by Brandon McGinley ’10
The first thing I noticed when I returned to Princeton from my hometown of Pittsburgh after Thanksgiving – and perhaps it is a strange thing to notice – is that there are a lot more effeminate men in Princeton than in southwestern Pennsylvania. Now, this is not some sort of thinly-veiled claim about the prevalence of homosexuality in these regions, but merely an observation about how men carry themselves in two very different parts of the country.
Perhaps a few lunchtime archetypes will illuminate my observation. Back home, I’m used to seeing fathers wearing Pittsburgh Steelers t-shirts and dingy work jeans (usually all a full-size too big), standing tall and taking long, confident strides, wolfing down meaty sandwiches and hearty soups. Returning to Princeton, I discover men of the same age and apparent family status wearing trendy “Italia” track jackets and designer jeans (usually all a half-size too slim), meandering meekly through crowds, hips failing to remain staunchly stationary, toting field greens with raspberry vinaigrette.
The men of Pittsburgh and Princeton are not inherently different. There is not some vast genetic chasm in central Pennsylvania that has kept Princeton men from their western counterparts for generations. The reason for this difference, it seems, is a stigma, forged in the mills of blue-collar Pittsburgh for generations, that remains ingrained in the culture of the region even as its economy modernizes, but which has been all but eliminated in this progressive college town. It is a stigma against too-tight attire, against swishy hips, against dainty salads, against androgyny.
The standard account, of course, is that this is merely a stigma against homosexuality, that it is implicit and often explicit homophobia. This account strikes me as partially correct, but ultimately unsatisfactory, as it is based on the assumption that the only meaningful foundation for social norms and customs with regard to gender is sex – that is to say, overt or sublimated concerns about sexual activity and proclivities.
Not only is this not how people think about gender norms as a matter of fact, but it is also not how we want to talk about gender, nor is it how we ought to. In a previous setting, I defined this problem as the “sexualization of gender expectations” and described its pernicious implications for the college “hook-up culture.” Today, I’d like to explore this problem and its ramifications more deeply.
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For years now, there has been a growing collection of writings, including academic tracts such as Professor Harvey Mansfield’s Manliness and books targeted at younger readers like the wildly popular The Dangerous Book for Boys, whose success has been driven by dissatisfaction with modern society’s dismissal of traditional – that is to say, non-sexualized – gender norms. This backlash, which can be described to a large extent as anti-feminist, at least as the feminist movement is popularly construed, has now made perhaps its most substantial step, appearing in large-scale advertising campaigns. Consider this “Man-ifesto” (their title, not mine) which is the centerpiece of an enormous marketing campaign by Dockers, reportedly including Super Bowl television spots, designed to reinvigorate the company’s image:
Once upon a time, men wore the pants, and wore them well. Women rarely had to open doors and little old ladies never crossed the street alone. Men took charge because that’s what they did. But somewhere along the way, the world decided it no longer needed men. Disco by disco, latte by foamy non-fat latte, men were stripped of their khakis and left stranded on the road between boyhood and androgyny. But today, there are questions our genderless society has no answer for. The world sits by as cities crumble, children misbehave and those little old ladies remain on one side of the street. For the first time since bad guys, we need heroes. We need grown-ups. We need men to put down the plastic fork, step away from the salad bar, and untie the world from the tracks of complacency. It’s time to get your hands dirty. It’s time to answer the call of manhood. It’s time to wear the pants.
I first came across this gem on Princeton’s feminist and gender issues blog, Equal Writes, where the editor reacted with incredulity to the advertisement. But, according to a New York Times report on the campaign, it is not only believable, but it is a trend in marketing: “The tone – half serious, half kidding, both sending up and saluting truisms about masculinity – is one that has been heard in several campaigns lately that are aimed at younger men.” And yet the politically and intellectually acute wording of that tirade (“genderless society”) makes it obvious that the serious far outweighs the kidding.
Furthermore, it is in the stark honesty of the campaign where its success among the younger generation lays. It is targeted at young men precisely because, confronted on the one side by academic dreams of a society where manhood is non-existent and on the other by a popular culture that extols a masculinity based on sexual prowess that is demeaning to both sexes, we want – we need – a reaffirmation of our own manhood that is positive, that is self-respecting, that is moral.
The two fronts in the assault on traditional masculinity – the embracing of androgyny and the insurgence of the crass, notches-on-the-bedpost variety – are, in an important way, related. The former is based on the elimination of all distinction between men and women, entailing that those qualities that were previously identified as “manly” are at best illusory or at worst oppressive. And yet men, and particularly adolescents, no matter the pyrrhic successes of the post-modern, post-gender movement, will always seek out ways to differentiate themselves, to prove themselves (to others and to themselves). What are they left with, when they have been stripped of every opportunity to distinguish themselves from women? The only thing, the only moment, the only action wherein men and women are irreducibly, incontrovertibly different: sex.
And so the traditional, blue-collar stigma against androgyny should not be construed as merely homophobic, as it is concerned about much more than just sex. It enforces, for instance, metrics of manliness related to character traits (courage, emotional fortitude) and physical attributes (strength, toughness). And yet I would be lying if I claimed to perceive that this stigma – and a healthy conception of masculinity – can be considered completely independent of homosexuality.
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It seems, in fact, that the modern focus on sex has infiltrated even these traditional stigmas associated with manhood, inasmuch as they now include an explicit (or very strongly implied) rejection of homosexuality and an unfortunate disdain for gay persons. One might wonder, however: hasn’t this always been the case? Surely homosexual conduct was even more stigmatized in decades and centuries past than it is now? It was, and that is the point.
In a letter to his older colleague Jean-Jacques Biot, the nineteenth-century French chemist Louis Pasteur wrote:
I am touched by your acknowledgment of my deep and sincere affection for you, and I thank you for it. But whilst keeping your attachment for me as I preserve mine for you, let me for the future rejoice in it in the secret recesses of my heart and of yours. The world is jealous of friendships however disinterested, and my affection for you is such that I wish people to feel that they honor themselves by appreciating you, rather than that they should know that you love me and that I love you.
To be clear, there has never been a claim, nor is there a whiff of evidence, that Pasteur was gay. But in his day, the preceding clarification would have been utterly unnecessary. As Providence College Professor of English Anthony Esolen writes in his article “A Requiem for Friendship” in Touchstone Magazine (from which the Pasteur letter is taken), homosexual conduct was “met with such opprobrium that nobody would assume that a good man would engage in it.” And only in such a social environment – an environment where same-sex sexual activity is completely off the table – could Pasteur write with such affection to a fellow man (imagine the scandal today!), or, to use a popular example from Esolen’s article, could a young Abraham Lincoln have shared a bed with his close friend Joshua Speed.
And here we find the difference between modern means of enforcing manhood and those of earlier times. Today, the traditional stigma found in places like Pittsburgh includes, to varying degrees, a clear acknowledgement and rejection of homosexuality. That is to say, it is incumbent on men to prove that they are “not gay.” On the other hand, the original masculine norm presupposed a rejection of homosexual conduct, such that men had no obligation to prove that they were not engaging in homosexual conduct because no one would think, let alone say, such an awful thing. Most importantly, even people who experience persistent same-sex attractions are benefitted by this conception of manliness, as they do not suffer the suspicion of friends and acquaintances and are actually socially supported in their valiant struggle not to engage such attractions by a culture that stigmatizes conduct, rather than persons.
We must pause here for a point on language. One of the most insidious aspects of current thinking about these issues is the conflation of homosexual desire with homosexual acts, by way of “identity.” In common parlance, to be “gay” entails both the presence of particular desires, and action upon them. If we are to speak honestly about these issues, however, the two must be disaggregated. The taboo at the base of the “original masculine norm” is not against homosexual desires as such, but against homosexual conduct. Today, we casually lump these crucially distinct concepts into the comprehensive term “homosexuality,” a term used in this essay only when no other term will do or when discussing the modern context, in which desires and actions have been conflated.
This modern sexualization of masculinity, according to Esolen, puts a particular strain on close male friendships, as the specter of sexuality now haunts every interaction. All-male gatherings have now been labeled with the crass and vulgar pejorative “sausage-fest,” as surely the only legitimate groups for men – the only manly groups – include women. Warm embraces between close friends have become “bro’ grabs,” and both parties are sure not to remain too close too long, their eyes darting about to make sure no one is watching and judging. And don’t even think of bringing the word “love” to the table.
Deprived of meaningful male friendships, then, how do men, and particularly adolescents for whom the personal pressures of approaching manhood and the social pressures of insecure peers are most acute, prove that they are men, that they aren’t gay? As Esolen puts it, “The single incontrovertible sign that the boy can now seize on is that he has ‘done it’ with a girl, and the earlier and more regularly and publicly he does it, the safer and surer he will feel.”
This last point hints at the most pernicious aspect of modern thinking about manliness and the pervasiveness of homosexuality in the culture. As important as external, social pressures to keep up appearances are for young men trying to prove themselves, it is the torturous internal questioning where the most pernicious problems lay.
The young man who finds fulfillment in his all-male friendships is now forced (and is further encouraged by a culture of “experimentation”) to ask himself that tormenting question: “Does this mean I’m gay?” An adolescent boy is at a gathering with his male friends, but isn’t engaged in the current conversation; his eyes wander; they meet those of a close friend across the room; he gently smiles: “What does that mean? Does he like me?” And as conversations about sexual proclivities move to younger and younger audiences, consider the 11-year-old sixth grade student who doesn’t find any of the girls in the class particularly intriguing: the possibility taunts him until he takes action to eliminate it, or accepts an entirely new “identity” based on a youthful hunch.
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If we are to reclaim a healthy conception of manliness in our society – a set of norms that takes into account the perils (and joys) of boyhood and adolescence, that allows loving, fulfilling male friendships to flourish, and that is conducive to virtue throughout life – then we must first divorce masculinity from sexuality. And so the stigma that finds a home in blue-collar Pittsburgh, inasmuch as it encourages strength, courage, fortitude, etc. is just fine, if perhaps a little discomfiting for the less well-built among us. It becomes problematic, however, in its acknowledgement of homosexuality. First, its disdain for people identified as gay is inappropriate and demeaning. Second, it imbues manliness with sexual expectations and has the potential to stifle meaningful male friendships.
The solution, then, is obvious, albeit extraordinarily controversial. If we are to reestablish a healthy, positive, and self-respecting understanding of masculinity in society, then homosexual conduct must be viewed as so ignominious, so disgraceful, so shameful that “nobody would assume that a good man would engage in it.” Crucially, this does not imply censure of those who experience same-sex attractions; quite the opposite, it entails love and compassion for those who experience persistent same-sex attraction, that they may overcome this daunting personal challenge.
Anthony Esolen writes that, just as the “stigma against incest allows for the physical and emotional freedom of a family,” the stigma against homosexual conduct makes room for powerful and fulfilling male friendships. Even more, such a stigma, applied with compassion and love for all, lays the foundation for a healthy, powerful, and beautiful conception of manhood to which young boys can look forward with anticipation and joy.