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There is a pathetic sentence in the chapter "Fetishism" in Dr. Norman Cameron's book
Personality Development and Psychopathology. It goes, "Fetishists are nearly always men;
and their commonest fetish is a woman's shoe." I cannot read that sentence without thinking
that it is just one more awful thing about being a man—and perhaps it is an important thing
to know about us.
I have always disliked being a man. The whole idea of manhood in America is pitiful,
in my opinion. This version of masculinity is a little like having to wear an ill-fitting coat for
one's entire life (by contrast, I imagine femininity to be an oppressive sense of nakedness).
Even me expression "Be a man!" strikes me as insulting and abusive. It means: Be stupid,
be unfeeling, obedient, soldierly and stop thinking. Man means "manly"—how can one think
about men without considering me terrible ambition of manliness? And yet it is part of every man's life. It is a hideous and crippling lie; it not only insists on difference and connives
at superiority, it is also by its very nature destructive—emotionally damaging and socially
harmful.
I have always disliked being a man. The whole idea of manhood in America is pitiful,
in my opinion. This version of masculinity is a little like having to wear an ill-fitting coat for
one's entire life (by contrast, I imagine femininity to be an oppressive sense of nakedness).
Even me expression "Be a man!" strikes me as insulting and abusive. It means: Be stupid,
be unfeeling, obedient, soldierly and stop thinking. Man means "manly"—how can one think
about men without considering me terrible ambition of manliness? And yet it is part of every man's life. It is a hideous and crippling lie; it not only insists on difference and connives
at superiority, it is also by its very nature destructive—emotionally damaging and socially
harmful.
The youth who is subverted, as most are, into believing in the masculine ideal is effectively separated from women and he spends the rest of his life finding women a riddle and a
nuisance. Of course, there is a female version of this male affliction. It begins with mothers
encouraging little girls to say (to other adults) "Do you like my new dress?" In a sense, little
girls are traditionally urged to please adults with a kind of coquettishness, while boys are
enjoined to behave like monkeys towards each other. The nine-year-old coquette proceeds to become womanish in a subtle power game in which she learns to be sexually indispensable,
socially decorative and always alert to a man's sense of inadequacy.
Femininity—being lady-like—implies needing a man as witness and seducer; but masculinity celebrates the exclusive company of men. That is why it is so grotesque; and that is
also why there is no manliness without inadequacy—because it denies men the natural friendship of women.
It is very hard to imagine any concept of manliness that does not belittle women, and it
begins very early. At an age when I wanted to meet girls—let's say the treacherous years of
thirteen to sixteen—I was told to take up a sport, get more fresh air, join the Boy Scouts, and
I was urged not to read so much. It was the 1950s and if you asked too many questions about
sex you were sent to camp—boy's camp, of course: the nightmare. Nothing is more unnatural or prison-like than a boy's camp, but if it were not for them we would have no Elks'
Lodges, no pool rooms, no boxing matches, no Marines.
And perhaps no sports as we know them. Everyone is aware of how few in number are
the athletes who behave like gentlemen. Just as high school basketball teaches you how to
be a poor loser, the manly attitude towards sports seems to be little more than a recipe for
creating bad marriages, social misfits, moral degenerates, sadists, latent rapists and just plain
louts. I regard high school sports as a drug far worse than marijuana, and it is the reason that
the average tennis champion, say, is a pathetic oaf.
Any objective study would find the quest for manliness essentially right-wing, puritanical, cowardly, neurotic and fueled largely by a fear of women. It is also certainly philistine.
There is no book-hater like a Little League coach. But indeed all the creative arts are obnoxious to the manly ideal, because at their best the arts are pursued by uncompetitive and essentially solitary people. It makes it very hard for a creative youngster, for any boy who
expresses the desire to be alone seems to be saying that there is something wrong with him.
It ought to be clear by now that I have something of an objection to the way we turn
boys into men. It does not surprise me that when the President of the United States has his
customary weekend off he dresses like a cowboy—it is both a measure of his insecurity and
his willingness to please. In many ways, American culture does little more for a man than
prepare him for modeling clothes in the L. L. Bean catalogue. I take this as a personal insult
because for many years I found it impossible to admit to myself that I wanted to be a writer.
It was my guilty secret, because being a writer was incompatible with being a man. There are people who might deny this, but that is because the American writer, typically,
has been so at pains to prove his manliness that we have come to see literariness and manliness as mingled qualities. But first there was a fear that writing was not a manly profession—
indeed, not a profession at all. (The paradox in American letters is that it has always been
easier for a woman to write and for a man to be published.) Growing up, I had thought of
sports as wasteful and humiliating, and the idea of manliness was a bore. My wanting to
become a writer was not a flight from that oppressive role-playing, but I quickly saw that it
was at odds with it. Everything in stereotyped manliness goes against the life of the mind.
The Hemingway personality is too tedious to go into here, and in any case his exertions are
Identity and Culture 135
well-known, but certainly it was not until this aberrant behavior was examined by feminists
in the 1960s that any male writer dared question the pugnacity in Hemingway's fiction. All
the bullfighting and arm wrestling and elephant shooting diminished Hemingway as a writer,
but it is consistent with a prevailing attitude in American writing: one cannot be a male writer
without first proving that one is a man.
It is normal in America for a man to be dismissive or even somewhat apologetic about
being a writer. Various factors make it easier. There is a heartiness about journalism that makes
it acceptable—journalism is the manliest form of American writing and, therefore, the profession the most independent-minded women seek (yes, it is an illusion, but that is my point).
Fiction-writing is equated with a kind of dispirited failure and is only manly when it produces
wealth—money is masculinity. So is drinking. Being a drunkard is another assertion, if misplaced, of manliness. The American male writer is traditionally proud of his heavy drinking.
But we are also a very literal-minded people. A man proves his manhood in America in oldfashioned ways. He kills lions, like Hemingway; or he hunts ducks, like Nathanael West; or
he makes pronouncements like, "A man should carry enough knife to defend himself with,"
as James Jones once said to a Life interviewer. Or he says he can drink you under the table.
But even tiny drunken William Faulkner loved to mount a horse and go fox hunting, and Jack
Kerouac roistered up and down Manhattan in a lumberjack shirt (and spent every night of The
Subterraneans with his mother in Queens). And we are familiar with the lengths to which
Norman Mailer is prepared, in his endearing way, to prove that he is just as much a monster
as the next man.
When the novelist John Irving was revealed as a wrestler, people took him to be a very
serious writer; and even a bubble reputation like Eric (Love Story) Segal's was enhanced by
the news that he ran the marathon in a respectable time. How surprised we would be if Joyce
Carol Oates were revealed as a sumo wrestler or Joan Didion active in pumping iron. "Lives
in New York City with her three children" is the typical woman writer's biographical note,
for just as the male writer must prove he has achieved a sort of muscular manhood, the woman
writer—or rather her publicists—must prove her motherhood.
There would be no point in saying any of this if it were not generally accepted that to
be a man is somehow—even now in feminist-influenced America—a privilege. It is on the
contrary an unmerciful and punishing burden. Being a man is bad enough; being manly is
appalling (in this sense, women's lib has done much more for men than for women). It is the
sinister silliness of men's fashions, and a clubby attitude in the arts. It is the subversion of
good students. It is the so-called "Dress Code" of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Boston, and it is
the institutionalized cheating in college sports. It is the most primitive insecurity.
And this is also why men often object to feminism but are afraid to explain why: of
course women have a justified grievance, but most men believe—and with reason—that their
lives are just as bad.
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