Man trouble

Nobody’s gender neutral

Not long ago, Harvey Mansfield took a call from a journalist. She wanted a comment on a former colleague. Mansfield, a 73-year-old professor, said: “What impressed all of us about him was his manliness.”

There was silence at the other end of the line, and finally the female voice said: “Could you think of another word?”

It was then that the professor realised that manliness has become a dirty word. And if “displaying qualities considered admirable in a man” (as the dictionary puts it) has become unacceptable, then presumably being a man is unacceptable too.

Wondering how this could be, he concluded that a prolonged period of social engineering – kick-started by the early feminists, who refused to let men open doors for them, or carry their bags, and abetted by health-and-safety freaks, grubby materialists and dull meritocrats – had resulted in the virtual abolition of manly virtues.

Honour, bravery, self-restraint, zeal on behalf of a good cause, and feelings of delicacy and respect towards loved ones: all had become meaningless. And the men Mansfield grew up to admire, who most vividly manifested those virtues – including Humphrey Bogart, Ernest Hemingway, and Tarzan – meant nothing any more.

Horrified by these conclusions, Mansfield did what a professor at Harvard does best: he wrote a book. And that book, entitled Manliness, has quickly driven feminists potty. One, Naomi Wolf, says it made her “froth at the mouth”.

Mansfield’s thesis is that we live in a gender-neutral society that takes no account of differences between men and women. “Women today want to be equal to men, equal in a way that makes them similar to, or virtually the same as, men. They do not want the sort of equality that might result from being superior at home if inferior at work.”

“We are in this great experiment, and it seems to be going along without much awareness of how radical it is. But the gender-neutral society can’t simply let nature take its course, because there are no gender-neutral human beings.”

Social psychology and evolutionary biology have proved that there’s substance behind the sex stereotypes. Notably, Mansfield says, there’s a likelihood that men, rather than women, will be promiscuous, spatially aware, dyslexic, tongue-tied, aggressive, and given to abstract ideas – though not necessarily all at once. Male athletes, he adds, are more likely to spit than women.

To speak of innate difference between the sexes is a dangerous business, and nowhere more so than at Harvard, America’s greatest university. Another of Mansfield’s former colleagues, Lawrence Summers, was obliged to resign in February as president, after claiming that women’s brains are less well suited to science and maths than men’s.

“I have never been close to Larry Summers,” Mansfield says. “But I have been a partisan defender. He gave up about a year ago when he started apologising. I did say to him that at a certain point you need to dig your heels in. I think he could have defended himself. He has apologized so much that he looks unmanly.”

Of course, not everybody thinks we live in a gender-neutral society. The UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology was established in 2004 to increase the participation of women in science, engineering and technology – women like the ones Summers depreciated. A spokeswoman, Ros Wall, argues that women can be just as good as men in these disciplines, but commonly find themselves unwelcome in the workplace.

Despite this, Mansfield contends that, “the entire enterprise of modernity could be understood as a project to keep manliness unemployed.”

Sounding more than a bit like Don Quixote, he says professionals are unmanly because they treat each other with professional courtesy but never with chivalry. Meritocrats are unmanly because they think the system should recognise their merits, rather than claiming or fighting for honours themselves. And commerce is unmanly because it’s materialistic, and willing to settle for gain rather than victory.

Even the modern obsession with health is unmanly, because it seeks a longer or less troubled life rather than a life that’s short and eventful “in the noble manner of Achilles”.

If you pin him down, Mansfield will tell you that manliness is “confidence in risk”. By that definition, any drunken hooligan breaking windows is manly. He agrees, but there are many levels of manliness, he adds. “Higher levels include risking life for a cause.”

Women have lain down their lives throughout history. Is there a difference? Yes, he says. “A woman will risk life if necessary. A man will do it for fun.”

In the US, women in particular have argued that Mansfield’s notion of manliness is only too prevalent. “Is a trait exemplified by reluctance to ask directions really what you want in a government deciding whether to take a country to war?” one commentator demanded. “The manliness of the Bush White House has a darker side that has proved more curse than advantage.”

Mansfield, a professor of government, agrees that the warlike Bush is manly. “He has the quality of determination, and perhaps also the shortcomings, such as stubbornness. I’m a great fan.” Vice president Cheney, who recently went hunting and shot a close friend, is presumably manly too.

Tony Blair’s manliness, by comparison, does not seem so certain. But when the deputy prime minister, John Prescott, punched a heckler, an ICM poll showed that he went up, not down, in the estimation of voters.

Mansfield accepts that manliness is ambivalent. “Anyone can see the good and bad in manliness. The manly rescuers on September 11, 2001 seem necessary to us, just as the bad – the manly attackers – seem very unnecessary. Manliness seems to be about fifty-fifty good and bad. It’s the only remedy for the trouble it causes.”

As if that were not sufficiently confusing, he says manliness is a term of praise usually reserved for the very best: not what all males share but what a few have superlatively. He also says that women, such as Margaret Thatcher, can be manly.

Outside politics, manliness is harder to find. The armed services, which execute the politicians’ manly decisions, shun the concept. “Is manliness a word I ever hear?” asks Colonel Nick Richardson, a spokesman for the forces. “No. We look for educational ability in recruits, and physical ability, but there is no measure for manliness.”

Other services, still overwhelmingly male, report the same. A spokeswoman for the Hertfordshire Fire Service, which recently tackled the vast fire at the Buncefield oil storage depot, says recruitment materials do not include the word manliness. “We encourage women to come forward.”

The writer Lynne Truss has praised manliness – but only by analogy, while actually describing punctuation. “Colons are manly,” she wrote in her bestseller, Eats Shoots and Leaves. “There’s something marvellous about the colon. It kind of says ‘Now look here.’ It’s got quiet authority and it directs you in a really nice and controlled kind of way. With a colon I think you feel in very safe hands.”

The football pundit David Pleat was talking about men, not punctuation marks, when he declared recently that Manchester United “lacked manliness” in the absence of Rio Ferdinand, Paul Scholes and Roy Keane. But too much manliness can be a liability. David Beckham only really won admirers beyond the terraces after he started wearing a sarong. And the Welsh rugby player Gavin Henson, perhaps hoping to establish the same global renown, talked freely on TV last week about waxing his legs and other aspects of his complex toilette.

If you search for “manliness” on the internet, Mansfield’s book comes first out of some two million pages. In second place is the website of one Gus Sheridan, a writer, who likewise bemoans its absence. “Guys don’t do guy stuff anymore,” writes Sheridan. “There’s a surfeit of twerps running around these days, clogging the boulevards, wearing huge pants, and laughing over-loudly in bars.”

Sheridan directs such men towards “manly movies”, including The Dirty Dozen, The Magnificent Seven, The Searchers, The Right Stuff, and Dirty Harry. “If after absorbing all those you’re still a wussy little twerp, you have no-one to blame but yourself.”

One film Sheridan particularly extols is Goldfinger, including the scene where Bond’s CIA contact shows up and Bond dismisses the blond woman who’d been giving him a massage (“with a slap on the ass”) because it’s time for “man talk”. “It’s wrong to do stuff like that,” Sheridan concludes, “but not wrong to want to.”

Does Mansfield share Sheridan’s views? “One never feels comfortable with dubious allies,” he says cautiously.

Another ally is professor Waller [sic] Newell, author of The Code of Man. Like Mansfield, Newell says manly honour and pride have been thrown away. “We turned our backs – disastrously and inexplicably – on this incredibly resilient heritage.”

Maleness has been driven underground, Newell believes, and cut off from traditional sources of restraint and civility. “Boys and young men still want to be heroes, and the way to educate them to treat girls and women with respect is to appeal to their heroism, not to try to blot it out.”

Men need to feel important, as Mansfield told Naomi Wolf during a hair-raising encounter on TV. Men need more than mere niceness from women. Men need deference.

“Is your wife as deferential as you would like,” Wolf queried.

“Yes,” Mansfield replied, “in a very ironic way.”

“And the irony doesn’t ruin it? That’s great.”

Undaunted, Mansfield told Wolf that he washes the dishes at home, as should every man.

“So you’re actually a feminist hero,” she laughed.

It’s not only women who have attacked him. “Male reviewers behave with obsolete gallantry, speaking up for women. It’s a paradox: they’re demonstrating manliness by attacking it.”

But he doesn’t mind. In fact, he positively welcomes the buffeting. And the harder the blows of his critics, the more manly he feels: “Manliness loves being embattled,” says the Byronic professor and washer-up, “and alone against the world.”