Even if you haven’t recognized it for what it is, chances are, you’ve seen elements of it. The resurgence of beards, comments on period piece clips like “Why don’t we wear hats anymore?” or “Dang- they knew how to dress back then.” Or perhaps you’ve stumbled across The Art of Manliness or are (like me) a faithful apostle of Ron Swanson.
Now whether you’re aware of it or not, there is a growing culture based around this general perspective of “manliness” that supposedly existed from 5,000 BC to 1974 AD. The resurgence in the popularity of the beard, the wave of internet memes centered around being “classy,” our love affair with period pieces- all of this compounded has created the beginnings of a whole new subculture.
Don’t believe me? Just take a look at some of our favorite TV characters.
Don “F***-You, Liver!” Draper
Jack “Even Ayn Rand Thinks I’m Egotistical” Donaghy
Rick “Bad Decisions” Grimes
Walter “Tied with Draper for Making People Love Fedoras” White
Barney “Legen- wait for it… -DARY!” Stinson
Cullen “I Will Punch You For No Particular Reason” Bohannon
Comedy, Drama, Action/Horror, Westerns- this is a pretty broad range, and we’ve got the same strong, dour antihero type in all of them. Men who remind us of our fathers and grandfathers. Tough as nails bastards who came to this country with only a dollar in their pockets- who took a break from their honest 8 to 8 jobs of hitting metal with other pieces of metal to kill Nazis and look dapper doing it.
So what’s this culture all about? As with any group, we can talk about the superfluous or cosmetic elements- in the case of the “manly” group, handshake etiquette, strait-razor whetting, and driving stick- but to really understand ’em, we’re going to need to look at the underlying values in play here.
What do all the men shown above have in common? A degree of independence. They’re DIY guys. Men who aren’t reliant on the help or charity of others- in short, dudes who can take care of themselves in most any situation, from car repair to providing for the family to killing the undead. And on that note…
These are all men who don’t allow themselves to be victims. They’re proactive moment-seizing leaders who don’t wait idly by for someone to step up. Good or bad, they’re leading the way- and speaking of bad…
These are guys who tend to lend credence to the stereotype of the unspeaking, unfeeling male. At best, the strong, silent type- at worse, the uncommunicative lout. One way or another, they don’t let the situation get the better of them. That’d be undignified, and if there’s one thing that they’re about, it’s…
It’s in the way they dress, the way they speak, the way they expected to be treated. A kind of code that prohibits some things and makes others compulsory. You can’t hold your head high, then what’s the point in having one?
These men are all, to varying degrees, antiheroes. Guys with their own agendas and a certain degree of moral ambiguity that keeps you on your toes. There’s a level of egotism, self-centeredness, and disregard for others that makes them pretty good at what they do, but what they do not all that good- certainly they don’t fit the traditional mold of the selfless, self-sacrificial hero.
And while it’s not true for all of them, money tends to be a major element of their stories. A drive to be successful, prosperous, and (again) independent. It’s the age-old dream of being your own boss.
So what does all of this boil down to?
It’s about power. These guys represent everything we, as a generation, aren’t. Independent, wealthy, self-assured, proud. Does that sound like us? Not at all. We’re the casual dressed, globally conscious masses struggling to make it by, and taking whatever miserable, degrading soulless job we can find. We’re not strong like these glamorized images of our grandparents are (having conveniently erased the racism, bigotry, and misogyny).
But we want to be.
And so begins the perpetual motion machine of life-imitating-art and art-imitating-life. Epic Meal Time, Memes, Period Pieces- the list goes on.
So is this a good thing or a bad thing?
Well, there are good and bad elements to every culture (some more bad than good, and vice versa), but let’s list out the positives and negatives.
- We can stand to toughen up
a bit a lot as a generation. We don’t need to be bending horseshoes with our teeth, but some basic survival skills and a thicker skin when it comes to discomfort and hardship would be nice (battery running out on your phone doesn’t count as suffering).
- In these tough economic times, be able to do basic repairs to your house and car aren’t just good- they’re necessary. Same goes for any of the thrifty elements of the culture.
- Even if we don’t have it quite yet, demanding a certain level of dignity in our work and our day to day lives isn’t just good for you as an individual- it improves society on the whole.
- While we probably shouldn’t worship the fedora or declare the suit to be the only appropriate clothing for a man over the age of twelve, it certainly doesn’t hurt to know how to dress ourselves, or conduct ourselves well in any given situation.
- The glorification of the past can, as I jokingly mentioned above, lead to the uglier elements of it being glossed over. We hail our grandfathers as being great men, forgetting how easy it is to make a name for yourself when none of the good or prestigious jobs can be given to equally qualified women or non-white men.
- The culture really doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for women at all, other than the kitchen. This is not to say that all adherents of the culture see it this way, but when you’re trying to espouse 1950s society, that includes 50s traditional gender roles as well.
- It can’t be denied that there’s a strong conservative appeal in this culture, as well as hints of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. Glorifying wealth and success, especially when coupled with a “do whatever you need to do” mentality, can lead to the twisted perspective that poor people are poor because they are lazy.
- This culture, despite the intentions of its adherents, does give a home for sexism. The uglier elements of the masculinity movement, those who view women as belonging in the home and nowhere else will doubtlessly find it a lot easier to fly under the radar in a culture that’s utterly dominated by males.
So what’s the final verdict?
“Manly” culture doesn’t appear to be either helpful or harmful- at least, not yet. The underlying issue being power, it’s going to be faced with the task of walking the thin line between empowerment and megalomania. So long as self-control is kept in mind, they oughta be fine.
Be sure to look for next week’s installment: “Science” Culture.