Wanted: manly virtue

Rich Cromwell writes a lively discussion of our culture’s attempts to deal with manly virtue at The Federalist, inspired by a hilariously funny advertisement that shows a guy desperately trying to recapture his masculinity after using a feminine product in the shower:


Cromwell goes on a tour of leftist culture’s inability to define what “masculinity” means, especially since that culture is so nervous about endorsing anything “heteronormative.”  As he concludes – and as I found myself thinking about a comparably amusing, but even weirder, Old Spice Body Spray commercial that features mothers stalking their young sons on dates and mourning their Old Spice-fueled ascension to irresistible manhood – women are the real targets of these marketing messages:

The target audience for “Manly Mistake” is women and the messaging is brilliant and subtle. “Use Summer’s Eve and you’ll attract a buff alpha male who splits wood, welds, gladly endures pain, and can drag a car with his teeth. Also, he’ll maintain a nice yard, earn enough for you to have a house with a pool, and handle all the yard work.” If Axe made the commercial I outlined above, the message would be, “Use Axe and your woman will do anything and everything possible to avoid having relations with you.” Heteronormative? Perhaps. Or as normal people call it, simple biology.

Another intriguing development in the Man Wars is the astounding success of the new movie “Lone Survivor,” a harrowing and heroic tale about four Navy SEALs battling a huge horde of Taliban fighters after a mission in the mountains of Afghanistan goes wrong.  The movie far outperformed every box-office prediction, validating those who say the American public is hungry to hear stories about the heroes of the War on Terror, and will show up in droves when the military is treated with respect on screen.


“Lone Survivor” is also the manliest movie currently playing at your local cineplex.  The opening montage of Navy SEAL training is charged with more testosterone than any other six films combined.  The manly virtues of brotherhood in combat, courage under fire, and above all else sucking it up and dealing with a crisis are prominent elements of the story.  This point is made numerous times throughout the film.  It’s a major component of the warrior code.  There are no referees standing by to accept complaints during a battle.  The heroes of “Lone Survivor” suffer beyond reason, and as the title tells you, only one of them makes it through alive… but they also endure beyond reason, refusing to let anything short of God’s welcoming embrace put them “out of the fight.”

We need more of that spirit in America today.  I hope we are wise enough to let veterans returning from the Middle East teach it to us.

There has been much debate over whether society has been too “paternal” or “maternal” – whether it values classically masculine or feminine virtues more.  Defining those virtues is also a long-running argument.  To throw in my two cents’ worth, I think the masculine virtues have been greatly de-emphasized in our current cultural mix, and some of it was deliberate.  That’s one reason military culture is increasingly distant from civilian life, which is a dismaying trend.


Part of the masculinity gap is due to the diminished role of men in the lives of so many children, an inevitable result of rising divorce and illegitimacy.  The decreasing importance of marriage changes the role of men.  In times past, fidelity to wife and children was an important masculine virtue, contributing to a man’s portfolio of respectability.  In a post-marriage world, the contribution of fathers to family honor – indeed, the idea of families having an honorable reputation that spans generations – is less important.  On a purely practical level, illegitimacy and divorce mean kids spend less time with their fathers.  The sub-cultures in which paternal influence is most consistently absent have clearly suffered for it.

The constant pressure to eliminate the distinctions between women and men naturally leads to less appreciation for distinct feminine and masculine virtues; it is controversial even to speak of such things, especially when discussing the masculine.  Of course, as Rich Cromwell observed, biology remains in effect.  We all know men and women are different, no matter how sternly we are instructed not to dwell on it.  Our society now contends with masculinity primarily by making fun of it, and since one of those masculine virtues is the confidence necessary to take a joke – you won’t get far in the SEALs without that – guys laugh heartily along with humor at their expense.


Manly virtue is a matter of living up to certain expectations, and that idea is antithetical to a socialist political culture of dependency and despair.  No one is expected to live up to anything.  It is considered heartless and cruel to ask anything of the dependency class.  We can’t even have an adult discussion about something as obvious and pertinent as the effect of perpetually extended unemployment insurance upon the unemployment rate, because the documented fact that the former increases the latter is considered upsetting and humiliating for the long-term unemployed.  They must be treated solely and entirely as helpless victims of circumstance.  A rational and mature society would have no trouble saying “making it easier to live without work increases unemployment” without assuming the unspoken allegation that “everyone in favor of extending unemployment benefits is a lazy good-for-nothing bum.”

In a similar vein, it’s considered absolutely beyond the pale to criticize how Food Stamp Nation is spending its mountain of welfare cash.  We’re not even really supposed to ask how they’re using it, or how lifelong dependency on such programs alters their behavior in undesirable ways.  Welfare-reform advocates in Maine recently took the apparently unprecedented step of asking the Department of Health and Human Services where cash withdrawals on food-stamp cards were being made.  (In case you were unaware, yes, you can make cash withdrawals with food-stamp cards.  It leads to exactly the kind of abuse you would suspect.)  After prying the data from HHS with a Freedom of Information Act request, The Maine Wire discovered that quite a bit of it was being spent in distant locales.  Specifically, the third-largest state for Maine EBT cash withdrawals was Florida, home of numerous theme parks.  Numerous large cash withdrawals were traced to ATMs right next to major attractions.  There were also withdrawals in Las Vegas, and at a luxury hotel in California.


This is the behavior of spoiled children, the kind of abuse Daddy would put a stop to, the sort of thing a man would never stoop to.  If he found it necessary to accept public assistance, he would try to get away from it as quickly as possible.  That means prudence and self-discipline, not food stamp-funded vacations to Disneyworld.

That’s the problem in a nutshell: we’re not a mature society, and it has traditionally been Father’s job to tell the kids to grow up.  Perpetual adolescent indulgence is now the model, in everything from public policy to entertainment culture.  It is deliberately cultivated by a political culture that profits by cultivating dependence, portraying “hope” as something only the right politician can deliver.  And it will be delivered right to your doorstep.

There’s not much call for manly discipline in such an environment.  “Suck it up” is something soldiers tell each other quite often in the field.  When they say it in “Lone Survivor,” they’re talking about sucking up concussions suffered after they jumped off the side of a mountain, in a hail of rockets and machine gun fire.  But what else is there to say, at such a moment?  What favor would the squad leader be doing for his men by telling them to take it easy for a while, and let him know when they’re feeling up to another stroll through the exciting mountains of Afghanistan?  Sure, most of us will never be in such a situation, and can only dream of measuring our courage and determination against war heroes… but are we really doing our fellow civilian citizens any favors by refusing to address them as men, and telling them to pick up their baggage and get moving?


Our maternal government offers promises and guarantees.  It demands obedience in return.  But the masculine strength of a society is forged by what citizens expect from each other.  There’s plenty of room – plenty of need – for feminine virtues too.  We will soon learn whether a society can thrive without the men we have been treating as sideshow oddities for far too long.

Update: I incorrectly attributed an Old Spice advertisement to Axe, and have corrected the reference.   If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s the ad in question:

My apologies to the makers and consumers of these products for any confusion I might have caused.  A public service announcement: the Surgeon General has determined that combining Axe and Old Spice deodorants and body sprays is too much manly scent for any one person, and may cause lycanthropy.



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