Towards a better masculinity

The Washington Post essay by Christine Emba called “Men are lost. Here’s a map out of the wilderness” has made the rounds over the last month, and for good reason. Emba takes stock of the currently tenuous state of American masculinity, with insightful commentary from Of Boys and Men author Richard Reeves and professor Scott Galloway.

Here’s a key passage on what “good masculinity” should look like:

Reeves, in our earlier conversation, had put it somewhat more subtly. “I try to raise my boys” — he has three — “to have the confidence to ask a girl out, if that’s their inclination; the grace to accept no for an answer; and the responsibility to make sure that, either way, she gets home safely.” His recipe for masculine success echoed Galloway’s: proactiveness, agency, risk-taking and courage, but with a pro-social cast.

This tracked with my intuitions about what “good masculinity” might look like — the sort that I actually admire, the sort that women I know find attractive but often can’t seem to find at all. It also aligns with what the many young men I spoke with would describe as aspirational, once they finally felt safe enough to admit they did in fact carry an ideal of manhood with its own particular features.

Physical strength came up frequently, as did a desire for personal mastery. They cited adventurousness, leadership, problem-solving, dignity and sexual drive. None of these are negative traits, but many men I spoke with felt that these archetypes were unfairly stigmatized: Men were too assertive, too boisterous, too horny.

But, in fact, most of these features are scaffolded by biology — all are associated with testosterone, the male sex hormone. It’s not an excuse for “boys will be boys”-style bad behavior, but, realistically, these traits would be better acknowledged and harnessed for pro-social aims than stifled or downplayed. Ignoring obvious truths about human nature, even general ones, fosters the idea that progressives are out of touch with reality.

On how to create a positive vision of masculinity:

Recognizing distinctiveness but not pathologizing it. Finding new ways to valorize it and tell a story that is appealing to young men and socially beneficial, rather than ceding ground to those who would warp a perceived difference into something ugly and destructive.

Emba’s vision:

In my ideal, the mainstream could embrace a model that acknowledges male particularity and difference but doesn’t denigrate women to do so. It’s a vision of gender that’s not androgynous but still equal, and relies on character, not just biology. And it acknowledges that certain themes — protector, provider, even procreator — still resonate with many men and should be worked with, not against.

But how to implement it? Frankly, it will be slow. A new masculinity will be a norm shift, and that takes time. The women’s movement succeeded in changing structures and aspirations, but the social transformation didn’t take place overnight. And empathy will be required, as grating as that might feel.

It is harder to be a man today, and in many ways, that is a good thing: Finally, the freer sex is being held to a higher standard.