Robert Bly died on November 21. Although he received an obituary in the New York Times, many people were unaware of his best-selling book, Iron John: A Book About Men. The book’s title came from a German fairy tale about a wild iron-skinned man and a prince and is viewed as a parable about a boy maturing into manhood. Bly argued that while women, because of menstruation, are better informed about their bodies and naturally transition into adulthood, men have no such rite of passage. He noted that ancient societies had older men serve as models and guides for younger men. In modern times, however, the absence of modern fathers leave boys to be raised in a matriarchal society, ostensibly making them less manly.
Bly’s arguments weren’t new and, in fact have been echoed by many leaders concerned about young men falling behind young women in the classroom, the workplace, and within the family. Iron John was published in 1990, the same time as the third-wave of feminism was pushing for women to have more rights at home and at work. It’s hard not to equate the two movements. Somehow whenever women campaign for more rights, men feel they are losing ground. Trump capitalized on that feeling of disenchantment felt by many white men, particularly rural, non college-educated white men, angry about falling behind and blaming others, women, of course, but also minorities and immigrants. It’s as if there are only so many rights and opportunities to go around and white men lose out in their fight for a fair share.
In the era of #metoo, where women are speaking out about sexual harassment and assault, bringing down more than one famous man, we are once again witnessing a resurgence of men with bully pulpits politicizing these gender wars. The best example is Missouri’s Senator Josh Hawley, who is blaming the far left for the decline of masculinity. Hawley’s definition of masculinity can best be illustrated by the photo that went viral of his fist pump, encouraging the pro-Trump mob as they gathered to protest the election results and storm the Capitol. Calling out the “destruction of American men,” Hawley claims with their misbehavior (presumably that also takes in groups like the Proud Boys), they are acting out in their misery. In an interview with Axios, Hawley said: “The left-wing attack on manhood says to men: You’re part of the problem. It says that your masculinity is inherently problematic. It’s inherently oppressive.” And in a speech at the National Conservatism Conference on November 1, Hawley said: ”The left want to define traditional masculinity as toxic. They want to define the traditional masculine virtues — things like courage and independence and assertiveness — as a danger to society.” No one, whether on the left, the right, or in the middle is saying that. Those qualities, in a man or in a woman, should be praised. But what we saw on January 6, all those white men hitting police with flags, represented cowardice, abuse, and arrogance.
In the current environment, with the LGBTQ community gaining more visibility, the traditional attributes of femininity and masculinity may no longer have relevance. Perhaps it’s time we need to retire those descriptions in favor of other character traits that can distinguish a person. Some of these qualities include: compassion for the less fortunate; bravery for speaking out, even when that might make a person the target for online abuse; empathy to understand and share feelings with another person; honesty, to tell the truth no matter the costs; humility, recognizing weaknesses as well as strengths; resiliency, to persist when others have given up; integrity, having a solid moral core not affected by outside forces; generosity, to give with kindness not expecting anything in return; gratitude, being thankful even during tough times; respect for other people as human beings; and, listening to others without giving advice or judgment.
Think about the people you admire, famous people as well as those close to home. Do you admire them because they are symbols of masculinity or femininity? Probably not. You look at the whole person, what they have done that impresses you, that makes you want to follow their example. And my best guess is that fist pumping to celebrate those who are destroying our democracy does not fall into that category.
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