The Cult of 'Manliness'

A curmudgeon's defense of "manly men" devolves quickly into self-parody.


It's a tough job defending manliness in the age of irony. Interviewing Harvey C. Mansfield, a professor of government at Harvard and the author of the new book Manliness (real men don't use subtitles), New York Post movie critic Kyle Smith observes, "People can hardly say the word 'manly' without cracking up." Mansfield ruefully agrees: "It's very easy to make fun of manly men."

Yes, and it's very hard not to think of the self-proclaimed "manly men" of the old Saturday Night Live sketch, sailing the world aboard the Raging Queen, or perhaps the Merry Men's chorus in Mel Brooks' Robin Hood: "We're men—manly men! We're men in tights!"

But a more fitting theme for Mansfield's opus would be the All in the Family opener, "Those Were the Days," wherein the Bunkers waxed nostalgic for the years when "girls were girls and men were men." Now those days are gone, and it's a mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up world.  And so a man's got to do what a man's got to do: write a book about being manly.

A Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus for the literati, Manliness ranges from Aristotle to Nietzsche to Simone de Beauvoir, but Mansfield's message is fairly simple: Men—the manly kind, at least—are by nature strong, dominant, aggressive, self-confident risk takers. Women are the weaker sex, dammit, and they ought to face this fact, stop trying to be men, and temper the excesses of manliness with nurturance and gentle criticism.

In a 1997 op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, Mansfield warned that "the protective element of manliness is endangered by women having equal access to jobs outside the home" and that nonfeminist women "often seem unaware of what they are doing to manliness when they work to support themselves" or when they insist that "people should be hired and promoted on merit, regardless of sex."

He has apparently mellowed a bit in the ensuing decade: He now says careers and equal opportunity in public life are fine as long as distinct sex roles are preserved in private life. In interviews, he has suggested that the wife should earn no more than a third of the couple's joint income and do no less than two-thirds of the housework. He also advises that, married or single, men and women should adopt marital-like roles—"the men protective and authoritative as if they were husbands, the women nurturing and critical as if they were wives."

Mansfield has told National Review he is "particularly trying to persuade women" of the benefits of manliness. He might try scrapping the condescension toward the ladies that drips from his pronouncements. As the weaker sex, he explains to the Post, women are "not in a position to ask for something directly. They're either obliged to smile a lot and persuade, or make a scene."

Then there's this, from the book: "To resist rape a woman needs more than martial arts and more than the police; she needs a certain ladylike modesty enabling her to take offense at unwanted encroachment." He even trots out this old nugget, apparently in full seriousness: "In my experience it is difficult for a man who is attracted to a woman not to find her cute, rather than intimidating, when she gets angry."

Mansfield's opus frequently borders on self-parody. In fact, it crosses the border on the first page of the preface: "I was going to call this book 'a modest defense of manliness,' but manly men are not modest, and I do not want to sound like a wimp or to begin by looking down on manly men." (John Wayne never had to tell us he didn't want to sound like a wimp.) His notion of manliness, which is all about aggressiveness and attention seeking—"the manly man struts and boasts," he writes—comes off as a caricature of the real thing. He even cites George W. Bush's stubborn refusal to admit mistakes as an excess of manliness, even though most people would cite that as the opposite of "being a man."

I could understand Manliness getting some fairly positive attention as an eccentric tract by a curmudgeon who's kind of cute when he's cranky. Yet in the right-wing press, the book has been receiving entirely serious accolades.

A conservative cult of manliness has been on the rise for some time now. It came into its own after September 11, when Peggy Noonan penned a paean in The Wall Street Journal to the return of "John Wayne," as represented by the firemen and policemen at the World Trade Center and the heroes of United Flight 93.

But it was in evidence even before that. In October 2000, at a Cato Institute symposium on the presidential election, National Review Editor Rich Lowry spoke of a "war on masculinity" in America and asserted that Bush appealed to the voters because he exemplified an action-oriented, nonintellectual manly resolve.

Indeed, the cult of manliness on the right often overlaps with the cult of Bush. When National Review's Kathryn Jean Lopez asked him to name the most manly politician in America today, Mansfield unhesitatingly pointed to the former cheerleader in the Oval Office.

In 2003 The American Enterprise published a somewhat surreal roundtable discussion of masculinity by six conservative women. In the very second paragraph, one Erica Walter, an "at-home mom and Catholic writer," claimed that "manliness has experienced a renaissance" partly because "the Bush/Cheney administration has set the tone for the political culture."

Other panelists gushed over Bush's "virility," with genuflections toward the "Mission Accomplished" landing on the deck of the USS Lincoln. Said Walter, "Testosterone and camaraderie—many people responded to it."

Today, of course, that manly moment is mostly remembered as an embarrassment, and no particular renaissance of manhood seems in sight—not even in the Mansfield home. The professor, it turns out, does such unmanly chores as the laundry. His wife Delba Winthrop, a Harvard lecturer, has told The Boston Globe, "I am sure he finds household work undignified.…But that holds for women, too. Somehow, it gets done."

There's one more argument for a renaissance of manliness, courtesy of the demographer Philip Longman in the March Foreign Policy. Patriarchy, he writes, confers an "evolutionary advantage" on a society since it
offers women no respectable roles other than motherhood and thus promotes reproduction. (He also says such societies "may well degenerate over time into misogyny," as if the arrangement he describes were not misogynistic to start with.) In modern industrialized democracies, people with secular, progressive social values are reproducing far less than traditionalists of various stripes. Their share of the population will inevitably shrink in the generations to come, Longman argues, leaving people with patriarchal social values to dominate.

Longman's reasoning is more sophisticated than Mansfield's polemic, but it far too confidently assumes that children will share their parents' values. Nor does it consider the possibility that educated people with progressive values might have a cultural influence disproportionate to their share of the population.

Don't count on demographics to give the manly man the last laugh: It's more likely that three generations from now, bookish conservatives will still be lamenting the decline of rugged manliness.