This morning, the New York Times published an essay by Jessica Valenti, who asks “What Can Feminists Do for Boys?” I’ll be honest; Though I found the prescriptions misguided, I found the article’s purpose deeply encouraging. Feminists love their sons, and it was a welcome change to read a piece by a feminist who both acknowledges the crisis in young men and recognizes that continued disproportionate male success at the apex of career achievement (at the highest levels of government and corporate America) is most assuredly not a sign that boys as a whole are doing well.
Men are falling behind in school, dropping out of the workplace at alarming rates, and killing themselves through suicide and overdoses at rates that far exceed those for women. Some men, lacking purpose and full of frustration and rage, join vile online communities or, worse, carry their untamed aggression and violence into the real world. It’s of little consolation to millions of men who lack purpose that a tiny class of men at the very top are excelling beyond their female peers. That’s not the lived experience of countless men in the United States. For them, the shattering of the traditional family, the scorning of traditional gender roles, and the decline of jobs requiring physical strength has been a calamity.
In other words, millions of men simply aren’t built for a quiet day’s work in a cubicle. They’re not made for a new world that tells them there is nothing particularly special (but lots dangerous) about their masculine nature. Working with their hands and providing for a family gave men purpose. The traditional gender role, albeit undeniably confining to some, gave many millions of men an ideal to strive for. They could picture what their lives should be like.
Valenti and other feminists want to care for men by attempting to transform men. For example, Valenti argues that “feminist ideas can help men — be it the rejection of expectations that men be strong and stoic or ending the silence around male victims of sexual violence. But boys also need the same kind of culture we created for girls.”
While I agree that we should end the silence around male victims of sexual violence, I disagree with the idea that we should reject the expectation of strength or even a degree of stoicism. The cultural norms surrounding those values are often responsive to the deepest drives and desires of men and boys. While there are obvious exceptions, countless men aspire to be physically strong not because they’re told to by a dominating patriarchy but because it helps them fulfill their purpose. They seek to govern their emotions because they seek to lead, and they don’t want their strength to be confined to the physical realm.
In other words, the proper course isn’t to transform men but rather to channel aspirations of physical and emotional strength into virtuous and constructive ends.
And this is where traditionalists and feminists — two groups who love their sons — so often diverge. My son plays high-school football, and I see every day the effect of his coaches on the lives of the young men in their care. I see how malign influences in a hyper-charged, aggressive sport can lead to toxic results, but I see more how good leadership can teach the strongest kids virtues like courage and self-sacrifice, and I see the positive pride that results when a person feels a sense of brave and virtuous purpose.
Similarly, I’ve seen with my own eyes the transformational potential of military service. Again, leadership matters. Unleash male aggression in the service of evil and depravity, and there is no more dangerous force on the planet. Harness it to the cause of self-defense and the defense of the innocent, and you create the kind of institution that we see in the United States — the most respected arm of government and the most respected public or private institution in all of America.
So, no, don’t transform men. Mold them. Embrace their own, innate expectations (and hopes) that they’ll be physically and emotionally strong and show them how. Yes, accept and love those who don’t fit the mold, but — by all means — don’t break the mold. Indeed, while Valenti heaps scorn on Jordan Peterson, this is the key to much of his appeal. Men who read and apply his work are often better men for it, because he speaks to their fundamental nature.
Thoughtful feminists and traditionalists have more in common than many might realize. For example, there is a shared ferocious and righteous zeal to stamp out sexual exploitation and abuse.
It distresses me how much our culture has grown to mock traditionally masculine pursuits and masculine desires. We roll our eyes at “man caves” or the “hobbies” that often preoccupy the men who make their livings in the white-collar world. Why does that lawyer have that truck? Why does he go to the shooting range on Saturday? Why does he love the weight room so much?
As Valenti noted, feminist women have created “an alternative culture for girls and women seeking respite from mainstream constraints.” She says men should do the same. I agree. But here’s the catch. If men do, it will look very little like the alternative culture for girls. It will be dominated by traditional masculine concepts that so many feminists despise. Why? Because men are different from women, and traditional masculinity isn’t a social construct. It’s a reflection of our very nature.
Believe it or not, thoughtful feminists and traditionalists have more in common than many might realize. For example, there is a shared ferocious and righteous zeal to stamp out sexual exploitation and abuse. Feminists and traditionalists can offer similar, sharp critiques of permissive sexual mores and of a culture that sexually objectifies the female body. We can sometimes collectively diagnose the disease. We differ on the cure, and for men the cure for the cultural disease isn’t to reject traditional masculinity but to embrace it — in all its best forms.