Masculinity In The 21st Century: Part 1

By Chris Thurber

I imagine my grandfathers to have been Men 1.0.

My paternal grandfather—Walter Percival Thurber—was a self-taught engineer. His were slide-rule days that relied more on being clever than computer-literate. He was also a decent enough artist that he was able to forge a counterfeit diploma attesting to his non-existent degree and land a job with Water Services Laboratory, where he worked for more than 30 years.

My maternal grandfather—Henry Austin Lederer—came from a wealthy, German-Jewish family that lost almost everything in the Great Depression. Back in the days when family connections or influential letters earned young men a spot in a top college, Austin attended Williams College, married a waspy belle from Virginia, and binged on bananas for a week so he could make weight for the U.S. Navy.

My grandfathers might have had neurotic habits, panic attacks, or identity crises, but it seems unlikely. As Men 1.0, they probably had clear visions of themselves as breadwinners, soldiers, and patriarchs. They were not caricatures of masculinity, like Lou Farrigno’s Incredible Hulk or R. J. Reynold’s  Marlboro Man. Their brand of masculinity had nothing to do with pecs or smoke. It had to do with knowing their place in the world.

That certainty, as illusory as Walter’s formal education and Austin’s socioeconomic status, was manly. It was as if their Y chromosome was all of the “why” they needed. If they wanted something, they just found a way.

Men 2.0
My father was born in 1939 and he represents Men 2.0. He may have started with the same clear idea of masculinity, but a wave of anti-war, anti-government, anti-establishment ideas—designed to liberate both men and women—swept the country. Masculine became a dirty word to some, synonymous with sexual violence and the subjugation of women. One couldn’t be a man without also being a criminal … or at least a suspect. In response, many men morphed into drumming, sensitive, egalitarian scholars.

Many men, like my dad, lost their decisive Masculinity 1.0 for a while. Neither the Hippie Love Man, nor the Primeval Cave Man, nor the Equality Guilt Man fit men like my dad comfortably. Was he bold and decisive or bashful and deferential? He alternated between taking me and my brother to James Bond movies and advising us to avoid the professional trap he had fallen into. He had wanted to be a priest, but became a doctor almost entirely because it fit his socialized idea of masculinity. That included being a rescuer, a husband, a breadwinner, and a father, in roughly that order.

But when shoe-horning themselves into the Men 1.0 mold caused too much pain, and donning the Men 2.0 cloak felt drifting or disingenuous, men like my dad foundered. They divorced, remarried, changed political parties, found religion, eschewed religion, bought guns, sold guns, switched jobs, and started volunteering. Now they are Men 3.0, but they don’t advertise it, lest their renovated masculinity come under fire, as it did in the latter part of the 20th century.

Version ME.1
So what am I? Unmolded from an androgynous hippie cast, I nevertheless played baseball and football and slow-danced with girls in middle school. Encouraged from a young age to buck the Boy Code, I also sang, acted, and played piano. Only when I was told—at a feminist rally in freshman year—that my penis made me a potential rapist did I begin rethinking my manhood. Was I automatically, anatomically evil?

I knew in my head that I was not violent, but it took a few years to push past the strident assertion of some late-‘80s feminists that masculine was inherently malicious. After that hurdle, what did I become? I married a wonderful woman in 1997, had two beautiful boys in 2002 and 2004, and until a few years ago I would have told you that being masculine meant being a husband, a father, and a brother, with the freedom to pick my profession, hobbies, mannerisms, and beliefs.

Then I met my first transgender student and saw first-hand that gender identity and genetic sex really could be divergent. (Years before, during a postdoctoral fellowship at a Level 1 trauma center in Seattle, I realized that the presence or functioning of physical equipment was irrelevant to manhood. Masculinity is a cognitive construct.) Now I realize that masculinity is more self-determined than I had imagined. To some people, this was liberating; to others, it stirred great anxiety.

Even more upsetting to many of the adolescents I now see clinically has been the transformation of sexual intimacy from a spontaneous pleasure within the confines of a secure attachment to an intentional process of stepwise, verbal validation, often with a near-stranger.

By their own accounts, both males and females are paying the price for the hook-up culture they have created. I can’t speak for girls and women, but many boys and men have rejected their parents’ advice to know and trust a person before being physically intimate. Then they discovered, the hard way, that physical and emotional intimacy cannot be separated.

In recent years, the teens I talk with have started to complain about repeated verbal consent, which is necessary if one is to be physically intimate with someone one has not already established emotional intimacy with. Making sure has replaced making love, my male students say. And so I wonder: Is the concept of “man” equally passé? Are there Men 4.0? Will the boys we care for today become Men 5.0?

The evolving male ideal predates my grandfathers by millennia, of course. And being neither an anthropologist nor a prescriptive linguist, I focus more on the current state of boyhood and manhood than what they share with ancient civilizations or whether w-o-m-y-n is somehow less orthographically sexist than w-o-m-a-n.

Adrift
As a white psychologist, father, and husband living in a developed Western country, all I can do is share a personal snapshot of the current state of manly affairs. (I hope you’ll share your views on the Camp Business website.) The various labels I’ve been using, like Men 2.0, are artifices anyway. No real man has ever been so conveniently categorized. And today, more than ever, people reject any label with perceived limits or inaccuracies. I have students who have no problem being labeled as smart (even though such a construct is difficult to measure, and its accuracy for an individual varies widely by domain), but who detest being called boys (even though their genitals would have provided an iron-clad certainty about that label from previous generations).

Perhaps, then, we need to start by saying that today’s boy and today’s man are self-determined and label-defying. Yes, we reject the Boy Code and the Man Box. We refuse to let a stereotype or even an archetype determine our masculinity. We might not always keep a stiff upper lip, but we’re not blindly sensitive either. We are selective about rejection, but what do we embrace?

I’ll answer this question in Part 2 of this article series, to be published in the March/April issue of Camp Business.

Dr. Christopher Thurber is a board-certified clinical psychologist who serves on the faculty of Phillips Exeter Academy. His writing and videos are favorite training tools for professional educators and youth leaders worldwide. He co-founded ExpertOnlineTraining.com, co-authored the best-selling Summer Camp Handbook, and hosts The Secret Ingredients of Summer Camp Success, a homesickness-prevention DVD for families. Find out more on DrChrisThurber.com.