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Why Lone Ranger masculinity is a dead end
Masculinity is intrinsically relational rather than isolationist
I’m delighted to have made my debut on the pages of Comment magazine, which is bravely entering into the white waters of the gender debate. My essay is titled “What Men Are For: When Lone Ranger masculinity bottoms out”. It’s behind a paywall, but behind that same paywall are treasures indeed, including an meditation on feminine wisdom from David Brooks and a deeply personal essay on the connections between trans and Christian anthropologies from Abigail Favale.
For my own contribution, I went a little further than usual on the cultural front. (I usually prefer the safety of Wonkland with its charts and evaluation studies). I also said a lot more than ever before about my father, and the way he modelled a distinctly relational form of masculinity, both in our family and our community:
My father’s masculinity is relational. It is shaped and affirmed by his roles as a father, a husband, and community member. For his generation, the bedrock responsibility of an adult male was that of an economic provider. (My mother worked too, as a part-time nurse, but there was never any question about the division of labor.) But it was far from the whole story. My father’s role did not end with the pay-check: he was also our swimming coach, driving instructor, moving man, chauffeur, academic adviser, and much more besides. He served on the parent-teacher association, was active in the local Rotary Club, and coached junior rugby at our local club. Like my mother, who was equally engaged in our community, my father’s sense of self was created not in isolation and introspection but through relationships and service.
I contrast this relational masculinity with what I call Lone Ranger masculinity. I have to give a shout-out here to the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson, since it was a conversation with him that really crystallized this distinction. This is how I describe the isolationalist movement in the Comment essay:
This relational masculinity contrasts with the masculine archetype of the Lone Ranger, especially salient in America, in which manhood is defined by fierce independence, even to the point of isolation. To discover oneself and step into adulthood, a man has to shake himself loose of social ties. It’s Thoreau in his cabin, the frontiersman riding alone, the cowboy out on the range, the astronaut alone in the vastness of space. It’s almost every role played by Kevin Costner. Lone Ranger masculinity rests on the assumption that in a state of nature, men would be wild and free.
I go on to argue that this isolationist model of masculinity is both culturally dangerous and anthropologically false. It’s dangerous because men without relationships aren’t Lone Ranger, they are just lonely. It’s false because masculinity has always and everywhere been defined relationally. One of the quotes I most often use is this one from Margaret Mead, in which I think every word rings true:
Every known human society has rested on the learned nurturing behavior of men… This behavior, being learned, is fragile and can disappear rather easily under social conditions that no longer teach it effectively.
What this means is that Men Going Their Own Way, or MGTOWs, are the least masculine men of all. A man who lives in glorious isolation providing only for himself is not masculine at all. It the guy who is generative—of love, resources, time, energy—who is the manly one.
But relational masculinity is not, to be clear, a synonym for femininity. With all the correct caveats in place, men and women are different, and masculinity and femininity do consist in distinct if overlapping virtues. As I write:
There are two opposing dangers here. On the one hand, overweighting differences blurs the personhood of each individual, which should always come before any group membership. As Robert Bly writes, rather beautifully, in his 1990 book Iron John, ‘I say we have to be a little gentle here, and allow the word masculine and the word feminine to be spoken and not be afraid some moral carpenter will make boxes of those words and imprison us in them. We are all afraid of boxes, and rightly so.’ Nobody wants to be boxed in.
As I say, I’m in territory here where I feel the need to tread carefully, and appropriately so. The cultural moment we are in around sex and gender is one that requires equal measures of humility and compassion from every one of us. We are feeling our way towards a better future for us all, or at least, that’s my hope.
But part of that journey has to be for our boys and men. As I conclude:
The construction of masculinity is a cultural task faced by every human society. It must be taught, and learned, and above all shown: boys believe their eyes more than their ears. When the job is done well, men know they are needed, and for what. They feel seen and heard. If we don’t like some of the versions of masculinity currently on offer, it’s up to us to fix that, rather than to pathologize the idea of masculinity itself.