“Men”—To rephrase the fellow who may have inadvertently started the whole tangle in the first place—”What do they want?”
Beats us, frankly, even though we’ve a year thinking about it. And so, at present, the best we can come up with is what you’re about to read: a men’s issue. This sort of thing is, after all, our job, but in this case it didn’t turn out to be quite so easy to manage. Sounds like a cakewalk, probably, considering that just about everybody involved was a man to begin with. But at first that status seemed almost to disqualify the whole lot of us.
That’s not as odd as it sounds. Intimations of trouble rose early on, when one of our editors mentioned the notion to a woman friend, who responded with a nearly terminal fit of laughter.
What, our editor wanted to know, is so funny about a men’s issue?
“Well,” she said, catching her breath between giggles. “Nothing. Nothing at all.”
She seemed, our man insisted, to think there was something funny about it.
“Well,” she said, “I don’t know. I was just thinking that in a way, every issue of every magazine since magazines were invented has been a men’s issue. And now you’re trying to do one on purpose.”
The observation did not augur well. Were we, in fact, carrying coals to Newcastle? And, if so, why, for God’s sake, did it already seem so hard to do?
Beats us, frankly, and so we went ahead with the whole benighted project, until the next editorial meeting, where a small band of undaunted editors presented a mimeographed sheet of story ideas for the already thoroughly suspect undertaking.
The list circulated around the conference table and was digested in a silence as thick as baled cotton. Finally, one female editor, an astute observer of the times, ventured an opinion. “It’s fine,” she said. “It’s very good. But it’s so depressing.”
“Depressing,” she repeated. “I mean, isn’t there something good about being a man?” No one had any immediate suggestions. “I think,” she said finally, firmly, “that you need an essay about why it is good to be a man.”
Aha, said everyone involved, and general agreement ensued. But who can we get to write an essay that is not silly about why it is good to be a man?
There was another long silence, and then the female editor had an inspiration. “Why don’t we,” she suggested, “have a woman do it?”
With that, the validity of the men’s issue was gold-leaf certified. The time, clearly, was not only right. We were probably, even, hideously overdue.
But that still left the problem of how to do that essay. And the longer we thought about it, the murkier the whole subject became. For the life of us, we couldn’t come up with even a single honest, straight-ahead, cheer-leading, spirit-raising piece of prose on the virtues of masculinity. And as the discussion deepened, the block began to look increasingly sinister: What dark secret were we, in fact, trying to hide?
Maybe, we finally suspected, it was simple dishonesty. Maybe men have not yet really been emotionally honest with themselves about their new social roles and—as with any self-deception practiced long enough—that condition has given rise to massive confusion and, finally, silence.
Emotional honesty, in this context, is not to be confused with a similar concern colonized early on by professional consciousness raisers: that being the notion that men should feel free to cry, embrace, emote, etc. That’s admirable, and to be wished, but what we’ve got in mind is something far more base, vile, unflattering, petty and thus, just maybe, more fundamental: resentment.
Much of mainstream male consciousness raising involves the interpretation of the texts of the women’s movement in order to reinforce the notion that women’s liberation is also and inextricably men’s liberation. True, quite certainly, in any long-term view of social progress. And almost as certainly false in the emotional ooze where most primal questions about masculinity thrive.
It is by now a guaranteed conversation stopper in polite company to suggest that for many men—some of whom survive to this day—many aspects of old-line masculinism, even old-line macho, were fun. That, of course, makes it neither right nor moral but the relationship between morality and fun is deeper water than we can tread in this space. All we’ll suggest is that if one postulates a male overclass that has for centuries exploited the energies of a female underclass in order to support an artificial and overprivileged lifestyle, then it seems to follow that said overclass sure as hell wouldn’t have chosen a lifestyle that wasn’t any fun.
Thus one might expect that men—as would any over-class that suddenly sailed dead into a powerful egalitarian movement—should by now feel a certain and unavoidable resentment.
Contemporary psychology, parlor, pop and otherwise, tells us almost unanimously that resentment of women is nothing new, and that men have evolved some traditional mechanisms—masturbatory literature, on an individual level, or locker-room braggadocio, in the group—to allow them to work out at least some of those emotions without doing excessive social damage.
Much of that old male framework has by now fallen into deserved social disrepair—but while women in the past decade have developed a whole new series of devices to deal with sociosexual pressures, men have not. Simply to mimic the techniques that work for women is to ignore the obvious fact that men approach the whole problem from precisely the other side.
The first step, as socially unattractive as it may be, might be for men to acknowledge the reality of their resentment. And, past that, to examine its origins. Macho may be dying—but that’s no reason to ignore the psychic needs that must have, in the first place, made it a fundamental of male identity.
“What you’re saying could be very irresponsible,” a friend told us recently, after hearing the preceding notion. “Women are just starting to make gains, in the Midwest, in the South, and now you want to put out something that tells men to go back to their old ways. No matter how you say it, that’s how they’ll read it, and then we’ll be right back where we started, because no matter how you slice it, men are still in charge.”
Perhaps. Although by now the chances for a mass misogynist pogrom seem fairly remote. And it may, in reality, prove just the opposite: The full and honest participation of men in the sexual renovation of society—honest, even if that involves the airing of some fairly unattractive emotions—may ultimately be the healthiest approach for a species that, regardless of fashion, will likely never achieve operational unisexuality.
“Maybe,” our friend finally said, when the discussion had grown—as these discussions usually do—somewhat heated, “women should have a chance to do it by them-selves for a while. After all, it was men who got it so screwed up the last time.”
Or then perhaps, in the final analysis, it was the social dominance of one sex during the past centuries that has led to this unfortunate pass. To opt again for even the most benign sexual monarchy seems like making the whole mistake over again. That is, of course, how history usually works, but that certainly needn’t make us feel obliged.
And speaking of obligations: What is good about being a man?
Beats us, frankly, and so you’re just not going to get that essay; not at these low prices anyway. For one thing, we figure you must have your own ideas on the subject, many of which are probably altogether ill founded, and we don’t want to be responsible for spiking fond notions that will doubtless, times being what they are, get spiked soon enough anyway.
And besides, the whole point of the issue by now has centered itself around the notion that it is presently impossible to draft a why-male-is-good essay—even for an audience as culturally homogenous as this one. Thus, in the next 34 pages, you’ll encounter a number of definitions and dimensions of maleness — none of which, almost certainly, will come even vaguely close to answering the big question.
That part we’ve left up to you, and if you have any luck at establishing some sheltered nexus between the points described in the following pages, maybe you could drop us a letter here in San Francisco and let us know what it is. No contest involved, and no prizes to be awarded; only, at this point, our best wishes that, finally, may the best man win.