What The Frogs Have To Say About Masculinity

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I’m sure that you, like me, have been involved in a lot of discussions lately about how a man is supposed to behave now, given the steady streaming of new sexual harassment accusations and exposés. One friend of ours observed that it was a difficult time to raise a son, because it feels like there is only a narrow band of acceptability on the spectrum between weak and rapist.

The frogs, bored of their democratic state, were so clamorous that Jupiter submitted them to a monarch’s power. He fell from the sky, a most pacific king. His highness made such a noise in falling, that the swampy people, a people who were very stupid and very fearful, hid beneath the water: in the lily pads, in the reeds, in the swamp holes. For a long time the frogs dared not even look at the face of he who they imagined to be a new giant.

Actually, he was a person of no account. Still, his size and gravitas scared the first who, seeing the king taking a tour, dared to leave her den. She approached, but trembling … followed by another … and another. They came in swarms. And in the end their troop got cozy enough to jump on their king’s shoulders. The good noble endured this, always holding himself still.

Jupes soon had an earful.

Give us, said this people, a king who does something.

The king of the gods sent them a crane; who ate them, who killed them, who gorged on them at his pleasure.

Oh, the frogs complained. And Jupes said:

And so? Are we here to cater to your every desire? First, you should have kept your government. But, not having done that, it should have sufficed that your first king was debonair and kind. You might have contented yourselves with him, for fear of encountering worse.

“From weak to rapist” is the wrong spectrum. When our measurement is flawed, we will end up as food at the king’s feast. The definition of masculinity has become so distorted that its primary measure is strength. And strength is somehow in opposition with decency. As if, to be a decent man, a good man, is to be weak. Or, conversely, you may be a good man who is strong; in which case, we are required to forgive you occasional bad behavior.

Have we tired of the work and thought required by democracy? Here I am thinking of democracy as a system designed (in its highest and best incarnation) to foster a just and decent society. Is it really too hard to figure out what is good and kind in masculinity, that we must throw up our hands and turn to a monarchical measurement, a spectrum of strength instead of decency?

You’ve probably got this all figured out already, but when my friend first mentioned his “weak to rapist” spectrum, I went with it, without thinking. It was only later, in conversation with my partner, that he pointed out the fundamental rottenness at the core of what had seemed a fruitful debate.

I was mortified. Sadly, I am an example of how far too many of us have bought into strength over decency. How many movies have there been about a supposedly good man pushed too far, who then leaves a trail of carnage retrieving a kidnapped family member? (What happened to Liam Neesom’s movie career?) We are socialized to admire such shows of strength. It is a surprise hero who doesn’t land at least one punch.

All this sexual harassment in the workplace is just a continuation of the centuries old tradition under feudalism of jus primae noctis—the right of the lord to have sex with the young virgins of his lands before they married. Now all men who are strong enough may consider themselves lords of the land, exerting their power in return for a woman’s right to continue working and maybe get ahead.

We need to change our definition of masculinity. We need to endow decency with its appropriate weight. This will require thought and effort, changes in behavior. Like democracy, we can’t get bored with the work. Men have work to do. Women may have even more. Maybe that doesn’t seem fair.

The alternative is to let the king gorge himself, and pick his teeth with our lazy bones.

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