Saturday, April 05, 2008

Wimps, Goofballs, and Thugs: Deconstructing Contemporary Masculine Stereotypes with Salvo Magazine

Note: this piece is cross-posted today at CBMW's GenderBlog.

A recent Salvo Magazine piece by S. T. Karnick, "Girly Men: The Media's Attack on Masculinity", lays out three stereotypical masculine images found in contemporary culture. Here's Karnick's distillation of the roles currently available to men in American society:

"(T)he war against boys seems to have created three main character patterns for the adult male of our time: sensitive guys who want to please women; weenies and dorks who want only to be left alone to drink beer and play video games with their dork buddies; and thugs who, in rebellion against their unnatural education, are perpetually concerned with proving their toughness through increasingly loutish behavior. There are, of course, examples of decent, positively masculine males in the culture, but they are becoming increasingly overwhelmed by the products of educational and cultural feminization."

Each of these characters depresses us, even as we realize that they are not fully imperfect. The sensitive man, after all, is something of a reaction to the cold, emotionless "Lone Ranger" type of man popularized by actors like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. The sensitive man represents a cultural attempt, then, to correct John Wayne masculinity. Where his father or grandfather never wept, never talked much, never said "I love you", the sensitive male weeps readily, chatters away, and reassures anyone within earshot of his love. In seeking an emotionally alive masculinity the sensitive man seems to have sped past "properly balanced emotional life" and landed in the once-foreign land of "traditionally feminine ways of speaking and feeling". The Christian man stands ready to lend him his roadmap.

However off-base this quest may be, at least the sensitive man seeks to go somewhere. The same can not be said for our goofball. Like other useful items strewn around his room in his parent's home, he could not find a sense of self-control, of shame, if offered a cash reward for it. Where men used to define themselves by taking responsibility, by making money, seeking a wife, fathering children, and so on, various factors changed all this. The rise of collegiate culture unimpeded by institutional Christianity, the booming of anonymous cities that allowed for familial escape, and the rise of the playboy bachelor in the post-World War Two era mixed with the rebellious 1960s to explode responsible masculinity. With that, the man-child was born, and so too a major missiological challenge.

The third group--the thugs--represents a reaction against each of these stereotypes. More accurately, perhaps, this third group is a subgroup of the first. This type of man prizes action, not talk, unlike both the sensitive man and the goofball. This is the kind of man who exalts deeds, not words, who would rather talk with his fists than his mouth. Though all three of these perversions of true manhood have existed throughout human history, this type has caused the most damage, at least physically. Your conquerors, your tyrants, your bullies from high school? They fit here. Driven by pride, motivated by glory and the opinions of others, this group, when unrestrained, possesses the power to cause great harm to others.

If many contemporary men fall into these three rather frightening categories, how are local churches to respond? First, by affirming the element of goodness found in each type. Men of the Bible are by no means silent or unemotional. The father of the prodigal son, for example, weeps openly and deservedly when his son returns home (see Luke 15:11-32). Christ Himself wept when He heard of Lazarus's death (John 11:35). Christ was compassionate, tender, gentle, and merciful throughout the course of His ministry. So we ought to be a balance of strength and gentleness, not either/or. On the other hand, it's a bit difficult to find the goodness in the goofball, frankly. With that said, we can appreciate the way in which this type lives honestly and often happily, enjoying the arts, sports, music, and more. Perhaps this cultural pattern of manhood shows us that men do not need to be grim and dour to be truly masculine. As with sensitivity, we need to work hard to strike a balance here, but we can surely recognize that the Bible affirms a balanced, happy life--see Ecclesiastes for more on that. The Christian man ought to be responsible, but he ought also to be happy.

The thug, for his part, shows us that men were not meant to be wimps. We were meant to be strong, to the best of our capability, and to use that strength for the betterment of others. The patriarchs worked the land, and they worked it hard, in order to provide for their families. Death was a constant threat--to worship in Israel in many ages was to worship with a sword on the belt. Christ Himself stormed through the temple, turning over tables, scourging the wicked. In His second coming, He will arrive as the Warrior-King. Therefore, as men, we should realize that to be a man is to harness one's natural strength, energy, and agency for the betterment of others, namely, one's family, church, and brothers and sisters.

We see, then, that there is a fourth model: the redeemed leader, whose type we derive from the Bible. In a sense, this fourth model is a composite of the earlier three types--or rather, the three types are all realized in Christ, the God-man, whose model is elaborated in the Bible. We must not let our children learn what it is to be a man--or a woman, of course!--from MTV, or Hollywood, or the NBA. No, we must embody robust, godly masculinity in our churches. This starts with a pastor who embodies biblical manhood and who then teaches men to do the same. A full commitment must be made to teaching men the rudiments of biblical masculinity--Proverbs, the Gospels, 2 Timothy come to mind here.

Churches must thus teach men not to be feminine in matters of communication and emotion, not to shirk responsibility and maturity, not to mistreat and abuse others, but to emulate the Savior. When churches train men in this way, fathers will trains their sons, leading to sea changes in Christian culture. The pastor is important, but he trains only one family directly. Every Christian church, however, has many fathers, and it is up to them in an earthly sense to determine whether they will raise men of Christ or men of culture. It is not too much to say that all of the above, all of the preceding discussion, rises or falls with the simple matter of what a father teaches his family, what models he holds up before them, and how he lives out that teaching.

Will our boys be wimps, goofballs, thugs--or will they be a fourth type: Christian leaders according to the dictates of Scripture? The answer depends not on what the culture says, not on what it parades before us on television, but on the conception of man that we teach, that we exalt, and that we embody before the eyes that are always watching, the hearts that are always taking shape and form.

taking shape and form.

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Anonymous Ricky Love said...

Owen, it is interesting when white boys attending country churches are sold out for hip-hop music. Maybe it's the beat, maybe it's the lyrics, or could it possibly be even deeper? I would say so when a lot of the fathers in the church don't have enough guts to make sure thier kids are in church for youth group on Wed night.
Instead they drive them down to the local gym, where thier boy is pumpin Soulja Boy and shootin jumpers, while he attends his Bible Study, what?

There is something in the thug mentality that is attractive to young men and women. Not doubt as you pointed out, a perversion of what God designed to be good.

Thanks for your post.

6:24 AM  
Blogger mikehoeweler said...

I think that you hit on some very important topics in your post. I'm researching masculine stereotypes and stumbled upon your blog. Also a man of Christ, I find Him to be the ultimate testament to "masculinity".

However, I think that the idealism placed behind the concept of "male" behavior is irregular, limiting, and offensive. Why can't men act as they truly are? Why are sensitive, emotional men feminized by our society? And why are feminine qualities viewed as negative traits? If strong, independent women with the option of taking careers as opposed to domestic responsibilities are viewed as examples of a potential gender equality in America, then why are domestic or "feminized" men less appealing? One of the great downfall's of the ideal man is that he is largely absent from his home, limiting his relationships with his family. As well, this ideal man, being limited in emotional expression and relational qualities of interaction can not give his children the love and affection that a mother does, further placing a distance between him and his family, as well as a burden on the mothers shoulders. The unpaid work of housework is trying enough -- men should share those responsibilities with women. I also think that men should define their own masculinity, without relying on ideals, stereotypes, or social pressures to tell them how they should behave.

As well, since we live in a patriarchal society, all feminized traits are viewed as negative, thus creating an imbalance in gender privilege in our careers, homes, and elsewhere. Individuality, diversity, and independence should be valued most for defining a human being, albeit their gendered traits.

11:43 PM  

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