“If the Model Boy was in either of these
Sunday schools, I did not see him.”

—Mark Twain

What do men want? In the gloried 1950’s, Sports Afield and Rod and Gun exemplified a male ethos resting on the quest for game by the primeval hunting band. With Playboy, Hugh Hefner moved the American male indoors. The plush apartment, the hi-fi, a cultivated taste for Gucci accessories and French cuisine, and a string of willing sex partners became the marks of the compleat 1960’s man.

Manhood now faces another redefinition. Judging from the sheaf of new publications on the “men’s question,” the male of the 1980’s simply aspires to equality with the new woman. Esquire has repositioned itself as the magazine of the psychologically neutered male, seeking to frame a life-style for the nonsexist rich and famous. At the more committed level. Changing Men, published in Madison, Wisconsin, seeks to define “a healthy, life-loving, non-oppressive masculinity.” Its regular section on “men’s history” is edited, predictably, by a woman. California’s Men’s Journal effuses over “the excitement of men interacting with men, celebrating our common masculine heritage.” The editors report, with straight faces, that “men are heirs to a rich heritage of myth and ritual.” Meanwhile, The Men’s Studies Newsletter, “written by and for academics,” chronicles the growing field of Men’s Studies, a recent outgrowth of the Women’s Studies programs that are de rigueur on mainstream college campuses.

An old Saturday Night Live skit comes to mind, a talk-show spoof entitled “For Men Only,” in which Dan Akroyd portrayed the curator of a new men’s art museum. He showed his host the Mona Lisa, which, he proudly declared, “was painted by a man”; then. The Last Supper, also painted by “a man.” The museum featured the piped-in music of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, “who were all men.” How many Americans, I wonder, still get the joke?

Manhood, like everything else in modern times, has become the pawn of ideology. Torn from its roots in the genetic code, gender is now a plaything for clever writers with political ambitions.

The tremor began with the ideas unleashed by the French and industrial revolutions of the late 18th century. In his wonderfully entertaining book. Boys Together, historian John Chandos shows how class envy, the quest for political power, and evangelical religion came together to destroy the male ethos of the English public schools through the reform of 1865. Chandos focuses on Eton, Winchester, Westminster, Harrow, and Rugby, most of which began as charity schools. Over the course of the 17th century, though, these institutions were transformed into the incubators of the ruling class, places where young men from good homes were toughened and readied for their leadership roles. In the pre-reform centuries, the public schools held tightly to two distinctions: a curriculum based exclusively on Latin and Greek; and an extraordinary degree of self-government by the boys, allowing seniors or “fagmasters” to rule over juniors or “fags” with near absolute power. At Eton, 50 or more boys would be locked up each night in single dormitories, without adult supervision. Fags would tend to the senior’s every need—clip their hair, fetch a candle, wash their clothes, procure illicit liquor, and so on. Fagmasters, in turn, protected their fags from the demands of other seniors.

The fag system has acquired a reputation for cruelty and sexual exploitation, reflected in the connotation of the word fag itself Chandos shows, though, that fagging usually worked quite well. While sexual misadventure was not unknown among the boys, most of it took the form of heterosexual trysts with village girls, mutual masturbation, and other forms of “animal lust.” True homosexuals reacted to the setting “with disgust and loathing.”

Moreover, the fag system worked to shape character, identify and affirm natural moral leaders, protect weaker students from bullies, and give English boys a rite of passage into manhood that created bonds of shared experience lasting their lifetimes. The transition from fag to senior taught a lesson: “The pains and tribulations and oppressions suffered not long ago were sublimated now in retrospect into the dignity of honorable trial by ordeal, creditably endured.” The schools venerated the total experience as essential to the formation of that “noblest work of God, an English gentleman.”

Yet the early 19th century brought a host of critics. Most of them, Chandos shows, represented the new merchant class, persons jealous of the loyalties bred among the public schoolers and aspiring to position. David Morrice invoked the Gospels to demand the outlawing of the “corrupt influence” of “Latin and Greek authors, call them either Pagan or Classical” who were “injurious to the youthful imagination and religious principle.” Morrice eventually succeeded in his protest against the annual performance of Terence’s Eunuchus at Westminster, with the play—”the most indecorous of all his comedies”—suspended in 1846. Writing in the Edinburgh Review, another critic labeled fagging as “the only regular institution of slave labor enforced by brute force which exists in these islands.” As these charges found their way into the scandalmongering press, great pressures fell onto the public schools. By mid-century, the radical social reformer and old Rugbeian T.H. Green lamented, “The spirit of the age, raving against everything that sounds like oppression, seems likely to establish a worse tyranny in public schools, as everywhere else.”

The reforms of the 1860’s did bring modern curricula and adult supervision to the lads. The boys’ freedom, independence, and natural male community gave way to a new order, in which high-minded teachers regarded their charges as “human putty,” to be molded as much alike as possible by professionals.

In the late 20th century, of course, the number of male preserves is shrinking at a more rapid pace. For example, if trends in baccalaureate and masters degrees portend the future, accounting, law, and the ministry will become female-dominated professions by this century’s close. More broadly, technological innovation and the decay of family bonds continue to undermine the separate spheres that once defined manhood and womanhood.

Men, we are told, now need to become caring, compassionate, childcentered, and sensitive. They must forgo their proclivities for aggression and violence. They must become androgynous wholes. Male liberators, seeking to give the beleaguered gender new role models, have produced a voluminous literature. In his popular A Choice of Heroes, Marc Gerzon describes “emerging masculinities”: men as healers, mediators, companions, colleagues, and nurturers. Joseph Pleck, labeled “a national treasure” by others in “the movement,” argues in his The Myth of Masculinity that psychology, not biology, constructs masculinity; hence, “maleness” can be redefined at will. In several volumes, poet Robert Bly advocates development of the new “wild man,” a vigorous and spontaneous person, contrasting well with the old-styled savage, brutal, or passive man.

Stephen Shapiro’s Manhood: A New Definition falls into this reinterpretive effort. Like its brother volumes, the book is strong on psychosocial concepts, weak on prescription. Shapiro’s favorite device is to weave old-fashioned “male” words and images into a murky, vaguely progressive agenda:

We must recover some traditional values: respect for our forefathers, brotherhood, commitment to marital love, responsibility, sacrifice. And if it is to flourish and survive, our respect for these values cannot be based, as it was so often in the past, on submissive conformity to their false authoritarian forms but on realizing the fullness of their meaning for our personal moral development and for our democratic community life.

Such musings consume 240 pages. In the end, Shapiro says that men will recover their manhood by learning “to tolerate and then to love” alien faces, different-colored flesh, strange gods, vulnerable children, the dying elderly, power in women, and so on. Manhood “requires us to reduce injustice so that we may repair the bonds of trust.” Alan Alda, call your office.

A more rigorous, equally political investigation of manhood is found in The Redundant Male. In their earlier collaboration, The Monkey Puzzle, authors Jeremy Cherfas and John Gribbin showed some ability at translating recent scientific discoveries into the vernacular. Here, they labor over the results of genetic and sociobiological research and conclude that “Men are at best parasites on women, and at worst totally redundant in the immediate evolutionary scheme.” Their essential argument is that asexual reproduction is best. They look with admiration at creatures such as the dandelion and the Amazon molly (a little fish) which have made the great leap to nonsexual reproduction, or cloning, and do surprisingly well. Cherfas and Gribbin state that in “every case” where sexual reproduction still gives creatures an evolutionary advantage, this is due solely to “the intense competition for resources between the offspring of a single individual”—e.g., among the oak trees.

Relative to humans, they report that emerging cloning technologies make men unnecessary. “Sex no longer pays,” and women would do better without having to bear male children. The authors do add that it might be wise to keep a small group of sexual breeders in reserve, a sort of living gene bank, on the slight chance that basic environmental conditions might change beyond the coping ability of existing technology. On a society-wide basis, though, women will soon be able to do away with the “redundant” male.

Yet their argument doesn’t hold. In affirming the superiority of asexual reproduction, Cherfas and Gribbin must face the fact that the great majority of species more complex than the bacterias are sexual species, clear winners in the evolutionary race. Without complex technologies to protect them, moreover, the novel asexual creatures are extremely vulnerable to rapid extinction. Sexual reproduction confers a great many long-term advantages—greater diversity, more rapid adaptation, heightened protection against disease—which the authors dance around, and in the end cannot honestly deny.

While it is probably true that advances in petri-dish conception and artificial wombs may soon allow women to choose to dispense with men altogether, it would also seem possible for men to use a related technology to dispense with women. These scenarios represent the war of the sexes carried to its logical, genocidal extreme. Such apocalyptic fantasies have long kept the feminists amused. The danger in our time, of course, is that the ideologues may soon have the tools to achieve their ends.

Meanwhile, outside the mega-intellectual world, men continue to follow their genetic imprints, and the rites of passage so despised by the modernists live on. Combat training endures as the male ritual most common among blue collar and red- and black-necks, despite Pentagon attempts to build an “equal opportunity” army. Street gangs grow in size and influence, overwhelming the best efforts of authorities to tame the boys in school. Even at the universities, fraternity pledgeship survives as a degenerate form of fagging, still facing the opprobrium of liberal faculties and professional administrators. Where modern institutions and ideologies have failed them, boys still seek ways of becoming men.


[Boys Together: English Public Schools, 1800-1864, by John Chandos; New Haven: Yale University Press]

[Manhood: A New Definition, by Stephen A. Shapiro; New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons]

[The Redundant Male: Is Sex Irrelevant in the Modern World?, by Jeremy Cherfas and John Gribbin; New York: Pantheon Books]