NYT Op-Ed Just Asking: Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?
This Wednesday, Matt Labash of The Daily Caller took to the pages of the New York Times to whine about the fact that no one is John Wayne anymore. Did he mean, by this, that there are not nearly enough racist men out there who dodged the draft themselves and then went on to be big ol' cheerleaders for extremely bad wars? Of course not. Dubya ain't dead yet. No, Labash was referring to how fabulously manly John Wayne was and lamenting the entirely mythic days when all of the men were John Wayne, or at least aspired to be John Wayne — and the role of a recent issue of GQ in pushing men even further from the John Wayne ideal.
John Wayne, that repository of testosterone — now considered an illicit substance in many states — once played a character who said, "You have to be a man first, before you're a gentleman." Who knows what, exactly, he meant by it? It sounded like a fine thing to say, back when men were unabashed "men." Now, we have #MeToo, and toxic males, and even such a once man-friendly rag as Gentlemen's Quarterly (i.e., GQ), which has historically celebrated men, seems to be just sick about them, eager to atone for their Y chromosome.
I would love to know more about how #MeToo is preventing men from being men. Does Matt Labash believe that it is somehow not OK to talk about the ways in which "traditional" notions of masculinity have perhaps led to a culture of sexual harassment and even sexual assault? That perhaps the idea that a man's masculinity is dependent on his ability to get women to sleep with him is bad and even, dare I say it, toxic?
But specifically, Labash is very upset about a recent issue of GQ that focused on something called "The New Masculinity." It is, Labash feels, a bad masculinity. And, he says, it is not the business of men's magazine editors "with soft hands" to be weighing in on masculinity, even if they are also men.
For those curious to see just how much American masculinity is shifting — at least at Condé Nast headquarters in Manhattan — the trouble starts on the cover, in which the singer Pharrell Williams sports a canary-yellow, high-fashion Moncler sleeping-bag-as-gown, looking like Cinderella going to the Dick's Sporting Goods ball. From there, "The Glorious Now of Men in Makeup" spread is little surprise, with lacquered-up boy-banders, models and influencers dispensing invaluable beauty pointers, such as Gen Z trans model Casil McArthur, who advises going with "mascara and lip tint. If I want to be extra, I'll incorporate intense sparkles."
Oh, the horror? I guess? The bad thing about this, supposedly, is that this kind of "masculinity" is a kind of masculinity that would not appeal to men who need supplies for fishing and/or tractors, and that it therefore condemns them in some way.
It's difficult to envision the guys down at the tackle shop or Tractor Supply going in for sleeping-bag couture and hot makeup tips. But then, they're the Old Man, the kind of man the new masculinity seeks to leave behind. Maybe they haven't paraded around female job applicants with open kimono, à la Charlie Rose, or haven't traumatized female colleagues by subjecting them to pelvic pinball, à la Mark Halperin. But in GQ's eyes they're guilty of a more universal sin: They're still living as men undefined by non-men.
If only GQ would go back to their roots and start trying to appeal to the coveted bait and tractor demographic once more!
Labash complains that only four of the people interviewed on what it means to be a man today are heterosexual cisgender men, that men like John Waters and Magic Johnson's cosmetics-embracing son were asked for their input, as well as several women, claiming that Ms. or Jezebel would never do such a thing in reverse. He's right, but GQ is not and has never been the male version of Ms. or Jezebel. If anything, it's probably closer to a male version of Cosmopolitan, which frequently (at least when I read it) solicits the opinions of men for the purpose of "helping" women figure out what they want, in general and in bed.
By focusing this issue on how men might improve themselves and sort of learn to get with the program — the program being you don't have to be a jerk to be a "man" and in fact there are all different kinds of ways to be one, some of which can absolutely include sparkles if you like sparkles — Labash claims that they are ruining civilization, which is somehow dependent on men and women being "opposites."
He is not alone in his sentiments. It has become a popular sport these days for right-wing men (and women!) to wail and scream about how no one will let men be men anymore and how masculinity is dying and what have you. It is, they believe, a very urgent matter, and definitely an entirely recent concern. Oh, how they pine for the old days, when goyls were goyls and men were men.
A (Brief) People's History Of Men Whining About Other Men Being Unmanly
But this is nothing new. If there is anything that has remained constant throughout history, it is generations of men freaking out over how unmanly the current generation of men is. In first century Rome, Seneca the Elder was out there talking about how all the "the Youngers" were slothful and bad at war. By the time Caesar rolled around in the second century, the historiographer Plutarch was remarking upon how "daintily" he arranged his hair, and The Elder Curio, a famous orator, was giving speeches calling him "every woman's man and every man's woman."
"Where are the men in Spain?" the Spanish priest Francisco de Leon wanted to know in 1635. "What I see are effeminate men... I see men converted into women!"
In 1771, a reader of Town and Country magazine wrote in to share his thoughts and feelings on the men of the day:
Whither are the manly vigor and athletic appearance of our forefathers flown? Can these be their legitimate heirs? Surely, no; a race of effeminate, self-admiring, emaciated fribbles can never have descended in a direct line from the heroes of Potiers and Agincourt.
In the 1800s, manly men were very concerned about dandies.
Also, while the Victorian Era produced its own weird standards of what masculinity entailed, American men thought those Victorian dudes were total pansies.
At the turn of the 20th century, people were very worried that all the men living and working in urban areas were coming down with a psychological disorder called "neurasthenia," an anxiety brought on by not living their best manly lives out in the wilderness, or whatever. It was this fear that led the publishing and advertising industries to, in essence, create the romantic myth of the manly lumberjack. It was this same fear that led to a prevalence of cowboy movies and the cowboy aesthetic and to Calvin Coolidge wearing leather chaps with "CAL" written on the sides.
Following that, supposedly manly men panicked over dang foreigners like Rudolph Valentino and Ramón Novarro, the women who swooned over them, and the men who started slicking their hair back to look like them. Then they were upset about beatniks, and then they were upset about men in the '60s with their long hair and whatnot, then they were mad at disco (though, to be fair, that was more for reasons of racism).
There has never, in all of history, been any consistent standard of masculinity or of what it means for a man to be a man. Labash can lament GQ articles about men wearing makeup all he likes, but he should probably look at some pictures of French men in the 1700s before doing so. He probably thinks taking ballet classes would be "unmanly," but during the Renaissance, all court ballet dancers were men and it was considered a very manly thing to do. He clearly thinks that any kind of introspection on whether or not certain behaviors labeled as "masculine" could be harmful to men and society at large is a threat to men, but there have certainly been loads of men, throughout the centuries, writing about ethics and human behavior. None of this is new.
As the Scottish philosopher and social commentator Thomas Carlyle wrote back in 1831:
"The old ideal of Manhood has grown obsolete, and the new is still invisible to us, and we grope after it in darkness, one clutching this phantom, another that; Werterism, Byronism, even Brummelism, each has its day"
As long as Matt Labash doesn't hurt anyone, I don't think anyone cares what kind of "masculine" he wants to be. He is free to measure his own masculinity by how well he fits in at a tractor store, if he wishes. No one is stopping him, or anyone else, from doing this. No one is forcing him to wear makeup or do anything else he doesn't want to do. But he doesn't get to begrudge anyone else their definition either.
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Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse