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Good Riddance to Manliness

In commenting on what sounds like a typically idiotic book by Maureen Dowd, hilzoy says something that I think demonstrates the problems with moderate attempts to combat machismo. She quotes excerpts in which Dowd argues that men need to validate their manliness by treating women like children, and that therefore any woman who buys into this crazy idea of equality will never get a man. Responding to this attempt at romantic/sexual blackmail, hilzoy says:

I, in my naive little way, thought that manhood was about strength, decency, honor, courage, and the like. The world is full of ways to demonstrate one's manhood: occasions to step up and do the right thing, to take responsibility for your actions, to go out of your way to be decent to someone who needs it, to have the guts to do what's right even when you'll be ridiculed for doing so.

I understand the impulse here (which hilzoy clarifies in the comments) -- to redirect the macho impulse away from "cheap" versions of manliness to better ones. It's a common tactic among moderate and certain forms of conservative activists -- to say, for example, that a "real man" would call his friends out on their sexist comments rather than join in. However, this redefinition of real manliness raises another problem: aren't "strength, decency, honor, courage and the like" traits that are admirable in women as well? Most people (including hilzoy) will admit that they are, (though some will add some hand-waving about how these qualities are expressed in some undefinably different way in the two sexes).

In one sense this is fine -- people of both sexes should work to demonstrate hilzoy's list of qualities. But as soon as you say that, you give up on appealing to the macho instinct as a motivation for doing so. Gender is a relational category -- things are manly in large part because they are not womanly, and vice-versa. The macho impulse is a drive not just to do things that are intrinsically good for men, but to do things that distinguish men from women. This is why so much of machismo is wrapped up in policing border-blurring behavior, such as homosexuality and uppity women. Therefore it's only manly to have strength if women are typically weak. If women can be strong too, men will have to find a different reason to be strong (and plenty of such reasons exist).

Thus, we have two choices for combatting machismo. On the one hand, we can come up with progressive but clearly distinguished male and female roles that the macho instinct can drive men toward fulfilling (call this the Hugo Schwyzer strategy -- though he, like many who take this path, is too invested in anti-essentialist feminism to be willing to put much substance on the gender distinction). Or -- and this is my preference -- we can work to undo the macho instinct, to convince men that "being a man" should not be so central to their identity.


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