Mark Greene wonders what happened to real men, and real boys.
Once upon a time in the West women were from Venus and men were from Mars – now women are from head office and men are from the Planet Plonka. Or at least so Campaign, the advertising industry’s leading periodical, moans. Suddenly into the airwaves where hatchet-jawed Gillette men strutted and Milk Tray men parachuted comes the invasions of the supernerds, paragons of incompetence, exemplars of wimpdom.
There’s Nesbitt-man in the Yell ads who locks himself to a storm drain, has terrible fashion sense, cuts hair with all the delicacy of a Flymo, scurries up on to sideboards to escape the benign attentions of a mid-sized pooch and claims to have the motorbiking skills of a Rossi but crashes a 50cc phut-phut. There’s Carlingian man induced into literally licking the house clean by a girlfriend pouring lager on the floors. There’s BT-man who is swept away into authority-less, step-fatherdom and a joint bank account without ever seeming to be fully being conscious. There are Fosteroids who prefer a cool beer to a stunning girl – which may, of course, show laudable self-restraint but is, as far as the tenets of contemporary male-dom concerned, simply stupid. There’s Punto-man who is comatose to everything but the slightest whiff of a male rival, and there’s Lynx-man, more scrawn and yawn than brawn, who certainly, you feel, would need something of nuclear strength to transform him into a credible babe-magnet.
It’s not of course that the tall, the dark and the handsome have been banished – that would be too simple. On the contrary, just as advertising has served over the years to make most girls and most women dislike their own bodies so the increasing prevalence of images of highly toned six packs and beautifully oiled, bronzed biceps has begun to make more men increasingly insecure about the way they look. No, this new trend works with the recognition that whilst many men might like to be James Bond, there’s more than a smidgen of Johnny English in most of us. The ads works in the gap between aspiration and reality, between the competence, strength and success we aspire to and the reality we are. And often it uses humour to bridge the gap and make the sale. All men aren’t good at everything but like Nesbitt we may kid ourselves that we are. And in British culture at least there’s joy, and money, in the joke.
Advertising, after all, does not always work in a linear way. We are not necessarily expected to identify with the hero or the anti-hero on the screen. On the contrary, we may be being asked to identify with the insight and wit of the brand that’s clever enough to bring us a laugh in our sitting room and a story to re-tell in the pub or the canteen.
Still, if ads, as some commentators suggest, are being rather more realistic, if humorously so, about men, there’s also no doubt that male identity and confidence is under threat in every stratum of society.
It’s men who are violent, men who, on the whole, are paedophiles. It’s male Muslims we are suspicious of not female ones, it’s young male blacks that we are more likely to regard as criminals not young female blacks, it’s men who get paid more than women for the same job. It’s men who make wars. But at the same time, it’s men whose sperm count is going down all over Europe – weakened, some argue, by all the oestrogen that the pill has poured into our water supply. It’s young men who are finding it harder and harder to compete in a service economy with women. It’s young men who are being outperformed at school and university by women. It’s men who are increasingly afraid of going into primary education at all, partly because of the suspicions that attend such a choice. It’s men who are told that their more presence-oriented, task-focused ways of communicating and bonding are inferior to more highly verbal stereotypically female ways of bonding. And it’s fathers, not mothers, who are finding it hard to get reasonable access to their kids.
Where can boys be boys?
And as for boys. Well, boys, we used to be told, will be boys. But how exactly do they get to be boys today? How do they get to have an adventure? How do they learn to hunt, fish, make a fire, a bow and arrow and feel at home in the natural world? It’s getting increasingly hard to be a boy – to find real trees to climb, real adventures to have, real woods to explore (without adult supervision), or real fields to kick a ball in, never mind feeling that there’s a real adventure to look forward to in the life that stretches ahead. And all this partially explains the extraordinary popularity of a book called The Dangerous Book for Boys.
The dangerous book in question is a big red hardback with gold letters and looks like it came out of the 1950s. And in some ways it did. But right there in the word ‘dangerous’ is the call of the wild, the echo of a roar that stirs every man’s heart – the yearning to test oneself, the yearning to ‘subdue’ nature – in the best sense of the verb – to find one’s limits of strength, of imagination, of courage... to push out actively into the world.
It’s impossibly politically incorrect. It’s for boys only – but it means it – not like a Yorkie ad that’s just pretending to be not for girls. And it’s a universe away from the flickering glow of computer screens and the indoors, inside-your-head world of Playstations and X-boxes. It tells you how to skip stones, make bows that fire arrows, catapults that launch stones, and water bombs out of paper. It tells you how to tie the five knots you really need to know, how to read the navy flag alphabet and how to hunt, gut and cook a rabbit. There’s quotes from Shakespeare, bits about basic grammar, stuff about nature, how to find North in the dark, short summaries of battles, stories of real heroes and five poems every boy should know.
And there’s absolutely nothing in there about David Beckham, Michael Owen, Shane Ward, how to gel your hair so you look like you’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards (cos if you’re a real boy that’s how you will look anyway) or how to download The Arctic Monkeys.
Old-fashioned? Yes, but ask yourself where you would rather see 9 to 13 year old boys spending their time? Where most modern boys spend their time? In their own rooms, on the mobile, in cyberspace, playing computer games, watching TV? Or out fishing or talking to Ents in the Forests of Farragorn (aka the local woods)?
Now this may all seem a bit arcane, a bit public school-ish but behind it lies not only a sense of what the male heart craves but a sense of decency that is quite difficult to find so ironically expressed. So, in the frontispiece these words appear, quoted from the 25th anniversary edition of the Boy’s Own Paper: ‘Don’t worry about genius and don’t worry about being clever. Trust rather to hard work, perseverance and determination. The best motto for a long march is “Don’t grumble. Plug on.” You hold your future in our hands. Never waver in this belief. Don’t swagger. The boy who swaggers – like the man who swaggers – has little else that he can do. He is a cheap-Jack crying his own paltry wares. It is the empty tin that rattles most. Be honest. Be loyal. Be kind. Remember that the hardest thing to acquire is the faculty of being unselfish. As a quality it is one of the finest attributes of manliness.’
And if boyhood has been robbed of its real life adventure, what of adult manhood? Where’s the great adventure in that? Where’s the glory? What vision has been set before us of mature manhood? Where are honesty, loyalty, kindness, and unselfishness celebrated? Where do men bond together as men?
Well, lots of us don’t. In fact, there is, as Carl Beech, Director of Christian Viewpoint for Men, put it ‘an epidemic of loneliness’. Men, working hard, as they are expected to do, and often harder than is good for them, are finding it harder and harder to create the time and emotional space to develop friendships with other men that nurture them.
Where men can be men?Some men find a context for bonding and an outlet for emotion in sport. And whilst this has long been the case, it has never been the case that sport has occupied so much of our national media airtime – in print and broadcast. Similarly, whilst I’m not sure when soccer became the default topic of conversation for middle class men but it has certainly become that and it has certainly happened within the last 15 years. ‘Fandom’ provides many pleasures – identity with a group, identity with a cause, a shape to the week, a purpose to live for and so on. But one thing is oft overlooked, the emotional catharsis that attending a match, or watching it in a group provides – a full-throated, wholehearted, from the gut, emotional catharsis – men screaming at the top of their voices at the incompetence of a referee, veins bulging at the injustice of a decision, fists shaking at the cheating of an opponent – men taunting opposing fans, men cheering achievements – men posturing as males. Here’s a context to vent all the unresolved injustices, and petty oppressions, and sleights and slurs of the week, a context where there’s permission to be utterly whole-hearted.
This may not sound at all attractive, still less particularly godly, but in it all there lies a vital issue for men and women of Christian faith. What does it mean to be a godly man? What does it mean to be a male follower of the one who coolly makes a whip before entering the Temple and drives out the moneylenders, the one who turns every ruse of the Pharisees against them, the man who heals a blind man, and stills a storm and raises the dead, and the one of infinite power who goes to his death like a lamb to the slaughter.
Is our grasp of the man that Jesus was, the father that the Father is, the worker that the triune God is and the husband that we find in the Song of Songs deep enough to help us not to conform to the patterns of this world – those hollow images of male success and significance that aggravate our anxieties and diminish our sense of real purpose?
Well, we each have to answer that question for ourselves (and Roy McCloughry’s excellent Men and Masculinity is a good place to start.) But one thing is clear the way forward does not lie in a passive acceptance of the way things are. We are called to ‘not conform’.
We are called to active, thoughtful, prayerful resistance to those aspects of the culture around us that demean and diminish, as well as called to a celebration of those aspects of the culture that liberate us into becoming the men, and women, God intends. And, in that regard I’m not sure that Nesbitt’s Yell-man is not a lot more helpful than Gillette-man. At least, there’s a smidgen of honesty about the way some of us really are. And that is a great place to begin.
Mark Greene is the executive director of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.