And so then for today’s toxic, self-deluded bachelors, it’s worth asking which image of masculinity is more likely to be leading them astray — a doomed attempt to “think their way” into some traditional, pre-sexual revolution masculine ideal, with its stress on self-mastery, self-containment, and self-possession, or the hapless pursuit of an ideal that I called “Hefnerian” in my Sunday column, with its vision of the world as primarily a field for sexual conquest, and traditional morality as the prison that needs to be escaped?
Is it reasonable to describe today’s young male chauvinists, whether they’re running Silicon Valley startups or lurking in the darker corners of the internet, as prisoners of chivalry, as slaves to antiquated fantasies of dignity and honor, as straitjacketed by an ideal of gentlemanly conduct? Or are they trying to live up to a very different, much more current vision of the male good life, one that gained ground almost simultaneously with modern cultural liberalism, and that partakes more of post-1960s ideas about liberation and expressive individualism than it does of anything that deserves to be called “traditional”?
One possible rejoinder to these points is that even the positive-seeming aspects of Victorian or Old Hollywood images of masculinity depended on the sense of “entitlement” and the ”unthinking acceptance of the gender hierarchy” that De Boer (quite accurately) describes as central features of those eras, and so today’s more debased “ideal” is basically what’s left when the patriarchy can no longer promise men power in exchange for self-restraint, privilege in exchange for self-containment. Another possible rejoinder is that the traditional ideal was just a pure self-serving fabrication, that the Good Men of art and literature were always, inevitably Don Draper or Pete Campbell in real life.
I think the first rejoinder is partially fair (and gets at why a simple “neo-traditionalism” is problematic), the second one less so. But neither of them gets you to a “traditional masculinity needs to die” prescription for contemporary male problems. That is, the first implies that the older model is irrecoverable (and for good reasons), the second that it was just a self-serving lie … but neither explains why this lost/imaginary ideal needs to be constantly held up as the dragon that we still desperately need to slay today, the vanished Snowball who’s still somehow sabotaging our utopia, the prison from which our young men supposedly can’t escape even though its walls were torn down long ago.
Which is basically the root of my disagreement with the left’s writers on a lot of these issues. They look at the state of sex and gender, masculinity and femininity, and see an uncomplicatedly progressive social revolution that just hasn’t fully succeeded yet — that hasn’t brought men, especially, into the sunlit uplands of egalitarian enlightenment — because far too many “traditional” concepts and constraints still perdure. I see a social revolution that has brought good and bad, intermixed, and whose supporters could profit from the realization that some of the human goods they seek are actually more clearly visible behind us, somewhere back in a cultural past they still insist they’re fighting to overthrow, whose actual details the darkness of forgetting has almost swallowed up.