Barack Obama is in Oakland this week for a three-day conference of My Brother’s Keeper, an organization he started in 2014 “to close opportunity gaps facing boys and young men of color.” On Tuesday, he and Golden State Warrior superstar Stephen Curry discussed what it means to be a man.
“Being a man is first and foremost being a good human. That means being responsible, working hard, being kind, respectful, compassionate,” our former president told the audience. “If you’re confident about your strength, you don’t need to show me by putting somebody else down. Show me by lifting somebody else up.”
Yes, I do miss him. He’s the best president of my lifetime, which is not as faint a compliment as it sounds. But that’s not the point of this post. The point is that the definition of masculinity is undergoing review in this country. It’s about time — although, as usual, one extreme argues that it’s not time because such talk “weakens” men and the other extreme argues that it’s long past time because we need to redefine gender and sexuality altogether.
I spent junior high and high school in a toxically masculine culture. The key virtue was being tough, which generally meant being unafraid to fight. Other big virtues were acting rebelliously, primarily by getting excessively high or drunk; cajoling girls into sex while treating them like shit; and — absolutely essential — despising gays.
I was afraid to fight. (Still am.) And by my sophomore year of college I realized those other virtues of masculine culture weren’t good either. So I’ve been more than happy to ditch traditional masculinity.
But I’m not ready to redefine gender and sexuality altogether. Many aspects of masculinity and femininity are indeed social constructs — or, to frame it in an older context, the result of nurture — but many also are a result of nature. The so-called male gaze, for example. I know from my favorite conservative writer, Andrew Sullivan, that gay men have it also, so it’s intrinsic to the gender. The male gaze is one of the ways nature has programmed men to communicate sexual desire. We know that in contemporary culture many people disapprove of it, so the more sensitive among us hide it the best we can. But that doesn’t erase the primal thoughts underneath.
So I’m troubled by the American Psychological Association’s new Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men, the first of which is that “Psychologists strive to recognize that masculinities are constructed based on social, cultural, and contextual norms.” Are we completely devoid of sexual hard wiring? Is all of our gendered behavior a choice, alterable through some kind of conversion therapy? No wonder Sullivan frets that “what once was used against gay men, is now being used against all men.”
Seems to me a “real man” combines John Henry Newman’s definition of the gentleman with a measure of animal magnetism — a conception of masculinity not far from the model Obama describes. It’s not a bad place for America’s review of masculinity to wind up, no matter how much the extremists on either side howl.