"There's three things men always talk about: women, sports and cars."
So says a laser-etched piece of “quality beech wood” you can order from Amazon for $19.99. The quote is attributed to Mario Lopez, a man most widely known for his ability to sit on chairs backwards as A.C. Slater on Saved By the Bell.
This quote is not particularly insightful, nor it is eloquent. It is, however, a popular distillation of the modern American male. The name for this archetype has evolved over the years, from the “man’s man” to the “guy’s guy” to the “alpha male”. These terms are interchangeable, and they purport to define all forms of culturally acceptable masculinity.
These labels run counter to, apparently, “pajama boys”. At least according to former Special Assistant to President Trump and Nazi-affiliate Sebastian Gorka. Last December, he declared that the “era of the pajama boy is over January 20th, and the alpha males are back.” By “alpha males”, we can take Gorka to mean Nazis, white nationalists, war hawks, killers et. al.. And this shows the inherent problem of the “man’s man” and why we need to kill it—it’s stitched, helplessly so, to dominance.
The pajama statement was Gorka’s way of summarizing what he perceived were military failures by the Obama administration. Gorka equates manliness with military intervention. His basic thesis being that “men kill,” and non-men or “pajama boys” do not. According to Gorka, Obama chose not to invade Syria because he wasn’t manly enough to do so.
The term unfurled by Gorka, “pajama boy”, originated in 2013 when President Obama tweeted an ad for the Affordable Care Act. The ad showed a young man clad in a flannel onesie sipping from a mug with an accompanying message stating: “Wear pajamas. Drink hot chocolate. Talk about getting health insurance.”
Right wing commentators and all around manly men tore into the ad claiming it further perpetuated the infantilization of the American male. Rich Lowry of the National Review wrote a piece for Politico in which called the ad’s subject an “insufferable man-child” who “is probably reading The Bell Jar and looking forward to a hearty Christmas meal of stuffed tofurkey.”
So reading Sylvia Plath and not eating meat are obvious negatives; they are decidedly unmanly character traits. Real men eat flesh, and real men don’t read classic American novels or drink hot chocolate, or wear pajamas.
Though what it means to be a “man” has become more malleable over the last few decades, the idea of the “man’s man” and the “alpha male” has stayed rather static. If you picture an alpha male in your head, he’s probably a large guy brimming with confidence; he may have a beard or be holding and axe or standing next to a truck or something, or maybe he’s wearing a suit and his chin is tilted just a little too high, or maybe he’s a chap of another knit entirely —the aesthetics and quirks aren’t the issue here; it’s about much more than that. The alpha male approach traverses all social spheres. Adherence to this archetype is predominantly defined by a continual exhibition of power—that’s the problem.
The specimens in question, the men’s men as it were, perfectly exude all of the qualities we have decided, as a culture, a man should have and hold. And this super-glue-like adherence to this archetype has pushed the gender the wrong direction. U.S. culture has long fetishized male simplicity and dominance, with a particular focus on nurturing the libidinal impulses therein—and it has done a lot of damage: 89 percent of homicides committed the United States are committed by males. A study conducted by the DOJ between 1990 and 2010 found that 99 percent of people arrested for rape were male. The FBI’s numbers for 2015 found that 79.7 percent of violent crimes were committed by men.
Now someone may slide in here and point out that males have been the primary perpetrators of violent crimes throughout nearly every society for centuries. This is true. And, it’s precisely the reason why males should be pushed by society to be more dynamic, compassionate and empathetic beings.
Existing as a powerful, brute who only successfully converses on athletics, machines and the opposite sex, should be viewed as a sad, trivial existence. But it's still considered the pinnacle in many ways. Chauvinism is admired in many circles, and it's considered manly to be simple and powerful and to assert that power over others. Indulging in this power is the easy path—it's the default setting, it’s a fixed trajectory, it's animalistic. It's a surrendering to popular culture and to base impulses.
The last thing men need is a shot of steroids to the ids and egos of the worst offenders. And yet, for decades upon decades being a monster was not only an acceptable social path for the modern American male, it was encouraged.
Trump said his vile comments on women were "locker room talk", asserting that this is how all men speak to one another in a locker room. The "boys will be boys" excuse has been used for decades around the world to excuse violence and frame sexual assault as the logical and unavoidable result of having a penis.
The idea that men can't help it is profoundly insulting and stupefyingly mythological in nature.
Do we (men) not possess cerebral cortexes imbued with the power of self-control?
What our society needs is more superego, more balance, more humility and far less systematic manliness.
As we examine the seemingly never-ending wave of sexual assault allegations that are knocking handfuls of powerful men off their perches each day, as we read about the numerous hazing-related deaths at fraternities, as we come to accept the fact that our country elected a man who bragged about grabbing women by the genitals without consent, we have to acknowledge that toxic masculinity is a systemic problem.
Society’s bolstering of this myopic brand of manliness does not excuse the behavior of abusers and blowhards; they are human beings who made decisions. But the alpha-friendly atmosphere that helped foster and hide these hideous acts needs to be dismantled. For this to be a full on cultural reckoning, we need to look beyond the individuals to the system that nourished their behavior.
We need to destroy the idea of the alpha male and all it’s associated labels, and replace it with something far simpler and broader. There's really no reason to involve gender at all: be a good person. The qualities associated with gender are almost entirely a social construction; there’s no reason for them to exist. We can be reductive here: be responsible, be gracious, be generous, be compassionate, be empathetic, be caring, be kind.
This is not to say that men should be prohibited from ever acting in traditionally masculine ways, or from enjoying cars and motorcycles and whiskey and axes and football and whatever else, it simply means that those aspects of perceived masculinity should not define, in totality, what is means to be a “man.” Being a “man” shouldn’t mean anything; personhood should trump all categorizations of gender.
Adhering to gender norms should not be factored in to the good person index. By narrowing things by gender, we have created an atmosphere that punishes those who defy convention. There is no doubt that much of the hate and discrimination exhibited towards the LGBTQ+ community stems from our adherence to these strict, archaic laws of gender.
Men are encouraged to be generic, powerful, dominant beings; sensitivity and empathy are muted background singers.
The alpha male has brought an immense amount of war, and abuse, and death, and destruction.
It’s time we ended him.
Previously published on The Overgrown.