Thursday, September 30, 2010

The New Manliness: Machismo through Dirty Diapers and Gardening?

Just this week, I read an article in Newsweek that asked a very interesting question: “what’s the matter with men?”  For several years, the media has declared that men are “in decline.”  In 2000 Christina Hoff Sommers pronounced that there is a “war against boys,” claiming that the American education system puts down boys.  This summer, The Atlantic’s Hanna Rosin bluntly stated that “The End of Men” is here.
The articles are a reaction to a slate of new research that shows men slipping on a variety of societal measures.  This year was the first time in U.S. history where women have become the majority of the workforce.  For every two men who get a college degree, there are three women who receive diplomas.  In big cities, single, young, childless women earn 8% more than men on average.  Those trends have been exacerbated by the Great Recession, which gutted male-dominated industries like construction and manufacturing.  The statistical areas where men clearly lead women—“alcoholism, suicide, homelessness, violence, criminality”—paint a grim picture of the modern man (Newsweek).   Hanna Rosin poses the profound question, “What if modern, postindustrial society is simply better suited to women?”
So what’s a guy to do?  Here I would like to present a few suggestions.  Of course, I am no sociologist, anthropologist, or minister—I have no particular qualifications to diagnose this malady.  And to be honest, no one has ever mistaken me for a lumberjack, an oil rigger, or a cowboy.   The only thing I can offer is a few reflections from my own recent life experience. I’ve discovered a resurgence of masculinity through two traditionally feminine arts: parenting and gardening. 
This month my wife and I had our first child, a son.  Like all new parents, our first month has been a flurry of dirty diapers, sleepless nights, endless feedings, and shattered schedules.  My life as I knew it four weeks ago has been flipped upside down, macerated, and then steamrolled by our own 8 pound wrecking ball.  But in the midst of this chaos, I’ve felt a curious resurgence of masculinity.  This was initially puzzling to me.  After all, my last month has been a litany of domestic chores: wiping bottoms, cooking meals, washing clothes, and generally keeping up the house.  As my wife recovers from a complicated delivery, my role at home has exploded, and I look a heck of a lot more like Mr. Mom than Mr. T.  If anything, I expected this new role to feel more feminine, a softer version of my former self.  Instead, I feel more like a dude than I’ve felt in years.  Why? 
At its heart, masculinity is really about utility, potency, resourcefulness, and controlled physicality.  In caring for my child, doing my job, and taking care of the home, I feel a renewed sense of vigor and usefulness that I have not felt before.  Earlier this week, I stood at the stove making a roux for a gumbo with one arm, and holding my infant with the other.  All the time I was completely aware that I had become a feminine stereotype.  Yet my son slept comfortably, and my gumbo was a total success.  Instead of feeling girly, I felt competent, creative, and handy. 

This revelation has made me somewhat skeptical of the resurgence of retro-manliness.  Advertising and entertainment has exploited modern man’s angst by returning to dusty old narratives of masculinity—the rugged outdoorsman (Marlboro Man), the urban gangster (hip hop music), the retro corporate guy (Don Draper)—but these images miss the point.  “The truth is, it’s not how men style themselves that will make them whole again—it’s what they do with their days,” says Newsweek writers Romano and Dokoupil. 
The goal of feminism was to gain equality for women by pushing them into roles traditionally reserved for men.  This has largely been successful.   And for the most part, women have not had to abandon femininity.  Why shouldn’t the same be true with men?  The path to the new manliness is not to retreat to the woods or hide inside one’s tool shed; instead, we should start by engaging in the home.  We need a definition of macho that includes home-making as well as home improvement projects.  This shouldn’t be too hard, as the expectation for fathers is still sadly low.  Just last week, my father-in-law came to town to visit the baby and remarked, “you’re a great dad” simply because I held the baby for about an hour.  Would he have come to the same conclusion if my wife were holding him at that moment?  I doubt it.  When it comes to the home, there’s much room for men to grow.
WWII poster promoting manly gardening. 
From the National Agricultural Library.
Like parenting, gardening is the other odd place I always feel like a dude.   Of course, this too is at odds with the traditional image.  Yard work (particularly anything involving power tools) was for men, while ornamental gardening typically is left to women.  My friend from college jokingly calls me a “pansy-ass flower guy” whenever he refers to my profession.  Yet my experience runs entirely counter to this stereotype.  Gardening to me is the most creative, physically engaging, and potent activities I know.  Breaking the ground, creating spaces, working outside . . . these activities are that perfect combination of physical and mental challenge. 
In essence, the point of rediscovering masculinity (or femininity for that matter) is not just about gender identity; it is an attempt to rediscover our humanity in a postmodern age.  For me, the antidote to the hundreds of hours a month I spend in a cubicle staring at a computer screen is engaging in my family or my garden.  These are the activities that make me feel not only masculine, but human.  My theologian friend reminds me that the etymology of the word “human” is the same as the word for “humus” or dirt.  We are meant to be in relationship with each other; we are meant to be in relationship with the earth.


  1. Thomas,

    Thanks for a fascinating post and congratulations on the birth of your son. My oldest son, now 24, has called me "garden boy" for many years. I also got a similar reaction to my gardening from a good friend from professional school.

    There seems to be less rigid gender roles in England. Monty Don's last book, The Ivington Diaries, has a chapter called Sex where he explores gender roles in the garden which I found very interesting. He says, "Neither pure femininity or masculinity make good gardens or gardeners.You need a balance of both. The truth is that they are usually mingled within all of us to a greater or lesser degree, But I think it no accident that men who are most comfortable with femininity and woman with their masculinity tend to make better gardeners than those who are locked into gender roles." I think that is probably very true. I am thinking of doing a post in the future exploring what makes a garden masculine or feminine.

    Good luck balancing diapers and your garden spade in the next few years!

  2. Thanks for a really thoughtful post, Thomas, and congratulations to you and your wife! I've been thinking about humans as three-dimensional beings this past summer, and have come to the conclusion that turning off the screens (computer, TV, phone) and turning toward the real world -- engaging with it with all our senses, whether we are indoors or out, brings us back to our humanity. It's not possible (is it?) to abandon our contemporary electronic tools, but being aware of our need to live in our bodies and in our full environment makes it easier, at least for me, to balance the digital and the analog worlds.

  3. Wasn't gardening largely a man's profession until the end of the 19th century? Don't sweat jerk college guy.

  4. Thomas, I just love you! Congratulations on this wonderful article and your new little one too.

  5. Congratulations on becoming a father. My children, two daughters now in their thirties, are my greatest accomplishment in life. My wish for you is that your offspring make you just as proud as I feel.

    Your post, well crafted, all encompassing yet very precise, leaves so little to be added to the dialogue that I will focus on two aspects only.

    I suspect that Caucasian men of Northern European heritage are probably the only male group in the known world whose familiarity with domestic matters such as cooking and infant care is limited to the past 40 years. Based solely on my observations of the behavior of men from other cultures,it appears to me that men in other parts of the world have been comfortable in the kitchen and the nursery for centuries.

    Also, young boys in North American schools might feel more comfortable in their own skins, and perhaps less threatened by feminist behavior, if there were more male teachers to act as role models in their lives. For most of their waking hours young men are in the company of women who don't understand what it means to be a boy.

  6. Congrats on your baby boy!

    My husband is a very involved papa...both to our human child and our plant children. He also cooks. :)

    My greatest wish is that my son can pursue whatever interests him...whether it's being a car mechanic, poet, chef, biologist or nurse...without feeling he's not "manly" enough.

  7. Thomas, Congratulations on your entry into parenthood! My research on Blotanical has led me into a larger project on the ways that gardens and gardening was gendered. I had just spent the afternoon reading some sociological work on gardens as an expression of class and gender identities and was looking for a little break before I turned to writing some letters of recommendation, so I turned to your blog and found this post on similar issues. Thanks for raising so many interesting points.

    As a long-time feminist and a sociologist teaching Women's Studies, I would note that feminism has almost always been more complicated than trying to gain equality for women by opening up traditionally male roles to them. That project is often in tension with another goal of feminism -- increasing the value attached to all those parts of life that have traditionally been assigned to women and devalued. Perhaps we're now in a period where there are similar tensions for men -- between valuing the masculine things that men have always been valued for and claiming some of the newly valued turf that has been traditionally assigned to women.

  8. Big congrats on your son!
    I like the way you frame this sociological transition as an opportunity. Let's hope that men get more and more respect and appreciation for playing a prominent role in their children's lives from the very beginning. As we continue to expect society to embrace women in traditionally male roles, we must be willing to open things up for men as well.

  9. Hi Thomas,

    Great and thoughtful post. Congrats on baby! Your life will stay turned upside down one way or another for, well, the rest of your life. Hope your wife is doing well.

    It sounds like you have found good balance. My brother has done all the cooking in his family for years: when he goes on an annual hunting party up to a cabin in the north woods, he cooks great meals and reads while the other guys shiver and mostly fail to shoot the wily deer. He considers he has the best of it. My son plays hockey and sings opera.

    A polemical rant regarding women replacing men in the workplace: I read that Hanna Rosen article and my first reaction was that many women might be the new, docile, easily exploited workforce, “married” to the employer that sets the schedule and doles out barely enough to live on. A responsible single woman with children will do almost anything and put up with a lot to support those children. I’m not at all saying women should not work, but that one should look to deeper reasons why one societal group becomes the preferred employee pool, especially for low wage jobs.

    It’s so unfortunate that so many men get marginalized, blamed, fed these retro masculine images and pacified with video games. I see aspects of this all the time at the community college where I teach. No one wins.

  10. Congratulations on the birth of your son. And, thank you for yet another wonderful post.

    I wish we could all move past the strange construct of man as hunter-provider, and woman as nurturer.

    Hell, I wish we could move past all the stupid girls versus boys stuff, and just let people be people.

  11. Congratulations on your new baby and best wishes to you and your wife.

    Thank you for this post. I am going to get my sons to read it..ages 16 to 25. One of them has already discovered the joy of helping in the home and gardening and growing vegetables since I decided to turn my typical barren backyard into a fruit and vegie wilderness.

    I look forward to reading your archives. Thank you for sharing.

  12. what a thoughtful post! i think being in the garden, working in the garden, discovering how we relate with outdoor spaces, helps us tune in with nature, and discover both our feminine and masculine qualities--ie, our humanity!


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