A Thought on Masculinity

Some of my old classmates from Georgetown met up to discuss Nick Kristof’s and Sheryl WuDunn’s book, “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide”, a couple weeks ago.  Most of the group was women, but among international development folks, there’s definitely a tribe of guys who are male feminists.

That is to say that we are men but believe that educating girls and having more of an equal balance of men and women in society and politics will by causation improve conditions for society’s well-being as a whole.

Singles Map, from Richard Florida's "Who's Your City?" http://creativeclass.com/whos_your_city/maps/#The_Singles_Map

I live in DC, the city with the highest proportion of highly-educated (and single) women in the country.  More girls are in school than boys now, and they are out-performing the boys.  What does this mean in the long run, if women are selecting the most fit mate?

And that introduces the Fight Club problem of future masculinity.  What qualities will be desired in a man?  Not too long ago, men derived their pride from fighting and being the bread-winners.  Now that many families combine two salaries, war is an undesired quality, and sports is an option only for the few, where will men go?  Will they have to re-commit to education and improve as well?

How long can men coast through life being more aggressive, stronger, and louder than women?  I would agree that men and boys get their way just through sheer force of nature much of the time, but in a world of equal gender proportions, how will this change?

Women are able to give birth, and are natural nurturers and protectors of societal fabric.  What do men bring?

Perhaps the future man will be fighting still, but instead for universal rights, for equal rights, for the diffusing of power.  Today’s programmers may become those who bring transparency and accountability to those who would rather have no part in it.  Today’s warriors may become tomorrow’s pacifists, who seek diplomacy and providing space for tomorrow’s tribes to be able to have their own identities.

And there’s always honor.  I always think of Gangs of New York, that much-panned Martin Scorsese movie about “natives” fighting immigrant Europeans for the five points of New York.  In it, Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day Lewis) fights Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) and slays him.  But Bill, as evil a villain as he is, later remembers his nemesis by saying, “I killed the last honorable man 15 years ago.”  “He was the only man I ever killed worth remembering.”


He also expounded, “We hold in our hearts the memory of our fallen brothers whose blood stains the very streets we walk today. Also on this night we pay tribute to the leader of our enemies, an honorable man, who crossed over bravely, fighting for what he believed in. To defeat my enemy, I extinguish his life, and consume him as I consume these flames. In honor of Priest Vallon.”

Marine Staff Sergeant John Jones (see http://www.hbo.com/aliveday/bios/jones.html)

That is, even though they were enemies, at least Vallon was a man of principle and honor, and that was noble enough even for Bill to recognize.

And now we send another 30,000+ (mostly male) soldiers to Afghanistan, who’ve been fighting wars for almost a decade, to get maimed or killed.  That hidden class of warriors, who participate in almost a shunned profession, will bear permanent scars of a machismo past, unable to hide missing limbs and large burns on their bodies.

I hope that a noble place is found for them, and for all men.


  1. Nicely done Ben. Working for an international development organization dedicated to “gender” empowerment prior to grad school, I often felt frustrated by the sidelining of men in the discussion. Each of us has a role to play, yet that of men remains unclear – not in the least because men don’t seem to be talking about what that role looks like. Keep up the discussion.

  2. Interesting…..

    You might appreciate this podcast from Radio Lab:

    Pay particularly close attention to the stories of the African Baboons and the Russian foxes.

    Also I would offer this…
    I don’t see the obsolescence of men in the success of women. Our lives and roles in society change, but the things that make the sexes fundamentally different will still generally be the things that we find fundamentally appealing. There is more to strength than the ability play sports and fight. Regarding your question of what men bring….I’d like to think that we offer more than just sperm. I’ve not been in a single pleasant relationship that did not involve reciprocal nurturing. Is nothing to be said about the value of intimacy and mutual support? I feel more like we are realizing a more equitable form of burden sharing than a new conception of a classic disparity. Maybe I’m just optimistic.

  3. I agree. Both sexes have unique qualities that complement the other. It is interesting to see the guy’s POV, it is so crucial to the issue of empowerment yet rarely represented. Just as we reinvent the role of women in society today, what should the new role of men be like? or is that begging the question, since roles are becoming mixed, thus roles in society shouldn’t be defined by gender anymore? But is it right to discard something so fundamental, if we just decide to disregard the question of gender…

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