Tuesday, October 25, 2005


I suppose y'all have heard the recent ubersexual nonsense? The ubersexual is apparently the dialectic synthesis of the classic cave man and the modern metrosexual. Ubersexuals are not into all of that fancy, pseudo-gay stuff; but they can still read and wear nice suits. Rush Limbaugh gave this idiotic notion a boost by commenting that "This is what men were before feminism came and neutered them". I translate this to mean: back when women were socially and legally forbidden from participating in traditionally male activities, i could still pretend to be masculine just by smoking cigars at my private club.

The ubersexual idea seems to be just a step away from the equally stupid idea of the "alpha-male". The key feature of the alpha-male is that he tends to get all of the women that other men (supposedly) want. Though not essential, the trappings of alpha-maleness often include financial independence, expensive toys, and excessive testosterone. The term obviously derives from that used to describe the dominant male in animal social groups who gets to mate with the females. Though some women seem to be completely taken with the alpha-male sort, the rest of us have another term for this type of man, which oddly enough also begins with the letter "a".

Much of my own mental model of masculinity comes from my great grandfather, on whose 90th i was born. He was a farmer, but also worked in factories and warehouses. He hunted and trapped on his farm, and he raised his own hunting dogs. He was the sort of man about whom people told stories: like how he would put a steel girder over one shoulder and hold it with one hand while using the other to climb a ladder. Or how he got a job with the county in his 80s mowing the ditchbanks mostly because he was bored and restless. He was physically strong, didn't say much, and he took care of his responsibilities. He never owned a Porsche, a Rolex, or a set of golf clubs.

But honestly i don't know much about my great grandfather's life, and given where and when he was raised it's very likely i'd have found some of his beliefs repugnant (The great Lakota chief Sitting Bull was murdered in 1890 on the day of our shared birthday. My great grandfather would have been 17 years old on that day, and i sometimes wonder what he thought about it). To me masculinity isn't really an intellectual concept, that is, i don't think there's a particular set of beliefs that are masculine. But apparently a lot of people do. Limbaugh thinks his conservative beliefs are masculine, whereas liberal beliefs are feminine. I suppose that this derives from conservatives' putative championing of self-reliance, but it seems to be very pervasive in political thought these days. Pro-war is masculine, anti-war is feminine. Small government is masculine, big government is feminine. The pro-business viewpoint is masculine, the pro-environmental viewpoint is feminine. Our esteemed governor here in California knew exactly what he was doing when he described his opponents as "girly men".

I'm not sure if the political right intentionally manufactured this situation, or if they just leverage it to their advantage (there is a depressing number of men out there who are convinced that their masculinity is in danger). The thing is: people think of Limbaugh (or Karl Rove or Pat Robertson or Bill O'Reilly or Tom Delay, etc.) as the embodiment of conservative principles, but i can't really imagine a less appropriate representative of masculine ideals. Beyond being male and ostensibly straight, Limbaugh doesn't possess a single characteristic that i regard as masculine.

To be fair, masculinity is an incredibly tricky concept. I recently went to see the movie A History of Violence, mostly because i have a man-crush on Viggo Mortensen (he was Aragorn for god's sake). His character in this movie is truly masculine including, paradoxically, his innate ability to kill people. That's why masculinity is such a hard concept to reconcile with human society: it's almost impossible to think about without considering violence. While hurting the helpless is loathsome and cowardly, it's undeniable that the ability to defend one's self is a masculine trait. If you've read this blog before you probably know that i think self-defense is also a good thing, but i think that even justifiable violence isn't always good. This is why i don't think masculinity can be thought of as instrinsically good or desirable. People might find it to be attractive or repugnant, in the same way that they might prefer blond hair or brown eyes, but i think it's a morally neutral concept (no pun intended).

While i don't have a well-developed description of what precisely is masculine, when i think of masculine ideals i'm reminded of my favorite of Heinlein's Lazarus Long quotes (though note that he says "a human being" and not "a man"):

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion,
butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet,
balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying,
take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations,
analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer,
cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

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