Man alive!

October 5, 2011
Susie Guenther Loewen |

One of my favourite things about the popular T.V. show Mad Men is its fascinating portrayal of how gender was understood in the 1960s. For the most part, the ideal men’s and women’s roles were really clearly defined – men were the providers, working outside the home, while women looked after housework and children. Things have obviously changed a little since then, and we mostly assume it’s for the better. I’ll tackle femininity in my next blog post, but for this one I want to focus on masculinity – not that one can really talk about one without overlapping with the other…
Apparently, there’s a crisis among the young men of our generation. According to a CBC Doc Zone documentary, entitled, “The End of Men”, there are currently more women than men enrolled in universities and holding jobs in our society. The tables have definitely turned since the days of Mad Men! Mainly thanks to the women’s movement, the documentary stated, women have ventured into what were traditionally male domains, but the problem is, the reverse hasn’t happened, at least not proportionally. So, with women today taking care of things at home and at work, what exactly is left for men to do?
In an article called “Lost boys: Are we raising a generation of Peter Pans?”, Richard Handler expresses concern that the young men of our generation are “perpetual adolescents,” living in their parents’ basements playing video games well into their 30s. In the past, teenagers turned into young adults, and outgrew such behaviour, but these days, many young men don’t seem to be in any hurry to do so, says Handler. So what are the effects of this perma-teenagehood? One of the major problems Handler mentions is the isolating effect of videogames, that they tend to be “addictive” and “disengage boys from the world.” This extends to sexual relationships too, since the pornographic nature of many videogames and the vast amounts of internet porn available make actual relationships presumably unnecessary, even unappealing, since they require so much emotional vulnerability and effort.
Though his point about a skewed sense of sexuality is an important one, what Handler doesn’t mention is the violence that pervades much of what is marketed as “male-oriented entertainment.” Not only do videogames give you points for glorified, virtual bloodshed (and even sexual violence, in some “mature”-rated games), but movies and, let’s face it, many sports involve a significant amount of violence (have you seen the new Winnipeg Jets logo with its oh-so-subtle reference to the air force – the one that’s pretty much just a big fighter jet? not to mention the abomination that is Ultimate Fighting). This is what the young men of our society are soaking in, sitting in their parents’ basements. This is what they’re taught to find entertaining. It strikes me that the shift in how masculinity is defined is taking some problematic turns. It seems that the more positive characteristics of “traditional masculinity,” like responsibility, relationships, and contribution to the community are fading, while the more aggressive, macho aspects we associate with exaggerated, stereotypical masculinity are gaining ground, at least in the media.
So, what about Mennonite men? How do they respond to the equation of masculinity with violence and aggression? While I can’t speak from personal experience, I have done some reading on the subject (and I am married to a Mennonite man). Peace theology has generally spared Mennonite men from the more overtly militaristic forms of violence, but as Harriet Sider Bicksler writes in this book, this sadly hasn’t prevented Mennonite men from being violent in other ways, such as toward women and children. Among Mennonites, domestic violence was not historically seen as related to peace theology, but Sider Bicksler connects the two, asking whether Mennonite men “feel so powerless in the world (emasculated in a sense because they don’t participate in the manly rituals of war, etc.) that they need some place where they can exert their power [i.e., within the home]?” (p. 117). Assumptions about the man as the dominating and controlling head of the household, come up quite often in Mad Men, and something similar might be going on in the perma-teenagehood of many young men – feeling somewhat powerless in terms of careers, education, and relationships, maybe they turn to the power of virtual and/or pornographic violence. Though debates continue to rage (including among Mennonites!) over whether or not virtual violence leads to violent actions against others, I can’t help but think that it shapes a person’s worldview, especially given that video games are used in military training to desensitize and train soldiers to kill without remorse or hesitation. But if men these days are being encouraged to be more and more aggressive and less and less empathetic, what does this mean for the progress we’ve supposedly made since the 1960s?
The Doc Zone documentary I mentioned ends on a positive note, proposing that the shift in masculinity is an opportunity to redefine it, to cast off the negative aspects of Mad Men masculinity, which weren’t benefitting men or women. As Mennonites, might this be a chance to extend our peace theology so that it not only takes domestic violence into account, but also more subtle forms of violence, such as the stunted form of macho-masculinity that parades across our T.V. and computer screens, aimed firmly at the males among us? Might this be a critical aspect of our discipleship, of following in the footsteps of that peaceful and most unconventional man, Jesus Christ? I’ve seen evidence of such redefinitions among us already, so I think it’s quite possible, and definitely worth a shot.

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