Friday, November 24, 2017

Has "Being a Man" Lost All Functional Use?

theatlantic  |  In flight from machismo, we have largely given up on adult male self-mastery. But isn’t it also true that, allowed at last to be confused about masculinity, we no longer accept men like Wayne as heroes? Schoenberger herself alludes, perceptively, to “functional masculinity,” and if I read her right, this is the core of her provocative argument. Masculinity as puerile male bonding, as toxic overcompensation and status jockeying—this is what’s unleashed when masculinity no longer has an obvious function. Divorced from social purpose, “being a man” becomes merely symbolic. So, for example, robots in factories and drones on the battlefield will only make gun ownership and mixed martial arts more popular. To push the thesis further, as men become less socially relevant, they become recognition-starved; and it is here that “being a man” expresses itself most primitively, as violence.

The invention of John Wayne—is there a more primal scene of masculinity being stripped of utility and endowed with dubious political karma? If it was his idol’s cruelty, more than anything, that converted the beautiful boy in buckskins, with the wavy pile of hair and not a line of experience written on his face, into a Cold War icon, then we would do well to understand that cruelty. Henry Fonda, who made eight pictures with Ford, said of him: “Pappy was full of bullshit, but it was a delightful sort of bullshit.” He pretended that he wanted only to be a stuntman and was given the director job because he could yell; he pretended that he hired actors based only on their skill at cards. His whole persona was shot through with nostalgia for something he never knew. He altered his dress, head to toe, because “he was trying to be a native Irishman,” as one colleague noted, wearing his collar raised and the brim of his hat down, so the Irish rain would run off it, and rolling up the legs of his pants, as if he’d been stepping through the Erin dew.

You may not be shocked to discover that it was Ford who had the effeminate walk. His grandson said that Ford was “aware of his own sensitivity and almost ashamed of it,” that he “surrounded himself with John Wayne, Ward Bond, and those people because they represented the way he wanted to be.” Ford’s biographer put it this way: “Without question he preferred the company of men, and male bonding reached inordinate proportions.” (Inordinate! Oh my.) It was left to Maureen O’Hara, one of Ford’s favorite actresses, to be more direct. In her 2004 memoir, she speculates that Ford was gay. (She claims she walked in on the director kissing a leading man.) It is painful to read, now, about men who struggled as Ford apparently did; about how he would get so drunk that he would soil himself; about how between shoots he let himself go, watching TV in bed, wearing pajamas all day, his hair and fingernails allowed to lengthen; about how ominously remote his marriage was.