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Backstory: Manly man? Girly man? Oh, man!

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 7, 2006


I was skipping down the sidewalk, sipping a wheat-grass smoothie when it happened. A Ray-Banned redhead in a BMW convertible screeched right into my path out of the Taco Bell drive-through. Her back bumper grazed my kneecap as black soot coughed from the exhaust pipe into my pant cuffs. She gunned her engine and headed down Ventura Boulevard.

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It was the 2006 equivalent of the 1950s sand-in-your-face insult that drove a generation of 90-pound weaklings to sign up with muscleman Charles Atlas. And it was clear to me: I apparently needed to ratchet up my manliness.

Instead of the old-school male fantasy phone booth where I might tear off my shirt for a red-on-gold "S" (for Superman), I ducked into the new age, sensitive-male reality of Borders for a book-on-rack "S" (for self help).

Fortunately, O: The Oprah magazine, several national newspaper articles, and at least four new books are speaking directly to me - and millions of manliness-challenged American men. It turns out that the postfeminist sensitive male thing has gone a tad too far. Getting in touch with your inner wild man (or inner child, or inner woman) is as out of style as a medieval hairshirt. Even the "metrosexual" seems to be more five minutes ago than the phrase "five minutes ago," or at least not market enough for Condé Nast, which just pulled the plug on "Cargo," the men's shopping and lifestyle magazine that catered to the well-moisturized and accessorized urban male.

Neither man-zine, nor makeover TV ("Queer Eye for the Straight Guy") - nor even man-diatribe ("Are Men Necessary?" by Maureen Dowd) - have been able to undo the ubiquitous hominus-doofus image that American husbands and fathers continue to endure in such sitcoms as "Everybody Loves Raymond," "King of Queens," and "George Lopez."

Working up steam, I ordered a venti latte (extra foam) from Borders's in-store coffee bar. Then I searched the stacks for something to help me transcend Archie Bunker Man without sliding too far toward the Richard Simmons/Liberace end of the continuum. Something current yet Greatest Generation-ish.

Yet another redefinition of masculinity seems to be in order - and it seems to involve a return to a fork in the road, say several new books.

"We are seeing a lot of books and articles by men [saying] they feel confident with a return to older, more traditional roles," says Elayne Rapping, a cultural sociologist at the State University of New York at Buffalo. "Reactionary" and "backlash" are terms that figure into her description of the new quest for gender clarity.

But forget sending away for dumbbells. Bigger muscles are not going to get back what Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Margaret Thatcher, and other über-females have taken from men. On the surface, the situation sounds a lot like the same search for alternatives that brought men in droves to wilderness retreats in the early 1990s with white-maned poet and "Iron John" author Robert Bly.

But the new clarion call is for a more measured, less macho masculinity than Mr. Bly's wild swampster, and less girly man than ABC's string of overweening "Bachelor" options. The shelves seem to say, "take back some of the male assertiveness you lost, and drop the 'wipe-your-feet-here' end off the emotional sensitivity meter."

Regaining gender clarity requires "a forward twist on an old idea," suggests Harvard Prof. Harvey C. Mansfield, author of the new book "Manliness." His celebrate-the-difference philosophy advocates men and women returning to traditional roles in the private sphere (girls dust/cook, guys fix/mow) - but not in public life (both can "rule" from mailroom to boardroom by universal strengths and less by gender-specific traits: male/aggressive, female/passive.)