Where lies the true measure of a man?

August 18, 2000

Jonathan Rutherford argues that a good man is today characterised by the quality of his relationships.

In 1992, two academics - Norman Dennis and George Erdos - wrote a tract called Families without Fathers for the rightwing think-tank the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Men, they claimed, were evading their responsibilities as sexual partners and fathers. A generation of selfish and morally weak men had abandoned their partners and children.

The moralistic view of these two professedly socialist intellectuals went unchallenged. A consensus of opinion had emerged about men; they were emotionally inarticulate, disoriented and demoralised. Those who perceived men as victims hankered after men's traditional role of head of household and called for the restoration of men's power over women and children. Those who opposed this patriarchal authority had few ideas of what might take its place.

This debate over masculinity is not a unique historical experience. Whether it be the New Man of feeling of the 1790s, the New Man of the 1890s or the New Man of the 1980s, there are moments in history when an epochal social life gives birth to new values and forms of living. When women pursue equality, new styles and paradigms of masculinity begin to take shape. Such metamorphoses do not burst upon people in sudden revelation. They are hard to measure and quantify, but we nonetheless feel them profoundly.

In 1998, marketing consultants Mellors Reay and Partners produced a report telling advertisers how best to represent today's insecure, demoralised man. It argued: "The most successful way to communicate with men in today's environment is to reflect the soul of primal man. Man the warrior, the hero. In a world where men find their most basic instincts thwarted, an advertiser who indulges their favourite fantasies should prosper."

Consumer culture has created a simulacrum of male experience. Men can dress in it, parody it, drink it, smoke it, watch it on TV, drive the latest model of it. It is commodified, sequestered and substituted in favour of the more tantalising sensations of shock, newness, the glamour of appearance, action. There is little to confirm what is a manly experience or virtue. We are trying to be men and handicapped by no longer knowing what being a man means.

Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan aims to recover and endorse the moral worth of men. His film reminds us of how we have lost the heroic virtues that once gave order and meaning to the lives of men. It recreates a world in which survival depended upon the individual knowing his role and knowing what this required him to do. Each man knew what he owed his peers and what he was owed. Without his role he would neither be recognised, nor would he know who he was. The virtuous man in the film is Tom Hanks's Captain Miller, not simply because he possesses courage and resilience, but because he moves steadily towards his own death. He is unafraid of his fate. In the final scene, James Ryan is an old man paying his respects at the grave of Miller. He must face up to the memory of this man's moral patrimony. He turns to his wife and says to her, "Tell me I've led a good life. Tell me I'm a good man."

Her reply is immediate and unambiguous: "You are," she says. A sentimental moment, but the question asked and the answer given has poignancy today when men can expect no such ready response from women.

To be a good man once meant practising emotional restraint and fulfilling the role of head of household and provider for the family. These were impersonal ethical standards. How a man felt at any given moment was irrelevant to the question of how he should live. Manliness was a social role that provided culture with its moral definitions. But the values of duty and emotional restraint that dominated public life and imbued men with virtue often conflicted with the interests of women and children and have now been discredited. Personal relationships have become the crucible in which we establish our sense of self and identity. Increasingly, being a virtuous man has become dependent upon the feminine virtues of care, empathy and relatedness.

"We are a generation of men raised by women," says Tyler Durden in the film Fight Club. The men in the club he has set up strive to punch and batter each other into a recovered sense of masculine dignity. Morality is considered effeminate. Nothing counts except the male desire for authenticity.

Tyler Durden makes money selling soap constituted from the fat of women's bodies. He does not want to destroy women. But in his rebellion to salvage male pride, he reduces them to receptacles who produce fat he can exploit. For a while he imagines that he is omnipotent. But he, too, has become another inhuman product of a routinised, instrumental economic order that denies love, pleasure and intimacy in its pursuit of profit. The film concludes that to be a true revolutionary he must relinquish his prominence and power in a solipsistic world. To be heroic he must exchange violence for love.

In Homer's Odyssey, each man who participated in the Trojan war is described as a hero. This does not mean he was an especially brave man, only that he had been prepared to leave his home and venture out into the world. The cardinal virtue of courage was not a willingness to suffer or endure pain, but to leave one's privacy and appear in the world willing to act and speak.

The conditions that once promoted such heroic virtues no longer exist. How do men now express courage and strength?

The self-assured, rational persona still demanded of men in public fails to satisfy the new moral judgements of his worth, which are made in his personal life. We should stop privileging the demonstration of a man's public virtue over the expression of his feelings - not simply because the old manly virtues have become increasingly empty of meaning, but because the two are not separable.

If we are to characterise a good man, a man who is virtuous, we can do so not by the circumstance of his office, nor his worldly success, nor his feats of derring-do, but by characterising the quality of his relationships with others. The virtuous man today uses his courage to understand his own feelings. He derives his strength from his self-awareness, his willingness to accord equality and respect to those different from himself. He is a man who knows himself and does not feel shame, but can honour himself before others - men, women and children.

Jonathan Rutherford is reader in cultural studies at Middlesex University. This is an edited extract from a keynote address he will be giving at the conference "Posting the Male: Representations of Masculinity in the 20th Century", to be held at Liverpool John Moores University, August 24-26.

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