Thoughts on "Being a Man"
In "Being a Man", Paul Theroux determines that "most men believe ... that their lives are just as bad" (Norton 271) as those of women, if not worse. He leads up to this statement with a series of facts, opinions, and ideas that seem to show that men are right in finding their lives to be painfully unfulfilling. As I first read through this piece, Theroux's evidence seemed true. But as I reflected on what he said, I realized that, while it did contain some truth, it didn't quite feel right to me. After much thought, I realized why: Theroux bases his argument on the typical masculine stereotypes, stereotypes that are echoed in the media and even in some corners of reality, but not in the world as I know it, and not in today's world, 50 years from Theroux's childhood. Theroux's argument is based on the idea that he somehow must be what the media tells him to be; I would argue that this idea, and thus his thesis, are false.
I am a firm believer in the doctrine that anyone should be able to become whatever he or she wants. Theroux seems to believe that, while "she" may be able to, "he" is forced, through society and peer pressure, to follow the typical masculine role; to become, in his words, a "pathetic oaf" (269), the embodiment of the masculine stereotype. If that comprises someone's highest aspirations, don't let me stop him, but I believe that men today can be as thoughtful, intelligent, and anti-masculine as they want. Theroux's disillusionment with the male sex seems to me to be out of place in modern society; I believe that, while society and peer pressure may once have dictated this doctrine of masculinity, they no longer do so, or at least, not nearly to the extent that they once did. Theroux, for example, claims that "at an age when [he] wanted to meet girls ... [he] was told to take up a sport", or to do some other manly thing. Today there is no prohibition against guys meeting girls; in fact, it is beginning to be sen as inappropriate for both boys and girls to not have relations with the other sex. And, incidently, all males need not play a sport; I don't, and I'm not put at any societal or social disadvantage for it. Every now and then, one or another of my friends joins a sports team and encourages me to join as well, but this is more for fun than for any sense of machismo.
So I would argue that men enjoy just as much freedom as women, and as such, cannot really be any worse off overall. I suppose I could dismiss piece by piece all of Theroux's evidence, but as I have already disproven his basic premise, I believe it safe to move onto a more interesting topic: Why did his evidence strike me as true in the first place? As I said earlier, it is echoed often in the media, but I believe there is more to it than that. Theroux's stereotypes work because they are commonly believed. Everyone has heard of the masculine ideal, the idea that men should be Men, if you will, and many people believe that it applies to the vast majority of men, although, I suspect, the vast majority of men consider themselves exceptions to it. Why this prevalence? Maybe because it was, once, quite true.
In "Politics, Pedagogy, and Gender", Jill Conway writes primarily about the origins of teaching. One of her claims is that teachers, being, as they once were, mostly women, suffered greatly at the hands of their male supervisors. She provides, as an example, one tale of a female teacher, who resigned for graduate study. Her replacement, a man, was "given a salary fifty percent higher"(Norton 519) than his female predecessor; she concludes that "the idea of compensating the service without regard to the sex of the one rendering the service was ... beyond [the school board's] comprehension" (519). Conway reminds us that women were given jobs as teachers because they (presumably unlike men) held the "capacity to influence children's behavior through emotions" (514), and because they could, generally, be paid much less than men.
So the men in charge of hiring the teachers for the schools saw women as inherent caregivers, and as inherently inferior to other men; it follows that they saw caregiving as an inferior, "womanly" ability. So back at the turn of the last century (and for many centuries before that), men were clearly not the caregivers. And as time went by, generations upon generations of men grew up seeing "inferior women" as their teachers, teaching in the style prescribed by stereotype and by "normal schools" (teacher reeducation schools). These men were most likely driven away from that which they saw as inferior; hence, the growth of machoism as a way for men to further elevate themselves above women. Even male intellectuals made sure to avoid the intuitional, emotional style used by teachers; although logic had been around for centuries, it was not until around this time period that it became the expected method of higher intellectual thought. So men were, clearly, driven away from the stereotypical woman, and in the process, from gentleness, kindness, even, to a degree, intelligence; all that was really left for them was to become what we now call "Manly".
But now I am, seemingly, contradicting myself: How can I argue that men are driven to manliness, and yet that Theroux is wrong in his statements? Simple. Men aren't driven to manliness; they were. Maybe they still are, in some places. But, as Virginia Woolf notes in "A Room of One's Own", such men are a dying breed. "A Room of One's Own" is by no means focused on this topic, but it does make many passing comments about an apparently male-only school, possibly Oxbridge, that relate to it. Oxbridge, or whatever invented university Woolf is referring to, is a relic from the time when "money was poured in from the coffers of kings and queens and great nobles"; in other words, from a time when female equality in European society was an absurd concept. It is a place of great scholarly achievement, clearly; however, of late, things have begun to change. Even in this time period, while women are gaining equality with men in the world at large, at this university "ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction" (Ways of Reading 753). This university was becoming "a sanctuary in which are preserved rare types" (753) of men, a place where even the most hardened masculinists, if you will, could find haven. These "masculinists", these "rare types", would, in Woolf's words, "soon be obsolete if left to fight for [their own] existence" (753); indeed, they are already becoming obsolete, as the "humming noise" (756) of intellectual passion had already left the place. This narrative was written in the aftermath of World War I; in the three-quarters of a century that has passed since then, the feminist movements have closed down (or opened up, depending on how you look at it) many of these safe havens for masculinists, and they, left to "fight for [their own] existence", did, in fact, become "obsolete".
The feminist movement, or whatever one might call the movement towards intellectual equality for all people, has proven adept at eliminating the masculine stereotype. They have had to; this ideal, that men are superior to women, is a clear roadblock for equality. But one cannot simply eliminate the stereotype that defined both men and women for so many centuries; it must be replaced with something. I believe that, with nothing standing out to fill the void, both men and women have defined themselves as striving to be everything. Men are expected to be able to show at least some compassion, lest they be deemed "unfeeling" (Norton 268) or unthinking; women are expected to be able to compete in the arena of logic, an arena that has clearly been, in the past, the domain of men.
But this striving to be everything, while arguably good for the ultimate goal of equality, can be taken too far. We, the students of today, are encouraged, even required, to literally be everything, at least in terms of what we know and can do. Why else, I ask you, do we have in this school a page-long list of the courses that we must take in order to graduate? And it's simply human nature to try to be the best at everything that we do. This is why students today work harder, and have a higher level of stress, than has any generation in the past. Given all this, and despite the fact that I disagree with most of his evidence, I suppose I can't so easily dismiss Theroux's conclusion: all in all, men and women today have it just as good, and just as bad, as each other.