Katherine Miller pens some daring (and damning) prose in her essay, “Man Up.” It’s creative, and a powerful indictment of all things metrosexual, to be sure. I think she’s on the right track, but I think she ultimately misses the mark.
“Man Up” is a litany of admonitions for men that is as entertaining as it is shallow. One message for Mr. Man Up: You can be smart, but please don’t buy your own clothes (leave that to the woman). Never have I read a single sentiment that so completely and simultaneously implies a dependence on women while enforcing women’s traditional, subservient gender role.
But conservatives, of which I tend to count myself one, don’t like terms like “gender role.” We disagree with feminism, and we generally oppose the feminization of our culture. Maybe it’s in reaction to feminism — or perhaps just in spite of it — but conservatives have a strong desire to not only repudiate (refudiate for the Palinites) feminine virtue but also to place the brute on the pedestal of what a man should be. In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes describes the state of nature as “nasty, brutish and short.” From “Man Up,” it’s clear that Miller likes her men nasty, brutish and tall.
Miller’s essay is a more comprehensive — and ostensibly more thoughtful — version of a column she wrote in January 2009 while at Vanderbilt University. That column more or less is exactly what she says it is in “Man Up” — “a thrown-together list of superficial attributes”: No salads and no diet soda, for example. Apparently the gods have ambrosia, and the women have arugula. I have to say I was upset by this since I rather enjoy eating at Sweetgreen and I know other men who do as well. Anyway, the list goes on from there.
And yet Miller follows her self-deprecating (a decidedly feminine characteristic?) paragraph with two of filler and then dives in with a fresh list of superficial proscriptions for men: don’t cry, don’t do theater, don’t do yoga, don’t buy your own clothes (as stated above) and don’t bring diet soda to work (again with the diet!?).
I won’t — and shouldn’t — get into an exhaustive explication of everything superficial about the qualities of “Man Up.” With all due respect, a superficial document calls for a superficial summary. Reading it reminds me of the analogy an economics professor mine at UNC applied to Ayn Rand’s writing. It’s good soup, but it’s still soup — you take the first spoonful and you know what you’re getting all the way down to the bottom of the bowl.
It’s not that Miller is not on the right track, though. She’s getting at something fundamental about the conservative condition. She just misses the forest through the trees. Focusing on actions and labeling them inherently masculine or feminine begs for defeat. Those really are socially constructed. Half a millennia ago, competition that didn’t often result in death was for children. Today, the NFL is as macho an institution as they come. To that end, Miller even mentions a Super Bowl XLIV ad for the Dodge Charger with the slogan “Man’s last stand,” and yet ironically misses the point that the things she has hermetically sealed into the spheres of the masculine and the feminine are all heavily influenced by the prevailing norms today, enshrined in ads like Dodge’s and, with the advent of the World Wide Web, ubiquitous.
What Miller should consider doing, and what great conservative thinkers have already done, is investigate the inherent qualities that are masculine. Conservatives are deeply committed to a belief in a natural order, both in law and in human nature.
Writing on the question of “Courage” as a masculine virtue for the American Enterprise Institute, scholar Harvey Mansfield harks back to Aristotle — arguably the progenitor of conservative political philosophy — and says “men find it easier to be courageous than women, and women find it easier to be moderate than men.” Aristotle suggests the right causation in the eyes of conservatives: human nature begets social order. We don’t buy into human nature as a science and we don’t buy into the Marxist bunk that changing the “superstructure” of society will change the individual. The idea that masculinity is inherent and unique to men is what makes feminist scholars pull their hair out — and conservatives love that, because in spite of the assault on masculine virtue, it’s proven damn resilient. And Miller, in spite of articulating it awkwardly, gets that. Groovy.
I believe that Miller is espousing courage in “Man Up,” or some version of it. Yet believe that she is putting the cart before the horse by holding up popular “manly” actions as the means to the masculine end rather than holding up the more fundamental aspects of man’s nature. But it’s accessible, and its heart is in the right place.
But where we do agree, in spite of an essay that I found to be a little heavy on style and a little light on substance, is that any collection of young conservative ideas deserves a discussion of the state of masculinity in our culture.
Personally, I consider myself an aesthete, I like theater, I don’t call people who cry “pussy,” and I like salad (but not diet soda). Yet I understand that there are differences in the sexes, that men possess inherent masculine qualities, and that Don Draper is — in spite (or because?) of his incessant smoking, drinking, and infidelity — a total badass.
Cameron Parker is the opinion editor for the Daily Tar Heel. He is a member of the Student Free Press Association.