Are You Man Enough? When Virile Was a Compliment

The first two pregnancies, my wife and I opted not to find out the baby’s […]

David Zahl / 5.25.16


The first two pregnancies, my wife and I opted not to find out the baby’s sex. There weren’t any strong convictions behind the decision–more a sense of enjoying the anticipation. On both occasions we left the delivery room with a healthy baby boy in tow, grateful as could possibly be.

The third time around, however, as much as we cherish those two little rascals, we were hoping for a change-up. We wanted a girl, pure and simple, and so we went about collecting every theory we could find that promised to ensure such an outcome, no matter how ridiculous. That was back in the Fall, and now we’re staring down an August due date. To see us through the hot summer, when the doctor asked mid-ultrasound if we’d like to find out the sex, we nodded our heads, yes please, why not.

Alas, another “protrusion”. My three sons, here we come… Too bad we don’t live in China.

A few weeks before that appointment, a friend forwarded me an article from NPR’s On Being blog by Courtney E. Martin, “The Limitless Potential of Men to Transform Manhood”. I know, the title is a bit much; I almost didn’t click. But then I did and the opening observation dug its hooks in:

300px-Coach_Eric_Taylor_FNL_S4In this part of the world, particularly among middle- and upper-middle-class fathers-to-be, I’ve noticed a fascinating trend: they seem to disproportionately desire having a girl instead of a boy.

I’m not the United Nations Population Fund. I’m an informal, untrained pollster of one, but I also happen to be an acute observer of social reality. And I’ve got a hunch: I think that young, upwardly mobile men in this country have a tremendous amount of ambivalence about masculinity itself, and one place that this largely unspoken ambivalence is showing up is in their preference for female children.

She goes on to quote a number of men who basically say as much. To them, today’s masculine norms (little-l laws) are so impoverished, the baggage so overwhelming, as to be despair-inducing. In some cases, they’d rather bail on having children altogether than risk guiding a new generation through ‘what it means to be a man’, which they see as confusing at best, irredeemable at worst.

When these guys think about having a girl, on the other hand, the vista looks much more promising or at least less defeating (no doubt in part because they’re less familiar with the attendant pressures). That is, girls today appear to occupy a space of rapidly expanding possibilities and barriers to be broken, social norms moving in an ostensibly more exciting direction–especially in comparison to boys. Martin quotes her husband on the subject:

“I haven’t felt like I fit into a lot of the social norms around masculinity, in terms of the kinds of things that are held up as important to men — certain types of sports, the kind of stoic and general discomfort with being vulnerable with other people, especially with other men. Overcoming those things feels really impossible. I’m much more interested in the challenge of helping a girl or young woman transcend sexist conditions. It feels more possible and more important, in some ways.”

In other words, he sees purpose for girls in way that he doesn’t (really) for boys. The other fathers she spoke with echo this sentiment. Helping a daughter navigate womanhood sounds worthwhile and even exhilarating. Doing the same for a son sounds like a bummer. Or, one can conceive of talking to a daughter about things that are both distinctly female and distinctly positive. That conversation feels a lot more daunting and heavily qualified on the other side of the gender equation, even for those who have sources like scripture to draw on for assistance/authority. (To those who’d object to the conversation transpiring in the first place–who’d aim to deconstruct the question and go ‘post-gender’–believe me I get it, but think for a moment about how that’d go over with a kindergartner, i.e. it wouldn’t.)

I empathize with these guys’ reluctance even if I don’t share it. I was fortunate enough to have a fairly healthy model for non-traditional, emotion-friendly masculinity (happy birthday, Dad!), something for which I only grow more grateful with each passing year. No, I wanted our third baby to be a girl simply because every father I know who has a daughter tells me it’s super special, and yes, quite different from having a kid of the same sex. I wanted that experience for myself, and I wanted that experience for my wife–and my boys too.

Still, the widespread ambivalence among my peers is more than a little interesting, not to mention sad. We’ve attempted to tackle the masculinity conundrum in a myriad of ways over the past couple of years, and certainly there is no single factor that accounts for “man-cession”. Rightly or wrongly, there’s a rainbow of fruit flavors here, from the economic (automatization) and technological (disembodiment) to the sexual (pornography) and emotional (vulnerability aversion) to the social (lack of initiation rites), political (feminism) and pedagogical (ADHD overdiagnoses, etc), to name just a few.

But most of those are external challenges to conventional ideas of ‘maleness’. What about the internal ones? That is, the ones that have to do with how men conceive of themselves?

These were the subject of Joshua Rothman’s somewhat recent column for The New Yorker, “When Men Wanted to Be Virile”, which took as its starting off point the English language release of The History of Virility, a French scholarly anthology edited by Alain Corbin, Jean-Jacques Courtine, and George Vigarello. I haven’t read the book myself, but if Rothman is to be trusted (and he is!), it sounds like a lengthy exposition of the history of male-related little-l law. Rothman wisely issues the following disclaimer upfront:

IMG_1152There’s no denying that “virility” is, nowadays, a strange and icky word, redolent of romance novels, nineteenth-century boarding schools, militarism, and misogyny. For most of history, though—as the book’s editors, Alain Corbin, Jean-Jacques Courtine, and George Vigarello, point out—it was normal to praise exemplary men as “virile.” In fact, only in the past century has the word “virility” been displaced by the more anodyne “masculinity” and “manliness.”…

To possess Roman virility, the editors write, was to radiate not just sexual power but “virtue, accomplishment.” The virile man wasn’t just sexually “assertive,” “powerfully built,” and “procreative,” but also intellectually and emotionally “levelheaded, vigorous yet deliberate, courageous yet restrained”… the defining quality of virilitas was self-control. Virilitas was an ethic of moderation, in which strong or “vigorous” powers were kept deliberately reined in, in the manner of a standing army. If a man became too aggressive, too emotional, or too brawny—too manly—his virilitas could be lost. For this reason, being a ladies’ man could compromise one’s virility.

From our modern point of view, the strangest aspect of virilitas was that it was contrasted with manliness. Manliness and virility were separate, and even opposed, ways of being. Compared to virilitas, mere or “basic” manliness was a little contemptible. It was undisciplined and, worse, unearned, since, while men are born masculine, they must achieve virility through competition and struggle. Though this distinction now goes unspoken, it can still feel natural to us: watching the film “Gladiator,” for example, we readily recognize that Russell Crowe’s quiet, temperate, and deadly Maximus represents the virile ideal, whereas Joaquin Phoenix’s Emperor Commodus is too undisciplined to have true virilitas. Commodus is strong, sexy, intelligent, and undeniably masculine—and yet his passions control him and lead him in idiosyncratic and undesirable directions. He’s a familiar figure: a man who represents the dangers of manliness without virility.

Virility, in short, unfolded within a tortured moral universe. There’s a sense in which, in the ancient world, manliness was the virile man’s original sin. A man might be taught to be virile; he might establish his virility through “accumulated proofs” (sexual power, career success, a tempered disposition, a honed intellect); and yet virility, the editors write, remained “an especially harsh tradition” in which “perfections tend[ed] always to be threatened.” There was something perverse about the cult of virility. Even as virile men were exalted, it was assumed that each had a fatal flaw—a sexual, physical, or temperamental weakness—which observers knew would be uncovered. Virility wasn’t just a quality or a character trait. It was a drama.

It’s a bit unsettling to realize how much our ideas about manliness owe to an ancient theory holding that all men, no matter how noble, will eventually reveal their perversities. And yet virility, oddly, contains an element of misandry.

In other words, it’s a mixed bag. While former distinctions between masculinity and virility started from a lower anthropological default, they also glamourized male fallibility. Neither strength nor sin was evenly distributed across the sexes. Sounds a bit like this season of Game of Thrones, in reverse.

Rothman then brings the concepts into the present, and the relative lameness of what’s left of masculinity, post-virility, becomes abundantly clear. When growing a mustache or setting up speakers is the most excitingly masculine thing a guy can think of doing, no wonder we aren’t jonesing to raise sons:

ambition-pillsVirility only gets more contradictory and complicated with time and, reading through “A History of Virility,” one looks with mounting dread toward each new historical epoch… Essentially, virility got tangled up in Europe’s mounting ambivalence about the desirability of progress and rationality. Today, following in that tradition, men often equate technological fluency with manly vigor, even as they yearn to assert their authentic and natural virilitas. Setting up a kick-ass home-theatre system can make a man feel virile; so can growing a lumberjack beard. This eddy of masculine irrationality turns out to have its roots in the Age of Reason.

As the anthology’s editors see it, Europe reached peak virility in the nineteenth century. By then, the ideal of the virile man had become almost impossibly confusing. Men who could afford to spent as much time as possible in barracks-like spaces—“college, boarding school, seminary, the singing club cellar, the brothel, the guardroom, gun room, smoking room, various workshops, and cabarets and waiting rooms”—in an effort to maximize virility. At the same time, however, virility was felt as “a network of anxiety-producing injunctions, often contradictory, to which one must, in one way or another, give in.” In an essay on “the code of virility,” Alain Corbin provides a dispiritingly long list of the types of un-virile men:

He who hesitates to get into the assault on the day of the battle; he who chooses to get a replacement because he has drawn a bad number in the draft lottery; he who was unable to save his comrade from life-threatening danger; he who does not have what it takes to be a hero; he who shows no ambition; he who remains indifferent to excelling or to the prestige of a medal of honor; he who ignores emulation because he does not seek superiority; he who has trouble keeping his emotions under control; he whose speech and writing style lack confidence; he who refuses women’s advances; he who performs coitus without ardor; he who refuses group debauchery—all these men lack virility even though their masculinity would not be challenged.

This Kafkaesque proliferation of crimes against virility is one reason why men stopped talking about it.

Muscular JesusI think he’s right. If virility is/was essentially code for the masculine ideal, then no wonder men have grown increasingly demoralized and aimless the more impossible it has become to define, or even mention. That is to say, acceptable masculinity appears to have narrowed just as acceptable femininity has expanded (which, again, says nothing about the validity of those ideals–or their severity). The imperative hasn’t intensified so much as sharpened beyond comprehension.

Thus, the amplified apathy and anger we see among today’s young men may just be pronounced expressions of the flight and fight responses to the law. Appeasement as a strategy has largely been abandoned, which translates in many cases to simmering despondency. Of course, it doesn’t help that part and parcel of virility is that you don’t talk about it (T. Durden).

So how do we end this post (without invoking Donald Trump)? Are men essentially looking for a new law to keep? One that would lend them dignity and purpose without coming at a cost to women? Probably. Yet my sense is that such a law already exists; the problem is that we cannot abide it–or refrain from twisting it into a weapon.

Yes, a reformulated, friendlier version of virility would be nice. Something other than a roided-out vacuum to which our boys can aspire. Yet even if by some miracle we were able to come to consensus, that wouldn’t answer the question of purpose for men (and women) who’ve always had trouble wrestling their identities into acceptable form, whatever the epoch, and who nevertheless use those categories to ward off pain and helplessness.

Maybe when it comes to young parents, the question of shifting gender norms is a smokescreen for something else. Maybe that which truly allays trepidation about life is hope in death. Maybe fathers-to-be need the Father-who-is just as much as anyone does. Maybe when all else fails, the only trail worth blazing is the one to the cross.

Just be sure to pack some Adventure Time DVDs in case the boys get bored on the way.

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7 responses to “Are You Man Enough? When Virile Was a Compliment”

  1. Adam Morton says:

    First of all, Adventure Time He-Man is amazing.

    Second, great post. My son and I have a game (well, I do–he is as yet unaware of it) in which all time spent just the two of us is labelled, “Man Time.” In Man Time, everything we do is manly, axiomatically. So if he’s crying, it’s Very Manly crying. And if he’s drooling all over a purple foam letter ‘B’, it’s Very Manly drooling. The key to successful Man Time is total absence of aspiration.

  2. WMDRICHEY says:

    I think with three boys you have the potential to take over the world, yes? #threeboysherewecome?

  3. Paul Zahl says:

    Please, everyone, pick up Philip Wylie’s “The Disappearance” (1951) and read it.
    Cuts the Gordion Knot, and then re-seals it. Or rather, to link with Pope Francis,
    She Unties the Knot, then strengthens the things that remain. Highest possible recommendation!

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