Through the history of popular media, masculinity has taken on many forms. The broad-shouldered quarterback, the suit and tie Wall Street wolf, the archetypal cowboy and Marlboro man. The common key characteristics of these stereotypes were what formed the parameter that contained the masculine identity—what it should be and what it shouldn’t be. And masculinity, until now, has always been a symbol of power. Strength, forcefulness, whatever. The guy has to be the dominating presence in the boardroom, the breadwinner, the one who throws the hardest punch. The guy can’t be meek, can’t earn less than his female spouse, can only have a female spouse. Thank goodness we’re a little past that, but not quite.
The idea of what makes a man has never been a fixed thing and, as such, will always have a little wiggle room. Today has seen the slow but steady acceptance of stuff guys wouldn’t normally do, like being affectionate with your bros. We don’t look at the alpha male and its many variations as the picture of masculinity anymore. If anything, the spotlight now shines on the beta male: Lanky, skinny, geeky, bespectacled, thrives in Silicon Valley and artisanal coffee joints. But not even the image of the beta male can stand in as the prime expectation of what a man should be like.
The male is still socially privileged, definitely. At the same time, the man we know today is hella different from the man of before.
At this point we’re all just kind of balanced on the head of a pin, between a past laden with outdated gender norms and a future with lines so blurred, anyone can cross them. We’re not at utopia just yet. We’re pushing the notion that both sexes can pursue hobbies or professions that were once deemed traditionally masculine and feminine, that we can dress a bit differently, that we can perform our identities any way we want to as long as we know who we are. All these campaigns and tumblr posts on the politics surrounding gender end up on your feed, your friends’ feeds, your family members’ feeds. At the same time, we’re still clinging to the idea that there must be a modern man, a shining example of what a particular gender should represent. The Definitive Dude, the Basic Bro, the Modern Male. Man of the Year. Man of the Hour. True Gentleman. Dandy. (The dandy is an actual thing, with archaically curvy moustaches, and plaid suits, and canes???)
Is it a question we should still be asking? Is there such thing as the modern man?
We live in a time where androgyny is considered fashionable, fortunately or unfortunately. It’s a lot easier these days to just throw your hands up in the air and go like, “What even is masculine of feminine these days?” Should an example of the modern man exist at all? Does he exist on the cover of GQ, or Men’s Health, or even Playgirl? Does he still live in folktales, in legends, on a presidential portrait?
That’s the sort of question the modern man is trying to find answers to. The history of masculinity is a history of insecurity, littered with outdated, unofficial rites of passage that make the attainment of manhood a somewhat formal, even ceremonial affair. Shaving your moustache for the first time, growing chest hair, your first sexual encounter, whatever. Lots of shallow, bodily things. Now there’s no ritual or action that lets you know, for real, that you’re (cue wistful look towards the ocean and simultaneous bicep flex) a man now (cue waves crashing dramatically).
The modern man is afraid of the new space he’s given to reconfigure his identity, because accepting the feminine would mean more power for the woman and a blurred line and a thin divide between both genders, whether he knows that or not. And that seems silly, but okay, here: Straight guys, try cheek-to-cheek kissing your heterosexual male friend and see if they stir. You’ll find it weird. They’ll find it weird. Why is it weird? The modern man, unsurprisingly, clings to a time of power, when traditional masculine characteristics like calloused knuckles and sailor mouths were still fashionable.
Maybe that’s a good thing. I’m glad we’re having such a hard time pinpointing what the modern man is. It’s strange that what threatens us—the fact that there is no strict standard to hold ourselves to—is precisely what’s good for us, and for everyone else. I imagine, all that’s going to happen is everyone’s just going to give up finding the modern male, and all other permutations and attempts at defining him, like the suited bachelor, or the beerhouse brawler, or the dandy (PLEASE) will eventually become outdated.
Today’s idea of what a man should be and how he should act is no longer a monolithic standard. And that makes the modern man very, very nervous.
I guess that’s the thrill, though, behind navigating all these ideas of the modern male. Identity will always be the constant friction between what we are and what we’re expected to be, and we’re always going to be chasing that kind of heat.