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Men, Or Boys?

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books and culture

Men, Or Boys?

Reflections on a vanishing ideal October 8, 2021
Arts and Culture

“The minute your son leaves the house, does he rebuckle his knickerbockers below the knee?” asks Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man. In living memory, there was a time when knickerbocker’d young men looked forward to the day when they could wear long pants. It was a sign they had become a man.

The other night, though, I went to dinner at the fanciest restaurant in Hudson, New York City’s Sixth Borough. Half the adult males were wearing shorts.

The last time I was at the Metropolitan Opera, what looked like more than half the male audience was dressed not just in casual clothes, but sloppy casual clothes. These included shorts, sweatpants or, worse, pajama bottoms, one of which had rocket ships on it—a prepubescent boy’s pattern. This was in the Orchestra section. I saw few suits and ties and fewer tuxedoes.

When I started traveling in planes in the late 1960s, most men still wore suits and ties for the flight. This may sound like a traditional complaint of the older generation finding the younger generation wanting, and it is, but it’s also a regret for something fundamental that is being lost—has been lost—in our culture: the differentiation among ages. And the world needs more distinctions, not fewer, even if we value them all. We can like equally Schubert’s Lieder and Jerry Lee Lewis and Rodgers and Hart and Taylor Swift without homogenizing them.

Merriam-Webster’s first definition for “man” is “An adult male human being,” though that description is more recently being challenged by other definitions of both gender and sex.

The Four Seasons sang “Walk Like A Man.” But how does a man walk? John Wayne (a man’s man) sashayed with a feminine step. A blog post advertises “How to Stop Being Mr. Niceguy and Command Respect.” No More Mr. Nice Guy could be an admonition to a woman, too.

A headline in this past Sunday’s Daily News announced the new Daniel Craig Bond movie as “A celebration of the true male ideal.”

“The Ideal Man! Oh, the Ideal Man should talk to us [women] as if we were goddesses, and treat us as if we were children,” says Mrs. Allonby in Oscar Wilde’s A Woman Of No Importance. “He should refuse all our serious requests, and gratify every one of our whims.” Since it is Oscar Wilde, we are to assume the virtuous view is the opposite. In Wilde, virtue is always on the side of the rebel against received opinion.

“A man is a god in ruins,” Emerson suggested. Some on both sides of the Gender Wars might agree. Of course, Emerson was using man in its former (and now disreputable) view as including man and woman. As is Plato’s man (which includes women): “a biped without feathers.”

In underworld slang, a man—The Man—is an authority figure, usually there to keep men from behaving like boys.

My wife thinks that Michelangelo’s David is a male ideal. Not a muscled man like Arnold Schwarzenegger—though she gives the former governor of California points for intelligence. Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man has also been a model for what a man looks like. It does not look like Ryan Reynolds. He’s a wonderful actor, but a boyish wonderful actor.

In 2015 (and for this subject, dates do matter), Tom Chiarella described what it means to be a man in Esquire: “A man carries cash. A man looks out for those around him—woman, friend, stranger. A man can cook eggs . . . A man makes things . . . [He] rebuilds—engines, watches, fortunes . . . A man knows how to bust balls.”

But a woman can do those things, too—including bust balls.

A man used to be described as being tough, self-reliant, dependable, stoic. My father told me the story of the Spartan youth who hid a stolen fox in his tunic and, rather than confess his deed, let the fox eat his entrails. Okay, a problematic example.

And women can do that, too, including giving a pissed-off fox fatal shelter. The writer of the “No More Mr. Niceguy” post describes men as being “strong and tough and dangerous.” Also traits women can share.

A Wordpress blog that lists “100 Qualities My Ideal Boyfriend Must Possess” tops the charts with “Be courteous to others—not just to me.”

What everyone on all sides of the conversation (and it has as many sides as a snowflake) seems to agree on is that a man must be mature. But today, how do we picture maturity?

In On The Waterfront, Marlon Brando was 30. Rod Steiger was 29. They looked like my generation’s traditional image of men. Not grown-up boys, as too many of our male stars appear to be today. Even as he ages, Leonardo DiCaprio looks like a boy in aged make-up.

Jimmy Stewart was 32 in The Philadelphia Story. His costar, Cary Grant, was 36. In The Magnificent Seven, Yul Brenner was 40, James Coburn 32, Steve McQueen 30, Charles Bronson 39. I’d lay odds that none of them ever longed for days when they wore short pants.

Over the past 30 years or so, it seems as if our society’s traditional male role models have failed. Depending on your politics, this may be good or bad.

When I was a young man, the definition of a gentleman was someone comfortable in any situation. My father edited this definition: A gentleman, he said, was someone who made others feel comfortable in any situation.

According to Jennifer Bosson and Joseph Vandello, psychology professors at the University of South Florida, “Men’s masculinity is something that is elusive (it must be earned) and tenuous (it must be continually proven.)”

Today’s Peter Pan-ishness applies not just to clothes but to manners—not to be confused with etiquette. Etiquette is about the false value social climbers place on knowing which fork to use at a dinner party. Manners are about being secure enough to yield. How many men are secure enough to yield to another?

That’s hard to do. Humans are mammals—primates—whose behavior is all about territory and pecking order. So to yield is to signal that we are more advanced than what our primate brains have programmed.

Maybe it is best to leave it to The Four Tops and “What Is A Man?” They sing:

A man can walk proudly,
Down in the street.
A man’s not ashamed of what he believes.
He knows how to laugh,
He knows when to cry.
He knows it’s best to live.
He’s not afraid to die.

Left Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images, Right Photo by mikel roberts/Sygma via Getty Images

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