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June 18, 2004

A Job for the Sexy Man

Star Parker, president of the Coalition for Urban Renewal and Education (CURE), sees the ACLU and — if I may coin a term — other ACLUddites as in ideological competition with her organization:

My constituency is the poor, particularly the African-American poor, and I have a far different sense of what this community's problems and needs are than does the ACLU. ...

As the civil-rights movement became politicized by ACLU-type liberals, values and personal responsibility were displaced by victimization politics. The result has been a social catastrophe in the African-American community. Thanks again to ACLU-type liberals, public schools that black children are forced to attend have purged all traditional values from education and, as a result, children have no clue why they are there and what the point is in education. These children are already most likely severely disadvantaged by coming from broken homes, also the product of the political purge of traditional values.

Acknowledging that it's on the same Web site, I can't help but wonder whether a piece by Maggie Gallagher indicates that a movement is afoot:

Hear, for example, the extraordinary remarks by Democratic Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., at a recent Brookings Institution conference on marriage and the black church. Calling attention to the low rates of marriage among African Americans, Norton warned:

"My friends, we are seeing a sea change in African-American life. It cannot continue or we will not continue as a viable people. I just want to put it as starkly as I can. We've got to get the attention of our community and our country. It is impossible to overestimate what has happened to our community in only a single generation or two and what might then happen in my son's generation if it continues at this pace."

She said it. I didn't. When the marriage idea becomes weak enough, the very idea of perpetuating ourselves as a people is called into question.

Gallagher goes on to suggest — predictably, but no less correctly for being so — that increasing the number of church-going men will do much to remedy the problem. You can read both of these women's articles for specifics, but I want to leap to a different topic that's come up, of late, because I think there's a larger point to be made, pivoting on this passage from Gallagher's column:

Men are supposed to model for their children the love of God, for their wives, the love of Jesus Christ. Men who recognize a critical "masculine" role in family life are probably freer to enter into stereotypically "feminine" realms, such as emotionally expressive family life. If you want to turn men into good family men, you have to tell them that men matter to women and children.

Brace yourself for a bit of a cultural atmosphere shock. Although the topic feels a bit less weighty than the matter of fatherless children in poverty, consider Marilyn Zielinski's complaint:

I think almost any man can be sexy, can become a good flirt, can learn to attract women, if he is truly willing to. Like most social skills, the general principles aren't that mysterious, and are quantifiable if you pay attention.

... But most men don't really want to be sexy; they want sexy to be them.

Essentially, Ms. Zielinski's assessment is that men don't give any indication that they care enough about potential mates to improve themselves. They settle in to who they are, and the opinion of a hypothetical future spouse isn't sufficient motivation to become someone better:

Instead, single men in my experience behave as if the only life possibilities are being the way they are, or acting. The idea of growth and change don't make the radar.

I don't think that's as true as Zielinski suggests. Actually, it might be more accurate to say that it is more true than she supposes. She notes single females' openness toward asking themselves, "What am I doing wrong?" The answer, to my personal experience, is usually pursuing the wrong guys. Although it's often my advice to single female friends, I'm not necessarily talking about looking for hidden diamonds by observing a table of men and gravitating toward the quiet-but-not-shy one in the middle of the group. Look at Zielinski's examples of some men's deficiencies: don't listen, don't have a "real job," boring, not fashionable.

As one of Eugene Volokh's male friends writes, it's not surprising that men seek to conform to the ideal that they've observed women to want. Volokh's friend concentrates on success/money/power, but one can find a modern male stereotype developed in response to each of Zielinski's complaints:

  • Don't listen: Phony ponytail man.
  • Don't have a "real job": Cocky career guy.
  • Boring: Pointless rebel dude or artsy male.
  • Not fashionable: Mirror-seeking dandy.

Of course, as Volokh himself notes, for "professional coastal urban women," the demand is that these all be layered on top of success. Nonetheless:

Those women also want more: A certain kind of behavior, attitude, whatever it is that they see as sexy (still a mystery to me, by the way).

Lastly, Geoffrey Murry chimes in with the gay perspective, approaching the same conclusion from a slightly different angle:

I find it is often a man's resoluteness in the face of what I shall call here adversity that makes him sexy. It is his adamantine surety of place as he strides into a room that makes him noticed. Were he to be engaged in the constant questioning of himself that Marilyn suggests, I reckon it might be more difficult for him to pull this off. ...

The straight man (the metrosexual and Marilyn's dream men aside) rarely goes to this length, and it is the imperfection in his appearance that gives it the veracity of the virile.

Dare I suggest that the conclusion to which all of these people are gravitating is that rich women want what poor women so desperately need? The educated professionals of Volokh's correspondence will likely reject the idea, including protestations from the women (for all I can say) that they are most definitely not interested in such men, but that need only mean that the oversight is mutual between the seekers and sought. Aren't the women looking for a certain mold of the religious man?

It's difficult to see because our culture has disconnected the markers from the substance. As a consequence, women isolate the various qualities and misconstrue their import. Men respond by donning the shadow of real self-improvement.

Volokh notes the seemingly unattainable state of being in which one adjusts "oneself so successfully that it looks like one isn't trying to adjust oneself at all." I see ultimately the insouciance of manifest self-improvement as it derives from a focus on something higher. Men will not lose motivation if they are striving for the approval of God, rather than of a woman, and yet, if that God demands a sacrificial devotion to the woman, the man will listen, will see through her eyes, and will seek to provide for her.

The key, therefore, is a sense of responsibility that transcends contractual obligation and a faith that challenges will be met. The same view must permeate couples' lives that becomes flesh and blood in the form of the child begotten (not made) through them. Men and women need to remember that they matter to each other, not as mutual prey, but as mutual support toward a state of grace. And in this way, they bring vibrancy to an impotent culture flaccid with displaced victims.

Posted by Justin Katz at June 18, 2004 12:44 AM

No protestations from this educated professional (-in-training) woman on your conclusions - though you are probably correct that those with whom Professor Volokh tends to correspond would reject the idea out of hand.

I think that one of the real crises of our culture is a lack of understanding about what it means to be a man. It's so passe, after all, to believe that there even *is* something to being a real man. We're supposed to be shooting for androgyny. Must stamp out the overly masculine qualities of men (yet allow women to take them on). And yet, and yet. People still know on some level that there is something to the idea of love and responsibility towards family, duty, honor, courage, non-arrogant confidence. That "something" really can be found through faith, which is why, as Maggie Gallagher notes, you will find that the man who self-consciously strive to be Christian in his love for and responsibilities towards others seems to embody that ideal.

One of the things I believe tends to inform the coastal urban women is insecurity - if men embody traditionally masculine virtues, that must threaten their ability to also be successful, independent, and strong. I don't see a conflict, though. Women can be feminine and still be strong and independent; men can be masculine and not threaten the success of others. Besides, total independence is an illusory concept in the end. We all need other people to help us grow, to support us, and (the part denied by so many) to help us strive toward lives of grace.

The difficulty, of course, anymore is that it's hard to find the right models. Children who grow up without fathers desperately lack role models for how to become real men, and no matter how loving or how hard they work, it's hard for women to be that model. And the divorce culture has affected the rich just about as profoundly as the poor - they also lack models for how to be (or look for) a good man. Fortunately, if one takes example from Christ, the answers can be there to help make up for what is often lost (and help strengthen those who are already trying to do the right things.)

I may be overgeneralizing or not stating quite clearly enough what I mean to say, but that's what just came to mind.

Posted by: Kimberly at June 18, 2004 12:19 PM

Well put, Kimberly. Men should try to be good men and women should try to be good women.

The trouble is that both role have changed so quickly. A century ago, most men worked with their muscles, and most women's lives were dominated by the practical problems of keeping their children alive. Now manual labor isn't all that important, and most of the threats to children are gone. How can a man be a man when he doesn't need to be strong and tough? How can a woman be a woman when she doesn't need to toil for hours to make a clean and safe home for her children?

The seventies solution was for both sides to strive for androgyny. Most people under 40 would agree that that was a flop. The hard part today, as you say, is finding new gender roles and ideals in a new world that's so unlike the old one.

Posted by: Ben Bateman at June 18, 2004 6:08 PM

no comment

Posted by: james at August 21, 2004 10:09 PM


Posted by: jak at September 6, 2004 6:47 AM