Thursday, August 25, 2011

Is it the power in his hands?

While the media gropes with Rick Perry's manliness,* the corner of the blogosphere that concerns itself with sex and gender issues has been asking what the heck we mean by manliness, anyway:

Leaving aside the insane notion that there should be anything more to "manliness" than either a) being able to produce human-ovum-fertilizing substances or else b) deciding that your genitals either are or ought to be male, what is there, exactly, that makes Rick Perry more "manly" than Bruce Springsteen, or Conan O'Brien, or the late Fred Rogers, or for that matter the female-bodied but impeccably masculine Sinclair Sexsmith?

Well... I don't think that's right.

Understand, I'm a pretty laissez-faire dude when it comes to gender identity. I've known more than my statistically fair share of trans folks, and as far as I'm concerned, they are the sex they want to be for any practical social purpose. I have no problem using the pronouns they prefer, and generally think that if a biological female wants to be socially male, I don't have-- ...Well, actually, it isn't quite right to say "I don't have a problem with it". I think it's a good thing, and the idea of objecting to it confuses the hell out of me. The only step I'm uncomfortable with is constructed gender-neutral pronouns, and that's just because they're so unbearably silly; this has fortunately not yet come up.

But "manly" isn't synonymous with "socially male", or even with a narrower definition of "male". To be manly means to have positive traits traditionally regarded as masculine. Not for nothing does the word "virtue" come from the Latin word for manliness.

Are there are plenty of examples of traditional "positive" male behaviors that we don't want to emulate today? Of course there are. A lot of the traditional gender dynamic that we've left behind deserves leaving behind. But most of the classical Western virtues tied up in manliness, while they frequently have to be finessed into a modern egalitarian society, are still essential to a good and responsible life,** and shouldn't be undermined in the interest of gender-neutral language. As Eric S. Raymond recently put it, we prosper when we use our past without being limited by it. Manliness is the intersection of traits traditionally regarded as masculine with those currently regarded as positive.

I'd say the quoted blogger gets the matter exactly backward. What we need isn't a relativist redefinition that says you're "manly" if you have a penis or want one.*** What we need is more manly people, and a more universal understanding that the name doesn't mean the virtues are still confined to one sex. Getting hung up on whether the language could be construed as exclusionary is the sign of somebody who's missing the forest for the trees.

If you're temperate, prudent, courageous, and just? If you would stand or fall by your own individual wisdom and strength? Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, and--which is more--you’ll be a Man, my daughter!

Update: And for what it's worth, I think Mr. Rogers was the exemplar of several manly virtues.

[* - See what I did there?]
[** - Whether these virtues are, in fact, well represented in Governor Perry is not the subject of this post.]
[*** - And hey, wouldn't that be exclusionary of transmen who consider themselves psychologically male but are perfectly happy with their female plumbing? Are "nonoperative transsexuals" no longer on the in-group scorecard? Won't somebody please think of Poppy Z. Brite?]


  1. Maybe I've just been brainwashed by my phallocentric and/or crypto-post-structuralist upbringing, but I don't see any of the traits applauded in If as essentially manly.

  2. Seriously. A lot of the manly virtues have traditionally leaned malewardly for physiological reasons, because they're directly or indirectly related to endurance and violent resistance. But now that we have internal combustion engines and guns, there's really no reason for them to.

  3. Virago means literally a manly woman, and it used to be a compliment specifically BECAUSE virtue and masculinity were so tied together. Now it means something like "harridan".

  4. "Harridan", huh? I'd always thought of "virago" first as a Yamaha V-twin and second as a deliberate anachronism. Good to know; I wouldn't want to offend anyone inadvertently.