Thursday, February 19, 2009

Crisis of Masculinity Blogging: I Wish It Were 1882 Edition

Certainly one of the most fascinating issues with masculinity worriers is their obsession with the past. Usually this manifests itself in one of a couple of periods. The Progressive Era is a favorite, with poser masculinity worriers idealizing poser masculinity worriers of the past like Theodore Roosevelt. The 1950s Rat Pack era of Old Hollywood and Old Vegas is another favored time--Hefner, Sinatra, Wayne, cigars, and the like. And then there's the super retrograde types who wish it were medieval olde-timey days where you could rape any wench who walked your way, probably in a haystack or something. Sometimes though, masculinity worriers who are really trying to think through these things go to more obscure ideas of manhood. Such is The Art of Manliness who, while they are typically obsessed with the Progressives and the 50s, also have a weird thing with ideas of the Gilded Age.

Gilded Age masculinity was based largely on Victorian Era moderation, upright living, and hard work. All of this would lead to financial success, ultimately the definer of middle class masculinity. This is classic Horatio Alger pull yourself up by your bootstraps thought. Worthy men achieved because they took the temperance pledge and were good role models. That in reality they were visiting prostitutes in red-light districts, eating prodigious amounts of food, gambling, and drinking on the side was brushed under the rug.

But I can see how certain masculinity worriers would look to this period as a model. It reinforces ideas about individual economic success without government assistance in ways that many white men find very appealing. It is a rejection of our supposed sex-crazed culture, even if, as Foucault shows so vividly, the Victorians were at least as obsessed about sex as we are. It eschews drugs and alcohol and values being a good father. Probably the most prominent modern-day masculinity worriers who embraced Gilded Age ideals were the Promise Keepers, who combined evangelical Christianity with 19th century ideas of manhood in a late 20th century context.

So the Art of Manliness is warning good men to avoid "over-stimulation," which sounds like it is taken right out of a 1890 book on the evils of meat and masturbation. While the advice given on the site often sounds incredibly innocuous (increase your attention span! don't eat ice cream too much!), it's really very much about self-denial and repression of instincts, both sexual (note: the next post in this series will take on this link directly) and otherwise. At the end, if men are repressing their instincts, it follows that women must as well, and return to Victorian norms of femininity, which these men think they would like very much.