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Mythical ideas of manliness


Providence Journal (04/27/2004)
By James E. McWilliams

THE CURRENT CALLS to "defend" marriage as a union between a man and a woman suggest that we're engaged in a cultural war over marriage. In actuality, though, we're grappling with something even more basic: manhood. As the gender-studies people might put it, we're experiencing a "crisis over masculinity," not over marriage per se.

It shouldn't be surprising. For many men, after all, marriage is the last institution in America that honors conventional notions of manhood. Yet we now live in an age when women routinely enjoy lucrative professional careers, sports endorsements, unprecedented sexual liberation, reproductive freedom, and general equal rights. Men haven't been totally emasculated by these hard-earned achievements, but we've found our time-honored roles of patriarch and provider -- roles deeply nurtured by conservative conceptions of marriage -- relegated to quaint remnants of a bygone era.

What heterosexual man in his right mind wouldn't be a little confused by such a radical cultural shift?

Unfortunately, though, instead of confronting these gender-bending developments directly, American men have spent much of the last quarter-century compensating for our supposedly compromised manhood through superficial distractions. As Sex in the City, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and the concept of a "metrosexual" have become pop-cultural touchstones, many men have sought solace in a myriad of "manly" escapes.

Yet however macho their promise, Viagra, stock-car racing, war, ESPN, anabolic steroids, Hummers, hair replacement, and testosterone treatments have categorically failed to deal with the underlying doubts about what it means to be a man in the 21st century.

They've failed because they're trying to compensate for the creeping loss of cultural expectations that many Americans believe to be natural and immutable. Men have inherited a powerfully emotional urge to be self-made, bring home the bacon, take out the trash, and be the undisputed master of our domain. That's been our training, our heritage, and our prescribed role in life ever since nuclear families became all the rage.

In light of this powerful inheritance, the popularity of such provisional masculine poses as muscular cars, sports, and drugs not only appears laughably useless, but also places the effort to preserve traditional notions of marriage in an entirely new light. Many heterosexual men (and the women standing by them) oppose same-sex marriage so passionately because gay marriage threatens to do nothing less than put an end to manhood as we know it. What they fail to realize, of course, is that there's absolutely nothing natural or immutable about the cultural notions of manhood that we've inherited.

Thus, they cling to "traditional marriage."

But they do so desperately. Contrary to the opposition's passionate "defense" of marriage, same-sex marriage doesn't violate the historical tradition of marriage. Nothing, in fact, violates the historical tradition of marriage, for the simple reason that there is no historical tradition of marriage. Over the past 400 years, marriage in America has evolved from a conservative arrangement based on economic need to a liberal institution based on romantic affection.

Throughout that long process, it has undergone a myriad of manifestations. Gay marriage will eventually become the most recent manifestation of this malleable institution, because marriage -- finally and unequivocally -- has grown into a decision based on love.

America should not take lightly that gay marriage undermines the whole dreamy patriarchal ideal that has let men experience some measure of false security as the world turns. But neither should we misleadingly obscure this underlying threat to traditional gender roles in the guise of an overwrought and holier-than-thou defense of "traditional marriage."

Indeed, rather than sympathize with those men whose narrow world view is being swamped by a more progressive set of values, we should encourage them to find more meaningful ways to redefine the question of what it means to be a man in America today.

Gay marriage gives us a rare chance to do so. As the nation considers what these brave men and women are trying to do, foes of gay marriage might drop their fruitless defense of a mythical ideal and instead begin the long process of re-imagining their identity. We might begin, moreover, with the very values so conspicuously practiced by the potential newlyweds who flocked to courts in San Francisco, Oregon, Massachusetts, and New Paltz, N.Y.: tolerance, courage and, above all else, love.

James E. McWilliams is an assistant professor of history at Texas State University at San Marcos.