Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Rambo, Conan, and the Impossible Male

Walking home from the city center today pushing Tyler in the stroller, my eye caught an advertisement for the new Conan the Barbarian movie plastered along the side of a double-decker bus.

Under an image of Conan as biceps-and-pecs-the-size-of-Texas, the movie's slogan was printed in all caps: BORN ON THE BATTLEFIELD.

Immediately,my mind jumped back to four years ago, when Jen and I were leaving the movie theater in Flagstaff, Arizona after having watched The Freedom Writers, and we saw the movie poster for the latest Rambo installment. The slogan on that one? HEROES DON'T DIE. THEY JUST RELOAD.

So, along my walk home, my mind started a little mini-synthesis paper. (Perhaps I miss the classroom a bit, or maybe the rain that had begun pouring made me pensive.) I combined both movie slogans and came up with one that presents a fairly accurate depiction of what many men see as their culture-proclaimed epitome of manhood is: REAL MEN ARE BORN TOUGH; THEY LIVE TOUGH; THEY NEVER DIE (BUT IF THEY WERE TO DIE, THEY WOULD DIE TOUGH).

But when I tried to enter the next layer of synthesis and try to make my slogan fit men generally, or even any man specifically, I was stuck.

Thing is, a lot of men profess drivel like this. A lot of us y-chromosome-wielding guys might claim that toughness, battles, and reloading guns is what masculinity is all about. But the truth is, no man really believes it. (Though he may be suckered into it by the way his dad raised him, one too many Rambo films, video games where you can kill your opponent a thousand different ways, and bully-peer-coolness culture in our schools.)

See, every male student I've ever taught at the middle, high school, or college level has all had one thing in common: a heck of a lot of pretense. (This, by the way, includes yours truly.) In other words, all men learn that sooner or later, you've got to act the part and try to look cool, act tough, and carry a big stick / gun / sword / mouth / name-brand-clothing-that-has-been-advertised-by-a-guy-with--yes--pecs-as-big-as-the-state-of-Texas.

But every man knows, deep down, that this is all one big load of baloney. Because we men know how we feel. We know that we get sad; we get happy; we get lonely; we get scared (even terrified); we get needy; we get contemplative (yup, even those guys who you'd never expect it from); we want to get real.

I think there are a lot of us guys out here who would rather push a stroller than wield a sword.

Writers like Robert Bly, who popularized the notion of this secret, innate-warriorness / wildness / aggressiveness that all men possess and which has somehow been crushed by women, talk a big game. Their words get a lot of guys fired up, thinking to themselves, Hey, maybe Bly is right. I am a warrior. I need a sword! I need a gun! I need to tell this nagging lady to be quiet so I can lead the way! After all, Bly must be right because, hey, didn't they give him a Pulitzer Prize? And didn't John Eldridge translate Bly's notion of the wild man for the Christian male with Wild at Heart?

But in reality, maybe we men are starting to come to some new conclusions:

1. Courage isn't necessarily about one big moment of power and aggressiveness with a sword or a gun. It might be more about the way we live; the way treat people; the way we learn to love when it's excruciatingly hard to do so.

2. I'd just as soon drink a cup of tea and watch a rom-com with my wife rather than kill a thousand people on a video game.

3. It's a heck of a lot more fun to be honest rather than hide. Hiding gets old. Boring. Tired old script; same old hiding places. Ugh.

4. There's got to be something better out there--some better model.

And there is!  Men like Atticus Finch present a far more beautiful--and courageous--notion of what authentic masculinity should look like (and could, really could, look like).

In the Acknowledgements section of his bestselling book Guyland, author Michael Kimmel writes movingly about the wish he has for his sons. He quotes a poet and Pulitzer-prize winner (three times!) far different than Mr. Bly. Kimmel cites Adrienne Rich's wishes for her own sons--that they would "have the courage of women" regarding his sons, too.

What a beautiful desire: that we men would learn the courage of women--the courage to love when it's hard, to live not only the moments of glory but also the moments no one sees (that are no less valiant or brave). To walk among the noble souls who live not only for battle, but for peace.

Conan and Rambo may wield power when it comes to the masculine ideal, but men like Atticus Finch have another kind of courage and power entirely: the masculine real. real love; real conviction; real courage for the long journey. And I, for one, am a heck of a lot more interested in that.