Redefining Masculinity

Answering the question What is a man? has never been a more difficult or pressing pursuit than at this time in mankind’s history when traditional masculine traits – such as chivalry, overt physicality and dominance – are under increasing attack as social expectations continue to shift.

To some extent this shift has been beneficial, especially when it’s the well-intentioned result of politically corrective motives (gender equality), recognition of shifting social structures (men are no longer the sole breadwinner) and market realities (men are less required to earn a living through physical effort alone). However, the once subversive – now oftentimes overt – attack on some of the tenets of masculinity has led to a situation where, if left unchecked, the baby could be thrown out with the bathwater.

An unintentional cost of this attack on some of the seemingly outdated notions of masculinity has been to rob men of some of the most steadfastly indoctrinated elements of what it means to be a man. In a world where physical prowess and pride can be viewed as Neanderthalic or a hindrance, what’s the option? If you risk being chastised for opening a door for a woman, what, instead, should you do? The confusion that can result from this backlash robs men of the fervor they should rightly feel for some of the other biologically imperative and socially relevant tenets of masculinity. In a world in constant flux there will always be a place for competitiveness, for men of honor, pride and duty, men with a lust for adventure, for these are timeliness qualities. To ignore or lose these qualities would come at cost that society may not be able to bear.

Broadly speaking, none of the above-mentioned traits are factually outdated; rather, they remain relevant aspects of the male personality that have simply been in need of contemporizing to suit modern realities. Old school chivalry still exists, however it’s tempered with a respect for the fairer sex and knowledge that women can fend for themselves. Likewise, men should take pleasure in their physical prowess, but also be aware that now, more than ever before, we live in a world where the strength of our minds, hearts and spirits is equally as important as the strength of our bodies.

This shift to viewing masculinity as a combination of strength of mind, body and soul has never been more evident that on the big screen. Fact is, in our media saturated age, the silver screen is by far the most influential means of reinforcing customary social values, as well as communicating emerging ones. Generations of men have turned to the silver screen (and its diminutive cousin) for guidance on what’s in and what’s out in the endless pursuit of the Holy Grail of masculinity – earning the title of being ‘a good man’.

Over the preceding decades the ‘ideal’ male portrayed and celebrated on the silver screen has evolved. During the 50’s the debonair Carey Grant and the wild at heart James Dean ruled the screen. A decade later the overtly masculine John Wayne and Charlton Heston took the mantle. The big screen of the 70’s oozed the tempered emotion and magnetism of Al Pacino and Robert Redford. The excessive 80’s celebrated the dyadic duos of the clean shaven and good humored Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise, as well as the sweat-soaked and famously taciturn Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. Closing out the last millennium we were held captive by the likes of Mel Gibson, Sean Penn and Bruce Willis, and today we celebrate and venerate the likes of Matt Damon, Mark Walberg and Leonardo Di Caprio.

So, whilst Carey Grant to Leonardo Di Caprio may not sound like such a big masculine leap, Schwarzenegger to Sean Penn certainly is.

What is interesting is that during this span of more than half a century what has been seen as masculine in one era has, for the most part, remained into the following one. The above-mentioned men have been confident and charismatic, have carried themselves with a measure of pride, have been articulate (with the steroid induced exception of the 80’s), and in various ways and means, genuine. What has changed, however, during this span of time has been the way leading men have increasingly surfaced ‘softer’ sides of themselves, which, over time, has been accepted, broadening our idea of masculinity.

Whereas today’s leading man is expected to be, for the most part, physically fit and relatively clean cut, it’s the added depth and sensitivity he brings to the big screen that is amplifying his masculinity through modern eyes. The depth of the characters they bring to life on the big screen – which we choose to believe is fueled by the depth of their own characters – is what defines them as arguably more masculine than previous actors (or at the least more masculine through modern eyes). Leonardo Di Caprio captivates us on the big screen, not because of bulging biceps, rather through his overt vulnerability and sincerity, as does Mark Walberg, both on and off-screen, the renowned family man. It’s this dualism, this core manliness built upon confidence and charisma, balanced by an overt sensitivity that softens them without lessening them, that is the key definer of why this generation of screen icons stands apart from their predecessors.

Whilst it’s safe to say that modern men are increasingly comfortable – or at very least, able – to open up more than previous generations, to convey emotions when appropriate, it could also be argued that modern men, even with the advantage of being more emotionally intelligent, are less bold, adventurous and ‘old-school’ masculine. A man who is wary of opening a car door for a woman, who avoids proudly celebrating a well-earned victory for fear of being viewed as a Neanderthal, or who avoids turning on the charm for fear of being labeled a player, is being less manly than he has every right to be. Society has, and will always, benefit from an ongoing contemporizing of the concept of masculinity, but society is also poorer when the foundation tenets of masculinity – such as confidence and courage – are eschewed for fear of repercussions. The world needs men to have the paradoxical elements of gentlemen AND cavemen within them.

A possible solution to the dilemma of ‘how to reclaim more of the caveman’ can be found on the big screen by carefully scrutinizing a screen icon that has persisted for half a century. Only one benchmark of masculinity has successfully weathered the test of time, for the most part staying true to his creators’ vision of what a real man is; Bond, James Bond. And whilst at first glance Bond may not seem like the most appropriate poster boy for those seeking a contemporary archetype of masculinity, when viewed with half a century’s hindsight, Bond becomes a pertinent standard of masculinity in trying times.

Since 1962, when Sean Connery launched the Bond character in Dr. No, the various actors who have played Bond over the years have changed in response to societies shifting understanding of masculinity. Sean Connery’s overt ‘man-ness’ evolved into Roger Moore’s more lighthearted Lothario, which in turn evolved into a more gentlemanly, handsome and overly coiffed Pierce Brosnan. Then, we have today’s Bond – a very different beast. He is a quantum leap more manly – at least in the realms of physicality, confidence and dominance – than his predecessors. Loved and loathed by audiences worldwide, today’s Bond is more aggressive, darker and more brooding than ever before. And this is no accident; today’s Bond is a product – the product of a movie studio and an age on ennui. This raw, uncensored and cavemanish Bond is the film studio’s recognition of a cultural zeitgeist that has modern men partially neutered by a society that values feelings over form, substance over sweat. Modern man is, in part, the oftentimes conflicted output of a society that wants men to cry, just not whilst watching a sports match or over an injury on the field of play. But thankfully, 007 can save the day.

Today’s Bond is the natural progression of previous Bonds, and a solid archetype for any man looking for a little guidance in the masculinity department. He’s a man’s man, confident in himself and with the ladies, loyal to his friends and graceful in dealing with all that life throws at him. He’s bold, courageous and duty bound, whilst remaining a gentleman who is well mannered and well kept. All of these characteristics are core tenets of our accepted notion of masculinity, equating to an archetype of a man that is confident, courageous and committed, qualities that most men would be happy to posses.

More importantly, as with today’s other male screen icons, emotion has finally become a part of the Bond character. Whilst for the most part he keeps his emotions in check, for the first time audiences bear witness to the emotions churning just below the surface of the oftentimes bruised and beleaguered sword of the Empire. He suffers on screen, physically and emotionally, and we finally get to see it because this Bond isn’t concerned about what other people think of him. Why? Because he’s living ‘on purpose’. He’s a man with a mission and he aims to see it through, whatever the cost. Bond ‘asks forgiveness not permission’ because that’s just the way we need to be sometimes.

All the above named aspects are common traits of masculinity, traits that by and large reside within most men, whether we choose to acknowledge and surface them or not. Bonds’ confidence, boldness and purposefulness are worthy traits for men to emulate, as is his mastery of his emotions. Much like today’s Bond, today’s man needs to balance his commitment to the good of others with a tacit respect for himself and a commitment to living the life he desires to live. Bond’s commitment to Queen and country, to himself, to living purposefully and acting confidently – despite the cost – is a way of being in the world that would dramatically change most men’s lives. It’s confidence that emboldens us to hold the door for the lady in line without fear of censure, confidence that enables us to cross the room to offer a drink to the object of our affection, confidence that aids us in finding the courage to expose our emotions and frame them into words when needed.

Harvey C. Mansfield, author of Manliness, has argued that the concept of manliness is outdated, suggesting that this is why it is being willfully dismantled by society. But this is a mean view of masculinity, for, just like society itself, the concept of masculinity is evolving. Each generation will certainly have a more expansive view of what masculinity means to them, but the tenets will, for the most part, remain unchanged. What needs to change, however, is the way society understands the idea of masculinity.

Today, the word masculinity is oftentimes used in a pejorative manner by people who have a limited view of this venerable concept; yet this can easily be changed. When more men have the courage to demonstrate through word and deed that our capacity for overt vulnerability emanates from the very same part of us that chooses to bear arms in defense of a nation, only then will people understand. It is this dualism that lies at the heart of man, our capacity for being gentleman and caveman, which drives us to protect and compete, love and wage war, guided by a common idea of what a real man is. In an era where the tenets of masculinity are under fire, it takes courageous men to prove that there’s still a place for manliness. Courageous men act in alignment with their beliefs, values and goals because they know that, irrespective of what the world thinks of a man, it’s what a man thinks of himself that counts most.

That’s the essence of masculinity.