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In Search of the Modern Man

In today’s world, men are struggling to find their role and identify the “script” they’re supposed to follow in regards to manhood, says Jennie Joiner. In short, there’s a crisis of confusion, and it’s time to talk about it.

“If we’ve redefined feminism, we need to redefine [masculinity],” says Joiner, assistant professor of English at Keuka College. “We’re in an interesting space culturally where no one wants to step up and do that – it makes everyone uncomfortable.”

In a recent talk Joiner presented on “Lifting the Fig Leaf to Reveal Hidden Masculinities,” she explored contemporary notions of masculinity in the figurative cowboy as depicted in the novel True Grit and its two film versions. The cowboy – a specifically American icon – has always embodied the conflicting issues seen in manhood, she said.

As a mythic figure sporting the “costume bling” of chaps, boots, spurs, hat and Winchester rifle, the cowboy exhibits freedom from societal rules, structure, and family connections, while risking a reputation as a hard-drinking, gambling hell-raiser who can “blow the lights out of town,” she said. His pledge of allegiance to a ranching outfit and his commitment only to bring the cows home gives him the romantic aura of a knight on a quest, and keeps him freely roaming in a “neutral” space where he can create an identity, Joiner said.
However, Joiner pointed out that the cowboy depicted by John Wayne is seen jumping fences and symbolically returning to his place in the wild frontier at the end of the 1969 film, while the same character, played by Jeff Bridges in the 2010 remake, dies while on tour in a Wild West show, the only place he “fits” anymore, she said. Meanwhile, the young girl who hired the cowboy to avenge her father’s death has grown past a self-reliant and industrious woman to one who’s almost “flinty” and cold in her independence.

Joiner’s talk also included a pointed scene from the recent Keuka production of Rabbit by Nina Raine that found the male characters protesting that the female characters had trivialized sex, treating the men as little more than sex objects. Lamenting the “oppression” of men also seen in the workplace, one male character spits out to the women in front of him “You reward [ruthless] qualities in women you would punish in men.”

Joiner said her talk was sparked by the recently published Kay Hymowitz book Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys,  a provocative cover story in the July/August 2010 issue of The Atlantic entitled “The End of Men?” and discussions that have come up in her English classes. Even Newsweek’s cover story, “Dead Suit Walking,” which ran one week prior to Joiner’s talk, stated a case for the “beached white male” she said.

“In all my courses, these issues are coming up and ‘boiling,’” Joiner said, asking the audience if they’d heard of the term “mancession,” yet. First introduced in the Atlantic article, the new term refers to the primary victims – white men – of the recent economic recession, in which three-quarters of the 8 million jobs lost were lost by men.

In the past, Joiner said, men’s “brawn” was needed for production and protection, but there has been a transition from an agricultural and industrial economy to one where knowledge and information are the resources being managed. Now, the character traits deemed most critical for future job success – problem-solving, compassion, sensitivity – are ones traditionally upheld as feminine ideals, and “where does that leave men?,” Joiner asked.

“Where is the cowboy now?  Where does he go?” Joiner asked, “Where is the frontier for him now?”

Comments from different corners of the room included several references to men retreating to a “mancave,” a room or area where he can feel more masculine, surrounded with the tools or toys that thrust his difference from a woman into sharp relief.

“We’re retreating because we’re being oppressed,” one young man piped up from the audience, while several young women objected that they, too, want their own independent space.

As Joiner noted that traditional definitions of masculinity have come from the working class, not those in business suits, one female student commented that her father has held that type of job for most of his life, but has seen the working class become obsolete as machines do more of the work.

Meanwhile, other female students stated that plenty of males they know don’t mind shopping or dressing with style, perhaps a subtle nod to changing standards of manhood. Anita Chirco, professor of communication studies, pointed out that her handyman of many years – an imposing, Harley-Davidson rider – had no qualms dying his beard pink to help his family raise money to fight breast cancer.

“Today, cowboys ride a four-wheeler or motorcycle, right?” Joiner asked her audience.

“The ones on motorcycles are playing video games,” a female student countered, supporting what Joiner noted earlier as an emerging consequence in the muddied waters of masculinity – a delay or disinterest on the part of females to seek a partner and an overall decline in finding a seemingly suitable one.

“If technology is the only frontier left, then who’s the new cowboy?” Joiner asked as images flashed onscreen of Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Google co-founder Sergey Brin and Apple’s Steve Jobs.

According to Joiner, one of the most interesting comments she heard from students was that these new “cowboys” are more dangerous than the original because they have so much
control over people’s social identity.

In response to observations that more young women than men spoke up during her talk, Joiner indicated a natural skew in the makeup of those attending, also seen in Keuka’s enrollment, and that of colleges in general, where three of five students seeking degrees are women. When Joiner finally asked the men to speak directly, the response served to highlight her points.

“Some said that they didn’t know how they should act, to which women were skeptical and outright stated they wanted it all,” Joiner said. “The conversation got a bit ruckus but fun. Part of this is where our world is going. We need a movement now that says we need to pay attention to this and not pretend it doesn’t exist.”

Joiner holds a doctorate from the University of Kansas where her research studies centered on William Faulkner, and issues of marriage and masculinity as literary themes. In October 2010, she presented a paper entitled “William Faulkner’s Hearth and Toni Morrison’s Oven: The Slow Burn of Masculinity in Go Down, Moses and Paradise” at the Faulkner and Morrison Conference in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.

3 Responses to In Search of the Modern Man

  1. Vicki Smith says:

    Very interesting perspective on our current times. I agree Keuka is not the only college that is seeing an unbalance of women to men….what will happen to this generation of men. My hope is relationships will continue to focus on strong partnerships that focus on peoples characteristics rather than gender roles…interesting times for our next generation

  2. Mike says:

    Vicki, unfortunately, it was those same gender roles you decried that strengthened men’s place in society. But don’t worry. Folks need to read Goldberg’s “The Inevitability of Patriarchy” before wringing their hands too much. We’ll be fine….

  3. Mike says:

    Just an addendum here…Just to check, I looked on The Atlantic’s website…you know, the magazine touted in the presentation’s blurb that ran the article “The End of Men?” I looked at the masthead for the magazine, checked the gender of all the leaders: 36 men, 21 women. And men had almost ALL of the high management roles…although women had both of the copy editor positions (lol!). But that’s about what I thought I’d find. So it turns out that the magazine that ran the story “The End of Men” is DOMINATED by men in leadership positions….

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