The Male Myth
As rules change in the office, the kitchen and the bedroom, men go hunting for a new identity
BRIAN D. JOHNSON
BY BRIAN D. JOHNSON
It reads like a modem fable. A young maiden from a foreign shore falls in love with a handsome ex-marine. But he turns out to be cruel, violent and not too bright. One night, his wife is so enraged by his behavior that, while he sleeps, she cuts off his penis with an eight-inch kitchen knife, jumps into her car, then throws the offending member out the window into a field near the PatyKake Day Care Center. A policeman finds it. A doctor sews it back on. But it will never be the same. And throughout the land, people make fun of the sad man who lost his penis.
From the first news of the incident last June, the strange case of John and Lorena Bobbitt has polarized the sexes. Men winced, women snickered. Some men—and even some women—said: “What’s so funny?” But everyone seemed to a get a vicarious kick out of discussing it. Now, both Bobbitt trials are over. Last fall, John was acquitted of sexual assault. And last week, agreeing that “an irresistible impulse” drove Lorena Bobbitt to amputate her husband’s penis, a Yirginia jury found her not guilty by reason of insanity (page 43). But there seemed to be much more at stake in the Bobbitt affair than the fate of the defendant. Like the Clarence Thomas hearings two years ago, when Anita Hill accused the Supreme Court nominee of sexual harassment, the Bobbitt case became an epic confrontation in the gender war, staged as a CNN daytime soap opera. Much of its appeal lay in sheer voyeurism, and in the bizarre details of the story—she threw it out the window. But the trial galvanized serious debate over the rights of battered women to strike back. And it became a defining moment in what seems to be a full-fledged male identity crisis.
Men are fretting about their manhood—both literally and figuratively. There was a time when men took it for granted. It was just there. Now, they are not so sure. And the thing about manhood is: without confidence, it’s nothing. “There is a genuine crisis in masculinity,” says Michael Kaufman, the Toronto-based author of Cracking the Armour: Power, Pain and the Lives of Men. “By challenging men’s power, women have
helped uncover the profound insecurity that lies beneath it.” The Bobbitt case has struck a chord, adds Kaufman, by reminding men “that this symbol of virility is an incredibly fragile part of the body. Our image of manhood is power and control, but under the surface, it’s insecurity and terror.”
For a while, men found it fashionable to accommodate feminism, at least in spirit. In some cases, they happily acquiesced, becoming respectful colleagues, nurturing fathers and equalopportunity lovers. But in the 1990s, as women continue to push for equality at the office and at home, men seem to be losing their patience. Yes, they still rule the working world. But it’s not as much fun. And sensitivity can be such a chore. No matter how sensitive they are, they complain, they are still men—tarred by the broad brush of gender guilt. And the new etiquette around flirting, dating and seduction turns out to be about as complicated as constitutional law. In such movies as Sleepless in Seattle, The Age of Innocence and The Remains of the Day, men are locked in romantic paralysis. On television, while an oversexed wife makes mincemeat of a pathetic husband on Married. . . With Children, new cop shows like NYPD Blue and Homicide portray detectives investigating each other’s vulnerability.
As men get in touch with their feelings, they are discovering that one of them is anger—at women. There is a rising backlash against feminism, against date-rape campaigns on campus and sexual harassment charges in the workplace. And now, there is Disclosure, a blockbuster novel by Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton, loosely based on a true story of a male executive who was sexually harassed by a female boss. In the world according to Crichton, women have gone too far: what’s a guy to do? As it turns out, some men will go to almost any lengths to fortify their manhood. Dr. Robert Stubbs, a Toronto plastic surgeon, has been deluged by requests for his new penis elongation procedure (page 41). Pioneering the operation in North America, Stubbs offers the male answer to Lorena Bobbitt— using a knife to make it longer.
The fable of John and Lorena has brought out extremes of pathos and farce in the gender war. Demagogues swooped down on the protagonists like vultures. Radio personality Howard Stern, self-appointed storm trooper in the backlash against feminism, recruited John Bobbitt, who joined the parade of burlesque attractions on Stern’s pay-per-view New Year’s Eve show. Post-feminist firebrand Camille Paglia claimed Lorena, calling her knife work “a revolutionary act” and “a wake-up call” that will “send a chill through every man in the world.”
Considering the overall carnage of domestic violence, of course, Bobbitt’s injury is just one freak casualty. Women still do most of the suffering. While John Bobbitt autographs Tshirts, anonymous women are harassed, raped, beaten and mutilated by men every day. But Bobbitt has become an emblem for the hapless state of North American masculinity. Even feminist Susan Faludi, the Los Angeles-based author of the 1991 best-seller Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, finds room for empathy. “You can say until you’re blue in the face that a million women have been mutilated for every John Bobbitt,” she told Maclean’s last week. “But for men, Bobbitt is a symbol of the victimization they’re feeling.”
Faludi, in fact, is writing her next book about the crisis in masculinity. “I used to roll my eyes when men would say they were victims,” she says, “but I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a heartfelt expression. What they need to figure out is: if they’re victims, then who are the victors? Because it’s not women.” Adds Faludi: “The Bobbitt case fits nicely into this symbolic drama that a lot of men are playing out in their houses—seeing women as this Amazonian army who have flung manhood to the wind.” The real threat, argues Faludi, is the changing economy, the lack of job security and the end of the Cold War. “If men feel
they’re the oppressed good guys, and they don’t have the evil empire, and they don’t even have Saddam Hussein, then women get cast in the evil role.”
Masculinity has been in and out of the shop for retooling for decades. After the Second World War, conquering heroes came home to North America and embraced the dream of becoming proud breadwinners. Father knew best. Then, the Playboy philosophy—40 years old last month—suggested that a world of sexual adventure lay beyond the white picket fence. The fantasy took quite a different form for the next generation, with the dawn of free love in the 1960s. But by the 1970s, feminists began to lay down some conditions—to demand respect, autonomy and relief from domestic drudgery. Ever since, men have been trying to redefine what it means to be male. Some extreme prototypes have emerged. They range from the supersensitive man, who does his best to keep his male ego swaddled in camomile tranquillity, to the Iron John type, who tries to resurrect masculine mythology in all its hairy-chested, drum-beating ancestral glory. But the most common response to the male identity crisis is simply confusion. “Guys just don’t know what to do any more,” says Kaufman. ‘We’re all collectively rewriting the rules, and change doesn’t come with an operating manual.”
In The Book of Guys, American novelist Garrison Keillor (Lake Wobegon Days) offers a more cynical view. In one telling passage, he writes: “Guys are in trouble these days. Years ago, manhood was an opportunity for achievement, and now it is a problem to be overcome. Plato, St. Francis, Michelangelo, Mozart, Leonardo da Vinci, Vince Lombardi, Van Gogh—you don’t find guys of that calibre today, and if there are any, they are not painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. They’re trying to be Mr. O.K. All-Rite, the man who can bake a cherry pie, go play basketball, come home, make melon balls and whip up a great soufflé, converse easily about intimate matters, participate in recreational weeping, laugh, hug, be vulnerable,
be passionate in a skilful way____A guy who
women consider Acceptable.”
In the past, North American men could look to the movies for role models. From Humphrey Bogart to John Wayne, there was always enough testosterone to go around. But the biggest action figures nowadays— Eastwood, Stallone, Schwarzenegger—feel compelled to spoof their own macho images, while men haunted by insecurity, doubt and regret are the new Hollywood heroes. A scan down the list of most likely Oscar nominees for best actor reveals a legion of sensitive men confounded by patriarchy:
• Tom Hanks (the leading contender) is the New Man of the year. In Sleepless in
Seattle, he is romantically paralysed, a widowed father who becomes the passive target for a woman who tracks him with radar love. Now in Philadelphia, as a gay lawyer dying of AIDS, he fights back after being fired by the cigar-smoking legal establishment.
• Anthony Hopkins personifies the tragedy of male repression, first as an emotionally challenged butler in The Remains of the Day, then as writer C. S. Lewis, who weeps away his rationalism in Shadowlands. Both men lose their fathers before really getting to know them.
• Liam Neeson sobs with contrition in Schindler’s List. As Oskar Schindler, the playboy industrialist who becomes a father figure to Polish Jews during the Holocaust, Neeson enacts a primal drama of male guilt.
• Daniel Day-Lewis plays a paralysed suitor in The Age of Innocence and butts heads
with British patriarchy as In the Name of the Fathe/s Gerry Conlon, an Irishman wrongly convicted of IRA bombings—Conlon’s story is set against the drama of him reconciling with his estranged father.
• Jeff Bridges plays out a mid-life crisis as a plane-crash survivor in Fearless. His character abdicates his duties as a husband and a parent while tuning into his inner child—and (here we go again) releasing buried feelings for his dead father.
• Robin Williams covers his manhood with a skirt in Mrs. Doubtfire. As a divorced father who masquerades as a nanny to gain access to his kids, he becomes supermom, putting his career-driven wife to shame.
• Kevin Costner shows his dark side in A Perfect World, as an outlaw scarred by child abuse who takes a young boy hostage and becomes a father to him.
• Harrison Ford plays an action hero in The Fugitive, but he is the ultimate man in jeopardy—running, hiding and quivering in a constant state of anxiety and fear.
And now, the man who wrote the biggest action movie of all time, last year’s dinosaur thriller Jurassic Park, has tapped into a primordial fear much closer to home. There are no Velociraptors in Michael Crichton’s new novel Disclosure, but his villain—a sexually voracious female avenger who harasses a male colleague—is just as tenacious. Warner Bros, paid Crichton $4 million for the screen rights even before Crichton had written the book. It already reads like a Hollywood movie, with a formula reminiscent of Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct, both thrillers about emasculating women who used sex as a lethal weapon.
But Disclosure also serves as a catalogue
of male complaints on other fronts. The main character, a computer executive named Tom Sanders, begins the worst day of his life by being late for work—he has to make the children breakfast while his wife gets dressed. Arriving at the office, he learns that an unqualified woman has won the promotion that he had assumed was his. “Pale males eat it again,” mutters one of his coworkers. The new boss calls Sanders into her office and tries to seduce him. He resists, half-heartedly, then finally tears himself away—but not before succumbing to a little oral sex. The next day, she accuses him of sexual harassment, then he accuses her, and the story escalates into a corporate conspiracy potboiler.
Disclosure is the literary equivalent of the Bobbitt trial: trashy, mesmerizing and perversely at odds with the real world. Penis-slashings, after all, have not reached epidemic proportions (although there have been other cases: two years ago in Brampton, Ont., a 48year-old woman cut off her husband’s penis and was acquitted on the grounds that she was a battered woman). In a similar vein, less than one in 10 sexual harassment charges are laid by men. But in Disclosure’s topsy-turvy world, no man seems safe.
Of course, there have been instances of women harassing men. Last spring, a Los Angeles middle manager, Sabino Gutierrez, won $1.3 million in a sexual harassment suit against Maria Martinez, the chief financial officer of a hot-tub manufacturer. Crichton, meanwhile, defends his role-reversed scenario by arguing that men and women behave much the same in positions of power. As women rise in the ranks, he says, they are as capable of harassment as men—a view shared by such feminists as Naomi Wolf. But despite Crichton’s claims of neutrality, what emerges from the book—and what will get magnified in Hollywood’s lens—is the image of an abused man fighting to defend his job, his self-respect and his family from the invasion of an oversexed, ambitious, castrating woman.
Like pop culture, pop sociology reinforces a siege mentality among North American men. Since the publication of Iron John (1990), Robert Bly’s clarion call for men to gird their loins, there has been an explosion of soul-searching books about embattled manhood. Current titles range from Myths of Masculinity to The End of Manhood: A Book for Men of Conscience, both by pro-feminist
men dreaming of a kinder, gentler gender. Other books, including Not Guilty: The Case in Defense of Men and The Myth of Male Power: Why Men Are the Disposable Sex, present a more indignant view, portraying men as victims of feminism run amok. Some authors have tried to explore the anxieties and urges of men in less judgmental terms. In Man Overboard: True Adventures with North American Men, Canadian writer Ian Brown
takes an eye-opening, personal odyssey through deepest, darkest manhood— meeting hunters and golfers, pornographers and plastic surgeons, stickhandlers and skirt chasers—while facing his own terror of imminent fatherhood.
Unlike feminism, a movement based on demands for political and economic equality, the men’s movement remains largely introspective—and incoherent. The blind rage against feminism is equally unfocused, and can have horrifying consequences. Marc Lépine’s massacre of 14 female students at Montreal’s Ecole polytechnique in 1989 was a psychotic act. But he invoked a hatred of feminists and a paranoia of women taking men’s jobs. Last fall at Vancouver Com-munity College, a student pointed a finger and made machine-gun noises during a vigil commemorating the massacre; after women expressed outrage, the university ordered him to take counselling sessions.
Across the country, universities have become battlegrounds for gender politics. Last November, the University of New Brunswick suspended a mathematics professor, Matin Yaqzan, who wrote in the student paper that date rape can be a necessary outlet for young men unable to restrain their sexual urges. And, alarmed by the increase in sexual harassment charges on campuses, the Fraser Institute, a conservative thinktank based in Vancouver, published a report earlier this month warning that radical feminism is endangering academic freedom.
Somehow, the Bobbitt case brings the whole debate back to basics, back to the kitchen and the bedroom—the trenches of the gender war. In a sense, by cutting off a penis and tossing it into a field, Lorena Bobbitt has performed a kind of modern fertility rite. Ancient civilizations sacrificed human body parts and buried them to make things grow and appease the gods. The Bobbitt penis has fertilized an extraordinary public obsession. It has become a media fetish. As TV anchors pronounced the word “penis” over and over, the trial turned into a coming-out ritual for the male member—and a cautionary tale for unreformed manhood. But a fable only goes so far. In the real world, when male identity gets lost, it cannot be found in a field and sewn back on. □