This year's 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice arrives not a moment too soon to deal with the current crisis in manliness.
Have you missed the memo on this? Masculinity is in question everywhere as the marketing techniques that were once limited to undermining women's confidence seem to have invaded Boys' Town. A couple of decades ago, I thought it was just the New Age Wingnuts who claimed masculinity was in decline and sent men to bang a drum in the woods. As too many New Agers tend to be Ayn Randian style right-wingers who preach individual power -- which they will happily sell you -- I paid little attention. But by the time the noughties arrived, the internet-enabled Culture of Narcissism led to all sorts of oversharing by both sexes, and men began stewing over their inadequacies publicly as if they were characters in a Nick Hornby novel.
A few years later, what I now recognize as Son of DrumBeat arrived. I was vaguely amused by this second generation of male angst in the form of things like the Art of Manliness website, mostly because I thought it was satire. The design recalls 19th-century typography and the advice reads the way those 1930s high school education reels sounded. The section on "manly skills" offers tips on how to do such ordinary things as driving a stick shift or shuffling cards, while more exotic skills -- how to dress stylishly to conceal a handgun -- seem likely to appeal to NRA supporters. Need to know how to use a flashlight in a tactical situation? You will find the 411 here.
Taken as a package, it suggests the audience is made up of more than 150,000 particularly dim young men with neo-conservative fantasies -- there's advice on how to pick handcuffs! -- and it's very funny in that ironic way.
Then my guy pals began pointing out that given the sheer volume of websites, books, and workshops addressing the sorry state of manhood there must be least one or two serious endeavours to inspire the mockery. Suddenly I began noticing marketing campaigns for goods and services urging inferior male specimens to buy back their elusive masculinity.
I'm sorry to see the boys have succumbed to what I long-ago dubbed Magazine Inferiority Complex. Much is written about the sense of failure women suffer from the sales psychology behind fashion mags particularly. The editorial is designed to make readers feel insecure about everything from the size of their butts to their sexual prowess while advertisers deliver a host of products designed to solve their imaginary problems. It's mercantile genius: the cosmetics business alone generates an estimated $50 billion annually in just the U.S., and that's before we consider the surgical solutions.
Apparently a generation of relentless harping on some imaginary male failings has led to marketers preying on men's now-enfeebled minds which have been primed to hand over the plastic for pretty much anything that promises them a return to true masculinity.
Stuff like the Wilderness Collective's camping tours for guys who want to "become truly great through wilderness adventure." And by wilderness, they mean trips to well-groomed parks with paved roads. This marketing video celebrates one of their man-building forays into roughing it on motorcycles, with a caravan of chefs in tow. They provide gourmet meals featuring artisanal cheeses and craft cocktails, because nothing says manly like a gin and tonic in a rugged tin cup.
"Candy-assed metrosexuals!" fumes a critic commenting on the video, which I encourage you to watch. This romantic, soft focus extravaganza is paired with one of the funniest scripts I've ever heard, delivered by a confident moron who does a passable imitation of radio superstar Ira Glass.
There's some dispute over whether this is a joke since the hilarious voice-over delivers gems like, "In an age of eroding masculinity where men are depicted as weak, and blundering, and misguided, and shallow, men need to be ever more intentional to carve out time for camaraderie, for adventure, and for introspection."
Sure. Or maybe they should just be seen in fewer videos like this one brandishing a crème brûlée torch to light the grill? Just a thought.
What would Jane have you do?
But as I watched I realized the whole sorry manliness movement should stop worrying about how to tie bow ties or wield shotguns or whatever supposedly masculine task will redeem them and just read Jane Austen to learn how to man-up.
Contrary to pop-culture interpretations, Austen wasn't a romance writer, she was a social satirist and she is an excellent guide to life -- not least because there are few things as horrifying as realizing you just acted like one of the twits in her novels. I've been advising men to read her since my undergrad days when guy friends would tell me tales of romantic woe only to punctuate the story with Freud's old chestnut, "What do women want?"
It's recently come to my attention that not a single one of them took my advice.
"It's just that her work always sparks a discussion on the swoony merits of either Mr. Darcy or Colin Firth," protested my otherwise well-read pal John, in his own defence.
For that I blame TV and movie producers who obviously skipped the book too. While Colin Firth is undeniably swoon-worthy in that clingy wet shirt (the single most viewed Austen clip on YouTube), Mr. Darcy of the novel is not. He's kind of a pill. When I first read the book at about 16, I was pulling for Wickham (the villain of the story) because he is so darn charming. And apparently he cuts a dash in his red officer's uniform.
But Darcy wins us over eventually, as he does Elizabeth, because of two prosaic qualities: he proves to be both kind and reliable.
"Not because he has 10,000 pounds a year and Pemberley?" my cynical pal Christopher always asks. (He's only seen the swoony adaptations.)
Well, who doesn't want some variation on Downton Abbey, as long as we don't have to clean it? But no. That's not the take-away point. This is: men should not underestimate the power of character.
Character is such an old-fashioned word, but I suspect that's what has really led to Mr. Darcy's enduring popularity over the last 200 years. And why Austen's insightful books hook men too (but only if they deign to read her). Superficially, Darcy is far from the ideal guy. He's something of an inept young fool at 27. But he is also the guy we can rely on when things fall apart -- and don't we all want him in our lives?
That's one of the chief differences between Austen and the romance writers she satirizes: her heroes are exceedingly good at doing the decent, upstanding thing. Unlike the Brontë sisters, who arrived three decades later and produced those kinky potboilers featuring sadomasochistic relationships. They serve as templates for today's formula romance novel industry and their heroes actually resemble Austen's villains -- narcissists, psychopaths, and stalkers.
Which brings me back to the manliness industry. As I laughed my way through the butch-it-up products and advice, I wondered who would be pathetic enough to pass off a mock wilderness camp as character building? Then I thought of the evil Wickham, Mr. Darcy's nemesis, who made a career of conning people through what we've now dubbed image-building. Today, he wouldn't just be one of the doofuses on that trip -- he'd be the marketing genius behind the company.
© Shannon Rupp. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at)shannonrupp.com.
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