The Responsibilities of a Third Millennium Man.
It is becoming more complex to be a man in the world. That’s not a complaint. For centuries, being a man has been very straightforward (which is not the same as saying it’s easy). Fundamentally, men were expected to be leaders of the household, to provide the primary income, to be physically imposing, and as a gender to be willing collectively to do the dangerous, difficult work that provided for the prosperity and security of nations. In exchange, we were generally unquestioned as the decision-makers and entitled to rights and privileges that women were not, whether explicitly codified in the law or implicit and ubiquitously enforced by the culture.
The 20th century saw a gradual erosion and shift in male supremacy in a variety of places. The transition is ongoing, and will take some time before it is complete. I think that we are slowly moving toward a society based on equality of the sexes, but that it will require a lot of time and effort still to get there. But certain facts and processes draw us inevitably towards it: high-status professions once male-exclusive like law and medicine are much closer to parity than once they were, and women are now more than 50% of college graduates. The law is less unequal than it used to be. Our political processes (the current Trump tantrum is a symptom, I think) are showing that we are more and more accepting of women with power.
All of this has many men adrift. Yes, there’s a tangible frustration with the loss of unquestioned and exclusive political and economic authority, but I think there’s more than that. Rage at perceived marginalization is understandable, even if men are not actually being marginalized. But it can feel like marginalization to move from supremacy to equality. The remedy for that is, perhaps, simply to let men rage it out and have their little tantrum. The world is changing, and some will be left behind when it does. That’s the way the world works.
I know it’s satisfying for some people to watch that tantrum. It’s a kind of cultural revenge. “Male tears” are mocked when men act out with anger or defensiveness at the loss of some previously exclusive privilege. I get that. But I wonder if there isn’t a more inclusive way to address this. The world is changing, and yes, some will be left behind. But shouldn’t we aspire to help everyone who might do so move along with it, rather than gleefully abandoning some who have the capacity for change, if only they had some mooring and instruction?
This is where I see the men of my generation and persuasion failing. Those of us who have at least nominally worked out how to get along in the world as it changes, and to embrace the direction and destination we think represents equality and justice. The third millennium man. What is our role? What part can we play that diminishes the inherent cultural violence that is being done by so many other men?
I think it starts with representing masculinity in a new way. One thing that many – especially young – men seem to believe is that masculinity has become despised and derided. This is simply not true. What is true is that the imagos of masculinity which we were once told represented the ideal (but which never did) are now being revealed as what they always were: toxic and hateful. I promise you, men, women have not suddenly and collectively decided that they hate masculinity.
What has happened though, is that women are showing us the kind of masculinity they prefer (at large – generalizations aplenty here), and it had never been the fake, flat characters that are so straightforward for us to process. It’s not the hulking action hero who seethes at the precipice of rape because he’s entitled by dint of gladiatorial triumph to whatever flesh he can reach. But that that flesh will swoon and melt for him. We men were taught that. But it was never true.
The responsibility of the third millennium man is to demonstrate that masculinity does not mean entitlement. It does not mean supremacy. And that crucially, masculinity is – in itself – a “how” and not a “what”.
Being male no longer means doing things, or having privileges, that women can not or do not. Unless you’re an elite athlete, there is nothing you can do by virtue of being male that women cannot do. And so expressing your masculinity by asserting superiority over women? That is going to leave you lonely and isolated among the enraged and hateful men the rest of the world is leaving behind.
Describing what positive masculinity is not is easier than describing what it is. Because all of the things that a positively masculine man does are perfectly within the rights and capabilities of a woman as well. So masculinity should not be seen as a bas relief, or mirror, or contrast to femininity. We were taught that these are opposites. They are not. If we men want to understand how to express (rather than assert) our masculinity in a world that doesn’t reward simian dominance rituals, we need to compare ourselves not to women, but to our own ideal and shortcomings.
Masculinity in the new world is about becoming better than we are. You do not have to apologize for being male. You simply have to work toward being a good man. All the stereotypes of masculinity presented so egregiously inflated in the culture have their grains in truth. It is ok to be physically strong and to work on your body. Master a trade or skill. Do these things confidently. But there’s no need to teeter from confidence to arrogance. In the new world, masculinity will have to be thoughtful.
So many men look at the changing world and think that women have come to dominate it, and that being unapologetically male is a liability. That men are being consigned to low-status misery and economic nonviability. It’s just not true. But the world is changing, and if men want to flourish in the new age, in the culture we’re building that will be based on universal justice and equality, we have to change with it. Our understanding of masculinity needs to change.
Because our understanding of masculinity has always been deficient. Now, finally, women are getting to have a true place in the conversation about what makes men masculine. Just as men have been part of the conversation about what makes women feminine forever (that’s changing too but I have nothing to say about it). It is time we started listening instead of just dictating. The strategies by which men are going to be successful in the new world are different from the old ones. But men are still men.
And expressing my own masculinity through self-betterment and challenging myself has been among the most satisfying aspect of my life. I do it for me. And my masculinity is appealing to the people for whom that matters. And those who look at me and see something less than a man because I believe that my female colleagues and compatriots are my equals? Well, I have little doubt who will be more content in the Third Millennium.