The Twilight of American Manhood

It’s a pretty sad subject and I’m sorry I have to bring it up at all. But my immediate circumstances constrain me.

I am surrounded by dynamic, aggressive, articulate, and achievement-oriented women. I shall not attempt to describe them all, but in the last forty-eight hours, more or less, I’ve talked to N about building my wife’s greenhouse; listened to my cousin E describe her efforts to develop a museum; chatted with B, a college president; observed S writing her thesis on museum outreach; talked to P, entrepreneurially engaged with Portuguese textiles; and participated in conversations with L, an anthropologist expert on Nepalese women, plus assorted female family members, none of whom can be described as wallflowers. Other recent exposures have been with L, J, another E, C (doing thesis on Maithili women), yet another L (singer), M (former White House staffer), etc, etc, about whom ditto.

There is nothing comparable in my recent experience on the male side. I shall avoid bruised feelings by not naming names. But where the dominant qualities in the females I have recently observed concern brains, brass, energy, and achievement, those on the male side reflect a kind of flaccid resignation. Somehow, somewhere, something or someone has taken the fight out of my gender. Or rather, some set of circumstances has taken a large measure of the fight out of my gender, and reinstalled it in the other half of the population.

This is all pretty subjective, but a little reflection suffices to reinforce the validity of my observation. What is manhood? Or maleness? Obviously it varies spatially from one culture to another, and temporally. But there must be a hard core that reflects the kind of animal we are, homo sapiens in general that is, resulting from ten thousand generations of evolution in a mostly paleolithic environment. To define this hard core we need only look to those ancient conditions, and reflect on how they channeled the primal urge to survive.

I have written about this before. I have acknowledged that in defining human nature on this basis, I have employed a form of social Darwinism– while emphatically rejecting that doctrine as a guide for human behavior in the present and future. We are bright because we used to fight. A very long time ago we used to fight in small tribal-sized units, that competed for the territories best suited to their survival and growth. Culture emerged as a way of differentiating competing units; it was an evolutionary mechanism in itself.

In those days, the fact that a man was physically stronger than most women was more significant than it is now, when we have all sorts of other ways to accomplish physical work. This factor combined with intertribal bellicosity and the nature of the reproductive process to make man the fighter and woman the nurturer. I am not advocating anything here, I am simply trying to explain.

In terms of tribal procreation, the individual male was not only stronger, he was more expendable than the individual female. So he was the risk-taker, in battle and at the hunt. It may well be that the tribe was more dependent for food on berries and roots gathered mainly by women, than on meat brought home by the male hunter–but mammoth-bashing was more exciting, and caused more talk and legend. It was good for the male ego, which prospered under this bisexual regime. Maleness required prodigious talk about prowess in battle and the hunt; and naturally enough, included much polygamous talk about prowess with women. This was only in part braggadocio. The contrast between the individual male’s lust for as many women as possible, and the female’s need for a more permanent relationship with a male of her choice reflects what modern sociologists refer to as the “different reproductive strategies” that differentiate men and women, or used to.

Along comes agriculture, and notions of male dominance continue, bolstered by the continuation of warfare as a vital part of the evolutionary process, and by the fact that at least some farm labor requires the extra strength of the male.

Along comes the industrial revolution, and with it some narrowing of the gap between the genders. But the factory is still largely men’s work, or at least a workplace where heavy labor is done by men, and the workplace is managed by men, like the farm.

So we have four “F’s”, the traditional basis of male dominance: Fighting, Fertilizing (there’s a better F-word but let’s keep it clean), Farm and Factory. Now look at what has happened to all four, and within living memory:

For some males, dying in battle is still possible. A few years ago if you were a youth in Iran you had a good chance of being rubbed out by the Iraqis. But for Americans, and other people so rich and sophisticated as to have the Bomb, warfare is out, kaput, finito. We can only fight very small wars, or ones like Desert Storm where we win almost bloodlessly. Vietnam was our last sanguinary conflict. The average American male grows up these days in an environment in which he is considerably more likely to croak in a car crash than he is to suffer the more romantic fate of dying in mortal combat for his country. And anyway, he is basically opposed to war, so he doesn’t even have the myth to sustain his ego. We still have our armed forces, but even this bastion of American masculinity is being eroded as female soldiers and sailors move in, even in combat roles.

Copulating with women is no longer a reproductive strategy. Men do it not to have babies but because it feels good. Decisions on having babies are mostly made by women these days, with the male in the role of consultant. The actual decision is made on much the same basis as the strategies that determine when you will buy a new automobile.

We men can’t even fantasize the way we used to, at least publicly. Young men still snicker and drool at curvaceous females, but such behavior is heavily frowned on and most of the fun has gone out of it. Women have triumphed in a sex revolution that has taken all the fun out of sex. The national passion for litigation has contributed its mite, by making sexual adventurism enormously costly for the average male. The defrocking of eminent political leaders, congressmen and such like, for letting their glands overtake their judgement is a sign of the times that all the rest of us frustrated males note and heed. It just isn’t practical or fun for men to make passes at women any more; anything beyond mild flirtation is more than risky; often it can be tantamount to professional suicide.

The farm has almost ceased to exist as the backbone of American society. Most of our food comes from capitalist conglomerates. Most of our small individual farmers are either retired hobbyists, or facing bankruptcy.

The factory is turning white-collar as automation takes over the drudgery. The male superiority in physical strength is no longer an advantage. Most people are no longer employed in factories anyway, service industries having taken over. The females are still a minority at most senior levels but are gaining rapidly, while men are appearing in increasing numbers as replacements for airline stewardesses, waitresses, and other such jobs formerly dominated by women.

So what is left for the male ego to nurture itself on? Well, there is still a little momentum, and God bless the Friday night poker game where a bunch of horny males can assemble without the clucking presence of females, and scratch and cuss and tell dirty jokes while they simulate combat with their dollars. Other than that I can see very little future for my gender. The women are taking over, no doubt about it. Maybe I ought to write some kind of requiem for my sex, before the women take over completely and reduce us to lap dogs.

Yes, I guess I know what it is like, to be a member of an endangered species……

Carl Coon 7/89 (rev. 4/97)

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