Hello from out here in Man Card America, where proving your masculinity to the dude-friends who are vigilantly looking to revoke your “Man Card” if you get caught engaging in unmanly activities like being scared, doing what your girlfriend wants to do sometimes, enjoying a song by a woman, or drinking the wrong kind of cheap light beer is an ongoing campaign. If you look at the advertisements of the past several years, you’d think that having your Man Card revoked was, like, a real thing that could actually happen.
When you’ve effectively received the message that your status as a Real Man is constantly at risk for participating in the totally girly indulgences above, of course, it’s way easier to be convinced that the right purchase could forever eradicate your fear of emasculation. And thus, you end up with ad campaigns like the one from Bushmaster, maker of the XM-15 .223 semiautomatic rifle that Adam Lanza used to kill 27 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, that issues an official “Man Card” with the purchase of a weapon.
A zillion words have been spilled, with a zillion more to go, about what caused Lanza to take the XM-15 to the school. It’s all only ever going to be speculation. Maybe he saw the “Man Card” campaign and was inspired, maybe he wasn’t. But regardless of the specific combination of factors led him to do what he did, Lanza – and countless boys across America – have grown up in a culture in which the fear of emasculation is a big-deal marketing hook.
The messages are clear: according to Salon’s write-up on the defunct-as-of-this-week Man Card page on Bushmaster’s website, criteria for revocation includes being a “crybaby,” “coward,” “cupcake,” “unmanly,” or having a “short leash.” Those are rough clear for a boy who’s trying to figure out what being a man is supposed to look like to grow up with. So how does a boy become a man in this society?
Probably we can all agree that, whatever the shining ideal of Real Manhood might look like, it’s probably not someone so insecure about being emasculated and afraid of what his friends think of him that he can be shamed into drinking beer that he doesn’t like or carrying a weapon that he doesn’t need in order to assert himself. It’s likely not someone who’s afraid to enjoy the songs that he likes, or who obstinately refuses to do what his girlfriend/wife/what-have-you wants to do some of the time. Turning your female partner into a castrating mommy figure who you rebel against by drinking shitty beer with your buddies ain’t manhood the way that Steve McQueen would have done it.
But what boy in 2012 America gives a damn about Steve McQueen anyway? The question for boys is what kind of role models are available to them to look at as an example of manhood that isn’t selfish, lazy, insecure, and shallow. Nobody thinks of those things as manly, but those are the traits that Man Card America values.
America has always been fucked up about masculinity, but those role models had a lot to offer. In the ’70s, you had the massive and terrifying New York Giants defensive tackle (and Bobby Kennedy bodyguard) Rosey Grier singing “It’s All Right To Cry.” In the ’80s, Chris Claremont popularized the character of Wolverine in the X-Men comic books, a feminist samurai whose notion of honor included respecting his girlfriend to fight her own battles instead of solving everything for her, and used his toughness to ensure that the men who were in leadership roles by default couldn’t take anything away from the women who deserved them. In the ’90s, “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” fans could look to the black trench-coated Spike as an example of a man who could follow a woman as a leader. (The character is hardly a role model in all aspects, but he does that part well.)
Boys are taught to value toughness, and Grier — a two-time Pro Bowler who finished his career with 44.5 sacks and two safeties — was certainly tough. And there’s not necessarily anything wrong with toughness as an identifier of masculinity, when it’s sincere. When a tough guy explains why he’s also comfortable being vulnerable, it’s a message that resonates. Everybody should be both. Characters like Wolverine and Spike, meanwhile, are the coolest in their respective worlds: they take no shit from anyone, are fierce, are scary unless you’re their friend, and never give up. When you can combine those traits with also understanding how to follow a woman’s lead, you empower boys whose ideas about gender and gender roles are being formed. Toughness is an admirable trait, but it’s not necessarily the thing that makes a person the best boss.
Those character types exist today. Nick Offerman’s Ron Swanson, from “Parks & Recreation,” is a mustachioed, meat-loving man who loves woodworking and being emotionally distant, and he can follow the lead of Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope. (There probably aren’t a lot of kids watching the show, though.) Baltimore Raven Brendon Ayenbadejo, meanwhile, is a three-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro linebacker who regularly challenges his fans’ participation in the culture of No Homo by using his increased platform to agitate loudly for gay rights – and inspiring colleagues like Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita and Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe to join him.
A boy who needs a role model that won’t instill in him a lifelong fear of losing his Man Card could do worse than any of those guys. There are probably others who embody the positive traits associated with traditional masculinity and who also avoid the easy traps of Man Card America by recognizing that their manhood isn’t constantly at risk if they dare deviate from that tradition.
That’s an important thing for boys growing up in a culture where the threat of emasculation is waved in front of them in order to sell them things like semiautomatic weapons. And it’s an important thing for the rest of us, who’ve seen what happens when some of those boys use those weapons. Regardless of whether Adam Lanza — or James Holmes, or Jacob Tyler Roberts, or TJ Lane, or Andrew Dennehy, or any of the others who’ve shot at strangers this year — bought into the Man Card nonsense or not, they all lived in a culture where manhood and strength could be purchased. That’s a toxic place for a boy to grow up.
Today, as much as ever, boys need role models who can show them that there’s more than one way to be a man.
Read more from Dan Solomon at DanSolomon.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.