To Fight or Not to Fight: The Crisis of Masculinity in American Culture
Ever since I was a very little girl, we would linger at the kitchen table after dinner and beg my father to tell stories of his childhood. My siblings and I adored his tales of a dream-like youth; long summer days spent rafting down the river, the double-doggy-dares to touch the rickety, old haunted house, and escapades through groves of almond trees. But most of all, for reasons I don't fully understand myself, even now, looking back on my own childhood, we begged him for stories of fights. Like Homer's Achilles or the famed Beowulf, our dad was the undefeatable hero before whom lay the crushed remains of any fool who dared oppose him. We listened, wide-eyed, as he relieved his moments of glory, fighting opponents who unwisely chose to offend or provoke him. We felt his wrath, subconsciously sensed his rush of adrenaline, and shared in his pride as he, as always in his stories, emerged victorious. Fights seemed to be so exciting. So electrifying. Such a magnificent display of a person's strength and dominance.
Though perhaps a bit misconstrued and overly-glorified in our young minds, our childhood fascination with fighting is not unique. Throughout the ages, children have watched, have listened, have admired, and have emulated the warriors and fighters of their times. However, for centuries, while the girls returned to help their mothers in the kitchen or tend to the sewing, it was the boys who were the ones to diligently practice wrestling and spear throwing and even in modern times, feast upon war movies and action video games in an effort to participate in the excitement they find in such "manliness." It is interesting how boys and young men have historically been, and continue to be, drawn to fighting almost as though it was a thing innate. There seems almost to be an internal drive, a subconscious yearning to be "on top", emerge the alpha-male, conquer and triumph over one's enemies. After observing and pondering this tendency, I have come to believe that yes, a level of aggression and violent propensity in boys and men is, indeed, innate. That said, however, the difference between a vicious, violent brute and the heroic warrior we admire lies in this: the ability to channel one's fighting instinct in a correct and appropriate manner. Through examining Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club and analyzing modern day confusion among America's young men, we will uncover the discrepancies so entrenched in our society that lead to the worrisome "masculinity crisis." There is a crisis of masculinity in America today and its root cause is a deep-set confusion regarding the difference of learning to fight instead of when and why to do so.
First of all, many boys learn simply to fight. They observe the excitement, they listen to the exhilarating stories of bruises and blood and victory, they watch and learn techniques and methods to use, and they acquire a love of fighting. They subconsciously acquire a desire to display dominance, power, physical supremacy and thus attain the respect and fear of their peers. They learn that they are men, and that men fight. Most boys learn the definition of "masculinity" and what the term entails, from their fathers or father figures. In his essay, "Men and Nostalgia for Violence," Keven Alexander Boon writes that the traditional link between masculinity and violence is "the result of cultural pressure and a behavior inheritance that is directly tied to their gender. Men are inclined towards physical aggression for numerous reasons, not all of which are alterable, and the performance of this aggression makes significant contributions to the formation of masculine identity. Rules shaping that performance are passed from generation to generation primarily by the father and provide direction for biologically based violent impulses and culturally assigned gender roles."
This teaching of boys to fight because it is the "masculine" thing to do feeds the innate inclination towards aggression and violence. It teaches boys that fighting is normal, accepted and even encouraged, simply because they are of the male gender. Pandu Hailong writes in his study "What Is A Man?", "From and early age, children are taught what is expected of them based on their gender...Society expects men to have power and to exert that power, whether it be physically, economically or politically. Today, adolescent boys view becoming a man much like they view playing a game. A man must be a tough, competitive 'player', a protector...the 'player' who can get the most girls, and can use his power to keep other men from taking 'his woman', wins the game and wins acceptance from his peers. Adolescent young men are taught to play this game without thinking about the privileges society grants them, or about the consequences of their behavior." Interestingly enough, in the book Fight Club, it is not until the men establish underground fight clubs where they are free to beat each other senseless, do they actually feel like men. And excerpt from the text reads, "You aren't alive anywhere like you're alive at fight club. When it's you and one other guy under that one light in the middle of all those watching. Fight club isn't about winning or losing fights. Fight club isn't about words...you fight to fight." These men fought in a desperate attempt to regain their masculinity after being trapped in a world of desk-jobs and neck-ties. Beating the crud out of someone, or getting absolutely beat up yourself, was simply a way to truly feel. To actually be a man. The men in the fight clubs rediscovered an addiction to their true, natural self. Comprised of dozens of businessmen, office workers, high-end restaurant workers and an occasional lawyer, Fight Club was a place for men to retreat and revel in their brutal masculinity. It's members were men who were weary of endless mediocrity, beautiful perfect emptiness, an emasculated existence. Without the brutalness they understood as being masculine, they were unsatisfied and unhappy. As the narrator bleakly mused, "I just don't want to die without a few scars...It's nothing anymore to have a beautiful stock body. You see those cars that are completely stock cherry, right out of a dealer's showroom in 1955. I always think, what a waste." And so, these men go to fight club, beat each other to the point of unrecognizability, and feel rejuvenated. They can finally get in touch with their "inner man". These are men who have learned to fight. Unsure of why they fight, or what they are fighting for, they fight simply for the thrill. For the inexplicable rush of masculinity they experience with each consecutive punch.
That said, and possibly stemming from my sanguine perspective of humanity and men, I find it quite difficult to believe that all men are instinctively violent, fighting machines who live to destroy and destroy to live. I recall men like Ghandi or Martin Luther King Jr. who epitomize peaceful, yet powerful men. I reflect upon men such as Dr. Paul Farmer or Greg Mortensen, who rose to the top of their respective fields, and won the admiration of hundreds of thousands worldwide, by striving to promote peace and the well-being of humanity. I think of my opera-singing, piano-playing, dancing brother who wants nothing to do with violence of any sort, though he listened to the same stories my father told. I think of the knights of old who treasured a code of honor, rather than a pact to punch. What is the explanation for these men? Do they have any innate sense of aggression or are they freaks of nature? Non-violent males?
The answer lies in the second half of the issue, learning why and when to fight. A fighting machine governed by cold reasoning makes for a very incomplete person. A man needs compassion, a calmness, and the ability to empathize with others. These were the qualities that were found in traditional, historical masculinity. Interestingly, the farther back in history you delve, the more you discover this complex balance being expected and demanded, not only of the average man, but particularly those who comprise modern society's standard of manhood. Knights, Samurai, The Three Musketeers, all had strong notions of compassion, moral guidance, self control, and empathy as part of their central edicts. As Waller Newell puts in his introduction to his book "The Code of Man," "The mind cannot achieve happiness unless it is fueled by the passionate energies of love and daring. The point is not prudishly to suppress these passions, but to direct them away from bad goals, like coarse pleasure seeking and brutal aggression, and towards constructive goals - the cultivation of those moral and intellectual virtues that enable us to be good family men, friends, and citizens. A man needs to know who - and what - is truly deserving of his love. Only then will he know when - and why - he may need to fight to defend them." Very much unlike the first traits of fighting we discussed, that is, simply fighting for the sake of fighting, these men fought for a specific reason. They fought for the family they loved, defended land they cherished, shielded the innocent and protected the weak. While these men perhaps possessed the same innate, aggressive tendencies, they learned to channel them in a correct and appropriate manner. As Newell writes, "When the passengers on Flight 93 confronted their highjackers and brought the plane down in Pennsylvania, they used violence, but the context defines those actions for most Americans as valiant and admirable." Yes, the men on Flight 93 used violence, but it stemmed from truly knowing when and why to use such force. It was to protect countless innocent lives, it was to defend justice and fight against the forces of terror. There is a distinct and critical difference between this definition of fighting, and the excitement of fighting just to fight.
So, 'wherein lies the crisis?' you may ask. The crisis of masculinity pervading modern day American culture is found in society's portrayal of masculinity. Society tends to side with the first deviation; fighting simply to fight. Often in American culture, masculinity is viewed as being "tough." The "bad guys" portrayed in the movies are tough, arrogant, sadistic, and often downright brutal - and American loves them. The meaner, the manlier. The buffer, the better. Movies portray ultimate masculinity as towering hulks of muscle and strength, ready to "pulpify" any idiot who dares offend them...or even look at them wrong. The media feeds this image to America's boys and teaches them how and who they should be. Through films and pop songs, they are told things such as "buck up", "take it like a man", and "men don't cry." They learn to be tough. They learn to suppress empathy and adopt the tough skin of a "true man." In short, society's warped image of masculinity continues to spread, generation by generation. Society teaches boys to be angry men. It teaches boys to fight.
Herein lies the confusion: when boys follow in the shadow of what is portrayed as normal and expected, they are punished. When young men go out into society and put to use the "skills" they have learned and emulated, they are fined, chastised, or sent to jail as criminals. It is a vicious game society plays upon its youth. Kevin Alexander Boon discusses this contradiction when he writes, "Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club addresses the identity crisis of white, heterosexual, American men in the late 20th and 21st centuries who grew up in a paradoxical cultural environment that makes heroes of aggressive men while debasing aggressive impulses. What is explicitly asked of these men contradicts what is implicitly expected. Those behaviors that yield the greatest reward are in direct opposition to cultural rhetoric." There is a cultural dissonance resounding within America today; should boys act as they are taught, they are punished. And yet, if they do not, oftentimes they are labeled "weak" or "feminine". Truly, there is a crisis of masculinity in American culture. A deep and bewildering contradiction that continues to confuse our youth.
So what is the answer? The question is not ridding our boys of their violent tendencies, the question is how to teach them appropriate methods through with to channel it. Having a media-dominated perspective of masculinity is detrimental for America's boys and men, as it usually only portrays the stereotypical fighting man such as Brad Pitt or Vin Diesel. This image leaves boys with the idea that this, and this alone, is the definition of "masculinity", and therefore they strive to emulate it. When these young men enter the world and thrust their violence upon it, in the form of gangs, assaults, murder, rape and an assortment of other crimes, they are condemned as criminals. And rightly so, their crimes were wrong, but at what point does society and the media's influence finally come into question? Society must shift from focusing on the drive to fight, and instead emphasize the importance of knowing when and why to fight. When society relearns the importance of the latter, and boys and young men begin to see that it is not a matter of males being one step away from the animals or becoming violent, emotional wrecks, but a matter of true balance and control, only then can the crisis of masculinity begin to be resolved. And it should, it must be resolved; our boys are worth fighting for.