Sunday, January 04, 2009

The Art of Adulthood by Anthony McCarthy

or Please, Let’s Don’t Have To Go Through That All Over Again

You probably know the feeling. Sitting with my sister-in-law one afternoon a mutual friend of ours dropped in. Over coffee our friend told us about her recent dates, she’d reached after breakup stage where she was dating again. Lucy (not her real name) complained that she’d had a bad time.

My sister-in law said, “I thought you were seeing Bill. He’s a nice guy, has a good job. Didn’t you like him?”
- Oh yeah, he’s all right. He asked me to go out again.
- Well?
- I don’t know.
- Well, why don’t you go out with him again?
- I don’t know. He’s a real good guy. He’s just not very exciting.

My sister-in-law and I had exactly the same thought at that time, Lucy’s last long term relationship had been with a man who cultivated the semi-outlaw image of the motor head variety. He was all right, never in jail as far as I knew. He stayed with Lucy through a child, a decade of mortgage payments and many turbulent episodes providing considerable excitement. He wasn’t physically abusive or verbally abusive. All right, he was fairly good looking but talking with him tended towards noncommital mono-syllables. After he took up with a younger woman, after Lucy tried, unsuccessfully to get him to marry, they split. His phobia to commitment, which could withstand the bonds of parenting* and buying a house together, couldn’t withstand fifteen minutes in front of a justice of the peace. I suspected that at the bottom of it, he couldn’t square that particular and entirely symbolic act with his outlaw image.

We both thought Lucy could do with considerably less excitement than their relationship had provided. As I said, both of us thought it, only I was impolitic enough to say it

My generation was brought up with two dominant models of men. There were the outlaws, cowboys, bikers, the so-called rugged individualists. The other predominant model was the reliable man, the pillar of the community, the family man. In pop-culture you could differentiate them easily enough, cowboys vs. Father Knows Best. As an aside, for a gay kid, it was mostly noticeable in that cowboys on TV wore impossibly tight pants.**

When the 60s arrived the secret agents became sort of cowboys in service to the establishment, creating a third alternative, though one less available for emulation. Then there was the brief attempt to break out of all of them by a lot of us. It was all very complicated and so confusing and the escape from the bonds of masculine identity was hardly perfect even as newer roles developed, a lot of them just pasted sideburns and facial hair on one of the other identities and went right on.

With that background it was kind of strange for me to see the two-generations removed nostalgia for the family man model that the The Art of Manliness blog represents. What’s wrong with a model that tells men that they should be responsible and mature, that they should take care of their families and be responsible citizens? Oh, it’s hard to say. For a lot of people it might work all right. I’d have loved to have someone attend to the details of house etc, I’d probably have been a much better musician if I’d been relieved of those. But it would have been at a cost.

Doing what’s necessary is a requirement to achieving full adulthood. Being able to fix the plumbing (which I can’t do) or shoveling the driveway, taking responsibility for finances and the other petty details of life might be as necessary to any self-respecting adult as being able to stand up and say you don’t agree with the consensus in a meeting and being able to give a rational reason why.

In the world of the 50s, the Father Knows Best ideal was essentially at odds with women achieving adulthood. Men got to be adults, women were supposed to be as vacuous as June Cleaver or most of the roles that Marilyn Monroe was assigned. Even Eve Arden, sardonic and clever, longed for the day she could hand her adulthood to Mr. Right. I think that in popular culture of the time, there being a prohibition on a woman expressing her own sexual desires, it was replaced by the cult of material and social stability. But to get that, women had to give up their status as autonomous individuals, sublimating their ideas under a blanket of husbandly dominance. The trade-off, largely unavailable to those who chose to go with the outlaw model, was that the man was supposed to “be a man” and provide that security. In practice, that was achieved only in some cases.

I suspect my friend was the victim of that model under which she also grew up. She saw her choice between someone who was exciting and undependable or someone who was stifling but dependable. And that’s what’s wrong with The Art of Manliness. It’s a role that could easily fall back into the 50s model, that clearly hankers after that kind of reliable, maybe even benevolent, daddy-husband. The icky Reagan marriage as archetype.

None of the past models of manliness was worth keeping, none of them worked as advertised. The lives of those who tried to adopt them were either shallow and selfish or impossibly burdensome to men. And they all required roles of women which were, if anything, more destructive. No one should be pressured into sublimating their adulthood, no one outlaw men or women, should be relived of the requirement to grow up. The knowledge that you are being responsible that you are giving up transient, personal wants because it is necessary, of doing things for other people, of facing the truth, of being fully grown up, is a human need as much as sex is. Adults, in the absence of some actual mental disease, are kept healthy by acting like adults. They make themselves likable by acting like adults, by doing what’s responsible. They gain the respect and affection of other people through that. And that is a human requirement of all genders, gender orientations, of any ethnicity, whatever condition of life we find ourselves in.

* As I recall, she did most of the actual parenting, until the kid was old enough to pal around with.

* * If real cowboys wore pants as tight as TV cowboys they’d never have been able to do their chores.