Thursday, June 19, 2008

Two Outdated Masculine Archetypes

There have been many images of what men should be like in popular culture, from Teddy Roosevelt in the early part of the century to John Wayne in the later decades. But two images, one American, one British, have persisted -- the Frontiersman and James Bond. Both are outdated and less than mature.

Here are a couple of articles that look at these archetypes.
Think the Gender War Is Over? Think Again, By Susan Faludi

FOR months, our political punditry foresaw one, and only one, prospective gender contest looming in the general election: between the first serious female presidential candidate and the Republican male “warrior.” But those who were dreading a plebiscite on sexual politics shouldn’t celebrate just yet. Hillary Clinton may be out of the race, but a Barack Obama versus John McCain match-up still has the makings of an epic American gender showdown.

The reason is a gender ethic that has guided American politics since the age of Andrew Jackson. The sentiment was succinctly expressed in a massive marble statue that stood on the steps of the United States Capitol from 1853 to 1958. Named “The Rescue,” but more commonly known as “Daniel Boone Protects His Family,” the monument featured a gigantic white pioneer in a buckskin coat holding a nearly naked Indian in a death’s grip, while off to the side a frail white woman crouched over her infant.

The question asked by this American Sphinx to all who dared enter the halls of leadership was, “Are you man enough?” This year, Senator Obama has notably refused to give the traditional answer.

The particulars of that masculine myth were established early in American politics. While the war hero-turned-statesman is a trope common to many countries in many eras, it has a particular quality and urgency here, based on our earliest history, when two centuries of Indian wars brought repeated raids on frontier settlements and humiliating failures on the part of the young nation’s “protectors” to fend off those attacks or rescue captives. The architects of American culture papered over this shaming history by concocting what would become our prevailing national security fantasy — personified by the ever-vigilant white frontiersman who, by triumphing over the rapacious “savage” and rescuing the American maiden from his clutches, redeemed American manhood.

Aspirants to the White House have long known they must audition for the Boone role in the “Rescue” tableau. Those who have pulled off a persuasive performance, from Jackson to Teddy Roosevelt to Dwight Eisenhower to John F. Kennedy, have proved victorious at the ballot box. Even candidates lacking in martial bona fides have understood the need to try to fake it with the appropriate accessories — riding high in the saddle (Ronald Reagan), commanding tanks (Michael Dukakis), wielding shotguns (John Kerry) or brandishing chainsaws and donning flight suits (you know who).

Read the rest.

The British, and to a large extent Americans, as well, have a slightly different archetypal male image, James Bond.
James Bond as Archetype (and Incredibly Cool Dude), By Michael Dirda

A couple of years ago, I happened to be giving a talk to the graduating seniors at a Catholic girls' school. During the question period, one young woman asked, "If you could be any character in literature, who would you choose?" Given that I write about books for a (hardscrabble) living, I could see that she expected me to name some obvious literary heavyweight, such as Odysseus, Prince Genji, or Huckleberry Finn — all of whom flashed through my mind as good answers. Instead I paused for a moment, put on my most sardonic look, and huskily whispered into the microphone, "Bond, James Bond." It brought down the house.

Of course, people thought I was kidding. And, of course, I wasn't.

Having just read Devil May Care, by the novelist Sebastian Faulks "writing as Ian Fleming," and recently enjoyed Casino Royale, Bond's latest cinematic adventure, I don't see any reason to change my answer. It is a truth universally, if seldom publicly, acknowledged that virtually every American male, from puberty onward, would love to be 007. He's got the best toys, attracts gorgeous women, and wins at every game, be it golf, baccarat, or — in Devil May Care — tennis. Such (arguably) shallow benefits might be sufficient to explain part of Bond's appeal. But there's something even more primordial to his mythic glamour.

What, after all, is a man's deepest wish? Freud talked about "honor, power, riches, fame, and the love of women" — and Bond certainly encompasses all those. Still, that libidinal litany can be boiled down to a single desire, half hidden in the shadowy reaches of the male psyche and more clearly delineated in world mythology: As Joseph Campbell would say, men long to be heroes. No doubt about it. And yet I think the masculine ego also hungers for something a bit more noirish, if you will. At least some of the time, guys want to be thought of as … dangerous. While it's gratifying to be called a hard-working professional or a good provider, those admirable traits don't make our hearts beat quicker. By contrast, to overhear oneself described as "a man not to be trifled with" — that's quite another matter.

Read the rest.

What each of these archetypes have in common is that they are hero images. As Moore & Gillette point out so well in their work, the hero is an adolescent archetype, immature and not fully formed as a man. [More on this in a future post.]

Both of the images present above fit that category. We need better images, more complete masculine archetypes. Until we get them, we will continue creating immature social structures, having immature relationships, and holding immature dreams for our lives ("he who has the most toys wins").

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