by Leah and Kathryn
The Art of Manliness (AOM) is a website all about what it means to be a man. It is where men who don’t ascribe to the definitions of masculinity that include the mandatory boob-ogling of Maxim or the macho brute-ness and violence of Spike TV go. It is a place for gentlemen to escape to in order to form a community of men who dream of the days when real men fashioned their own corncob pipes, donned stylish overcoats, and focused most of their energy on growing the perfect handlebar mustache. AOM offers an alternative to the more mainstream, dominant expressions of masculinity that stereotypically objectify women and reward men for their most extreme expressions of brutality and prizes bumbling stupidity.
The Art of Manliness definitely should get credit recognizing that there are parts of the dominant culture of masculinity that are restrictive, harmful, limiting and for creating an alternative definition. However, though their intentions may be good, their response drastically misses the mark. Instead of breaking down the man box and creating a completely open definition of masculinity it ends up dressing up traditional, hegemonic masculinity in a snazzy beard and suspenders. It’s the patriarchy’s way of attracting hipsters and those prone to nostalgia for a time that they never actually lived through (and was only perfect and golden for that select group of dick-toting, woman-loving, class privileged, able-bodied, white, Christian folks). And really this website is for men living in the present with those same identities.
According to AOM, the way to be a gentlemen is to be a straight, white dude who has enough of a disposable income to devote to his collection of bow ties and vintage straight razors. The authors (Brett and Kate McKay) believe that modern men have lost the art of manliness. That these days no one is taking the time to invest in teaching young boys and men how to be manly; that it is tragic that no one is teaching men why it’s important to carry a handkerchief or the appropriate way for a man to wear jewelry.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there are some pretty cool and helpful tips that they offer on the website, like how to drive a stick or how to fix your car; the problem is just that all of the articles are reinforcing that these skills, at the end of the day, are meant for men. Their articles simply reinforce the same tired stories about manliness and masculinity that have been perpetuated for centuries: that men need to be physically strong and powerful, that they need to know how to do shit. Limiting all of these skills and resources to the realm of men keeps the age-old sexist trope that men need to be in charge and powerful.
Their whole premise is that there is this long lost art of manliness, that no one teaches men how to be gentlemen anymore while at the same time they claim that they want men and women to be equal. There is no equality or liberation when all of these useful or even necessary skills are mandatory for self-respecting men and only men. It’s peculiar (not really surprising, though) that they don’t believe it’s a tragedy that this knowledge has been historically hidden from women and kept from them on purpose in order to keep them dependent on men. By labeling these skills as “manly” keeps them in the hands of men and continues to separate women from self-sufficiency.
All in all, this website does a great job of tiptoeing really close to the line of what could be stereotypically categorized as gay (referring to gay men, of course) without crossing it. Without ever mentioning it, they make it very clear that real men must in no way be feminine, that men should be able to do things that come very close to being feminine or don’t fit into man box, but they should never, ever lose their manliness, at all costs.
And while we’re at it, in world of AOM, gay men exist as the “other”, but only in their community posts since there isn’t a single edited post from the authors themselves that even mention the existence of gay men. Since the conversation is about the art of manliness, gay men are placed on the outside because they don’t fit into the images or values of the straight, white, retrosexual family values.
And now the moment you’ve all been waiting for: how does The Art of Manliness feel about feminism? Well, here’s a start:
“Men’s irrelevancy is due in a large part to the feminist movement. I think society owes a great deal to feminism. I don’t think any of us would want to live in a world where the only aspiration a woman has is becoming a wife and a mother. Thanks to feminism, women have more choices and men and women are seen as equals. I like feminism so much, I married a feminist and I unequivocally believe in the equality of the sexes.
From what we’ve seen this is a pretty standard statement that they’ve repeated in other posts and interviews. It’s a classic move, really. They are very careful about saying “we think it’s great that women have made progress! And that they have more options like careers and equal pay (um, er) – that’s not our problem. We don’t want them to lose their progress; we don’t want anything to change for us. We want women to be our equals, we just don’t want to feel threatened by it or actually deal with any of the changes that come with the reality of women’s liberation or be accountable for our privilege. Now, can’t we just saddle up our horses, pack our brandy, and have a nice picnic together in the 1890s?
Here’s another thought from one of the authors:
“Could we perhaps say that equality shouldn’t mean embracing and outdoing men in things that were traditionally considered masculine? That making out with other chicks for attention and lifting your shirt for beads and getting smashed and burping the alphabet and dressing in sweat suits really has very little to do with being “liberated?”
Seriously, where did this guy get his information about feminism? ‘Cause it totally seems like maybe he googled it once and the rest of his information was gathered over time via stereotypes and anti-feminist cartoon strips. I guess it’s pretty easy to hide behind the fact that his wife identifies as a feminist (even though, she must ascribe to a very particular definition to be able to write for this blog without exploding). Obviously, if he listened to any of his feminist critics (and it seems pretty obvious that they have critics) he would actually have learned something about feminism instead of assuming that he knows everything there is to know about an extremely complex, multi-dimensional political movement(s).
Oh, and you should really watch this TEDxTulsa talk given by Brett McKay. You’re really going to love it.
In a way, McKay has a lot of good points: that the virtues of courage, self-reliance, nurturing friendships are all positive attributes that men would benefit greatly from having more of. Absolutely. The problem is that he places so much emphasis on the difference between men and women, claims all of these attributes for masculinity juxtaposing them against attributes which he scorns such as passivity, weakness, and softness – characteristics that have always been associated with femininity. In this way, sure he has some points, but at the end of the day he is still reinforcing a definition of masculinity that says that doing anything that is associated with women diminishes your worth as a man. And that is the idea that has oppressed women and will continue to oppress women as long as it exists. Dressing it up by attaching it to virtue and honor will not change that fact.
On a similar, but different note, this shift backwards, this “Menaissance” hinders men, as well. Celebrating the fact that Teddy Roosevelt gave a speech for 90 minutes right after he was shot in the chest as an example of how a man committed to the “strenuous life” is supposed to act. Asking men to ignore their wounds (whether emotional or physical) in the name of toughness and grit is not something that will positively impact the health and well-being of men or society. Must men continue to ignore the fact that they are just as fragile and in need of help, at times, as women? The longer men refuse to express their needs and admit that they are not bulletproof, the longer we will all suffer due to their need to prove themselves as powerful and dominant.
So, if the Art of Manliness wants to use its vast knowledge of the history of masculinity for good and they want to return to the times when men were honorable and virtuous in order to help men become more accountable for their actions, more accountable for the messed up shit that patriarchy has given the world, then we would invite them to do so. If they really want a better society for men and they are in support of equality, then we ask: why don’t you put your money where your pipe is?