Register Sunday | November 29 | 2020

One Hundred Years of Male Humiliation

The perpetual crisis of masculinity

For the last century at least, male writers have been complaining that women are reducing the huskier gender to second-class status. To see how pervasive this male anxiety is, how persistent the complaint, we’ve culled from every decade some of the more vivid examples of manly moaning.

In 1899, Theodore Roosevelt repeat-edly gives speeches advocating “the Strenuous Life,” during which he rails against “emasculated milk-and-water moralities” promoted by Victorian society. “Over-sentimentality, over-softness, in fact washiness and mushiness are the great dangers of this age and of this people.” For America to be a great nation, Roosevelt argues, American men have to become less effeminate and more militaristic.

The Boy Scout movement gains popularity in the early twentieth century as a way to re-establish norms of manhood. According to the 1914 Boy Scout manual: “the hardships and privations of pioneer life, which did so much to develop sterling manhood, are now but a legend in history, and we must depend upon the Boy Scout Movement to produce MEN of the future.”

Wyndham Lewis attacks the rise of “the homo” in his 1926 treatise, The Art of Being Ruled. “There are very many male Europeans who never become reconciled to the idea of being ‘men’ (leaving out of count those who are congenitally unadapted for the rigours of manhood).”

Marshall McLuhan uses the content of the comic strip Blondie in the late 1940s to describe the fall of man. “Blondie is trim, pert, resourceful,” he notes in his 1951 book The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man. “Dagwood is seedy, saggy, bewildered, and weakly dependent.”

In a 1958 The Decline of the American Male series, Look magazine asserts that “scientists” are worried “that in the years since the end of World War II, [the American Male] has changed radically and dangerously; that he is no longer the masculine, strong-minded man who pioneered the continent and built America’s greatness.”

In 1960, John Wayne despairs of the state of masculinity in fifties films like Rebel Without a Cause. “Ten or fifteen years ago, audiences went to pictures to see men behaving like men,” the Duke argued. “Today, there are too many neurotic roles.”

The long-haired hippies of the sixties become a symbol of virility gone awry in the 1970s. Men’s Lib offers a self-help solution with best-sellers like Herb Goldberg’s The Hazards of Being Male (1976). Films like Deliverance(1972) further raise the sissifying stakes by showing men as the victims of sexual violence.

Bruce Feirstein’s 1982 satiric best-seller Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche mocks the rampant effeminacy of the era. By the end of the eighties, Michael Douglas, with his furrowed brow and disappointed eyes, becomes the poster child for the beleaguered male. In an interview, Douglas offers a statement that sheds light not only on then-current Fatal Attraction (1987), but also on his future work in The War of the Roses (1989) and Disclosure (1994): “Guys are going through a terrible crisis right now because of women’s unreasonable demands.”

In the 1999 movie Fight Club, character Tyler Durden complains that “we’re a generation of men raised by women.” For Tyler, the glory days of masculinity were in the early twentieth century. “We are the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression.”

“Desperate Housewives is castrating us all,” complains Kevin Gray in the March 2005 issue of Details. Gray argues that “the women’s movement has waged a brilliant PR war, attacking masculinity as coarse, retrograde and even dangerous. A generation of bewildered men sat through compulsory rape-awareness classes in college. The message: your dick is a threat to society.”