sociology, anthropology, art, music and literature they were engaged in the study of women and men. But back to Mansfield's journalistic interlocutor. The problem she had with the word "masculinity" probably was twofold.

First, the word is stained with the supposition that manliness is a virtue. Advanced thinkers execrate the idea of a virtue that is not a gender-neutral, equal-opportunity virtue. Both men and women can be brave, frank, aggressive, competitive, loyal, stoical. Is manliness anything more than a tossed salad of those attributes? If so, can a woman be manly? (Was Francois Mitterrand suggesting androgyny when he said Margaret Thatcher has the eyes of Caligula and the lips of Marilyn Monroe?)

Second, leave aside the question of whether "manliness" should be celebrated as a virtue rather than condemned as a social virus that causes wars, sport utility vehicles and other testosterone spills. But perhaps manliness is (because everything is) a "social construct." Here is the heart of "gender studies": If all human attributes are consequences of social arrangements, then clever rearrangement of society can produce whatever results the rearrangers want. If so, neither biology nor history nor nature is destiny. All is nurture and ephemeral, nothing is instinctive, innate, permanent. Nothing is destined. Everything is a matter of choice. Free at last, free at last...

One tool for striking the chains from woman's wrists and ankles is a noun that has become a verb: parent. It makes fathers and mothers interchangeable, their differences fungible, their duties negotiable.

And why not, now that The New York Times reports this bulletin: "Masculinity is not monolithic"? Indeed. Mark McGwire cries. Male peacockery flourished before and after Henry VIII donned silk stockings to show off his legs. The Times cites a professor in Indiana who has written a book on masculinity as portrayed in the movies of Jimmy Stewart, Jack Nicholson and Clint Eastwood. The professor asks, "What if masculinity is a construction, something we unconsciously work very hard on making ourselves into that we've all conned ourselves into believing is natural? …

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