The Art(Lessness) of Manliness

by John Ellis

With the help of a friend, I once installed a new toilet in the upstairs bathroom of my house. In hindsight, we should’ve asked our wives to do it; they’re both far more capable than we are. But we didn’t. They were downstairs, and would’ve been willing to do it, I’m guessing. Predictably, a few days later, after a couple of unsuccessful attempts to reset the leaking toilet on the seal, I gave up and called a plumber. I bet if our wives had installed it, I never would’ve had to call the plumber.

At the time, though, both my friend and I were hostages of the myth of manliness.[1] That pointless binary that categorizes activities and proclivities as either masculine or feminine. So, the wives stayed downstairs, doing feminine things[2] while my friend and I went upstairs to do the masculine thing of installing a toilet. A stupid binary that ended up costing me money.

Late last week, while driving into my neighborhood, I thought back on my failed attempt to install a toilet over a decade ago. The lane my vehicle’s nose was pointed down was blocked by a pickup truck tethered to a tree. Standing tall-ish in the front yard of my not-so-immediate neighbors, the tree had been mostly shorn of its branches. All that was (mostly) left was the pin, to use tree service speak. Having briefly worked in tree service one summer while in college, I could tell that the three men didn’t know what they were doing. Well, that’s not entirely true; they knew enough to be dangerous. They knew to strip the pin of the branches. They just didn’t know how to do it correctly. What they created was essentially an oversized Medieval bludgeon with short spikes sticking out of it. Depending on whether they correctly calculated the trajectory of the tree’s fall once that pickup truck hit the gas, their creation could very well fulfill the telos of an actual Medieval bludgeon by caving in a face via the spike before the, well, bludgeon-tree squashed the entire man. Which brings me to an important point: while I obviously didn’t measure it, it sure appeared to me that the rope connecting the truck to the tree was shorter than what was left of the tree. I could be wrong, but if I am, not by much. And “not by much” is a dangerous rule-of-thumb to adhere to when cutting down trees.

Men like to cut down trees. Well, men don’t actually like to cut down trees. Nobody likes cutting down trees. Cutting down trees is hard, often painful work. But men are told that lumberjacks are the epitome of masculinity, so taking down that pesky oak tree that keeps clogging up the gutters on your roof is deemed a masculine activity. Who cares if you miss work for a few days the following week because the painkillers your doctor prescribed for your messed up back gives you brain fog and makes it illegal for you to drive to the office? You’ve proven your manliness. What? Pay to have a professional do this very dangerous thing? But I’m a man. I’ll do it my damn self!

I once scolded a friend for cutting down a tree – using a ladder, to make it even worse – by himself. He laughed me off and said that he knew how to cut down a tree. When I asked him how it went, he turned sheepish. “I misjudged, and it fell on the fence.”

I’m told, frequently, in fact, that masculinity is an endangered species[3]. Good. I hope so. Modern masculinity is a stupid concept that has gone a long way towards helping create the Florida Man trope and keeping the Darwin Awards stocked with recipients. And those may be the least negative impactful things to have come out of contemporary masculinity.

The thing is, which most don’t realize, masculinity as a species, at least the kind having longform obituaries written about it, hasn’t existed on this planet for very long. Really only since the neo-Jacobitism of Sir Walter Scott brought the Scottish Enlightenment’s own specially formed love affair with Rousseauian romanticism to the masses. Fighting, guns, killing what you eat, and saving women, who were strong in their own special “feminine” way to be sure, became the de rigueur of manliness. So did smoking pipes and drinking whiskey in your “man cave,” a room off-limits to women and children unless the man deigned to allow them in his presence. The growing ease and plenty provided by developing capitalist economies provided free time for the new middle class to sit around and begin asking existential (and contentless) questions like, “What does it mean to be a man?”

Well, by the end of the 19th century Teddy Roosevelt’s complete invention of the cowboy lifestyle mythology provided entrepreneurs and marketers an idea. They realized that there was a much easier way to acquire gold then digging it out of the ground.[4] The mass marketing of manliness began. Masculinity, at least of the going extinct kind, is a modern myth – a creation of marketing. It’s also a modern luxury.

Once upon a time, before the advent of tractors, grocery stores, and 3-ply toilet paper, almost every human being that didn’t have the title of king or queen parked in front of his or her name – and even some of them – toiled under subsistence living. Getting enough food to eat for the day was a daily chore, not unlike my kids’ daily chore of cleaning out the cats’ litter box yet completely different at the same time.

The ground doesn’t like to be plowed. And tasty animals do like to be tasted. Over time, solutions were discovered and/or invented. The wooden plow was invented some 10,000 years ago, and that helpful-but-still-only-helpful-to-a-degree tool gave way to the Roman plow. Described by Virgil around 1 A.D., the Roman plow moved humanity a little closer to the subsistence living exit door by introducing the iron plowshare. While an advancement on the wooden plow, coaxing food out of stubborn soil was still arduous. Likewise, deer and other tasty animals do not like to be caught.[5] Providing meat in a subsistence lifestyle was challenging. Physically challenging, to be exact.

Since men are, by and large, physically larger, stronger, and faster than women, circumstances, as in, the ability to continue living, determined much of the division of labor. It didn’t make economic sense[6] for women to plow while men kept the house.[7] Now, though? I mean, a friend of mine just purchased a “rumba” lawnmower.

The felt need for many modern men to demonstrate their masculinity is mostly existential, if not totally. I guess an argument can be made that demonstrating our ability to do things like till the ground and chase down antelope are holdovers from the biological need to court women.[8] That aside, though, the felt need to demonstrate masculinity is absurd. It’s absurd because men demonstrating masculinity is (should be) a tautology. If I feel like replacing a toilet, that feeling is masculine because I am …. wait for it …. a man. Likewise, if I feel like hand stitching lace doilies using only pastel colors, that feeling is masculine because I am …. you guessed it … a man. If a man cuts down a tree, that’s a masculine activity (albeit, possibly a stupid one). If a man designs tutus for the ballet, that’s a masculine activity. This isn’t complicated, but it’s all so very stupid.

Ironically, you would think that an attribute of manliness would be the ability to see through marketing categories and concepts designed to coax you into spending more of your money. Your fishing tackle box and gun rack in your pickup truck ain’t going to fill themselves. Begrudgingly, though, I admit there’s an art to Sir Walter Scott’s 21st century heirs. Inventing a problem to solve is relatively easy. However, convincing your target audience to swallow hook, line, and sinker the entire program takes talent. Being caught on the line is the opposite of artful, though. It’s dull-minded gullibility.   

[1] This friend and I haven’t spoken in over a decade. Being his Facebook friend, I can assure you that he, like me, is no longer held hostage by this myth.

[2] In actuality, I don’t know what they were doing. They may have been rewiring the house, for all I know. Or they may have been sewing/quilting. Most likely, they were just talking – about their incompetent fools of husbands, no doubt.

[3] Considering my previous anecdotes, it’s easy to see why masculinity is an endangered species, if true. But that’s not what people mean when they utter that warning. Which is deeply ironic, if you think about it.

[4] And now, city slickers can pay money to dig gold out of the ground.

[5] As an aside, whenever any of my “hunter/gatherer” friends and family members ask if I would like any of the spoils of their hunt, I always ALWAYS reply, “No thanks. I’ve had a ton of game meat in my life: deer, elk, rabbit, buffalo, whatever. And every time I eat it, I always ALWAYS conclude , ‘This is good, but you know what would make it better? If it were a cow.’” To that, my “hunter/gatherer” friend or family always ALWAYS answers back, “Oh! But you haven’t had game meat the way I prepare it. This is different than other game meat.” It never is. The drug of expressive individualism comes with the side effect of cultural and existential myopia.

[6] Nor existential sense in the most robust meaning of the word existential.

[7] Although, it needs to be pointed out that “keeping house” in yesteryear is not a synonym with “keeping house” in our modern stay-at-home wife meaning of the term.

[8] This may also explain why my buddies and I were convinced, without any evidence, that girls would be impressed with our ability to dunk a basketball … or graze the rim with our fingertip.

One thought on “The Art(Lessness) of Manliness

  1. One of my sons does all the cooking because he likes it and his partner doesn’t like cooking. She wouldn’t have a clue how to install a toilet. The other son doesn’t cook because his partner loves to cook and is better at it than he is. . He is an excellent carpenter and handyman. My sister in law is extremely handy, my brother isn’t. You can’t stereotype men or women, but I’ve noticed that there are more men in trades than women.
    So, has your wife actually installed a toilet? If not, then you’re perpetuating your own myth. Women are constantly talking about girl power. Don’t turn manliness into a dirty word. Time to talk your gender up or where will the next generation of males be?

    Liked by 1 person

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