One of the dippiest, catchiest commercials of my youth was for Campbell’s soup. I remember it precisely; I can still sing the snippet of song at its center.
“How do you handle a hungry man?” crooned an offscreen voice. A very deepvoice, I should add. It then answered, thunderously, “The Manhandlers!”
That was the name for a line of especially hearty Campbell’s concoctions, and the images that accompanied the lyrics, depending on which iteration of the commercial you saw, might be hockey players slamming into one another or basketball players jockeying for position under the net. The message was that a man worked up a sweat and then ate up a storm – in this case, a beef-and-noodle hurricane, or at least a split-pea squall. He was a force of nature with untamable appetites.
That was the 1970s, and what strikes me isn’t how much has changed but how little.
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Oh, sure, we’re having a soulful discussion, at least in the media, about the elasticity of gender. Just over two weeks ago, the cover of Time magazine read, “Beyond He or She,” and in smaller type: “How a new generation is redefining the meaning of gender.”
But the following week, Time’s cover teased an interview with our president, Donald Trump, whose take on gender is decidedly old-fashioned and fixed. He casts himself – surprise! – as a force of nature with untamable appetites. And that persona won him tens of millions of votes, lofting him to the White House, so it can’t have contradicted Americans’ notions of manhood all that much.
A real man lusts. A real man rages. A real man doesn’t chip in with domestic duties. That’s not just Trump’s view – he once boasted that he’d never change a diaper – but also, apparently, the message that many young men in America today still get, according to an intriguing study released a few days ago.
Promundo, a nonprofit organization that promotes gender equity, surveyed roughly 1,300 American men between 18 and 30. Seventy-five percent said that they’re supposed to act strong even when scared or nervous; 63 percent said that they’re exhorted to seize sex whenever available; 46 percent said that they’re waved away from household chores.
Promundo also surveyed British and Mexican men, and neither group described a gender construct as musky, musty and unyielding as the one that Americans detailed. The research suggested that plenty of American men live in what some sociologists call the Man Box, constricted by a concept of manhood that includes aggression, hypersexuality, supreme authority and utter self-sufficiency.
I can’t say that I’m surprised, not when I look at the biggest male movie stars and see such an emphasis on brawn over brain. Dwayne Johnson – aka the Rock – can open a movie; Daniel Day-Lewis cannot. Tom Cruise’s box-office status owes more to physical pyrotechnics in the “Mission Impossible” franchise than to courtroom fireworks in “A Few Good Men,” just as Hugh Jackman’s currency comes from his bladed fingers in “The Wolverine” and now “Logan,” not from his dulcet voice in “Les Miserables.” Will Smith’s verbal dexterity in “Six Degrees of Separation” may have won him critical regard, but his coolness in “Bad Boys” and “Men in Black” made him box-office gold.
We’re seeing some young female stars expand into action roles – in the “Hunger Games” series, in the last two “Star Wars” offshoots – but I don’t detect a commensurate trend of young male stars seeking, and benefiting from, softer parts. True, Ryan Gosling danced (awkwardly) in “La La Land” and Bradley Cooper embodied vulnerability in “Silver Linings Playbook.” But Cooper soon pivoted into “American Sniper,” for which he thickened his body and slowed his speech.
Maybe I read the tea leaves too closely and pessimistically, but then I’m a gay man whose teen years were in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when homosexuality alone was considered antithetical to true manhood and someone like me was left in a limbo, wondering what claims on masculinity he really had.
I was a competitive swimmer, and while I hated it, I didn’t dare quit, as it felt like a retort to, and inoculation against, anyone questioning my maleness. Just before college I completed an Outward Bound course in the Oregon mountains, and my outsize pride was about how classically manly the adventure had been: no showers, no toilets, harsh weather, bland food.
That was decades ago, but just last week, when I emailed one straight male friend and one gay male friend with a succinct, unexplained question – “When do you feel the most manly?” – their answers reflected a similar perspective.
The straight friend flashed on his experience playing football in high school and college and wrote that he had felt the most manly when leaving the locker room with his “hands and wrists taped up, win or lose, smelling and aching.”
The gay friend mentioned that he’d been hiking a lot recently, in an area where strong winds were tearing at trees. “Limbs keep coming down,” he wrote. “I feel manly when I have to move them off the trail, knowing some are too big for other hikers to budge.”
When does Trump feel the most manly? That’s pretty obvious: when he’s salivating over women and styling himself some conquistador of the flesh, as he did repeatedly with Howard Stern and on one infamous occasion with Billy Bush. When he’s belittling and emasculating rivals (“Liddle Marco,” “low-energy Jeb”), as he did throughout his campaign. When he’s vowing vengeance against the House Freedom Caucus, as he did last week. When he’s surrounding himself with generals. When he’s pledging huge increases in military spending while moving to starve wonky research and the arts.
There are ways in which his life, and his political career in particular, are a burlesque of manhood, “so craven and desperately needy that it has an air of danger and pathos,” said Michael Kimmel, a Stony Brook University sociologist and the author of “Angry White Men,” a 2013 book that will soon be reissued with a new preface that takes Trump into account.
I think Trump protests too much, distracting us from other traits. He abhors handshakes: all those icky germs! He gilds and swirls his hair. Those white crescent moons under his eyes suggest time spent wearing goggles during artificial tanning sessions. The Marlboro Man got his sun on the range, not in the salon.
But Kimmel said that such signals have begun to diversify somewhat. He noted that Axe, which makes men’s grooming products, used to be famous for ads that equated using Axe with getting laid, but it unveiled a new one last year that showed one man in a wheelchair, another with cats, another at a chalkboard, another in drag. “Find your magic” was the tagline, and that magic didn’t boil down to sweat, swagger or a sheaf of condoms.
Axe, as it happens, sponsored the Promundo study, which concluded that men who registered narrow, clichéd instructions about manhood were more likely to act out in self-destructive ways, such as substance abuse, and in outwardly destructive ones, such as online bullying.
Online bullying? That brings to mind a certain tweeter in chief, and so does the argument that when you feel compelled to project an unforgiving kind of masculine strength, you end up in a twisted, tortured place. You can call it the Man Box. Or, these days, the Oval Office.