The return of manliness?

I’ve been thinking a lot about manliness and when I was playing around with Google I ended up finding an amazing article by Peggy Noonan, the conservative columnist about ‘manliness’. Read it at http://www.menstuff.org/issues/byissue/manliness.html, because the summary that follows can’t give the full effect. Manliness, thinks Noonan, is back after September 11th 2001: the real heroes were workers who had physical strength, courage and the willingness to use these for the good of others. She then goes on to extol a man in Australia who punched a shark who was attacking his wife:

He did not do brilliant commentary on the shark, he did not share his sensitive feelings about the shark, he did not make wry observations about the shark, he punched the shark in the head.

Because this is Peggy Noonan’s real point: intellectuals and feminists destroyed manliness, and also gentlemanliness (because ‘manly men are almost by definition gentlemen’). Peggy Noonan in the 1970s once told a man on a plane she didn’t need his help putting her heavy luggage in a locker. She comments:

I bet he became an intellectual, or a writer, and not a good man like a fireman or a businessman who says “Let’s roll”

She then goes on to describe how ‘feminists…peaceniks, intellectuals’ destroyed John Wayne, ‘a hero, and a symbol of American manliness’. But now: ‘I think he’s…back…I think he’s in Afghanistan now, saying with his slow swagger and simmering silence: “Yer in a whole lotta trouble now, Osama boy.”’

It’s difficult to know where to start discussing this edifice of tosh, particularly since it starts with some fairly unexceptional stuff. Yes, I admire firemen and men who use their strength to help others; yes, a man who punches a shark to protect his wife is impressive. But the brutal truth about today’s world is there isn’t often much need for a shark-puncher. Not that I wouldn’t be happy to be married to one: but given a choice between a shark-puncher and a man who was willing to do the washing-up, I’d pick the second and just steer clear of swimming in Australia. (Of course, maybe manly men do the washing-up too, but it somehow doesn’t fit with Peggy Noonan’s image).

The other thing is, that before I married a shark-puncher I’d want to make sure that he was just a shark-puncher. The problem is that some men who’d punch a shark are also the sort of men who’d think that in a confrontation with another man, the thing to do is not negotiate, but to use your fists. And even worse, there are probably some shark-punchers who feel that punching is also the way to deal with a confrontation with a woman. I’m pretty sceptical that manly men are necessarily gentlemanly. Armies, for example, are in theory chock a block with manly men: soldiers, however, are not normally noted for their gentlemanly conduct.

Again, it’s not that I don’t appreciate gentlemanly conduct. But if you give me a choice between an early twentieth century society where I would get offered a seat on a train, but I had to give up my job when I got married or today, I know what I’d pick. Having doors opened for you is just not enough compensation for earning 25% less for the same job. I do worry about those manly, gentlemanly men as well: one brash young feminist ungratefully rejects your help and you go off to be an intellectual. That doesn’t suggest much courage in your convictions, in fact it seems rather…un-manly.

Peggy Noonan’s problem, finally, is that she wants to live in a fantasy world of binaries: manly/intellectual, John Wayne/Woody Allen, gentlemanly firemen/selfish academics. The fact that it is a fantasy is shown most clearly by her focus on John Wayne. I want to ask one question: who was more manly: John Wayne or Robert Runcie (a recent archbishop of Canterbury)? I’m sure Runcie would have come across to Peggy Noonan as the exemplar of the weak intellectual. He preached about penitence and reconciliation at the service of thanksgiving after the Falklands war, and got attacked by the press for this. There were constant complaints about him being theologically a wishy-washy liberal. How could he possibly be seen as a real man, next to John Wayne?

Except…John Wayne spent World War II in Hollywood, though of an age to be drafted, while Robert Runcie won the Military Cross for his bravery in a tank regiment. If Peggy Noonan can’t tell the difference between a chickenhawk and a manly man, I don’t think she can really say much of any use about manliness.

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