What does it mean to be a man? I don’t pose this question in the old sense, where “man” stands in for human being. I mean it in the contemporary, gendered sense. What does it mean at this moment, in American culture right now, to be a man?
There has been much discussion lately of the “end of men.” Hannah Rosin’s 2010 Atlantic cover article on the topic, followed by her 2012 book The End of Men and the Rise of Women, did much to spark that conversation. But Rosin’s efforts were not alone. After the recent Academy Awards broadcast, Slate’s Dana Stevens proclaimed: “Forget Seth MacFarlane’s sexist jokes. This was the End of Men Oscars.” At the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, the American women performed considerably better than their male counterparts, winning 29 gold medals to the American men’s 17, and 58 overall medals to the men’s 45. In fact, only one country, China, won more gold than the American women. In my beloved home city of Rochester, NY, the local sports hero and favorite daughter is Abby Wambach, an amazing soccer player who led our American women’s squad to dramatic triumphs in the 2004 Athens Olympics and, you may have guessed it, the 2012 London games.
Here in Rochester our political leaders are women as well. The powerful congresswoman who has represented Rochester since 1987 is Louise Slaughter, former chair of the House Rules Committee. Our present Monroe County Executive is a woman too, and she exhibits a potent mix of conservatism, cronyism, and charm that has humbled her male opponents. Her only defeat came when she ran for Congress against, you may have guessed it, Louise Slaughter.
Women are ascending. And if their ascent means that men are descending, must we mourn their fall? I think we should. If we are consigning a masculinity associated with bellicosity, pomposity, misogyny, homophobia, and sheer unwarranted and unexamined self-satisfaction to the dustbin of history, well— can’t we crack open a beer and bid farewell to all that? Yes. But what if a masculinity of fidelity, durability, and courage—moral as well as physical—is flushed away too? After all, we seem to find ourselves neither at the “end of assholes,” the “end of dirtbags,” nor the “end of Rush Limbaughs”; we find ourselves at the “end of men.” The bad and the good, the whole package (no pun intended) is circling the drain. Whether we applaud this development or bemoan it, we can all agree upon one thing: it will leave males without a roadmap. It will mean a loss of bearings. In other words, how does one go about living as a male after the “end of men”?
I don’t believe that we can afford to lose a sense of what masculinity is without thinking anew about what masculinity ought to be. The “end of men” can be the beginning of a new masculinity—one that is worth having now.
I was surprised to find these issues becoming prominent in my thoughts amid the aftermath of the 2012 presidential election. Since December of 2007, I have been a strong supporter of Barack Obama. I rang doorbells for him in the snowy hills of New Hampshire before the 2008 primary, I helped organize grassroots groups and a large rally in support of him here in Rochester, I have defended him with what I hope is humility and honesty against critics both right and left, and in 2012 I applauded him from the audience in Charlotte at the Democratic National Convention. In short, I have been for several years an Obama man—I just didn’t realize the full significance of that identity until a few days after the last election was over.
On November 8, 2012, two days after the election, I received an email from Jim Messina of the Obama team. I shouldn’t say that “I” received the email, because it was one of the countless oddly personal mass emails that arrived in supporters’ inboxes several times a day from the campaign. “Michael,” the message began, “President Obama made a surprise visit to the campaign office in Chicago yesterday to give a heartfelt thank-you to staff and volunteers. I wanted to pass this video along, because it’s a message every single person who helped build this campaign deserves to see.” As strong an Obama supporter as I am, I usually delete such emails. Even when I read them, I usually don’t follow the links. But this time, for some reason (which the Obama team’s social media gurus no doubt understand at the level of my neurotransmitters) I clicked on this one.
The video takes place in what looks to be a typical, if rather spare, office occupying the entire floor of some center-city skyscraper. There are desks. There are laptops. There are Obama posters. And there are lots of people my age (and younger) in jeans and t-shirts. Obama is in a dress shirt with his sleeves rolled up and his tie loosened. He looks tired—really tired. “I try to picture myself when I was your age,” he tells the young volunteers. “I first moved to Chicago at the age of 25, and I had this vague inkling about making a difference.” But he didn’t know what to do with his awareness “that somehow I wanted to make sure that my life attached itself to helping kids get a great education or helping people living in poverty to get decent jobs and be able to work and have dignity.” At this point, the cheerful buzz in the room has faded away, and there is a silence punctuated only by the clicking of cameras:
I ended up being a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago. A group of churches were willing to hire me. And I didn’t know at all what I was doing. And you know the work that I did in those communities changed me much more than I changed the communities, because it taught me the hopes and aspirations and the grit and the resilience of ordinary people. And it taught me the fact that under the surface differences, we all have common hopes and we all have common dreams. And it taught me something about how I handle disappointment and what it meant to work hard on a common endeavor. And I grew up. I became a man during that process.
Obama then turns from his past to the present, which he sees in the faces of the young volunteers. They don’t remind him of himself when he was young, he says. Rather, they call to mind how much more advanced they are then he was, how much more capable they are of making a difference. “I’m absolutely confident that all of you are gonna do just amazing things in your lives. And, you know, what Bobby Kennedy called the ripples of hope that come out when you throw a stone in a lake—that’s gonna be you…. And that’s why, even before last night’s results, I felt that the work that I had done in running for office had come full circle.” Here Obama’s voice breaks, and tears form in his eyes. “Because what you guys have done means that the work I’m doing is important. And I’m really proud of that. I’m really proud of all of you.” Obama looks down at his feet and wipes a tear from his cheek with a finger. It is a public moment that somehow still feels like a private one.
There was a lot to digest in what I had seen. At the end of a long, grueling campaign here was a moment of exhaustion, victory, and release. And here was the sitting President of the United States, a man engaged in some of the most difficult political battles in living memory, a man who ordered Seal Team Six to kill Osama Bin Laden, with tears cascading down his cheeks. It was raw; it was real; it was breathtaking. Amid it all, the one line I kept hearing over and over again in my mind was: “I became a man during that process.”
Obama has been called “the first female president.” Bill Clinton notwithstanding, he is also the first black president. What I have come to believe, after reflecting upon this speech and others facets of Obama’s identity, is that he is also the first new man president—the first, that is, to point beyond this moment of the “end of men.”
Consider the two men Obama defeated for the presidency. John McCain might say that he became a man in the skies over Vietnam, at the controls of a warplane that could deal destruction and that carried on its wings the possibility of McCain’s own violent end. Mitt Romney might say that he became a man during his first hostile corporate takeover, when his company caught another company in a chokehold, squeezing out its wealth. These are two well-established modes of becoming an American man. In business and in war, amid violence physical and financial, Romney and McCain earned their bona fides.
But here is Barack Obama saying that he became a man in the process of identifying with poor people, working with them, and attaching his fate to theirs. His defining moment of masculinity is not a triumph over; it is a joining with. It is not a struggle against; it is a struggle alongside.
Might we not say, however, that this process that Obama calls “becoming a man” is actually not about masculinity at all? To the extent that it involves creating a deep investment in relationships with others, might we not even say that it is feminine, that it lends credence not to the idea of Obama as new man but to the notion of Obama as woman, as “the first female president”? Obama’s remark itself seems to suggest otherwise. He does not say “in this process I became an adult.” He says: “in this process I became a man.” There may well be something feminine in the picture here, but it is not the whole picture.
Might we not also say that this process of “becoming a man” had more to do with Obama’s racial consciousness than his gender awareness, that he was, more precisely, becoming an African-American man? After all, his years on Chicago’s Far South Side (1985-1988) were a period of new and intensive immersion in African-American life. This was the period during which he met Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ, and it was also the period when he traveled to Kenya to encounter his paternal family for the first time. Clearly, Obama not only grew up in these years, but also grew into his identity as a black man.
I do not assume essentialized conceptions of race and gender, and the fact that I see this as a potentially transformative moment when masculinity may be open to reassessment and reinvention is founded upon my belief that we are not dealing here with fixed categories. But I do believe that people who have been gendered and racialized in similar ways share a set of historical experiences that inform their lives. While those histories have often been the source of pain and oppression, they have also left a legacy of rich personal resources, strengths and perspectives that can be used today—in an era when our very awareness of essentialized conceptions of gender propels us beyond them—as building blocks for stronger selves.
What makes Obama a new man, I think, is that he fashions a new masculinity from the experiences and sensibilities that accrue to him as a black man and as a man raised, like so many of us, by a single mom and a grandmother. In other words, it’s not the case that the feminine or African-American aspects of Obama’s identity trump or displace his masculinity; it’s the case that they are the sources of his masculinity. When we say that gender is a construct, we usually mean that it is a construct imposed upon us by social structures. But what if gender could be not so much a construct as something that we construct? We might then fashion our masculinity using the materials at hand, and Obama shows us how this can be done, for he has created a new masculinity that incorporates inheritances from African-American and women’s history for itself.
These legacies prepared Obama to find his place as a man amid the presence of others; they gave him a vantage point from which he could see the bonds of human relations as the fibers of his own being. Here is why, in that moment of victory in Chicago, the tears only came when he got to thinking of his life’s work as embodied in the people in that room; not in a legislative record, an executive action, or even a memorable speech—but in the capacity and promise of other people. Obama points in the direction of a deepened masculinity, one for which a fundamental identification with others—empathy—is not a threat to manhood but a source of it. This new masculinity takes the compelling idea of brotherhood and expands it into something more capacious and humane: solidarity.
As an Obama supporter, I am accused of having too much hope. So let me hope for this: that we can fashion a new manhood that moves from triumph of the self toward attachment to that which is greater than the self, not in a metaphysical sense, but in the very literal sense in which selves are greater than a self. Let us find our strength as men in fellowship with others. As I look upon Steubenville and now Halifax with extraordinary sadness and anger, I feel the fierce urgency of pointing men toward a different mode of being with others, others who too often seem to lack status as fellow human beings in men’s eyes. The time for a masculinity rooted in a powerful sense of solidarity is here.
But I offer this as only one hope for the future of men. If the “end of men” is a moment of closure, the Obama era can be a moment of opening, of beginning to ponder a new set of prospects for what it might mean to build a masculinity worth having now.
-Michael J. Brown, guest contributor