- What do we mean by "manliness"? How is it defined and what makes it so valuable?
- Is "manliness" really an art?
- If so, is "womanliness" also an art?
- What would a website called "the Art of Womanliness" look like?
I think sometimes as feminists who've been feminists for a long time, we're so used to rolling our eyes at this kind of cultural artifact that we no longer take these questions seriously. I mean, obviously "manliness" is a social construct that is practiced and defined differently in different socio-historical contexts, etc. etc. But I think from time to time it's worthwhile to revisit the questions of how manliness (womanliness, masculinity, femininity, etc) is defined in our culture here and now, what significance this has, how it's influenced by the events of our time, how it fits in with other dominant cultural narratives, etc.
A quick poll of your peers will generally reveal that the connotations for words like manliness are still predominantly positive, while there's a bit of confusion surrounding the term womanliness. It is clear that womanliness has a strong tendency to be one of two things: an old-fashioned word that has homemaking and nurturing connotations, or an insult used primarily against men. Womanish is especially prone to this kind of negative usage. But beyond this asymmetry, what are the real differences between manliness and womanliness?
The founder of The Art of Manliness tells this story about the birth of the website
My idea for the Art of Manliness came about as I was standing in Borders bookstore looking at the men’s magazines. It seemed to me that the content in these magazines were continually going downhill, with more and more articles about sex and how to get six pack abs. Was this all there was to being a man?
And as I looked around at the men my age, it seemed to me that many were shirking responsibility and refusing to grow up. They had lost the confidence, focus, skills, and virtues that men of the past had embodied and were a little lost. The feminism movement did some great things, but it also made men confused about their role and no longer proud of the virtues of manliness. This, coupled with the fact that many men were raised without the influence of a good father, has left a generation adrift as to what it means to be an honorable, well-rounded man.
Talking about honorable manliness was to me a niche seemingly not covered on the web or elsewhere, and I decided to start The Art of Manliness to talk about all things manly- both the serious and the fun, but with the ultimate eye toward encouraging readers to be better husbands, fathers, brothers, men.
So he looked around at the version of masculinity that the manmags were selling, and he found it lacking. So far so good. I can sympathize with that. I look around at the version of femininity that the the girlmags are selling and I find it lacking too. But there are two important caveats here. For one thing, magazines, and media in general, exist primarily to sell products in our culture. It's capitalism, baby. Marketing drives media. Period. And nobody behind this marketing is sitting back asking "what should women/men really be like?" or "what's the best way to live?" Cuz that would be silly, right? You don't sell shit by asking ethical and/or philosophical questions. The only answer to a question like "what kind of men/women should we be" a marketer is going to come up with is "men/women who buy a lot of shit." So I would naturally expect the version of masculinity/femininity exhibited in any media outlet to be marketing-driven and totally irrelevant to the real underlying questions.
Secondly, I wonder why this discontent he experienced applied only to the version of masculinity he saw, and not to the version of humanity as a whole we're presented with. Because mostly what you see reflected in magazines is shallow, narcissistic, self-involved, entitled, petty people, right? And this ain't by accident, y'all. It turns out that one thing that shallow, narcissistic, self-involved, entitled, petty people are really good at is buying shit. But this isn't a gendered thing. Women and men are presented with different avenues to gain their material fulfillment in the vast marketing machine, but it's all the same thing in the end. It's just that by differentiating the marketing you sell twice as many products - one for the women and one for the men.
So what are the manly virtues according to a website like AOM, and what does this say about womanliness? A quick perusal of The Different Types of Manliness over at AOM yields the following list of manly virtues:
- Toughness, leadership, courage, sacrifice (the Warrior)
- Self-sufficient, free-thinking, independent, able to be his own man (the Lone Wolf)
- Free spirit, courage, vitality, risk-taking (the Adventurer)
- Well-dressed, well-mannered (the Gentleman)
- Idealistic, driven, civic-minded, principled (the Statesman)
- Hard working, loyal, good husband and father (the Family Man)
So these virtues all seem to be pretty nice, right? I mean, I like well-mannered, loyal, hard-working, self-sufficient, idealistic men. But that's probably because I like well-mannered, loyal, hard-working, self-sufficient, idealistic people. What makes these characteristics male, or especially desirable in men more than women? And if these wide-ranging and sometimes contradictory characteristics are exclusively masculine, what virtues are left for the ladies?
When you teach a class on gender, if you ask a group of college-aged kids to define feminine virtue they unhesitatingly list sexual purity and modesty as the only two synonyms they know for the term, and act as if it's a quaint, outdated phrase. The thing is, I get the sense from sites like AOM that this isn't far from their sense of what womanliness amounts to. But I'm not sure why. You can infer from the About page that the founder of AOM and his wife are Mormon, although they go out of their way to avoid saying so. So I kind of expect their gender politics to be extremely conservative and somewhat, um, quaint. But doesn't a religious framework like theirs have any positive characteristics associated with womanliness?
And this brings me back to the question "what would a website on the Art of Womanliness look like?" So I did a google search just to make sure there wasn't one of those out there. And what did I find? A discussion thread at AOM. As you read through the discussion thread on the Art of Womanliness, here are some thoughts on what a site like this should do:
- "cover the virtues and values of being a woman, etiquette, classic fashion, and womanly skills. I like to see stuff on dating, gardening, cooking, friendship, and how to negotiate feeling like an independent woman, while also feeling like, well, a woman" (yes, but what does it mean to "feel like a woman"?? And what are the womanly skills?)
- "It shouldn't say working or being a breadwinner is wrong but it should have an area in the Family and Relationships section that does celebrate the stay at home mother as well. Chivalry should also be celebrated, and women should be noble in those ways too"
- "They should emphasize the differences between men and women so they can enjoy being women as much as we enjoy being men"
- "I think some of the ideas mentioned here like fashion, dating, family and relationships...to be honest, a lot of the things on this site I do apply to my own life as a woman. The general basic rules of respect, courtesy, manners, and the like are helpful to anyone."
And so on. But we're still left to ask "how are the male virtues different from the female virtues? This is never really specified. It seems like being respectful, courteous, responsible, etc are listed at the top of the list for both men and women. Of course, there are many veiled (and not so veiled) references to things like housekeeping and child-rearing and gardening and cooking and being a friend. Which brings us back to the same old "men should be adventurous and bold and idealistic and courageous and women should keep a clean house" dichotomy of a century ago which sites like AOM claim to eschew. But really, what else is underpinning this? What are the female virtues in this view, and how do they differ from male virtues?
And since we're so insisitent that there are in fact two distinct sets of virtues, why is this true? One commenter from the discussion mentioned above was so explicit as to claim that
It's hard for men to talk about this for fear of being chauvinist. Some food for thought. Men and women had certain roles that we both fell into out of natures guidance. We had those roles for centuries. Then all of a sudden the rules changed. While. I agree that most of this is for the better, it has to be confusing for women. What compounds it is that women feel like they can't be women and can't talk about it with other women.
So there it is - the ol' essentialist narrative (along with the ever-infuriating phrase "be women" with no accompanying explanation of what that means). But here we hit the performative contradiction, right? Art and artifice and artificial are antonyms for nature and natural. If manliness (and womanliness) is an art, can it be natural? If it's embedded in our very biology and issues forth from us in spite of ourselves can it be something that is lost and must be relearned? Could it be something we have to form discussion forums on and write articles about and establish support groups to regain? I mean, you're born with it, right? So what's with all the learning and policing?
In a way I really sympathize with the intent and the feeling behind sites like AOM. We do live in a world that tends to encourage shallow, petty, immature behavior. It truly is depressing to watch the juvenile dramas played out in celebrity culture and emulated by the masses. But why is this a gender issue? Good character - people who run deep, who do what they say they're going to do and finish what they start and stand by their friends and loved ones - is a thing of beauty and something to cherish. I agree wholeheartedly. But the issue isn't gendered and the enemy is neither feminism nor changing social roles. No, the enemy is much more ubiquitous and powerful than that. Look to the consumer economy that requires relentless market growth and perpetual buying, buying, buying, and then to the marketing machinery that feeds it, my friend. Thoughtful people who value something other than their image and their belongings don't feed the consumer economy in the right sort of way, and thus you will never see these characteristics truly valued and nurtured in our culture until we shift away from our economic practices.
So there's your target. The massive Capitalist-Marketing-Consuming Juggernaut. Good luck with that.