Be a Man: The Perpetuating Social Construct of American Masculinity, and How it has Ruined the World
Edna Pontellier did not follow the rules. The controversial lead character of Kate Chopin’s 1899 novel The Awakening lived a life that fit very cleanly into the rigid feminine construct society laid out for her but ultimately was pulled toward a lifestyle that deviated far from that construct. Unable to reconcile her newly-discovered independent self—the true woman behind the societal shackles of conformity—with the indomitably traditional forces of the world she lived in, Edna walked out to sea, removed all her clothes, and let the water carry her away.
Dixon Steele did not follow the rules, either. Like nearly all Nicholas Ray protagonists, the “hero” of In a Lonely Place was a stranger in his own world—a dejected loner prone to physical and psychological violent outbursts who was neither liked nor understood by 90% of humanity. When Dix was targeted as a murder suspect, his lack of remorse did nothing to get the cops off his back. It was not until Dix entered into a relationship with his similarly isolated neighbor, Lauren Gray, that he showed signs of sensitivity and emotion. Dix and Lauren entered into their relationship as a way of escaping their loneliness—perhaps together, they could fit as perfectly into their world as Edna Pontellier once fit into hers. But, Dix was a man who was beaten down by the societal constraints under which he lived. Perhaps he was not very masculine at all, but the rigid constructs of his environment dictated the fierce outbursts and lurid psychological tendencies that ultimately sealed Dix’s fate as an isolated man, trapped in the unforgiving world that created him. So in the end, Dixon Steele could not follow the rules. He tried, but the same forces that pulled Edna into the sea pulled Dixon into an increasingly unraveling psychological state.
Michael Kimmel, in the preface to his book, Manhood in America: A Cultural History, writes, “I do believe that a comprehensive historical account of the American experience can no longer ignore the importance of masculinity—and especially of men’s efforts to prove their manhood—in the making of America” (ix). And indeed, just as Edna Pontellier could no longer go on pretending to prove her worth (or lack thereof) as a woman, Dixon Steele was unable to prove to himself or the world around him that he was a true “man” by any societally-imposed definition of the word. He was neither a raging, dominating brute nor a genial family man, no matter how hard he tried to be both.
“Masculine” and “Feminine” are both societal constructions that dictate from birth—both directly and indirectly, through stimuli as diverse as parental instruction, popular entertainment, news and media outlets, and social interaction—the ways in which each individual, male or female, should act, think, and live. But while that which is labeled “feminine” is considered weak, passive, and powerless, that which is labeled “masculine” is considered strong, forceful, and of great power. As a result, it is the masculine label that has driven the progression (or regression) of America from start to…however close to the finish we are currently. Thus, while women have been suppressed and ignored, men have been given all the glory for building this great nation. Yet does that not mean that men should also bear the brunt of the punishment not only for the psychological toll such a powerful label as “masculine” takes on men who must wear it, but also for the gradual dehumanization of the country today? In manifestations as varied as the unfolding of American history, the films of Nicholas Ray, and the current state of the American political system, the societal construction of masculinity has become a label humankind has been unable to peel off and which has proven to have an increasingly detrimental effect on men, and perhaps more sadly, on the world they inhabit.
Kimmel writes in Manhood in America that the history of masculinity “is less about what boys and men actually did than about what they were told they were supposed to do, feel, and think and what happened in response to those prescriptions” (10). From the very beginnings of civilization, males have been subject to the dominant ideals of what it means “to be a man.” How each individual man (or boy) chooses to respond to this unspoken call of duty is judged in every corner of society, and valued on a scale with a very narrow range. There are “men,” there are “tough guys,” and there are “heroes.” On the negative end of the scale, there are “pussies,” “girly men,” or “gay men.” Not much room to move. But as Kimmel states—and as Nicholas Ray would wholeheartedly agree—men do not act, and therefore are not judged and valued, solely on their nature. Men act according to what they have seen, learned, and experienced. Living in a society that judges every man on the same narrow scale, one that was defined very long before this current generation was born, means that each man’s actions are based predominantly on their environment and influences. As centuries have passed, American men have unwittingly pigeonholed themselves into an only partially natural—and very short-sighted—behavior pattern.
Each successive portion of American history has developed its own set of constructions for the masculine identity. In his book, Kimmel puts names and descriptions to each construction. In the aftermath of the American Revolution, the three dominant male conceptions were “the Genteel Patriarch,” the quintessential man of home and family, “the Heroic Artisan,” the hard-working, self-reliant type, and “the Self-Made Man,” which established the importance of wealth and social mobility and which became the dominant masculine identity in the several decades after the American Revolution (16). Later, Kimmel describes a crisis of masculinity that spans through the Civil War (“a gendered war in which the meanings of manhood were bitterly contested”) and into the period of industrialization in the late 19th century (72-85). This crisis, which stemmed from a national “feminization” since boys were increasingly influenced by their mothers and female schoolteachers, is what propelled America’s masculine identity into the 20th century.
A fight to reconcile one’s masculine identity with the perceived erosion of male dominance marked early 20th century male society. Men sought to “prove their masculinity” by engaging in those pursuits deemed “manly”—baseball, exercise, and other such pursuits (120). In addition, many men of the time sought to “rescue their sons” from the feminine influences of their mothers and teachers, an effort which Kimmel dubs, “manufacturing manhood” (157). These rescue missions were clearly brought on by an unspoken paranoia, a mounting societal pressure that men seemed to perpetuate unwittingly. Hence, the constructions set into motion a century earlier so greatly influenced the modern man that these rescue missions would continue on, inevitably, for as long as there remained two dominate genders.
The first and second World Wars provided many men the opportunity to truly prove their masculine identities—albeit only for short periods of time (236). The 1950’s started a trend of discontentment that would only grow larger and more volatile through the 60’s and 70’s, when the gradual liberation of women and people of color only served to make men strive to spark their own liberation (290). Once the 1980’s hit, men seemed more confused over the meaning of masculinity than ever before due to the emergence of feminism and the perceived loss of male power. This “malaise” continued into the 90’s and the closing of the 20th century, where the Self-Made man, the prevailing masculine identity of the past two centuries, “leads more than ever to chronic anxiety and insecurity,” writes Kimmel (330). And so the American man beats on, struggling against a force he was unwittingly nurtured into, essentially helpless to end said struggle before it recruits his sons and grandsons.
Tracing the history of masculinity as constructed by society, it is impossible not to recognize the patterns American males fall into when it comes to defining their own masculine identity. A cycle of masculine perception was set into motion upon the ending of the American Revolution (and most likely, even earlier than that) through which man’s understanding of his masculine identity fluctuated over a lengthy period. This cycle has continued through to present day. The cycle begins with masculinity achieved. As man’s surrounding environment changes, however, so, too, do social norms and patterns of behavior. Thus, man’s achieved masculinity suddenly seems out of step with the rhythms of life. So man then manufactures a campaign to reclaim that which was perceived lost, through whatever means are available to him. And just as he grasps his identity once more, the cycle begins yet again. This cycle, however, is started, finished, and regenerated by men. The world keeps moving according to its own patterns. But the men living in it, taking the cue channeled from prevailing societal influences, refuse to shut up and go along, thus perpetuating their own psychological torment and forcing undue pressure on the generations to come.
Where Michael Kimmel stands at a distance from the American conundrum of masculinity, analyzing and commenting on the issues without stepping into the fray, Nicholas Ray is a filmmaker so deeply embedded in the quest to seize his masculine identity that his work goes beyond analysis and into pure autobiographical observation. His films—and indeed, his own life—personify what Kimmel described as a typical male problem of misplacing “men’s grown-up problems of economic contraction, political competition, social isolation, and interpersonal incompetence onto dominant motherhood and absent fatherhood” (318). Ray saw the world as one big isolation chamber, forever enslaving him in a search to find himself. His body of work represents his only outlet to express the unfortunate truth in Ray’s eyes—that the search is ultimately futile.
Ray’s oeuvre is a rolodex of irreconcilable masculine identities, starting with his first film, 1948’s They Live by Night. In the film, Bowie (Farley Granger) is unable to exit the life of crime he was born into. Since, according to the film’s opening, Bowie was “never properly introduced into the world we live in,” his identity as a man is forever associated with his influences, namely the criminals who have raised him. “Never properly introduced to the world we live in” could be used to describe several subsequent Nicholas Ray protagonists. Nick Romano (John Derek), from Ray’s second film, Knock On Any Door (1949), is on trial for a murder he did commit, but Ray suggests that it’s not Nick’s fault; the product of a poor family and the son of a man wrongly imprisoned, Nick grew up in a world that seemed to hate him. As a result, he shunned the social norms of said hateful world. Similarly, Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan) of 1952’s On Dangerous Ground is a cop whose brutal life on the force has led him into a state of psychological isolation and physical cruelty, leaving him virtually incapable of interacting with the ‘real’ world around him. In each of these films, the central struggle of each man is to discover his true masculine self; and in each case, the critical downfall of each man is his lack of a “proper” masculine upbringing.
A simple analysis of Ray’s films reveal their common thread—the lack of a father. Or in some cases, the lack of a truly masculine father. This thread runs through nearly all of Ray’s major characters, either directly or indirectly—Wes Merritt (Arthur Kennedy) of The Lusty Men, certainly Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) of In a Lonely Place, and even Jesus Christ (Jeffrey Hunter) of King of Kings. In other cases, Ray puts aside the angst of those under the influence of masculine crises and simply examines the push-and-pull of dueling masculine identities, such as the conflicting military father figures of Flying Leathernecks. And, in Ray’s most famous film, Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean’s iconic Jim Stark is at the heart of Michael Kimmel’s description of 1950’s masculine “rescue missions”—he is the son of an emasculated father and an over-dominant mother. Jim has a rage against society that may well be “without a cause,” but is certainly not without an explanation—the irrevocable damage of growing up with no viable masculine influence has left Jim struggling to find his true self.
As a filmmaker, Nicholas Ray was an auteur of the highest order—in every film, his undying obsessions were on display for all to see. His films must have been used as intense therapy sessions, perhaps cries for help, or maybe simply as a series of waving white flags, giving in to the perception of a tortuous lack of true masculinity so beaten into Ray by the world around him. And while he was more immersed in a masculine struggle of his own, Ray’s view of the world comes across quite similar to that of Michael Kimmel—if, perhaps, the world could have presented less overbearing constructions of masculinity, men through the ages might have been less focused on achieving such a shifting, intangible identity. However, the truth of the matter is that the world’s constructions, such as they evolved, led men to assimilate those constructions as goals to be achieved, battles to be won, and anything in opposition to said constructions as enemies to be defeated. Since the world moves at its own pace and men refuse to follow, the goal is unreachable, the battle unwinnable, the enemy too dominant to be defeated.
The conundrum presented in Ray’s films and dissected in Kimmel’s book is true. It is not only true, but it is thriving in the world today. The cycle perpetuated by the men of every successive century is revolving in this current century, and there is no sign of a stoppage, or a reversal, or any such barrier that would block the momentum of the societally-constructed male. For evidence of this undeniable fact, look no further than the current state of American politics. Every last bone of the current political body is aching with masculine angst. Our president is so desperate to claim his masculine identity that he has occupied a country that presented no immediate threat to America and waged a war that has now lasted longer than World War II. The 2008 Republican presidential hopefuls debate weekly over who is more qualified to wage the next war against the next small country that poses no threat to our security—Iran. And on the Democratic side, all presidential candidates fear the “evil,” dominating woman named Hillary, much in the same way Republicans have for the past decade. Why do they rush to such judgments? Simply because she does not fit the roles society prescribed to her as a woman and instead seems to have more balls than many of the men who oppose her. She certainly possesses more natural masculinity than the current powers-that-be, who are so desperate to prove themselves that they bully foreign nations.
But is this not what men have set up for themselves from the beginning? To present themselves as the dominant gender and then to become so paranoid about that self-proclamation that they end up fighting to maintain it? It started during the American Revolution—in fact, it started well before that—and it will continue on until man becomes so paranoid over self-perceived threats to his masculine power that he pushes a wrong button and destroys civilization as we know it. Masculinity as developed and prescribed by America himself has taken control of American culture and history. Nicholas Ray lived a life that was plagued by it, Michael Kimmel has spent a great deal of his life researching and analyzing it, and every day we see blatant examples of how its stranglehold gradually diminishes the strength, intelligence, and reputation of our nation. Man may never win the endlessly uphill battle to prove his ultimate masculine identity, but his anxiety over losing power, his fear of that which is considered “other,” and his continued fixation with the disastrously contagious but ultimately simple perception of male supremacy, built up over several decades, ensures that the fascination with this societal construction will dominate the cultural zeitgeist until kingdom come.
So, in that regard, man has won…and the real world has lost.