The following essay is the second of two we are reprinting from Jack Donovan’s No Man’s Land, a free e-book available for download in HTML, Kindle, and PDF formats from his website here. I hope you’ll agree that this is too good to give away for free.
Over the last few decades, many have attempted to “reimagine” masculinity. People realized that despite the calls of feminists to abandon concepts of gender altogether, and despite—as we will see—the firmly held belief among social scientists that sex roles were merely learned social scripts, men and women still maintained separate social identities. Men were particularly concerned with being perceived by others as being manly or masculine, and with avoiding the emasculating stigma of effeminacy. Women and male feminists continue to find this confounding. Upon finishing a series of studies that connected displays of aggression to maintaining masculine identity, researcher Jennifer K. Bosson recently admitted to Time magazine:
When I was younger I felt annoyed by my male friends who would refuse to hold a pocketbook or say whether they thought another man was attractive. I thought it was a personal shortcoming that they were so anxious about their manhood. Now I feel much more sympathy for men . . .
The article, written by a woman, was condescendingly titled “Masculinity, a Delicate Flower.” The researcher said men were “anxious” and the findings indicated that men were more likely to engage in displays of aggression when their status as men was “threatened.” This is characteristic of the way that masculinity is pathologized in the modern media. Concern about masculine status and identity—what I would call honor—is presented as a curious male “hang up” that impedes their progress in the march to postmodern utopian feminist bliss. When men assert themselves, when they defend their honor, when they “man up” and demonstrate strength, courage and mastery—they are portrayed as being insecure fakes who are fearful, desperate and weak.
If men are weak and insecure, then, compared to what standard? Compared to women, who spend billions each year on cosmetics, fashion, weight loss gimmicks, plastic surgery, self-help books, psychotherapy, anti-depressants and the mail order spirituality of grifting gurus from Benny Hinn to Deepak Chopra and Oprah Winfrey?
This has been going on for a long time. This kind of biased positioning is evident in the majority of articles, books and textbooks dealing with masculinity. John Wayne died in 1979, and two of the iconic Marlboro men died of cancer in the early 1990s, but these cliché feminist bêtes noires are still burned in effigy in virtually every mainstream anti-masculinity op-ed.
To better understand The Way of Men, it is important to understand how men and masculinity have been caricatured and misrepresented by those with an ideological agenda. To grasp how feminists have misunderstood men, it is helpful to understand their perception of men. Where do their ideas about traditional manhood come from? What are their working assumptions about masculinity, femininity and sex roles? It is also useful to be able to separate thoughtful writing about masculinity from so many thoughtless refrains.
In his 1976 book The Forty-Nine Percent Majority, behavioral psychologist and NOMAS co-founder Robert Brannon pieced together a folksy model of American manhood for the sole purpose of taking it apart. Brannon claimed that the male sex role in 20th Century American society had four dimensions, or basic themes.
- No Sissy Stuff: The stigma of all stereotyped feminine characteristics and qualities, including openness and vulnerability.
- The Big Wheel: Success, status, and the need to be looked up to.
- The Sturdy Oak: A manly air of toughness, confidence and self-reliance.
- Give ‘Em Hell!: The aura of aggression, violence and daring.
The Forty-Nine Percent Majority is out of print, but Brannon’s list remains influential. Michael Kimmel, who is considered by many to be the leading expert in men’s studies, has reprinted or referred reverently to Brannon’s list in most of the books he has written on the study of gender. Kimmel’s 2009 book, Guyland, also included the list. Brannon’s four dimensions of the male sex role have been discussed in a wide range of recent books, textbooks and articles on rape, sports, transsexuality, psychotherapy, homosexuality, education, fatherhood, bullying, Alzheimer’s, nursing, race and Christian living. While comparatively few people have read the book, Brannon’s “no sissy stuff” list continues to shape both popular and academic ideas about masculinity. Once you’ve read Brannon’s introductory essay and flipped through The Forty-Nine Percent Majority, every argument, every “controversial” headline and every “new” study about masculinity coming from the profeminist camp will read like recycled boilerplate from the age of polyester bellbottoms and pet rocks. It’s one of the ur-texts of profeminist mens’ studies.
The Forty-Nine Percent Majority was a collection of essays edited by both Brannon and sociologist Deborah S. David. The book’s introductory essay in which the “no sissy stuff” list appears was titled, “The Male Sex Role: Our Culture’s Blueprint of Manhood, and What it’s Done for Us Lately.” Brannon and David wrote that, in attempting to define the male sex role, they were “essentially defining a new area of study.” Brannon is normally credited with the “Blueprint” essay, and it is partially autobiographical, so I will refer to him alone as its author for the sake of brevity. Other contributors to The Forty-Nine Percent Majority included feminists Warren Farrell (The Myth of Male Power), Kate Millet (Sexual Politics, The Prostitution Papers), Lucy Komisar, Marc Feigen Fasteau (The Male Machine) and Jack Sawyer (On Male Liberation).
Brannon began with the concept of the social role as it pertained to the theatre. The role comes from the French, meaning the roll of paper an actor’s part is written on. He offered the role of Hamlet as an example. Brannon then defined the social role as “any pattern of behaviors which a given individual in a specified (set of) situation(s) is both: (1) expected and (2) encouraged and/or trained to perform.” A role is distinguished from a stereotype, because an individual may or may not be encouraged or expected to live up to a stereotype.
Brannon stated that he and “other young social scientists” at the time believed that the “most promising answer to most questions about human behavior” would not be found by studying ancient history or biology, but by studying the “invisible but almost irresistible social patterns of pressure which shape and direct the behavior of every man and every woman.” Though Brannon didn’t deal with the nurture vs. nature dilemma explicitly, his emphasis on role learning places him deep in the nurture camp with anthropologist Margaret Mead. In fact, Brannon rested his “Blueprint” argument concerning the importance of learned roles in determining sex-differentiated behavior on Mead’s study of three primitive societies in New Guinea: the Arapesh, the Mundugumor and the Tchambuli. Mead’s characterizations of sex roles in these societies, it was later revealed, were either flawed or flat out wrong.
According to Brannon’s reading of Mead, both male and female members of the Arapesh tended to be “passive, cooperative and peaceful” and their culture tended toward feminine behavior as a whole. Brannon failed to note that Reo Fortune, who was married to Mead and who studied the Arapesh with her in New Guinea, characterized the Arapesh quite differently. In his 1939 article “Arapesh Warfare,” Fortune explained that although a great deal of war-making had been suppressed by German occupation of their land, the Arapesh maintained a long tradition of wife stealing. This tended to be the major aim of their violent conflicts. The old men of the tribe bragged about their war kills from more violent times, and if they had none, they bragged about their hunting records. Fortune rejected Mead’s claim that the Arapesh expected and exhibited similar temperament in the sexes. Arapesh men even seemed to maintain, as men often do, a hierarchy of masculinity within their clans. Fortune wrote:
. . . we may cite the proverb, aramumip ulukwip nahaiya; aramagowep ulukwip nahaiya, “Men’s hearts are different; women’s hearts are different,” and also the existence of a class of men called aramagowem, “women male,” or effeminate men. The class of aramagowem is a definitely assigned class, with definite functions, given inferior food at feasts and special subordinate place. The man, Djeguh, mentioned in our accounts of faction feud and of war, was, for example, an aramatokwin, “woman male” (the singular form of aramago-wem). He was never suspected of cowardice in war. He was, however, without ability in men’s dances, oratory, economic leadership, and in his understanding. He was found by the writer to be very reticent and quiet.
Mead also explained away the swaggering, bossy alphas of the villages—the “big men”—as self-sacrificing fellows who, though they weren’t really predisposed to that sort of assertiveness, had to pretend to be “big men” for the sake of the community. In 2003, having visted Arapesh country himself, anthropologist Paul Roscoe reviewed the work of Mead and Fortune. He wrote that Mead “got it wrong,” and that Fortune, “more accurately depicted Mountain Arapesh warfare.” Early reviewers noted that several details of Mead’s own account of the Arapesh seem to invalidate her colored conclusion that they were a peaceful people, and several other anthropologists have agreed that Mead portrayed the Arapesh inaccurately. 
Both the men and women of a neighboring tribe, the Mundugumor, are described by Brannon (via Mead) as being aggressive and belligerent. There is nothing particularly noteworthy about finding a tribe of warlike people. The relevant point here is that the males and females of the tribe were portrayed as being equally aggressive. One would have to maintain a naïve and sheltered sense of things to imagine that women are non-violent by nature. Indeed, YouTube and reality television frequently provide us with examples of females behaving barbarously. We don’t have to fly to New Guinea to observe violent women. Females are clearly capable of aggression. Were both the male and female members of the Mundugumor tribe equally aggressive? Given all of the other data available about humans and other apes, as well as Mead’s tendency to see things as she wanted to see them, it’s easy to write her assertion off as more subjective interpretation.
To support his theory that culturally determined sex roles are primarily responsible for the differences in behavior between human males and females, Brannon cites Mead’s research on the Tchambuli people. Tchambuli males are described as being “sensitive, artisitic, gossipy, fond of adornment and emotionally dependent.” According to Brannon and Mead, Tchambuli females were expected to be “competent, dominating, practical and efficient,” as well as being sexually aggressive. Deborah Gewertz did some fieldwork with the Tchambuli, or Chambri (as she referred to them) in 1974 and 1975. She noted in a 1981 paper on the subject that the “(in the literature of women’s studies) Chambri women had achieved the status of icons because of their significant and dominant roles within their villages.” Her own perception of gender relations among the Chambri was somewhat different from what Mead saw years earlier, and she suspected that what Mead had witnessed was a reduced level of competition between Chambri men due to temporary economic and historical influences. When Mead was observing them, the Chambri men had recently lost a war, and the tribe was in exile. The Chambri women ended up doing a lot of fishing, and therefore temporarily wielded more economic influence. The men were biding their time and looking for ways to re-establish dominance in the region. It was through the fishing efforts of the women that the men were able to re-establish their status among the neighboring tribes.
Gewertz’s assessment is particularly interesting in light of the shifts of economic power that are happening between men and women in the United States. Men and women are not interchangeable, and their social roles are not the only meaningful causes of their differing behaviors, but they can occasionally swap duties to help each other through tough or uncertain times. A few years ago, I worked a delivery job with a strapping, competent fellow who eventually decided to stay home with his children because his wife was making a lot of money as a nurse while his wages were barely covering day care costs. It made more sense for him to stay home, and his kids were almost certainly better off for having their father around. He was not an effeminate man by any measure, but one wonders what fanciful assertions Mead or Brannon might have made about the flexibility of sex roles had they studied his family.
As Gewertz alluded, by the 1970s, Mead’s research had become extremely popular in feminist circles for what it seemed to imply about human nature and the relationship between the sexes. Based on her interpretation of Arapesh, the Mundugumor and the Tchambuli cultures, Mead famously concluded in 1935 that:
many, if not all, of the personality traits which we have called masculine or feminine are as lightly linked to sex as are the clothing, the manners, and the form of head-dress that a society at a given period assigns to either sex.
Mead made sex roles appear to be as superficial and arbitrary as fashion, and one can easily imagine the influence that might have had on budding feminist ideologues like Brannon. As we have seen above, however, Mead’s depictions of the tribes that led her to draw these kinds of conclusions could charitably be described as “incomplete.” As this is the stated basis for Brannon’s belief that sex roles are almost wholly learned—and can therefore be unlearned or re-shaped completely—his conception of the male sex role is left standing on extremely shaky ground. As more people study the societies that Mead wrote about, the sex role patterns within those groups have become increasingly familiar.
According to Derek Freeman, Mead’s most notorious and persistent critic, Margaret Mead’s questionable research played a pivotal part in shifting the anthropological zeitgeist in the early 20th Century from biological determinism to cultural determinism. In the late 19th Century, the work of Charles Darwin appeared to validate long held and somewhat reasonable suspicions about the importance of heredity in determining human behavior. Man had long bred animals and been aware that animals had certain temperaments and physical characteristics that could be passed on to the next generation. Groups of humans seemed to have heritable physical and behavioral characteristics, too, so it was not a great stretch to imagine that the future of a human population could be controlled by aiding the process of natural selection through selective breeding.
The study of eugenics—“the self direction of human evolution”—became popular and eugenic laws were passed in both Europe and the United States. Sir Francis Galton, the father of eugenics, had declared in 1873 that, “when nature and nurture compete for supremacy on equal terms,” nature is always proven stronger. Evolutionary biologists Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson referred to Galton’s framing of the enduring “nature vs. nurture” debate as “Galton’s Error,” because the forces of nature and nurture are always interacting in humans.
It was during the height of the heated nature vs. nurture debate, however, that Margaret Mead came of age. According to Freeman, Mead’s mentor Franz Boas was searching for convincing evidence to substantiate his belief that “social stimulus” had a far greater influence over human behavior than “the biological mechanism.” When Mead went to Samoa at the age of 23 to study adolescence there, she was looking for a “negative instance”—a conflicting account that disproved a long held generalization about human behavior. In this case, the long held generalization she hoped to disprove by offering a single exception was the belief that adolescence was a difficult period. Seeking this negative instance, Mead published a gloss of Samoan society that downplayed sources of tension and conflict and portrayed the Samoan lifestyle as one characterized by relative ease. Her example of Samoa was lauded by Boas, immediately became a bestseller, and has since become a favorite of advocates for sexual freedom and feminism the world over. Moreover, the influence of her research and its emphasis on negative instances that seemed to prove the importance of nurture over nature is evident in Brannon’s “Blueprint” essay.
Freeman noted that Mead was “denied entry to all chiefly fonos” because she was a woman and “had no participation in the political life of Ta’aū.” She lived with a Western host family in a Western home, and conducted the majority of her research by interviewing little girls.  Freeman, citing his own first hand observations of Samoan political life and the observations of many men who had visited the island over the preceding century, characterized the Samoans as competitive, jealous, prideful and obsessed with rank. Strangely, Mead had portrayed the Samoans as a peaceful, causal people who had no war gods, who didn’t esteem bravery, and who didn’t give a special place in society to the warrior. Fully half of the pagan Samoan gods were in fact war gods, and the Samoans had a long history of slaughtering—possibly even cannibalizing—a huge percentage of their rivals. Samoan men believed it was a great honor to die in battle. Political power was given to those who had conquered or shown bravery in battle. When Freeman repeated Mead’s quotes about warriors holding no place of importance in Samoan society to a high ranking Samoan man, he became irate.
The flaws in Mead’s research had not been fully revealed at the time Brannon wrote The Forty-Nine Percent Majority. However, like Mead, Brannon’s theories relied on wishful thinking. Mead’s research was embraced because it told certain people—people like Brannon—what they wanted to hear about human nature and gender. Brannon’s depiction of the male sex role and the idea that its script can be re-written completely builds on Mead’s wishful thinking, and appeals to feminists because it is essential to their concept of a gender-neutral society.
The hard biological determinism of Galton overshot reality and was used to justify eugenics laws that were sometimes unnecessarily cruel, or based on faulty assumptions. The emphasis on hard cultural determinism advanced by Mead, Boas and Brannon nurtures another sort of hubris, and is employed by enthusiastic social engineers to justify their quack programs and policies. The traditional approach has been to recognize human nature as prone to wickedness and craft social solutions that curb or redirect the aspects of our natures that make civilized living impossible. Humans are social animals, and the human way has always been to seek a balance between nature and nurture.
Do male sex roles exist?
Of course they do.
Do the particulars of the male sex role vary from culture to culture, due to differences in economics, religion, resources, technological advancement, weather, historical factors and innumerable cultural idiosyncrasies and influences?
Of course they do.
However, Mead and Brannon rejected the importance of biological influences in shaping those roles. Culturally determined sex roles undoubtedly influence the way men and women conduct themselves. Brannon’s error—and the error of his many ideological heirs who would attempt, again and again, to “reimagine” masculinity—was in portraying social sex roles as all-important. All cultures have different “scripts” for the sexes, but the scripts can’t simply be re-written from scratch. To borrow an example from Brannon’s essay, many actors have played and interpreted the role of Hamlet. The role has been re-written and adapted and many different versions have been produced. But you can only fool around with it so much—something of significance has to remain of the original character for us to recognize the similarity. After a certain number of deviations, the character is no longer Hamlet.
Attempts to understand masculinity present a “Ship of Theseus” paradox. Thesus’ ship was preserved as a monument by the Athenians for many years, and according to Plutarch’s account, the Athenians had replaced the old planks as they decayed with new and stronger timber. He remarked that “this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.”
Will any script do, so long as it is assigned to biological males and carefully taught to them? If not, how many parts can be replaced or exchanged before what we recognize as masculinity is no longer recognizable? Can a sturdy beam be replaced with a rotten plank?
Most anthropologists are quick to acknowledge the historical importance of Mead’s pioneering work and her contributions to the field of anthropology, but it is clear that she did not succeed in finding a “negative instance” with regard to sex roles. No one else has, either. Donald Brown’s list of Human Universals identifies the following as norms for males:
Cross-Cultural Norms for Males in Human Societies
- Male and female and adult and child seen as having different natures.
- Males dominate public/political realm.
- Males engage in more coalitional violence.
- Males more aggressive.
- Males more prone to lethal violence.
- Males more prone to theft.
- Males, on average, travel greater distances over lifetime.
Is it simply due to an arbitrarily determined sex role—a script that can be re-written from scratch—that people all over the world share some of the same basic ideas about men?
Before we review the content of Brannon’s list itself, there’s another list I came across that puts many discussions about sex roles and masculinity in perspective. It could be considered “the one list to rule them all” because it isn’t locked in one time or place or culture. It is neither a “wish list” detailing how someone thinks men should behave, nor a diagnosis. Evolutionary biologist Randy Thornhill and cultural anthropologist Craig T. Palmer came up with a list of predictions, based on evolutionary theory, for male mammals “with a history of greater sexual selection on males than females.”
Comparative Predictions for Male Mammals, in Species Where Sexual Selection is Greater on Males
- Males will be larger than females.
- More males than females will be conceived and born.
- Males will die younger as a result of physiological malfunction than females.
- Males will engage in more risky activities in the context of acquiring mates than females.
- Males will have higher mortality than females as a result of external causes, such as combat, disease, and accidents.
- Males will exhibit more general aggression than females.
- More often than females, males will engage in escalating violent aggression that leads to injury and even death.
- Pre-adult males will engage in more competitive and aggressive play than pre-adult females.
- Males will be less discriminating about and more eager to copulate with females than vice-versa.
As mentioned earlier in this book, evolutionary theory predicts that because the parental effort required of human females is much greater than that of human males, there will be more competition between human males to access that effort, and males will be selected in part for their ability to overcome other males in competition for mating opportunities. For humans living in complex societies, the process of selection is far more complicated than simply having the strength and courage necessary to overcome one’s enemies in hand-to-hand combat or achieve a higher status within a group hierarchy, but for most of human evolutionary history, fortune—and females—favored the strong and the bold.
Now, let’s take another look at Brannon’s list.
Three out of four of his hokey slogans contain advice that is, from an evolutionary perspective, quite sound and in line with the predictions listed above.
The Big Wheel: Success, status, and the need to be looked up to.
The Sturdy Oak: A manly air of toughness, confidence and self-reliance.
Give ‘Em Hell!: The aura of aggression, violence and daring.
Brannon presented these themes as part of an arbitrary script, a role society encourages males to play, a false front that men must fake in order to “make it.” One of Brannon’s intellectual descendants, pro-feminist anti-rape activist Jackson Katz, has referred to this as a “tough guise” and has made a career for himself out of blaming the media for promoting images of violent masculinity. From an evolutionary standpoint, Brannon’s slogans are simply folk renditions of solid advice for males who want to win the evolutionary game. In straightforward terms, Brannon’s big wheel, sturdy oak and “give ‘em hell” themes are messages telling men to signal high status within the male group, and to demonstrate strength, courage and competence.
No Sissy Stuff: The stigma of all stereotyped feminine characteristics and qualities, including openness and vulnerability.
Brandon listed “No Sissy Stuff,” as the first dimension of the male sex role. He correctly noted that while females will naturally identify with their mothers, because they are both the same sex, at some point males will look to male role models to shape their identities. Then he gave several examples of how men and women alike scold boys when they behave like girls, and how men will go out of their way to avoid being seen as effeminate. He employed the standard tactic of taking a fairly innocuous practice that was culturally assigned to women, and then making men look neurotic for wanting nothing to do with something so harmless. One example was a 230-pound linebacker who was asked if he was worried about looking like a “sissy” because he did needlepoint in his spare time. In a cheap, classic reductio ad Hitlerum, Brannon then provided a quote by Adolf Hitler, explaining why he didn’t want a wife who was overly intelligent. The insinuation, of course, was that any man who was concerned with his own reputation as a man—with masculine honor—was morally aligned with Adolf Hitler.
It is true, as Ms. Bosson above “discovered,” that men sometimes avoid activities that seem trivial, simply because they are associated with women or effeminate men. Pointing this out is an easy way to make men and masculinity appear to be absurd or ridiculous. When doing things that are out of sync with the male sex role, men today often joke that they are “secure about their masculinity,” so they aren’t worried about it. Ironically, this is usually a strategy men employ to diffuse criticism and one-up each other. It is a form of bragging that says, “I have so much excess credibility as a man that I don’t need to concern myself with petty infractions of man code.” The need to acknowledge the infraction is an acknowledgement of the code, and an indication that the man in question is, in fact, at least slightly uncomfortable with breaking it. Saying that you are unconcerned with breaking codes of masculinity is an indirect way to challenge male peers and make yourself seem ballsy and invincible, while making others seem fearful and vulnerable.
Cultural codes of masculinity can be idiosyncratic, because they accumulate references and associations over long periods of time—and it is not uncommon for men to avoid behaviors or activities without really knowing why. For instance, there is nothing particularly male or female about doing the dishes. Men engaged in the manliest, riskiest, all-male activities—on whaling ships, in the military, on the frontier—have washed their own cups and plates. However, in married households, women have traditionally ended up with that bit of labor, so there is a lingering cultural association that regards doing the dishes as “women’s work.” This is a bit silly, and most men recognize that, but few men would brag that they always do the dishes—at least to their male friends.
Brannon complained that men avoid emotional openness and vulnerability, but he failed to acknowledge or even consider the obvious tactical advantages of being choosy about with whom one shares his tears. In The Forty-Nine Percent Majority, Warren Farrell (who later wrote The Myth of Male Power) elaborated on the theme. He characterized the men of his time as being “emotionally incompetent” and “emotionally constipated,” and associated the male resistance to crying in public with passive resistance to black integration among whites. Farrell wrote that men create a “masculine mystique” by hiding their emotions, and theorized that we would be better policed and governed if our male leaders cried and admitted their failure openly. He naively—almost childishly—wondered why people would question a man’s ability to lead other men, or a nation, if he appeared to be emotionally vulnerable. In the essay that followed, Jack O. Balswick and Charles W. Peek melodramatically referred to the “inexpressive male” as a “tragedy of American society,” but failed to articulate why the confident stoicism of the John Wayne cowboy or the James Bond (isn’t Bond British?) playboy was so “tragic.”
Like so many male feminists, the male writers that David and Brannon chose to feature in The Forty-Nine Percent Majority repeated the sentiments of women without thinking critically about why men behave the way they do. If women were “free” to cry in public, so the logic goes, men would be “freer” if they cried in public, too. The word “vulnerability” has acquired a certain cachet in the gynocentric worlds of feminist thought, but to most men, it remains what it has always been—a technical euphemism for weakness. Exposing a “vulnerability,” to men, is like rolling over and offering your belly to anyone who would take it. It’s not a positive. It’s something you would do only around someone whom you trust completely. Women have a habit of throwing men’s exposed emotional vulnerabilities back at them in heated arguments, and many men have been burned for baring their souls. Even in the context of a private relationship, many men have good reasons to avoid showing women or men the things that really get to them.
If you look at vulnerability from the perspective of a group hierarchy, it becomes obvious why men don’t want to expose their vulnerabilities publicly, and why men distance themselves from men who are obviously vulnerable. Crying is perfectly natural. It’s a perfectly natural admission of defeat, emotional exhaustion, fear or powerlessness. A man who is “vulnerable” is a weak link. He’s shown that he is going to break under pressure, or that he is prone to manipulation. Tactically, this is a problem for the group, and as a result he is going to lose status within the group. Men who appear to be unflappable, however, make the group look watertight. It makes perfect sense for men to want to ally themselves with strong men who can pull their weight, and who don’t dishonor the group. From a primal perspective, dishonor is danger. It should be obvious why a group of men competing with other groups of men for survival would want to appear to be strong, courageous and competent.
All of this primal posturing may seem absurd, say, in an office or walking around the mall, but status still matters. While the popular media sometimes paints a feminist fantasy of what its most privileged, successful women want from men (usually it still comes down to resources and ego stroking) men on the ground observe women selecting for high status or the appearance of high status all the time. Just as many young girls strive to be in and exclude each other from the most popular cliques, it makes sense for men to increase their status by courting high status groups of men. Even the lowest status male in a group of high status males stands a better chance of snagging a decent piece of tail than he might on his own, but the mating game is only part of the equation. Membership in a high status group confers many benefits, including access to desirable social networks, resources and protection from harassment.
Sound a little high-schoolish? Perhaps. Most would agree, however, that a good way to become more successful is to surround oneself with successful people.
Avoiding “sissy stuff” is not merely about a desire to differentiate oneself from one’s mother and find a separate identity among men—although it is certainly that, too. “No Sissy Stuff” is an admonition to young men that routes them away from apparently submissive behaviors and influences and interests that could handicap them—and could make them appear vulnerable—as they compete and socialize with other men. If you’re theoretically trying to be selected by a woman, as a man, why would you want to run the risk of being mistaken for a woman, instead of trying to prove that you’re among the best men? Why wouldn’t you advertise yourself as an exemplary man?
When throwing around evolutionary jargon, it is important to remember that as humans evolved they were unaware of evolutionary processes. Even now that we are aware of evolutionary theory, we do not consciously play evolution’s game. Sexual selection simply shaped our bodies and our drives to give us tactical advantages in the primal environment. Technology and the complexity of our civilization has fouled up a lot of the variables, even as our monkey brains remain essentially the same.
For instance, my best pal is a strategic and mechanical thinker with average to above average intelligence. He is a natural fighter—large, quick, strong and athletic. He doesn’t have to put on a show to exude an aura of confidence, toughness, aggression, violence or daring. In fact, he has to make a conscious effort to dial all of those qualities back just to function in polite society. Most men simply allow him to dominate a conversation, even if he clearly has no idea what he is talking about. He has all of the hunter traits, to the extent that even at the age of thirty he can barely sit still and needs to be actively engaged in some kind of challenging task to avoid slipping into a minor, restless depression.
My friend has absolutely no “game.” Healthy, attractive females ask for his number and send him provocative, semi-nude pictures of themselves directly to his phone. I’ve seen it happen over and over. I’ve seen the photos and the desperate text messages. All he has to do is show up at a bar, relax and let nature take its course. In a primal environment, in the absence of birth control, he’d have a sizeable brood of mini-monsters. Ironically, because he can have the pick of the most attractive females, he often ends up dating strippers on birth control who have large breast implants. Their technologically enhanced mammaries probably fool his primal brain into thinking they are ideal for suckling his offspring. Evolution’s game—which he is designed to win—keeps leading his genes to a false victory, and an evolutionary dead end. Due to the dysgenic quirks of our very new, modern world, he is a natural alpha who is being selected out of the gene pool. I’ve often joked with him that, as far as evolution is concerned, he is being trounced by a weak, sickly Mormon accountant raising eight kids somewhere in Utah.
The point here is not to say that we need to realign our society to match primal circumstances in every way, or institute some sort of eugenics program. It is simply to say that the male sex role, roughly as Brannon describes it, endures because it is consistent with the way our species evolved, and the idea that we can simply rewrite the script from scratch or re-imagine the male sex role completely to suit the preferences of fashionable ideologies is absurd. The apparent de-motivation of men in contemporary society is a direct result of attempts to ignore history and evolution and re-imagine manhood in a way that is inconsistent with human nature.
I’ve written that Brannon pieced together his folksy model of manhood for the sole purpose of taking it apart. Brannon was not trying to understand men so much as he was trying to change them. I have made a point throughout to characterize his list as “folksy” and “hokey” because I think building the book The Forty-Nine Percent Majority around a collection of dated, goofy slogans was intentional or at least convenient to his aims. Instead of trying to understand why men behave the way they do, or investigate why men in most cultures seem to revere strength, courage, competence and high group status, Brannon caricatured manly virtues, failed to entertain the benefits of aspirational masculinity, focused on the losers in male hierarchical struggles and portrayed men as clueless marionettes who were simply being manipulated by an out-dated script.
. . . like the insecure politicians who decided to “hang tough” in Vietnam, like the ulcer-driven executives in their paneled offices, like the strutting youth-gang leaders , the young G.I.’s at My Lai, the ambitious counter-culture gurus, the casual and unfeeling rapists, and the silent Walter Mitty’s who only dream…we each have been dancing the crippling steps, are dancing them still. Only recently have we begun to discover the invisible cords which have moved us for so long, to feel their silent tugs at our fantasies, judgments, and fears. One can only dimly imagine what the world would be like if we could somehow turn the music off, cut the cords of sex roles, and discover ourselves.
This “mock the poor, misguided, obsolete, insecure straw man” strategy has become the standard tactic of the pro-feminist men’s movement. Feminist Tony Doupkil, in his second man-baiting piece for Newsweek, referred to modern men as “Beached White Males.”
As if middle age isn’t bad enough. The moribund metabolism. The purple pill that keeps your food down. The blue pill that keeps another part of your anatomy up. Now you can’t get an effing job? Stuck in your own personal Detroit of the soul, with the grinding stress of enforced idleness. The wife who doesn’t look at you quite the same way. The poignantly forgiving sons. The stain on your masculinity for becoming the bread-loser. The night sweats and dark refuge of Internet porn. The gnawing fear that this may be the beginning of a slow, shaming crawl to early Social Security.
Over thirty years after Brannon, male feminists still can’t manage to do much more than point and laugh at their own snide caricatures of men, and recommend that men abandon “musty script of masculinity.” Talk about a bunch of guys who are stuck singing the same tune. And, when presented with new, post-Margaret Mead era evidence from evolutionary biologists, that tune sounds a lot like “Nyah, nyah nyah, nyah, I Can’t Hear You.” When Michael Kimmel was asked by The New York Times to discuss innate differences between the sexes recently, he dismissed the subject completely and said, “That ship has sailed — it’s a done deal.”
Kimmel came up with his own knock off of Brannon’s list—called “The Guy Code”—for his 2009 book Guyland.
Kimmel’s “Guy Code” (2009)
- “Boys Don’t Cry”
- “It’s Better to be Mad than Sad”
- “Don’t Get Mad—Get Even”
- “Take It Like a Man”
- “He Who has the Most Toys When he Dies, Wins”
- “Just Do It,” or “Ride or Die”
- “Size Matters”
- “I Don’t Stop to Ask for Directions”
- “Nice Guys Finish Last”
- “It’s All Good”
Like Brannon, Kimmel came up with a list of “current epigrams” that presented basic male concerns about status, strength, courage and competency as a handful of goofy frat boy clichés that he could easily take apart for his readers. Kimmel’s straw man was the “guy,” an overgrown boy who is obsessed with things that really don’t matter. At least, they don’t matter to Kimmel and the frustrated young women who would prefer that the young “guys” were obsessed with well-paying careers, nesting, marriage and starting a (feminist) family.
Kimmel mocked his frat boy students who, despite their apparent ineptitude, manage to keep thwarting his “you-can-have-it-all” feminist supermoms of tomorrow. Brannon’s original list has a more patricidal feel to it. Brannon admitted in the “Blueprint” essay that his grandfather was a “rough-and-ready” frontiersman known for killing lawbreakers, and his father was a football star and lumberman. He then described himself as being an absent-minded 90-pound weakling, who tried but failed to be a man according to the standards of his peers and the men in his family.
Brannon’s list is clearly a list of his father’s values, phrased in the words that men of his father’s generation would have used. His slogans were selected to smack the “daddy doesn’t love me” button and stir up feelings of resentment and insecurity in his readers. The Forty-Nine Percent Majority is itself a collection of essays thick with the jealous, adolescent, Vietnam-era John Wayne-baiting so typical of spoiled, petulant baby-boomers. Brannon’s feminism is a passive-aggressive critique of his father’s masculinity and the masculine idols of a greater generation. His critical parody of mid-20th century American manhood and his dissection of its contradictions is in part an attempt to one-up his mocking peers and disapproving ancestors.
Yukio Mishima, who also wrote about being a weakling as a young man, had this to say about men like Brannon:
The cynicism that regards hero worship as comical is always shadowed by a sense of physical inferiority.
While this is not true of all male feminists (Jackson Katz advertises himself as a former “all-star football player”) it is apparently true of both Kimmel and Brannon, and their work continues to be extremely influential in the field of men’s studies.
This drive to castrate and discredit the hero-alpha-father is an abstract attempt by low status males to increase or regain status via intellectual means. The sensitive, bookish outcast screams “Your manhood is false, and you are a fraud!” and then runs into the arms of sympathetic women who tend his emotional wounds and deftly exploit his exposed vulnerabilities, or into a ghetto of other outcast men.
The outcast, omega or low status male who abandons “The Guy Code” and the “themes” of masculinity idolizes women because fiery women are the foils of alphas. In his telling tale about his father, Brannon was quick to point out that his mother scorned his father for not being a “real man” after he failed to kick her door down during a late night quarrel.
This vindictive attraction to strong women and castrating bitch-goddesses finds its ultimate expression in gay camp. Gay writer Daniel Harris described gay diva worship as a “bone-crushing spectator sport in which one watches the triumph of feminine wiles over masculine wills,” and divas themselves as a “therapeutic corrective [to gay men’s own] highly compromised masculinity.”
The pro-feminist men’s movement has much in common with the gay movement, and the two have been allied since the 1970s. Kimmel seems to have sought the approval of feminist superstars like Gloria Steinem every bit as much as the gay males of his generation wanted to reach out and touch Diana Ross’ hand. The intellectual one-upmanship of feminist males has an analog in gay men’s fussy bourgeois “aestheticism of maladjustment.” Together, they mounted a vengeful evisceration of the ineloquent, brawny philistines who gave them wedgies and made them feel like little bitches.
This “argument from failure” was one of the three main arguments advanced repeatedly against “our culture’s positive proscription for masculinity” in The Forty-Nine Percent Majority. Brannon wrote:
No one less than Attila the Hun could have lived up to that role all the time; we were all losers. But we believed in the values and norms that made us losers, we reinforced them, and we imposed them on others.
Brannon was essentially saying that, because no man embodies all of the manly virtues all the time, all men are failures at being men, so men should stop wounding themselves and each other by holding up an impossible ideal. This argument assumes that the costs incurred by men in failing to embody an impossible ideal are always greater than the total benefits accrued as a result of men striving to prove their manhood. There’s no real way to measure these abstract profits and losses. At any rate, evaluating the data will always lead us back to the question: “what is good?” Is the tale of a great hero worth a thousand broken, jealous hearts? Are men better for this collective striving than they would be otherwise?
The argument from failure is to some extent an example of the “perfect solution fallacy,” in which the “perfect” is made the enemy of the “good.” The argument from failure presupposes that for a role to be good, someone somewhere has to be able to live up to that role all the time. It’s a little like telling Christians they shouldn’t bother trying to be more Christ-like, because they will never actually be Christ. For Christians, Christ is a perfect Form in the Platonic sense. He is the embodiment of what they’ve identified as ideal qualities. The do not expect to become Christ, but feel that by imitating him as best they can, they become better people. One may agree or disagree with the values that they attribute to Christ, or disbelieve in Christ, but the basic concept of bettering oneself through imperfect imitation is what matters here, because men are essentially imitating what they believe to be the perfect Form of Man. All men accumulate a tally of “sins”, shortcomings and near-misses. Feelings get hurt along the way because all men are not equally able to imitate this perfect Form. These facts are not valid criticisms of the manly virtues themselves.
We could call this “The Fallacy of the Impossible Form.”
These manly virtues should be considered in their own right, not dismissed because no man can be the complete embodiment of masculine ideals every single day of his life.
- Is it better for a man to be “open” or circumspect?
- Is it better for a man to be “vulnerable” or invulnerable?
- Is it better for a man to have high group status or low group status?
- Is it better for a man to be successful or unsuccessful?
- Is it better for a man to be tough or delicate?
- Is it better for a man to be confident or apprehensive?
- Is it better for a man to be self-reliant or dependent?
- Is it better for a man to be aggressive or passive?
- Is it better for a man to be violent or non-violent?
- Is it better for a man to be daring or fearful?
Each of these questions can be asked independently, and the “best” answers will vary according to one’s philosophical disposition and the situation at hand. We could speak in Yoda sensei-voices and come up with unexpected, ponderous answers. We could cite exceptions to general rules and instances of “too much of a good thing.” But if we refer back to the list of predictions for male mammals in which selection is greater on males, we will see that many of these manly virtues are associated with biological differences between the sexes, and “our culture’s positive prescription for masculinity” encourages behaviors that have helped men compete successfully against other men. Our inherited masculine ideal is the stern but sound advice of our forefathers. It is “nurture” working in harmony with “nature.”
The second argument made against the male sex role as caricatured by Brannon was that this advice was no longer sound—the argument that “manliness is no longer necessary.” There is something to this argument. Philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb recently wrote that, “The opposite of manliness isn’t cowardice; it’s technology.”
The Forty-Nine Percent Majority contains an essay by sociologist John H. Gagnon titled “Physical Strength, Once of Significance.” Gagnon argued that while the sporting games of boys still produce social hierarchies based on physical strength and prowess, in adulthood physical strength and prowess have little economic value due to advances in technology. This is probably even truer now than it was in 1976. Having spent five years carrying treadmills and dumbbells upstairs into the home gyms of the wealthy—so that they could “get into shape”—I am well aware that hard labor doesn’t pay as well as neurosurgery.
Gagnon argued that in complex industrialized nations, strength does not justify patriarchal hierarchies as convincingly as it used to. The “cerebral quality” of modern warfare, he imagined, was exemplified Kubrick’s mad cripple, Dr. Strangelove. This was a bit of an overstatement. Modern warfare is still extremely physically demanding. Soldiers often have to carry their powerful automatic weapons over difficult terrain. The “’state vs. guerilla insurgent or terrorist” style of current conflicts makes a near future of button-pushing warfare seem unlikely.
In First World “knowledge economies,” it is true overall that the martial virtues (virtus, to the early Romans) of our ancestors can handicap a man. Defending your honor will probably land you in prison. Men find themselves doing time for fistfights, let alone duels. Few men make a decent living from physical labor. Even industries like construction are so highly regulated and carefully managed by lawyers and insurance companies that daring applications of strength and agility are discouraged, and the star employees wear back braces and bright orange vests that read “SAFETY FIRST.”
This is the world we live in, though it is also true that wealthy nations rely heavily on the risky, back-breaking work of men who live in poorer countries. Still, we should be careful about confusing “modern” with “better” or “permanent.” Is our contemporary arrangement better? If so, for whom? Cui bono? Is it permanent? Will things always be so? Will men never need to be strong or courageous again? If we abandon the manly virtues that have characterized the male sex role for all of human history, who will volunteer to risk his life to protect us from the men who have not abandoned those virtues? While it is human nature for men, or at least a portion of them, to desire conflict and risk, will they take those risks if they are despised for it—if all we offer them is a paycheck? Do men watch television shows about the few men left who do dangerous and dirty jobs out of mere curiosity, or because they secretly hate their own weakness and their child-proofed, predictable lives, and fantasize about doing something where their actions have meaningful and immediate consequences?
The third main argument against the traditional male sex role is that “masculinity causes unacceptable collateral damage.” Pro-feminist males, being feminists, are primarily concerned with how females have been hurt, subjugated or inconvenienced by patriarchal social structures. Women, for the most part, gain very little as the result of violent conflicts between men, and have much to lose. Men do gain status, bragging rights and, at least in the old days, various sorts of booty. Women stand to lose their means of support and protection, and, at least in the old days, were at risk of being raped, abducted and impregnated by a new “husband.”
And yet, women have often clamored for war, because there is something to be said for belonging to a group of victorious, high status men. There was, for instance, the “white feather” movement in during World War I. Women in Britain handed out white feathers—symbolizing cowardice—to men who were not in uniform, and this was hardly the first time or last time that women goaded men into war. More recently, many American women demanded vengeance for the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001. At the interpersonal level, most men are familiar with the scenario wherein a woman “writes a check that he’ll have to cash.” Some women are known to provoke conflicts between men by casually throwing around fighting words, insults and challenges—precisely because they won’t be the ones expected to do the fighting. Women can usually trash talk with impunity.
Although women sometimes stir up trouble, it is true that women and children have often been the victims of wars and conflicts that they didn’t start or want at all. This is, admittedly, unfair—especially if you believe that the sexes are basically interchangeable and what is good for the goose is good for the gander. If you see males and females as two slightly different kinds of human animals with competing reproductive strategies, then “fairness” and “equality” are impossible goals. Instead of trying to impose an absolute equality of apples and oranges, the question then becomes, “how fair is fair enough?”
It is also frequently argued that men themselves become the collateral damage of their own aggressive status-seeking, but this line of thinking returns us to the argument from failure above.
For all their talk, I doubt that people truly want fairness, equality or “peace.” Strategies said to put peace and equality within our grasp invariably end up moving the axe of violent coercion from the hands of one group into the hands of another. This—not “equality” —has been the achievement of feminism. For the first time in history, at least on this scale, women wield the axe of the state over men.
The authors of The Forty-Nine Percent Majority explicitly believed that women would be better suited to rule until men were cured of their masculine ailment and liberated from the penal code of the male sex role. While they and their intellectual heirs positioned themselves as experts exploring a new field of study, theirs was not an expedition in search of truth. They were feminist partisans from the get-go, and their caricatured misrepresentations of masculinity were propaganda designed to defame men, trivialize masculinity and valorize women. Often, their basic assumptions about the flexibility of sex roles and human nature were based on discredited or biased anthropology. Sometimes, their work was clearly intellectual payback for being made to feel inadequate in the world of men. Their primary arguments against traditional models of masculinity are subjective, fallacious and one-sided. Their conclusions are at odds with human nature, the conclusions of evolutionary biologists and a cross-cultural assessment of masculine ideals throughout history.
When and where have the majority of men not wanted to be known for strength, daring and success?
When and where have they been completely unconcerned with their status among other men?
When and where have they wanted to be known as “sissies”?
Any answers will inevitably be desperate references to groups of men who are rare, separate and exceptional.
Brannon got some of the basic themes of masculinity right, but they are not “American” themes, and they are not tied to a particular time or place. They can be isolated from the skewed noise of his presentation and universalized.
A man’s status as a man, his masculine identity—his honor—has been so critical to his sense of self-worth that throughout human history innumerable men and women have worked to shape the “Form” of masculinity to reflect their interests and values. Manly pride can be a man’s greatest asset and his greatest weakness. People use a man’s sense of himself to manipulate him. Sometimes “man up” simply means “do what I want.”
The likes of Brannon play an interesting game. They know that men are concerned with their reputations as men. They know that men want to be seen as strong, so they taunt them and tell them that it is their desire for strength that makes them weak. The reimaginers tell men to reimagine strength.
Is either abandoning his concern with strength or reimagining strength in a man’s best interest?
It depends on the man and the context. The answer is philosophical, subjective and uncertain. What is certain is that by abandoning his concern with strength or by reimagining strength he will be serving the interests of those who ask him to change.
 Melnick, Meredith. “Masculinity, a Delicate Flower.” Time 5 May 2011. Web. 24 May 2011.
 David, Deborah S., and Robert Brannon, eds. The Forty-Nine Percent Majority : The Male Sex Role. Philippines: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1976. 1-42. Print.
 A quick Google Books search for “Brannon Big Wheel Sissy” yielded over 200 references to Brannon’s list in various books and journals for popular as well as academic audiences.
 David, Deborah S., and Robert Brannon, eds. The Forty-Nine Percent Majority : The Male Sex Role. Philippines: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1976. vii. Print.
 Ibid. 5.
 Ibid. 3.
 Bashkow, Ira, and Lise M. Dobrin. “The Anthropologist’s Fieldwork as Lived World: Margaret Mead and Reo Fortune among the Mountain Arapesh.” Paideuma 53 (2007): 79-87. JSTOR. Web. 27 Apr. 2011. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40341946
 Gewertz, Deborah. “A Historical Reconsideration of Female Dominance among the Chambri of Papua New Guinea.” American Ethnologist, 8.11 Feb. (1981): 94-106. JSTOR. Web. 27 Apr. 2011. http://www.jstor.org/stable/644489
 Margaret, Mead. Sex and Temperament: In Three Primitive Societies. 1935. Harper Perennial, 2001. 262. Print.
 Fun fact: εὐγενής, the Greek root of eugenics means well-born, of noble race, of high descent. It is also the root of the name “Eugene.”
 Freeman, Derek. Margaret Mead and Samoa. N.p.: Harvard University Press, 1983. 10. Print.
 Wrangham, Richard, and Dale Peterson. Demonic Males : Apes and the Origins of Human Violence. New York: Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996. 95. Print.
 Freeman, Derek. Margaret Mead and Samoa. N.p.: Harvard University Press, 1983. 82-94. Print.
 Ibid. 66-73, 131. Ta’aū, the largest island in American Samoa, was the island she famously studied.
 Ibid. 157-173.
 Brown, Donald E. “Human Universals.” DePaul University, n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2011. http://condor.depaul.edu/mfiddler/hyphen/humunivers.htm
 Thornhill, Randy and Palmer, Craig T., A Natural History of Rape : Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion. The MIT Press. 2000. 37-38. Print.
 Ibid. Note: Thornhill and Palmer’s list was a collection of predictions made wide variety of scientists, who were cited in their original lists. Readers are highly encouraged to purchase Thornhill and Palmer’s book, and investigate those references themselves. MIT Press is encouraged to get with it and make this excellent book available via Kindle, iPad, etc.
 David, Deborah S., and Robert Brannon, eds. The Forty-Nine Percent Majority : The Male Sex Role. Philippines: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1976. 16. Print.
 Ibid. “The Politics of Vulnerability.” 51-54.
 Ibid. “The Inexpressive Male: A Tragedy of American Society.” 55-57.
 Even in Brannon’s time, it was known that the majority of cultures around the world revered men who were strong, higher in status and courageous. Mead’s “negative instances” caused a sensation precisely because they seemed to be exceptions to a general rule.
 David, Deborah S., and Robert Brannon, eds. The Forty-Nine Percent Majority : The Male Sex Role. Philippines: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1976. 42. Print.
 Doupkil, Tony. “Dead Suit Walking.” Newsweek 17 Apr. 2011. Web. 29 Apr. 2011. http://www.newsweek.com/2011/04/17/dead-suit-walking.html
 Romano, Andrew, and Tony Doupkil. “Men’s Lib.” Newsweek. 20 Sept. 2010. Web. 24 Feb. 2011. http://www.newsweek.com/2010/09/20/why-we-need-to-reimagine-masculinity.html
 McGrath, Charles. “The Study of Man (or Males).” The New York Times 7 Jan. 2011. Web. 29 Apr. 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/09/education/09men-t.html
 Kimmel, Micheal. Guyland. 2008. HarperCollins e-books. Kindle. Loc. 902.
 Mishima, Yukio. Sun and Steel. 1970. Trans. John Bester. Kodansha International, 2003. 41. Print.
 Harris, Daniel. The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture. Ballantine Publishing Group, 1997. 13. Print.
 Ibid. 10, 26.
 David, Deborah S., and Robert Brannon, eds. The Forty-Nine Percent Majority : The Male Sex Role. Philippines: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1976. 66. Print. (The Forty-Nine Percent Majority contains a chapter on “Homophobia Among Men,” and its author, Gregory K. Lehne continues to specialize in “Evaluation and treatment of sexual and gender identity concerns in children, adolescents and adults. Research and theory on the nature of human sexuality, lovemaps, sexual orientations and gender identities.” http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/psychiatry/expert_team/faculty/L/Lehne.html
 Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms. Random House, 2010. Kindle. Loc. 163.
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