The New Manliness: Machismo through Dirty Diapers and Gardening?



Just this week, I read an article in Newsweek that asked a very interesting question: “what’s the matter with men?”  For several years, the media has declared that men are “in decline.”  In 2000 Christina Hoff Sommers pronounced that there is a “war against boys,” claiming that the American education system puts down boys.  This summer, The Atlantic’s Hanna Rosin bluntly stated that “The End of Men” is here.
The articles are a reaction to a slate of new research that shows men slipping on a variety of societal measures.  This year was the first time in U.S. history where women have become the majority of the workforce.  For every two men who get a college degree, there are three women who receive diplomas.  In big cities, single, young, childless women earn 8% more than men on average.  Those trends have been exacerbated by the Great Recession, which gutted male-dominated industries like construction and manufacturing.  The statistical areas where men clearly lead women—“alcoholism, suicide, homelessness, violence, criminality”—paint a grim picture of the modern man (Newsweek).   Hanna Rosin poses the profound question, “What if modern, postindustrial society is simply better suited to women?”
So what’s a guy to do?  Here I would like to present a few suggestions.  Of course, I am no sociologist, anthropologist, or minister—I have no particular qualifications to diagnose this malady.  And to be honest, no one has ever mistaken me for a lumberjack, an oil rigger, or a cowboy.   The only thing I can offer is a few reflections from my own recent life experience. I’ve discovered a resurgence of masculinity through two traditionally feminine arts: parenting and gardening. 
This month my wife and I had our first child, a son.  Like all new parents, our first month has been a flurry of dirty diapers, sleepless nights, endless feedings, and shattered schedules.  My life as I knew it four weeks ago has been flipped upside down, macerated, and then steamrolled by our own 8 pound wrecking ball.  But in the midst of this chaos, I’ve felt a curious resurgence of masculinity.  This was initially puzzling to me.  After all, my last month has been a litany of domestic chores: wiping bottoms, cooking meals, washing clothes, and generally keeping up the house.  As my wife recovers from a complicated delivery, my role at home has exploded, and I look a heck of a lot more like Mr. Mom than Mr. T.  If anything, I expected this new role to feel more feminine, a softer version of my former self.  Instead, I feel more like a dude than I’ve felt in years.  Why? 
At its heart, masculinity is really about utility, potency, resourcefulness, and controlled physicality.  In caring for my child, doing my job, and taking care of the home, I feel a renewed sense of vigor and usefulness that I have not felt before.  Earlier this week, I stood at the stove making a roux for a gumbo with one arm, and holding my infant with the other.  All the time I was completely aware that I had become a feminine stereotype.  Yet my son slept comfortably, and my gumbo was a total success.  Instead of feeling girly, I felt competent, creative, and handy. 

This revelation has made me somewhat skeptical of the resurgence of retro-manliness.  Advertising and entertainment has exploited modern man’s angst by returning to dusty old narratives of masculinity—the rugged outdoorsman (Marlboro Man), the urban gangster (hip hop music), the retro corporate guy (Don Draper)—but these images miss the point.  “The truth is, it’s not how men style themselves that will make them whole again—it’s what they do with their days,” says Newsweek writers Romano and Dokoupil. 
The goal of feminism was to gain equality for women by pushing them into roles traditionally reserved for men.  This has largely been successful.   And for the most part, women have not had to abandon femininity.  Why shouldn’t the same be true with men?  The path to the new manliness is not to retreat to the woods or hide inside one’s tool shed; instead, we should start by engaging in the home.  We need a definition of macho that includes home-making as well as home improvement projects.  This shouldn’t be too hard, as the expectation for fathers is still sadly low.  Just last week, my father-in-law came to town to visit the baby and remarked, “you’re a great dad” simply because I held the baby for about an hour.  Would he have come to the same conclusion if my wife were holding him at that moment?  I doubt it.  When it comes to the home, there’s much room for men to grow.
WWII poster promoting manly gardening. 
From the National Agricultural Library.
Like parenting, gardening is the other odd place I always feel like a dude.   Of course, this too is at odds with the traditional image.  Yard work (particularly anything involving power tools) was for men, while ornamental gardening typically is left to women.  My friend from college jokingly calls me a “pansy-ass flower guy” whenever he refers to my profession.  Yet my experience runs entirely counter to this stereotype.  Gardening to me is the most creative, physically engaging, and potent activities I know.  Breaking the ground, creating spaces, working outside . . . these activities are that perfect combination of physical and mental challenge. 
In essence, the point of rediscovering masculinity (or femininity for that matter) is not just about gender identity; it is an attempt to rediscover our humanity in a postmodern age.  For me, the antidote to the hundreds of hours a month I spend in a cubicle staring at a computer screen is engaging in my family or my garden.  These are the activities that make me feel not only masculine, but human.  My theologian friend reminds me that the etymology of the word “human” is the same as the word for “humus” or dirt.  We are meant to be in relationship with each other; we are meant to be in relationship with the earth.
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