The Making of a Man
The Making of a Man
The election of 2008 broke many barriers, not the least was its demolishing the cult of masculinity.
By Rebecca Walker
Barack Obama’s journey to the White House was punctuated by watershed moments: Obama addressing untold thousands in Berlin, and millions more in his televised speech on race. Obama sending love to his wife and daughters via the big screen at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. Michelle Obama symbolically crashing the gates of the White House in her stunning red dress. Then there was the final presidential debate, when Obama showed the world what it means to be a man in America, circa right now.
At Belmont University, McCain played the confrontational “tough guy,” bringing the pain to back up his pre-fight taunt to “whip Obama’s you-know-what.” But as McCain waxed pugilistic on issues of abortion, taxation and Joe the Plumber, Obama talked about “sacred sexuality,” and expressed concern for middle class Americans losing their financial footing. Audience polling called the debate overwhelmingly for Obama, and David Gergen, with trademark nonpartisan gravitas, said McCain looked angry. Obama was the voice of reason. But something else was going on. Two tropes of masculinity were battling for dominance.
The skirmish was as much about re-writing the narrative of male power as it was about winning the election. Think John Wayne vs. the Dalai Lama, Bernard Madoff vs Martin Luther King, and George Bush vs Al Gore, all over again. Who would prevail? The man who would prosecute an ongoing ground war against mortal enemies, or the one who would attempt peaceful resolution? The one who would empty the coffers of charitable foundations, or the one who would fight for all Americans to be recognized as whole human beings? The one who would drill in the arctic, or face an inconvenient truth? A third generation military man with seven-make that eight-homes, or a multiracial Harvard Law graduate and community organizer with one house, a Ford Escape and a bike?
It was the next chapter in the great American story of individuals breaking out of restrictive stereotypes based on race, class and gender.
Thirty years ago women demanded freedom from oppressive ideals of femininity. Today more and more men are refusing the toxic role of “being a man.” The debate was a turning point in a larger reckoning, a tacit acknowledgment that John Wayne, the standard- bearer of American masculinity for over five decades, may not have been good for America.
The rules of traditional heterosexual masculinity are still so pervasive in American culture, almost any male over twelve can tick them off with ease. Don’t cry, or even feel. Don’t engage in complex strategic processing; take the easier road and slug disagreements out instead. Win those skirmishes, or be tagged “gay”-the worst kind of slight in a homophobic male environment defined by sexual conquest of women, the more powerful the better. Regardless of race or class, real men should make a lot of money and have the power to hire and fire, like Fifty Cent and Donald Trump, as proof of their dominance. Some African-American men display their resistance to white male dominance, and thus their own brand of male power, by embracing an anti-intellectual, “too cool for school” posture, a perfect example of a masculine trope undermining the success of the person be hind the mask. And even though Asian-American men are often emasculated in our culture, they can lean on the mythological martial skills of their ancestors to claim a kind of uber-dominance. Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Lao Tzu, and Mao Zedong are some of the most famous fighters in the world.
There are other criteria, but the underlying message is clear: follow the rules of the cult of masculinity and you will live to see another day. Slip up and be humiliated, or worse. Just ask the stay-at-home dads struggling for the respect of their peers in corporate America, or the gay and transgender men beaten up on any given night by groups of men yelling “faggot.”
Enter Barack Obama, who rose to the highest office expressing a willingness to meet with America’s known enemies. On the campaign trail, he shared his feelings openly. On election night, he was photographed holding the hand of his mother-in-law, Marian Robinson. When Obama talks about people losing their homes and being unable to afford to send their kids to college, his words seem to come from the heart, the compassionate place marked “for women only” for so long.
Obama’s ideologically diverse cabinet is another indicator that he doesn’t believe in a top-down, top-dog approach, or that the best ideas will come from the man at the head of the table. Solutions are expected to come as a result of dynamic interactions between exceptional individuals. He’s not afraid to articulate a vision that includes the safety and well being of the LGBT community, and he doesn’t shy away from supporting a woman’s right to make difficult, and often heart-wrenching, choices about what to do with her body, be it terminate a pregnancy or act as a surrogate for another woman’s child. Obama’s value as a man isn’t in his bank account; it’s in his openness to changing the game and identifying the players necessary to do it successfully.
Finally, there is Michelle Obama, the coup de grace. Wife, best friend, and his “rock,” as he said in his victory speech. Michelle is Barack’s secret weapon, and he consistently acknowledges that their relationship is the engine of his success. When Obama told Barbara Walters that he figured out long ago that “if mama ain’t happy, no one is,” a lot of couples laughed out loud at home. It spoke to a certain truth about successful heterosexual partnerships: that cultivating interdependence with a woman is a much better idea than trying to dominate her. Obama’s fatherhood, too, seems as important to him as his public policy.
The genius of it all is that Obama appears to have supplanted many of the traditional elements of masculinity without sacrificing his virility and clear intention to protect American interests by any means necessary. He plays a competitive game of basketball and pulls off a wicked poker face while making stealth moves behind the scenes.His sex appeal is palpable, as the millions of viewers drawn to the recent vacation photo of him shirtless in Hawaii prove, as does the intimacy the Obamas display everywhere they appear.
Obama’s unique blend of openness and strength has tremendous appeal to men seeking to liberate themselves from an archaic and ineffectual model of masculinity without sacrificing their swagger. He stands for the millions of men who have always defined their manhood on their own terms, but have never had this level of cultural support for their choices.
For those looking for a role model for their children, Obama is also a welcome change. Nathalie Hopkinson, co-author of “Deconstructing Tyrone: A New Look at Black Masculinity in the Hip-Hop Generation,” speaks for many parents when describing the shift she’s seen in her seven year old son over the last months. He’s become President of his class, taken to wearing a tie and blazer to school and traded in his backpack for a briefcase. All of this bodes well for a nation plagued by increasing violence and falling test scores, but we will have to wait and see how Obama’s style plays out as he goes head to head with Dmitriy Anatolyevich Medved, Hu Jintao and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. To be deemed an acceptable mode of leadership, Obama’s “enlightened masculinity” will need to restore some semblance of peace in the Middle East and faith in American markets abroad.
As men abandon dominance as a way of moving in the world, women will have to continue to evolve their identities as well. Thanks to the women’s movement most American women today see themselves as equal, if not superior, to men. But women still have to continue to shed the powerful, if sublimated, fantasy of a knight in shining armor coming forward to protect and defend. After giving
a recent speech on contemporary masculinity at St Louis University, I met several women who said they lost respect for boyfriends who expressed vulnerability, and men said they felt pressured to prove their manliness by protecting their girlfriends from the advances of other men.
Truth be told, the final presidential debate was about women, too. We watched, calculating how quickly we could evolve. Would we be safe with a President who shares his feelings and doesn’t get spitting mad? What kind of fundamental changes would we need to make in order to be congruent with the new paradigm?
If Michelle Obama is any indication, we will need to become more comfortable playing all possible roles-mentor, wife, mother, defender, “rock”-while being defined by none. Her willingness to be a true counterpart, secure in her power and flowing between roles, rather than an adversary competing for the top spot or a self-sacrificing and resentful subordinate, means that our new First Family provides Americans of both sexes a model for reaching beyond outdated ideas about gender. This is good news in difficult times, because ultimately, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, upon whose bible Obama will take the oath of office, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”