Our fresh masculinity – why it’s problematic

We live in an age of rigidly defined gender roles. And, as Harry Noad so ably pointed out, one of those archetypes has been more pervasive than any other: that of the alpha male. Not the intellectually-refined, considerate, sophisticated gentleman – but the ‘hulking troglodyte of old’; the tough, physically dominant patriarch.
So far, so good. Well – so far, so true. Hegemonic masculinity is indeed ‘lad culture’ writ large, and for most people it’s not particularly appealing. The problem, however, runs far deeper than this. The problem is not that we dislike the consequences of our own idealism. The problem is that to hold ideals about gender roles at all is destined to cause trouble at every turn.
Say that we disagree. Say we replace the lad-alpha with the gentleman-alpha, as Harry’s piece suggests. Men are freed from the constraints of going to the gym every day and downing it (fresher) on a permanent basis – but are instead obliged to live up to a new, more rigorous masculinity, composed of concern for others and a calm, respectful air: this is what it means to be a real man, this is the way to gain friends and influence people, this is how to really excel at performing your gender role. And, of course, this ideal is infinitely more appealing than its predecessor. Of course we would rather have a society filled with careful, considerate men than one loaded with the beerswigging Neanderthals of yore.
Yet the archetype has already come with a slew of its own problems. Take the ‘Nice Guys’ phenomenon. The lonely, friend-zoned masses. What appears to have happened is that a generation of less-conventionally-attractive, occasionally insecure, men have latched onto this fresh hegemony and tried to embody its ideals (intelligence, thoughtfulness, respect for women, etc.) wholesale. The more sinister side of this idealism, however, is a whole new sense of entitlement.
Believing themselves to embody everything a woman could possibly want, believing themselves to be ‘real men’ on this new definition, the new alpha’s response to rejection is absolutely miserable. The enduring belief is that real men – be they rugby-obsessed ‘lads’ or basement-dwelling Reddit devotees – have always deserved female attention. Because that is a proper male’s reward. Thus, the vitriol is aimed once again at the female: how dare she reject the alpha, the very pinnacle of masculinity? How dare she not feel honoured by his attention? And on rolls the patriarchal wheel.
Furthermore, advancing this new (and, prima facie, appealing) idea of what it means to be a man is problematic in that – once again – it hinges upon the notion of masculinity as a genuine predicate: a real property to which only men should aspire, and one whose antithesis is embodied in female behaviour and femininity as a whole. Historically, women have often defined themselves through their difference from men – their compelling ‘otherness’. When our masculine ideal was one of physical prowess, the mode for women was delicacy, frailty; pale skin and a slim form.
So, now that our masculinity is one of the intellect rather than the body, where are we to place female attributes? By setting out traits like self-knowledge, tenacity, calmness etc., and relegating them to the sphere of the ‘real alpha’, what are we doing for our conception of femininity? Perhaps, once again, women must take the opposite: they ought to be unsure of themselves, changeable, overly-emotional. It’s an ideal which sounds all too familiar, because its roots have already taken hold. The stereotype already exists.
Of course, the article does not set out nor support this view – but this inequality is a fundamental problem with advancing gender-specific ideals, which the article does. Where male and female are considered as oppositional, both are constrained by the criteria of the other. This is to say nothing at all of where trans* people ought to position themselves, nor where those with fluid gender identities are supposed to fit.
Perhaps the point is that we should stop obliging people to fit at all. It’s the 21st century – we don’t need to strive towards making our sons better men, nor our daughters better women. We need to strive towards helping people understand themselves, whatever their gender. We all have the wonderful freedom to aim at whichever virtues we choose, and that is something of which we – as people – ought to be proud.