The State of Masculinity

By Hermann the Cheruscan

This article was originally published in our September-October 2020 magazine, which you can view here.

It is tempting to begin with the lofty claim that masculinity is in its dying throes, both in civilized society and particularly on college campuses. Contrast the archetypal man of 1945 with the man of today, and it doesn’t take expertise in critical gender theory to notice an all-round degeneration of the masculine; venture even further back in time, and the differences are only amplified. Our founding fathers were willing to contend death for their honor (see: Hamilton, Burr), while the average 21st century collegiate male’s most daunting adventures include late-night runs to McDonalds and Waffle House among less-than-couth townies. But does this mean that masculinity is dead or dying? Far from it.

I may have already alienated certain readers by referring to masculinity as something real and definable, as something more than a social construct rooted in oppression. Although I will make this concession only once, I admit that masculinity is a social construct, as is every generalized term we use to describe the human psyche. As an archetype, masculinity is neither inherently virtuous, nor universally attributable to men. Yet, much to the chagrin of those who consider the human mind a tabula rasa, this does not change the reality that men and women are as different as the sun and the moon; both may be spheres, both may rise and set, illuminate the sky with varying intensity, and even merge during the sporadic eclipse, but no less are they distinct solar bodies.  

I define masculinity as the natural inclinations of the male as distinguished from the natural inclinations of the female. While I consider literature and introspection to be far more useful in studying human behavior, I present a formula for the more scientifically minded: masculine traits are those which are more common in men than women beyond the margin of error, which would still manifest (even if less markedly so) without variance in nurture. 

To pinpoint such masculine traits is perhaps a greater challenge, but here I resort to a heuristic, courtesy of Harvard Professor Harvey Mansfield: “Manliness seeks and welcomes drama and prefers times of war, conflict, and risk. Manliness brings change or restores order at moments when routine is not enough, when the plan fails, when the whole idea of rational control by modern science develops leaks. Manliness is the next-to-last resort, before resignation and prayer.” In Manliness, Mansfield distinguishes manliness from masculinity as a higher form of masculine tendencies, although not necessarily virtuous.

Returning from the necessary digression into masculinity itself, let us examine the state of masculinity among the denizens of Chapel Hill. It doesn’t take much to discern that the men here are softer and weaker, both physically and mentally, than likely ever before: to be in good shape is no longer the norm, and thanks to grade inflation (the average GPA has increased from a 2.49 in 1967 to a 3.21 in 2008), standards of excellence are lower than ever. 

At UNC, women are in leadership positions far more than men, not necessarily because they are more talented, but because so many men have lost their lust for tangible achievement and power. Instead, a large number of UNC men fall into one of two categories: the socially inept worker bees (largely STEM majors), who work feverishly for the sake of “succeeding” without a metaphysical understanding of why they seek success, and the thrill-seeking partiers who seize every opportunity to drown thoughts of the long-term in booze and sex. Among the latter, academics are relegated to a necessary evil to precede celebration, and success is measured through social aptitude, sexual conquest, and in the absence of those, victories in Fortnite and Call of Duty Warzone. 

Even more concerning is the emergence of a new class of nerd, a man who enjoys all the pastimes of the archetypal nerd, but fails to exhibit any academic superiority to his peers. Instead of focusing on academics to the exclusion of socializing, this type of man finishes his work only to free time where he can live vicariously through video games, anime, Reddit…

Ironically, the type of man most sorely wanting on the streets of Chapel Hill is precisely the type of man a liberal arts institution is meant to mold: a man well-versed in history and literature not to check off a list of prerequisites, but to acquire the tools for social poise; a man who learns philosophy not to dismantle every allegedly problematic aspect of his society, but to provide a philosophical underpinning for his mission; a man whose intelligence contributes to his masculinity, not detracts from it. 

These ideals apply similarly to women, but women are already better at achieving a balance of social and intellectual aptitude—while my male friends play Call of Duty, my female friends watch Love Island; these pastimes may be equally intellectually vapid, but the latter is certainly more conducive to social awareness. Women also tend to value their looks more than men, all of which leads to the current dating scene—the average woman rightfully unwilling to compromise for the average man while complaining of the lack of dateable men, and the average man lamenting his luck with women. Simply, the average woman at UNC is superior to the average man, both academically and socially. 

But why is this the case? The answer lies in the perversion of masculinity, or more specifically the manifestation of masculinity in a 21st century environment. Among other things, men are more prone to risky behavior, competitiveness, apathy, and extremeness. Let us examine how each of these contributes to the decline of men on college campuses.

Heavy drinking is risky behavior, and both men and women have done stupid things under the influence. But men are more likely to be alcoholics, more likely to drive drunk, more likely to drink on a Wednesday night. Whereas fraternities were once fashioned to promote the status of their men, many are now glorified drinking clubs—sorority houses, on the other hand, are still technically dry. This is not to say sorority women don’t drink copiously, because they obviously do, but fraternity men do it far more often. Needless to say, this degrades academic performance and contributes to their ever-growing beer bellies.

With increased competitiveness, one would expect better performance in the classroom. But for better or worse, at least at UNC, the academic culture is more cooperative than it is competitive. Moreover, overvaluing academics is considered uncool, and discussions outside the classroom rarely revolve around academic performance, at least in more masculine circles. Bragging about the victories of sports teams (another form of vicarious fulfillment), video games, and if done subtly, sexual conquests, is acceptable. Bragging about an A on a paper? For many men, out of the question. And even with worse grades, men find it easier to apathetic, be that during classroom discussions or on homework assignments.

On top of that, men are less likely to conform, and more likely to live extremely. It is predominantly men who partake in extreme sports, spend every idle hour playing video games, and shoot up schools because they couldn’t get laid. It is also predominantly men who are workaholics, but this comprises a minuscule portion of men, and is still a less-than-ideal manifestation of masculinity.

Add on top of this the suppression of masculine virtue, and we are left with the current predicament. Academic Terry Kupers describes toxic masculinity as including aspects of “hegemonic masculinity” that are socially destructive, “such as… greed, and violent domination.” Reduced only a slight degree in severity, Kupers’s grievances with masculinity amount to a Nietzchean will to power. Even if some men do not possess these instincts, others do—and it is their suppression that results in the current disgraceful manifestation of masculinity.

Men are in shambles precisely because masculinity is far from dead (for, I argue, it is intrinsic). Men are forced to exercise their masculinity vicariously through video games, football Sundays, etc., or behind closed doors. And closed doors can lead to uncontrollable consequences, arguably contributing to the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses.

The solution to this is far from simple. But I implore readers, especially men, if nothing else, to undergo some introspection. Don’t be more of a man because your father or I told you so, but consider yourself from the third person. Would you respect the man you are? Do you have successes in which you can take enduring pride? Are you content with the shape of your body? Can you express yourself clearly, if not with eloquence? Why would the person you desire want you back? If you are not content with the answer to these questions, stop trying to experience fulfillment through drugs, booze, and technology, and impose your masculinity on the world unapologetically. 

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