A Man for Others

Manhood has been facing a decades-long identity crisis that has led to therapeutic group-hugging and inspired soul-searching on what it means to be a man in today’s world. With an unfortunate lack of appropriate male role-models, contemporary masculinity is too often defined by little more than obsession with conformity.

Let’s face it, a large number of college-educated adult males are walking cartoon characters, slavishly mimicking media images of dress and behavior — and a good number of them can’t plunge a toilet or change a tire.

We have, for example, Metrosexual Man, Grunge Man, Neanderthal Man, and Pumped-Up Man, among others. The first two caricatures of real men are hypo-masculine while the latter two are hyper-masculine.

Each cartoon man (hey, don’t forget I’m talking about real people here) is rooted in a particular media image of the day — passing fads that can sometimes be difficult to keep up with, which is one reason why some men “reinvent” or “reconstruct” themselves every so often in keeping with what they think women — and the better part of enlightened society — would like to see.

Is it superficial? Well, yes. Let’s take a look.

I doubt there are many left out there who aren’t blue in the face from hearing about the “metrosexual,” a pretentious label milled so successfully by Madison Avenue. It describes that hopelessly self-absorbed, feminine-acting lad who is irritated by traditional male roles. He is supposedly “caring” (about himself) and open-minded; he’s sensitive, in touch with his soft and emotional feminine side, and willing to manicure his appearance to show it.

Yet, it is instructive to note that while the metrosexual is largely defined by the vanity products he consumes, there is something deeper here. He is almost apologetic for being born a man. But why mess about with this kind of gender redundancy? Let’s face it, in ordinary circumstances men really can’t compete with women at acting, thinking, and feeling womanly.

Speaking of acting womanly, Grunge Man is running neck-and-neck with the metro in the feminine department. The only difference is, again, superficial — literally. Whereas the metro is well-groomed and dandyish, Grunge Man is a carefully sculpted slob. His hair is sufficiently disheveled (just so), giving him the look of a college student who just climbed out of bed after a rough night at the pub. His clothes look slept in (and may well be), his socks are dirty, and he always has three days' growth on his chin. Invariably he has an electric guitar sitting in the corner of his bedroom, though he doesn’t know how to play.

If you’ve been keeping up with the fashion mags, you’ll know there’s been a bit of a backlash against the grunge and metro stereotypes. It’s nice that some guys don’t want to be bullied by advertisers into investing in mousse and botox. Unfortunately, the popular backlash is grounded in the ludicrously mistaken idea that there’s a choice only between being a grunting, couch-potato caveman and a hyper-sensitive dandy.

Forgetting the wise words of Zsa Zsa Gabor — “Macho does not prove mucho” — Pumped-Up Man feels he ought to re-engage with his macho side. So he pumps iron (okay, so far), starts shaving his chest, takes protein and vitamin supplements (or steroids), and starts reading articles about how best to burn fat while building muscle. Getting carried a bit too far, he starts working hard only to achieve paper-thin skin. In the end, he finds he’s little more than a muscular metro.

“Working out” is too much work for Neanderthal Man; he reacts instead by turning to smash-mouth sexism, selfishness, and a general disposition to irresponsibility, all with a confident swagger perfected in front of his bedroom mirror. (Strangely, this appeals to some women.)

Lost, however, in the contemporary search for meaningful modern manhood are the virtues of traditional masculinity. There is, of course, the possibility of a return to traditional male values without having to embrace the worst of stereotypical male attributes that have accreted since the Industrial Revolution. Too many men are adolescents in a grown-up body. Physically they may be men, but emotionally, mentally, and spiritually, no.

The old Jesuit saying, “a man for others,” is a great starting point. Men need to embrace responsibility, hard work, leadership, and particularly the virtue of fortitude. On top of all that, he must be willing to make sacrifices when the need arises, which will be quite often.

By the same token, women — for their part — must demand that men be willing to accept leadership roles. They must look for evidence of the Christian virtues, especially indications that the man can act bravely in everyday life, asserting himself when duty calls — in the family, in the parish, in the community.

Both sexes would also do well to keep in mind that men don’t gossip and natter on like clucking hens and they don’t whine like kids who didn’t get candy after dinner.

Hey, man, you don’t need to know how to swallow a sword or land a jumbo jet, but do learn to plunge a toilet and how to change a tire. At all times, be a “man for others,” and women, settle for nothing less than a hard-working, God-loving bloke with an adequate sense of humor.

(c) Copyright 2006 Catholic Match, LLC. This article may not be copied, reproduced, republished, uploaded, posted, transmitted, or distributed in any way without written authorization Catholic Match, LLC

Michael S. Rose is author of several books including Benedict XVI: The Man Who Was Ratzinger. He can be reached at: msrose@alumni.brown.edu.

This article has been re-published with written authorization of Catholic Match, LLC.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage