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It’s September 3, 1901. The bustling crowd at the Minnesota State Fair is brimming with human electricity. It’s been less than a year since incumbent President William McKinley was sworn into office for his second term. Cotton candy, recently popularized thanks to the Wharton brothers and their cotton candy machine, is sticking to the fingers of adults and children alike. On the center stage, a podium with the U.S. presidential seal is carted into the center, adjusted, brushed off. With a swagger that was the highlight of the previous year’s election cycle, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt hops lightly onto the stage, taking his position proudly behind the podium. The crowd falls silent, except for a few crying babies incapable of feeling the intense gravity of the man standing before them.
Roosevelt’s rousing, 5,300-word speech surprises, delights, inspires. But one phrase sticks in the minds of everyone there as he walks off stage. It’s sticking to our minds still today. “A good many of you are probably acquainted with the old proverb, ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick — you will go far,’” Roosevelt opined. He continued, “If a man continually blusters, if he lacks civility, a big stick will not save him from trouble, and neither will speaking softly avail, if back of the softness there does not lie strength, power. In private life there are few beings more obnoxious than the man who is always loudly boasting, and if the boaster is not prepared to back up his words, his position becomes absolutely contemptible.”
Roosevelt proceeded to compare this same man’s characteristics to that of the nation. And while it would not be the first — or the last — time a nation was anthropomorphized, his speech was mostly misremembered as a masculine tour de force. “Speak softly and carry a big stick!” we repeat, or hear repeated so often. Yet this was not the point Roosevelt was trying to make. It is not the willingness and readiness to fight that defines a man. For Roosevelt, it was the man who proceeds with kindness and civility, backed by the internal fortitude to defend himself and others, that truly represents the sometimes vacuous concept of “manliness.”
Fast forward to 2016. The concept of manliness has shifted dramatically over time. But there are some indications that Theodore Roosevelt’s powerful words were more predictive than he realized.
For most of human history, what it meant to be a “man” was fairly straightforward. Provide for your family. Be truthful in word and deed. Exhibit bravery and honor. Fight and die for what you believe in. Across all cultures, this was certifiable truth. Intellect was never viewed as “manly.” Staying home and taking care of your kids was, for a long time, not considered “manly” either. Indeed, for many cultures, and especially during the Victorian era, a man at home with the wife and kids could hardly be called a man at all.
Yet the eventual study, and subsequent redefining, of manliness was due to its being held in contempt. When women fought for and earned the right to vote, chinks in our cultural concept of manliness began to show. After all, manliness in our society had long been defined partially by the capabilities and privileges afforded to men and men alone. Piece by piece, this exclusivity began to disappear. The right to vote. The right to work. The right to join the military, to fight and die for one’s family and country. All of these, once the purview of men alone, became areas where women were increasingly finding equality.
The 1950s may have been a tipping point for manliness in American society. Often viewed as the Golden Age of American Modernity, the 1950s are well remembered for giving us the concept of the suburban lifestyle. Images abound of the modern housewife taking joy in the latest and greatest in household appliance technology, while her husband, briefcase in hand, straightens his tie before heading off to a job in the city. This is the America many people remember fondly. It’s the type of manliness that still persists even today: man as the provider, the head of the household; the good, yet sometimes distant, father. The Atticus Finch we all wanted to have and be.
But Atticus Finch is dead, and exposed as a racist. And while he had many admirable qualities, men of his era do still exist and are often seen as anachronistic representations of an America we want to move past, not replicate. No, the manliness highlighted by the majority of the 20th century is all but gone. Not for want of trying, of course. There have been many failed attempts in film, books and television shows to resuscitate the long-standing definition of manliness. Fred Sanford in the ’70s. Archie Bunker in the ’80s. Al Bundy in the ’90s. Bernie Mac in the 2000s. The “Art of Manliness” website today. All popular in their own right as solid entertainment. But each a dying breath of a type of masculinity that popular culture has sometimes subtlely, often outrightly, refused to legitimize any longer.
So how do we define masculinity in the 21st century? Or better yet, does masculinity in the 21st century even have a working definition? Here’s where things get interesting.
Masculinity in the 21st century has no definition. It has every definition.
For better or worse, the concept of a “man” has taken on an amorphous form. Is a man a good father? Yes. A provider? Yes. A soldier? Yes. A lover? Yes. A pacifist? Yes. An artist? Yes. A 9 to 5 worker? Yes. A skilled laborer? Yes. A kind-spoken teacher? Yes. A hard-hitting football player? Yes. A beer-drinking sports fanatic? Yes. A (insert any adjective you want)? Yes.
This is the truth about manliness in the 21st century: it’s both possible and impossible to fit the definition. This is both freeing and restrictive for the modern man. On the one hand, any man can proudly declare himself a “man,” define himself by the many examples of other men who fall into the same categories as he, and strut his stuff as a modern example of masculinity. Yet one persistent truth about men is the desire for absolutes. For most of history, civilizations rewarded men with no ambiguity about manliness. The modern man has no such luck.
Manliness in the 21st century has far too many definitions for any one man to be all things to all people. And it has become much easier for one man’s definition of masculinity to draw the ire of those who believe that representation is wrong at best, offensive at worst.
Take the man bun and beard combination. This mash-up of old school (beard) and new school (man bun) style is a meeting of traditional and modern masculinity that draws both admiration and anger. “Am I Man Enough for a Man Bun?” writer Jason Adams asked of himself in a 2015 GQ article. “The man bun is the final frontier of grooming: elusive, tricky and worn only by the prettiest, buffest dudes we know,” he explained. Adams eventually decides that yes, he is indeed “man enough” to wear one, but not without pointing this out first: “The woman behind the counter didn’t register anything new as she rang up my coffee. But I noticed something different about her: she was wearing her hair in long braids for a change. I felt camaraderie. We were both trying out new things, so who was she to judge?”
Is modern manliness summed up as neatly as a tightly wrapped man bun? Perhaps. If anything, it represents the internal struggle of the modern man. The idea that something seemingly feminine can be masculine, as long as other people are doing it and accept it. Or don’t. That willingness to stretch the boundaries of tradition, to challenge definitions is itself manly.
Theodore Roosevelt may not have been far off in 1901 when he simultaneously defined both manliness and national character when he stated, “It is both foolish and undignified to indulge in undue self-glorification, and, above all, in loose-tongued denunciation of other peoples.”
If there is any definition of manliness in the 21st century, perhaps this is it: To hold oneself in check, free of judgement of others and how they choose to define themselves. Adams hints at this with his foray into the most controversial male hairstyle of our time. Roosevelt knew this to be true over 100 years ago. Manliness in the 21st century? There’s one word that sits at its heart: civility.
For much of the 20th century, the most persistent definition of manliness was that men should be tough. Soft spoken at times, but always tough. Taking nothing from nobody, ready to defend themselves and their loved ones at a moment’s notice. The idea of the “strong, silent type” has persisted throughout American culture. But as American culture goes through changes, so does the definition of manliness.
From a historical perspective, manliness has also been defined by how a man carries himself and what he can accomplish. However, much of that definition, until recently, has been based on the tangible. But civility is intangible. It’s exemplified not by what we produce physically, but emotionally and spiritually. Perhaps this, in truth, is what manliness in the 21st century really means. A firm grasp on the intangible, with the heart and mind to recognize and appreciate the existence of others.