Masculinity in Crisis: Unexamined Libidos and the Organizing Principle of Lady Bird

If it’s true what Stephen Marche writes in The Unmade Bed, that there’s nothing less […]

David Zahl / 11.29.17

If it’s true what Stephen Marche writes in The Unmade Bed, that there’s nothing less manly than talking about manliness, I’m not sure where that leaves me. After reading Marche’s latest column in The New York Times, “The Unexamined Brutality of the Male Libido,” I realized I’m averaging one essay per year on the subject:

It’s some of the stuff I’m most proud of, to be honest, partly because it’s so hard to write about. The headwind, real or perceived, is daunting. Alas, to avoid the subject would be dishonest, as it’s the world I live in, not just as a man myself, but as someone raising three sons and working with male undergraduates for nigh on eight years (and high schoolers for five years before that). Not writing about it would feel cowardly—which, as we all know, may be an even graver sin against the masculine ideal than talking about it in the first place. Ha ha… ha?

In the column in question Marche notes how one-sided the (public) conversation about gender has become—at least in his context:

In the spring, I published a male take on the fluctuations of gender and power in advanced economies; I was interviewed over 70 times by reporters from all over the world, but only three of them were men. Men just aren’t interested; they don’t know where to start. I’m working on a podcast on modern fatherhood, dealing with issues like pornography and sex after childbirth. Very often, when I interview men, it is the first time they have ever discussed intimate questions seriously with another man.

While religious communities are often an exception to this rule (men’s groups, retreats, Knights of Columbus, Wild at Heart, etc), his point stands. In fact, the jumping off point of one the essays above (on virility) was the growing consensus among my East Coast, city-dwelling, male peers that they’d prefer daughters over sons, mainly to avoid the tangle of modern-day masculinity. No doubt the current spate of headlines (Matt Lauer?! Garrison Keillor?!) will only amplify that sentiment. Of course, I’m sure these reports don’t exactly comfort parents of daughters.

Yet I don’t think the issue is that men are uninterested. Every one of the essays above has garnered significant traffic—and extraordinary private feedback from other guys—but comparably low “shares” on social media, hardly any of which have been initiated by men. Which tells me that men are very interested in the subject, but there’s reticence about admitting as much.

This has been confirmed in the numerous small groups of undergraduate men with whom I meet each week. These guys are eager to talk about masculinity and gender politics–just not in public, and certainly not with women present. Not (solely) because the conversation feels circumscribed, or because there are so many potential landmines (and so little generosity), but because they don’t think their female classmates are all that interested in what they might have to say. Rightly or wrongly, the girls have given them the impression that they’ve heard enough from men on this score—or that men, by virtue of not being women, can’t really understand or contribute to the discussion. If you’ve ever checked the gender of an article (on gender)’s byline before reading it, well, you may be complicit too. I know I am. While there may indeed be something to those assumptions, the silencing will only deepen the faultlines.

Thus, as Marche observes:

Men deal with their nature alone, and apart. Ignorance and misprision are the norms… Which is how we wind up where we are today: having a public conversation about male sexual misbehavior, while barely touching on the nature of men and sex. The (very few) prominent men who are speaking up now basically just insist that men need to be better feminists—as if the past few weeks have not amply demonstrated that the ideologies of men are irrelevant.

Did you catch that last bit? It’s important. We won’t be able to have a meaningful conversation about masculinity, in particular the male libido, until we move it out of the realm of ideology/morality and into one of agency. This is what renowned atheist Alain de Botton was trying to get across a couple of years ago, but no one listened:

Only religions still take sex very seriously, in the sense of appreciating the power of sex to turn us away from our sincerely-held priorities. Only religions see sex as potentially dangerous and something we need to be guarded against…, that sexual images can indeed overwhelm our higher rational faculties with depressing ease…

I’ll let the ladies speak for themselves, but I don’t know a single man who doesn’t identify with that last statement. If you want to breathe life into Romans 7, simply ask men about their sex lives (or lack thereof).

You could say that the problem with male sexual misbehavior is not (primarily) one of insufficient education or even empathy. Many of these guys have sisters and daughters and wives and presumably all have mothers. Where the rubber meets the road is in the increasingly uncomfortable reality that “what any given man might say about gender politics and how he treats women are separate and unrelated phenomena.” I wish this weren’t the case, but sadly I think it is, and not just when it comes to sex. We are not reasonable creatures making rational choices.

For example, I don’t believe Joss Whedon was being disingenuous in his long-standing support of women and gender parity. But neither was he 100% in control of himself. Both of those things can be true. Like all of us, he could not live up to his most sincerely-held priorities, and it is no coincidence that the venue of his failure was the bedroom. That is where most of our double lives are lived, after all.

And yet—and this is crucial—Marche continues, “acknowledging the brutality of male libido is not, of course, some kind of excuse.” The fact of our compulsion does not exonerate it. Quite the opposite. Indeed, implicit in a Christian view of the world is that just because something is beyond your control does not mean you aren’t culpable.

To acknowledge the brutality of the male libido is simply to tell the truth—and not necessarily in a brutal way. I think it was Camille Paglia who commented a few years ago that men “avoid goring certain sacred cows by ‘never telling the truth to women’ about sex,” and clearly we’re seeing that dynamic play out on the national stage at the moment. A lot of hiding, and a lot of posturing, and a lot of darkness, which does not a happy house make.

In fact, without denigrating the fruit of the #metoo campaign one iota, Marche goes on to express trepidation about how men might already be co-opting it for their own protection:

Women are calling for their pain to be recognized. Many men are quite willing to offer this recognition; it means they don’t have to talk about who they are, which means they don’t have to think about what they are. Much easier to retreat, into ever more shocked and prurient silence, or into the sort of reflection that seems less intended as honesty, and more aimed to please.

Sex is an impediment to any idealism, which is why the post-Weinstein era will be an era of gender pessimism. What if there is no possible reconciliation between the bright clean ideals of gender equality and the mechanisms of human desire? Meanwhile, sexual morality, so long resisted by liberals, has returned with a vengeance, albeit under progressive terms. The sensation of righteousness, which social media doles out in ever-diminishing dopamine hits, drives the discussion, but also limits it. Unable to find justice, or even to imagine it, we are returning to shame as our primary social form of sexual control.

Agree with him or not, if the comments on the article are to be trusted, he hit a (massive) nerve.

Which brings me to Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, a terrific (and let’s-face-it terrifically timed) film on pretty much every level, dripping with sympathy, humor, honesty, and artistry. While the mother-daughter relationship sits at the forefront, it wouldn’t be fair to characterize the film as being about gender. It’s a coming-of-age story, and as such, examines the teenage Lady Bird’s many relationships with men as well as women. You have her deeply gracious, depressed father; her angry, co-dependent brother; her conflicted first boyfriend Danny; and his successor, the archetypally (and hilariously) pretentious Kyle. It’s a confused group of guys, but one which I recognized, Mancession or no.[1]

Still, a big part of what makes the film sing (pun intended) is the central relationship between mother and daughter, which works partly by virtue of its feminine distinctiveness. When Gerwig went on NPR last week to discuss the film with Terry Gross, the subject came up :

GROSS: You said that you’re interested in how women fight. Do you think women fight differently than men when it comes to an argument?

GERWIG: I do. I—well, you know, I never really thought about it as being different until I had the script for the film, and I was going around and I was talking to different financiers about putting money into the film and making it. And most of those people are men, and if they were raised with sisters or if they had daughters, they knew what it was.

They said, oh, yes, that’s my mother and my sister; that’s my wife and my daughter. But if they didn’t, they had no idea that that was how women fought and how they loved, too. I think it was kind of like, they were getting to look into a world that they didn’t know existed.

Gerwig’s answer is both diplomatic and smart. Yet it’s telling that the question even needs to be asked, as if the mere acknowledgment of a difference in communication styles implies a value judgment. Certainly the film itself is a powerful testament to the contrary. It rings true because it’s not didactic or ideological (i.e. structuralistically orthodox) about men and women, fathers and mothers, daughters and sons. This is part of what makes the characters so real and dynamic and therefore so sympathetic. Meaning, the experience of watching Lady Bird reminded me of how much I love women—actual women—not because of how much they’re like men (or me!), but because of the many ways they’re not.

I guess what I’m suggesting–and it may be naive–is that difference doesn’t automatically connote a hierarchy one way or the other: as the film shows so well, some of the ways these women communicate draws them closer to one another, some the opposite. No one is untouched by toxicity.

Their interview reminded me of another passage from The Unmade Bed, a controversial one, where Marche recalls visiting a female friend who teaches sociology at a university in Ontario:

“We were watching our kids on the playground–my son wrestling in the grass with some boy he’d run into, her daughter sitting in a circle of girls quietly decorating a sandcastle with pinecones. We started chatting about how stark the differences between boys and girls can be, and how unexpected. It’s biological, she said, it has to be–a comment I found funny from a sociologist. You say that to your colleagues? I asked. I don’t, she said, smiling. At home it’s biological. At the university it’s all structure.”

It’s a conversation I’ve had innumerable times myself, with parents of both sexes and all political persuasions, often hushed for fear that we’d be overheard. Indeed, it is one of modern child-rearing’s many inconvenient truths: have a child of your own and watch your theories about gender crumble. But that’s sort of the beauty of it. You’ll seldom see a more awkward—or loving—sight than a mother who’s done everything in her power to shield her daughter from conventional gender roles, giving in to that daughter’s urging and going ‘full-princess’ at Halloween.

The fear is understandable, though. If history tells us anything, it’s that overdoing it on gender differences isn’t just vulgar but reckless. We assign values to those differences and use them against each other (“weaponizing” is how the kids put it these days). We reduce people to categories and ignore the person themselves, each one of whom is “fearfully and wonderfully made.” And there’s no end to it. As one of my male role models once wrote:

No presentation of symptoms of identity one-upsmanship will ever “win” the war between the sexes. Each person will only “put down” the other. Only God has the will and power to put down “the powerful from their thrones, and [lift] up the lowly” (Luke 1:52). Grace demolishes self-righteousness and increases, past the Richter scale, the level of compassion required for love to exist, thrive, and continue.

Grace extends beyond the locus of the manageable, in other words, taking full account of our self-destruction, libidinal or otherwise. The same divine economy which holds people accountable for sin outside their control also suffers and dies to forgive it. Advent reminds us that the light of the law, necessary as it may be, is only the precursor to the light of love.

So I wonder whether glossing over gender difference, or making it taboo, or dismissing it whole-hog as socialized, promotes a different kind of judgment. That is, first we underplay the chasm between Mars and Venus; next we presume to understand one another fully, hiding everything about ourselves that doesn’t accord with what we need to be true. Finally, our bafflement increases to the point of contempt when the other continues to act like, well, the other. Because it’s hard to love someone if you’re continually frustrated they’re not more like you. The law exposes but it also kills.

Again, I don’t have any solution to share, at least not along gender lines. I sincerely hope we do better, but I doubt we’ll get it ‘right’ any time soon. There’s only one hint of hope on offer today, and it’s thankfully unisex, the one Gerwig mentions later in the interview, when she explains why she gave her protagonist (Lady Bird) the birth-name Christine:

I always liked the name Christine, too, because it’s a religious name. It’s Christ—it’s the female version of Christ. And I spent a lot of time thinking about saints—lives of saints… I was always interested in who they were as people and that they both were these people who were divinely inspired, but they were also also kind of just annoying teenagers.

Like the story of St. Ignatius, who started the Jesuits, he was a military man. He wanted to be a great soldier and a hero. And he was very ambitious—but he hurt his leg. While he was recuperating, he was reading the lives of the saints. And he had this kind of teenage ambition moment of… ‘I could do that.’ I can do that better than those saints. I could be the best saint there ever was.

And he set out in almost this childish way to do it. And the moral of it, in a way, is that God can use whatever you have even if it looks unpromising. Even if you’re just kind of an arrogant teenager, that can be something that’s transformed into something holy. So I think giving her a name like Christine it, to me, it kind of drew that connection. It’s not something I need the audience to know while they’re watching it. But I think, for me, it becomes an organizing principle.

I think I may take it as my organizing principle too. By God’s grace, that is.

[1] Needless to say, I deeply appreciated the affection for Catholic school (and religion period!) that Gerwig wove throughout, especially the wise and winning clergy represented, to say nothing of the closing Mass.