The return of the manly man

Go to the movies, turn on the television, pick up a magazine - just about anywhere you look these days, you're likely to find proof: Manly men are making a comeback in American culture.

Whether it's a film like "Gladiator," or the enormous popularity of the World Wide Wrestling Federation's first-year show "SmackDown!" - even a recent New York Times Magazine article in which the (male) author extolled the virtues of regular synthetic testosterone shots - traditional masculine values and role models are enjoying a resurgence.

Harder to find are the Alan Alda sensitive-male types who defined a new masculine sensibility during the heyday of feminist activism. These days, the image more often held up for acclaim is the he-man - a strong, aggressive male, who embodies rugged notions of valor and honor.

"In American social history, we go in cycles," says Peter Gibbon, a research associate at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., who is writing a book on heroes. "Feminism was a little suspicious of masculinity, and now people are thinking feminism went too far. There's some nostalgia now for masculinity, for real men."

To be sure, the manly male image has been updated a bit to include a slightly more sensitive side. It's been widely noted by critics, for example, that in "Gladiator," the hero, played by Russell Crowe, longs to leave the battlefield to return to his wife and child back on the family farm.

"He's sort of a warrior for our times," says Mr. Gibbon. "He's a real fighter, a man who's self-reliant and self-sufficient. But he's got a loyalty to his wife and family. And he never kills the enemy unless he really has to."

Many observers see the resurgence of traditional male values as part of a struggle to redefine masculinity in the wake of the women's movement, which challenged gender stereotypes and sexual roles.

It's a search that is taking shape in a variety of ways, from the renewed focus on the men who fought in World War II to the increased interest in activities like body-building to the explosive growth in the popularity of sports like football.

Not everyone welcomes the return of the he-man, however. Critics say it represents a backlash against feminism and against the complex kind of self-examination the women's movement sparked for many men.

"Women have changed a lot in the past 30 years, and men have noticed this, and they're being forced to change, and they can't figure out how," says Mariah Burton Nelson, a former professional basketball player and author of "The Stronger Women Get, The More Men Love Football."

"I would like to see men redefine what strong means," Ms. Nelson says. "And for strong to include being compassionate and honest and wise instead of resorting to physical strength, or military strength, which don't seem very imaginative."

Author Richard Hoffman, who has written about issues of boyhood and manhood in his memoir, "Half the House," and in other essays, argues that the current cultural fascination with manly men keeps men from exploring much deeper issues - like the complex relationship between father and son, or the social pressures that make men feel the need to prove their masculinity again and again.

"It's the hero myth," says Mr. Hoffman. "What our culture celebrates when it talks about heroism is people with swords, who say, 'Enough of this, I'm going to fix it.' "

Other critics warn that the he-man model doesn't offer much in the way of substance to young boys. William Pollack, a psychiatrist whose new book, "Real Boys' Voices," comes out next month, says the he-man is "an impossible test of masculinity."

The problem, he says, isn't so much that boys see aggression and violence in the media; it's that violent acts are usually shown without consequences and that aggression is seldom channeled into the service of a higher cause or some kind of social justice.

"It sends a subliminal message that action of a violent type is the way to solve problems, rather than thought and negotiation," he says.

Pollack and other observers argue that a different type of male model is needed today. Pollack says he'd love to see a movie version of Homer's classic ancient poem, "The Iliad." It's a story with plenty of violence and male swaggering, but to an end: The narcissistic hero finally weeps with his enemies, mourning the senseless loss and destruction of war. "It's a message that involves aggression," he says, "but it's a positive one."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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