We're failing our boys, but are we sure of the solution?
What does it mean to “be a man”?
Great question. And it seems like the film’s answer is a noble one: Newsom wants to say that we’ve bought into a certain false ideal of masculinity, where manliness means women, beer, cars, tools, sports, weights, and intellectual and emotional apathy. We all see this stereotype perpetuated in raunchy comedies, beer commercials, and sitcoms, where the “joke” is always that “being a man” means being an ignorant and insensitive troglodyte.
But perhaps Newsom is out of her league here – The Mask You Live In, it seems to me, replaces one distorted masculinity with another. To be sure, the aforementioned picture of masculinity doesn’t encapsulate what it means to be a man. But why? Not because women, beer, cars, tools, sports, or weightlifting are bad in themselves. These are things men enjoy, and rightly so.
But the inversion of that picture – another stereotype we often find in the culture – falls short of manhood just as dramatically. Where the first man is all hands and no head, another kind of man we often see – the guys of “The Big Bang Theory” come to mind – is all head and no hands. These men can only agree with their counterparts on skirt-chasing and their own brand of apathy, physical apathy. Besides that, they flee all the beer, sports, and weightlifting for the life of the mind. They are smart and sweet, intelligent and emotionally intelligent, but haunt a brittle body like Cartesian ghosts.
The root of the problem in both pictures of manhood – and a clue to how we can begin reconnecting the head and the hands – is apathy.
Brett McKay, the creator of the blog “The Art of Manliness,” captures the problem perfectly:
“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.”
Notice that McKay doesn’t look to eliminate “typical” manly things in his blog. Instead, he asks: “Is that all there is”?
We shouldn’t be ashamed of what comes naturally to us as men. But we should reorient ourselves around our true center: responsibility, integrity, and virtue. These – not sex and sports, physics and philosophy, or feelings and intuitions – are what make up the hearts of brothers and fathers. To do, to think, to feel; all of these are important. But all three need to be measured against the pursuit of the good. It’s ultimately what we will as men that matters most.
My own father taught me this lesson well, mostly by the example of his own life. One day, he would be bench-pressing 365 pounds; the next, discussing the life and works of Dostoevsky. He cheered at hockey fights one night, and danced and held hands with his wife the next. He wasn’t perfect; no man is. But in everything – body and mind, heart and soul – he pursued what was good and eschewed what was evil. He had an example to live by, too; his older brother was a school principal well-versed in theology and foreign films, but also a Marine who you wouldn’t want to make angry, even now at 74.
Growing up, I saw that these men were insightful, but not invertebrate; hardy, but not foolhardy. They were men of the head, the hand, and the heart – they were men of virtue.
Although The Mask You Live In may start a “national conversation,” maybe the ugly truth is that we’re failing our boys by not giving them better examples of manhood to live by – a manhood which doesn’t absolutize brawn or brains, but grounds both in something higher.
Matthew Becklo is a husband and father-to-be, amateur philosopher, and cultural commentator at Aleteia and Word on Fire. His writing has been featured in First Things, The Dish, and Real Clear Religion.