In April, in response to an increasing number of writers who suggested that the culture wars were over, I suggested that we might have fought to a close. But that conclusion, I wrote, is a draw, rather than a victory for liberalism (no one seriously argues that conservatives won the culture wars).
On Tuesday, the New York Times’s Ross Douthat, who often argues that liberals should take more responsibility for the images a Democratic-leaning industry produces, wrote a post that I think bolsters my argument, even if he did not intend it to. Douthat argues, in response to calls for the death of “traditional masculinity” in the aftermath of Elliot Rodger’s massacre, that shifts in pop culture have advanced a new and newly toxic vision of masculinity that does greater damage to men and women alike than some of the stoic models of the past.
The piece is a perfect way to get at a set of related and important points. An erosion in social norms may be anti-conservative in that it involves change. But that is not necessarily the same thing as an unambiguous good for all the many constituencies of progressivism.
A shift in mass culture that turns number of sexual partners into a kind of hit-points that determine one’s level of masculinity may weaken the perceived value of marriage. But that does not mean such a swerve is in the direction of a liberal sexual and marital agenda, rather than for some sexual hinterlands that dismay progressives and conservatives alike.
Strains of second-wave feminism emerge out of precisely the contradictions Douthat identifies in his post. The technologies and social changes that made “sexual liberation” possible accrued different kinds of benefits to men and women and paid them out at different rates in ways that revealed deep and continuing gender-based inequality.
I essentially agree with much of what Douthat argues when he writes:
The male hero as lothario/ruthlessly effective killer predates the 1960s (every eras has had its outlaws, its fascinating anti-heroes, its Casanovas), but it comes in much more strongly in American culture with James Bond and Hugh Hefner and Howard Roark, and then with the ‘roidal action heroes and Bruckheimer fantasias of the 1980s. If you’re seeking a full-throttle of “celebration of violence,” the place to turn is “Bonnie and Clyde” or “The Wild Bunch,” not the work of Marion Mitchell Morrison. If you want “sexual entitlement, throbbing misogyny, and … fake self-confidence” layered on top, I recommend “Top Gun,” not the filmography of John Ford….
A Humphrey Bogart, a Jimmy Stewart, a Cary Grant, a Spencer Tracy — these were icons whose characters often dealt with female stars as equals, who had sex appeal to burn but weren’t defined by their libidos or their list of conquests, who dealt in violence sparingly or not at all. Likewise in Victorian fiction, in books as eagerly devoured by the masses as any blockbuster entertainment today: How often is a rake or cad presented as a worthy model, how often is a killer celebrated for his body count? How often does a Dickens or a Tolstoy or a Trollope leave the impression that the masculine ideal involves dealing violence indiscriminately and sleeping with every blonde who catches your eye? Is Steerforth the hero of “David Copperfield”? Is Wickham the male ideal held up by “Pride and Prejudice”? In Western literature, who better embodies “traditional masculinity” as an aspirational ideal — Vronsky or Darcy? Angel Clare or Gabriel Oak? Raskolnikov the murderer or Raskolnikov the penitent?
If we have to decide between the masculinity of pop culture’s past and the men of its present, Douthat has a strong case for the past. There are so many genuine losses: the idea that a good marriage can be a subject of equal importance to men and women, the belief that actors can have things to offer at many ages and stakes other than sexual conquest or violent death.
But our choices should not be merely between our past and our present.
To the extent that Fitzwilliam Darcy is the manly ideal of “Pride and Prejudice,” he is shot through with class prejudice, social awkwardness and a gift for the neg that even a hardened pickup artist might admire. The titular hero of “Shane” may have a deeply moral approach to violence, but he is also on his way to becoming obsolete in a modernizing West. I adore Humphrey Bogart, but Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Linus Larrabee and Rick Blaine (to name just his most iconic roles) are all men it would be difficult to adopt as role models without a healthy dose of skepticism about their social isolation, their alcohol consumption and in some cases, their marginal professions.
It is eminently reasonable, and eminently progressive, to be dissatisfied with both the old qualifications culture set for manhood and the newer ones. You can want John Wayne’s strength and sense of responsibility without the jingoism of “The Green Berets,” or envy Humphrey Bogart’s way around a suit without believing that you need to saturate yourself in Scotch to pull it off. You can believe you have an obligation to protect others who do not share your advantages without believing you need to undergo a “Wanted”-style transformation into a gun-wielding badass.
There is a reason that Ron Swanson, the lone libertarian on “Parks and Recreation,” and Nick Offerman, the actor who plays him, have become the object of such admiration. Both Swanson and Offerman do quality woodwork (I own one of Offerman’s cutting boards) and are married to accomplished, highly independent women. Swanson is highly skeptical of his colleague Tom Haverford’s weakness for the fleeting trends that define masculinity, including designer alcohol, high fashion and sexual profligacy, preferring his Swanson Pyramid of Greatness, a hierarchy that prioritizes both “property rights” and “romantic love.”
Ron is not precisely a paragon: He overreacts when things do not go his way, he has a hard time expressing emotion and he is occasionally a slave to sexual desire. But he at least represents an attempt to synthesize the best of old-school masculinity and the gains of sexual liberation and feminism. If Ron looks goofy in the attempt, that is a considerable improvement over trying to live up to masculine ideals that serve neither men nor women.