Technologies, music and art styles, slang, fashion…they all come and go with the generations, but the fundamental gender questions endure through time: What is manly? What is womanly?
Across the ages, the answers have been shaped by the basic biological equation of men and women. Men are bigger, stronger, more aggressive, and can father a virtually unlimited number of children (more than 700 sons and 342 daughters, in one case); women are at the mercy of their fertility, and every child takes a physical toll and imposes physical restrictions.
Now technology and social progress have changed the equation and are offering some radically different answers to those two fundamental questions. Society as a whole protects women and children for the most part, so men don’t have to; fertility control enables women to decide for themselves whether and when to have children, and how many; and most work no longer requires much muscle power, so women’s generally lesser muscle strength is no longer a disadvantage in the workplace.
These shifts have opened up more scope for women than for men so far. A woman can don a man’s shirt and pants and still look womanly; there’s no way a man can put on a woman’s blouse and skirt and look manly. A woman can focus on running a corporate board or a country with steely resolve yet without compromising her credentials as a woman; a man who focuses on running a household is unlikely to be regarded as a “real man” unless he engages in typically manly pursuits as well.
So what new role models of manliness are there now to help men find self-respecting ways to live in this changed gender equation? The gun-toting, muscle-bound, revenge-seeking types that still drive action entertainment are just variations on old models. They would probably have made sense to Neanderthals. And retrosexuals, as the name implies, deliberately embrace old-style masculinity; nothing new there.
The challenge in finding new models of manliness is that they have to include elements of the domestic sphere, the traditional domain of womanliness. Maybe that’s part of the enduring appeal of George Bailey in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. He becomes a hero in his small town while his brother goes off to fight the heroic war. And he embodies timeless principles of manliness that still apply today: He steps up courageously for what’s right, he treats women well, he loves his family, he looks after others, and he acknowledges his mistakes.
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