I’ve always been somewhat baffled by the specimens of masculinity that I have seen in the real world.
In our collective fantasies, we have so many excellent examples of masculinity.
There’s Superman: Dedicated, idealistic, gentle, compassionate, living in a world of dreams. With all of the power and strength in the world, he doesn’t even think twice about using it any other way but to support and protect others.
We have the stories of knights like King Arthur and his Court, who stood up for what they felt was right against impossible odds.
We have Robin Hood, who is willing to defy the rules of a society in order to rectify social inequities on his own.
There’s Terminator 2’s John Connor, who has a pet robot and realizes quickly that that means he has power over others, and chooses not to use it to hurt. He’s a child who’s willing to tell his mother, “We need to be a little more constructive here, OK?” He sees other children playing with guns, understanding the risk of nuclear war, and asks, “We’re not going to make it, are we?”
Anyone who grew up with video games had the opportunity to embrace Final Fantasy’s Cecil Harvey, a man who chooses to reject his nation and defy unjust orders based on his conscience, becoming a Paladin when given the opportunity and learning to sheathe his blade instead of striking others down with violence.
And even when we read the history books, there are example of great men who were philosophers, moral teachers, and scientists. We have the sensitivity and wonderfully expansive brain of Albert Einstein, the towering ethical figure of Dr. King, the concern with peace of Alfred Nobel, and even business tycoons like Rockefeller and Carnegie who aimed to succeed in the game of business but also to do good with their money in charitable foundations.
There’s the white hat cowboy, too: The John Wayne, or the modern cowboy cop character like Dirty Harry or John McClane or Justified’s Raylan Givens. These characters may have a simplistic sensibility, and there is an anti-intellectualism in this archetype that may need to be adjusted, but they basically are the kind of people who ride in and solve problems.
Even silly films and stories often echo this concept of masculinity. Joe Don Baker’s Final Justice, for example, may be a silly Mobius strip of a movie, but the protagonist suggests that people should strive to uphold true justice beyond hypocritical laws supported by dishonest politicians.
I thought, quite naturally, that anyone would want to strive to be like those men. Sure, we might stumble and fall along the way. We might fail to achieve those goals. But surely that would be what any man in his right mind would want, right? That would be the ideal to strive toward?
Then I looked around and saw men proud to be thugs and gangsters like UFC fighters and rappers pose as. I would see frat bros proud to be able to keep down vomitous swill. I saw people value their masculinity by their inability to control their anger, or be afraid of ordering an alcoholic beverage they might actually enjoy because it was “girly”.
I’ve been a lifelong feminist. I’ve often felt like an outsider to the other exemplars of my gender. And yet, I’ve often been called “all boy”. I’m a loud, boisterous person. I’ve never once felt like I was truly a woman, or even that me striving to be a woman would be something better. I was proud of who I was.
Navigating this contradiction to me, this feeling that masculinity wasn’t a problem and yet seeing how often it was, kept being complicated to me.
You see, it’s easy to blame hormones and the lack of frontal lobe development. It’s easy to say, “Boys will be boys”. And sure, I engaged in some stupid, reckless things as a young man. Yet I never treated women with the disrespect I see others so casually engage in. I’ve never been able to look at a person as merely a sexual object.
It’s easy for us to say, “Oh, that’s just patriarchy and sexism”. It’s easy to point to the powerful influences of conformity that begins from a young age when everything from the school system to the restrooms to the television cereals and video games segregate men and women.
But the fact is, at the end of the day, we are all making a choice as to what kind of people we’re going to be. What kind of man or woman, what kind of American or Canadian, what kind of white person or person or color, what kind of gay man or straight man… we are choosing our identities.
And it is so clear to me that there is an idea of masculinity that is incredibly traditional that would be a fantastic foundation to build off of.
Chivalry these days is often associated with trivial things like opening a door for a woman. But that’s not chivalry any more than Christianity is going to church on Sunday.
To be clear: I’m not saying that women can’t strive towards the ideals of knights, or cowboys.
But these archetypes have historically been masculine.
And there is nothing inconsistent about the idea of the modern knight errant and respecting the rights and choices of all people, women included.
One of my favorite Arthurian legends is the story of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle. Gawain, for those of you not up on the Arthurian mythos, is the knight’s knight. He and Galahad are commonly offered as the ultimate expression of the knightly code, as compared to Lancelot whose humility was great but who could not have fidelity to his friend. (Lancelot certainly broke the “bro code”, as we might put it today).
Gawain is willing to marry a woman in order to save his lord, Arthur, who is described as hideous. (Okay, this part of the story may not be the most idealistic or progressive). Ragnelle explains that women want “sovereignty”: They want to be able to make their own choices. Gawain actually listens on this front. Ragnelle then reveals that she has a curse: She can be beautiful during the day or at night. Gawain has to pick. Does he have a beautiful woman on his arm during the day, or a beautiful woman to share his arm at night?
His answer is classic: It’s not his choice.
In modern terms, we’d say that Gawain knew that Ragnelle had a right to make her own choice.
As a result of his choice, Ragnelle’s curse is lifted entirely.
Okay, okay, so the good guy gets the beautiful girl. In the real world, not only does that not always happen, but the idea of a reward for goodness is inherently problematic and becomes doubly so when applied to women.
But the point is that Gawain had a code of ethics, and it guided him to make an exceedingly modern choice. In an era where women were overwhelmingly viewed as being subordinate to men, Gawain told his wife, “Honey, I’ll support whatever you choose”.
Today, a man might face a dilemma of a wife who may be torn between work and spending time at home. His answer is the same as Gawain’s: “Honey, I just want you to be happy. If you want me to help you figure out the choice, I’ll do that. But I will support you in what you choose, because it’s your life and I can’t live it for you”.
To me, that is the resolution of the paradox. Being a feminist isn’t about male self-loathing. It’s about being a true knight. It’s about saying, “I don’t need other people to be subordinate to me, or listen to me. I don’t need to control my home. I don’t need to view my wife or my children as an appendage of myself. I only need to live life honestly and honorably”.
The present inequalities that women face should offend any man’s sense of justice. If a woman is making more money than us, then we should be happy that the system is fair rather than seeking out juvenile excuses about affirmative action or preferences.
In an upcoming book, I argue that the superhero code is similarly a way that we can live life ethically, both as far as our individual choices and when it comes to social choices.
We as men have no excuse for bad behavior. We can’t claim, “No one taught us better”. Because the stories have always been there for better models for our behavior.
Men should take back masculinity. We should take back an idea of masculinity that emphasizes respect for freedom and autonomy (“sovereignty)”, concern for the weaker, and resistance to bullies and cretins. We should emphasize intelligence and class instead of stupid and self-destructive antics. We should aim to be servants for the people we love, due to our own choice and not because of social obligations. A true knight, whether male or female, can be gentle to those who are frightened and pose us no threat while simultaneously being willing to lay down our lives against those who are cruel and violent. A true knight wouldn’t insult the humanity of someone and then say, “Well, fuck you if you can’t take a joke”.
So when we see men cat-calling women, or making blue comments that we know they would view as demeaning, we can call them out for having no courtesy. When we see men willing to strike those weaker than themselves, we can call them out for being cowards.
We can choose alternate models of masculinity that emphasize generosity of spirit, kindness, forbearance, and love.
If men strove to be true knights, they could be part of the solution instead of part of the problem.