The Masculine Mystique
Imagine the discovery of a new drug, a sovereign remedy with horrendous social import. Let’s call it the “Reality Inducer.” While the usual narcotics induce varied states of sensate anarchy, the Reality Inducer would create a psychic world devoid of illusion. One who ingests would see things as they are, rather than as one has been programmed to see them. It would induce a condition of compassionate detachment in which distortion, myth, and false coloration would be stripped away from reality. Obviously this elixer should not be marketed, lest our social fabric be ripped to shreds. What would happen to the speeches of the politicians, the protestations of lovers, and concepts like honor and heroism, cowardice and martyrdom? How much of our behavior and how many of our beliefs are founded upon individual and collective delusion? But join me in a fanciful dose. Let us relax in its unique effects and contemplate the minds of men.
When Aristotle defined man as a “rational animal,” he was being charitable. Men’s minds have an outer crust of reason, surrounding a molten core of archaic residues, primordial passions, mythologic themes, and inchoate drives and fantasies. A man’s perception of himself and his world is filtered through and altered by this center. The core is conceptualized as the “unconscious” by the psychologically oriented, or as the subcortical centers of the brain and biochemical substrate by the more physiologically minded. Rage and sexual responses can be localized in areas of the brain far beneath the cerebral cortex, the rind of the brain in which the rational processing occurs. However, the manner and type of the reaction are determined by the individual’s previous experiences.
The Unconscious, functioning in part as a unique recorder, incorporates within itself previous unremembered experiences, repressed memories, and the unrecognized training to which it has been exposed by parental and other critical figures. These impressions are frequently distorted by inaccuracies, the prejudices and expectations of others, and the exigencies and circumstances of the child’s life situation. The Reality Inducer is designed to dispel these distortions and illusions. And nowhere are they more apparent than in the male’s conception of his masculinity.
Civilization has created a Masculine Mystique, a complex of quasi-mystical attitudes and expectations surrounding the male in his society. Utilizing parents, peers, and cultural institutions, already unwittingly infected by it, the Mystique softly and subtly insinuates its siren song into the recording apparatus of each man as he develops, luring him from the facts of his maleness to the outer reaches of exaggeration, caricature, and illusion, and finally, at times, to self-destruction. The aura of the Mystique penetrates the essence of a man’s existence. Permeating his physical apparatus, his psychological set, and his social interactions, the melody seduces man from what he is, and offers instead a grandiose image all but impossible to live up to and still remain human.
During the birth process, the infant’s head descends from the mother’s pelvis flexed on its breastbone. Rotating inward, extending, restituting, and finally turning outward, the head greets the outside world, followed by his shoulders and the remainder of its tiny form. The obstetrician, having breathed a sigh of relief that there was no umbilical cord constricting the neck, confidently grasps the child by the feet, slaps the soles, and is rewarded by the cry which the new mother will find maternally inspiring, and later occasionally maddening. A cursory examination of the pubic area reveals the presence of a penis, and the exhausted mother and nail-biting father are informed that they have a son. From that moment, the cultural indoctrination begins.
The blue blanket, the miniature boxing gloves, the Superman costume, the toy guns and fire engines, all subtly inform this newly hatched bit of protoplasm of the great and impossible expectations which will be within the core of his recently acquired humanity. He is to become the embodiment of heroism and courage, aggressivity and aptitude, an amalgam of the fantasies of Hemingway and Mailer. The roughhouse play with adults, the injunction that “little boys don’t cry,” the “did you win?” when he returns after his first pugilistic encounter, nose bloodied and tears only barely contained: the message is received, the boy is trained to be a “man.” Vulnerability is a vice, emotionality is odious, and stoicism connotes strength.
Unwitting conspirators, parents and society weave the Mystique into the psyche of the developing boy. The seductive promise of limitless potentials proves irresistible. A spirited marlin rising to the bait, the tad swallows the Neanderthal Ideal, the image of the conquering male, clad in the skins of animals slain in single-handed combat, dragging the woman, his mother, or some reasonable facsimile into his cave. In his dreams and fantasies, he has faced the paternal dragon. Despite his dread of castration or annihilation, he has survived, penis intact, taller and broader in body and spirit. He might now envision himself a Lancelot who has imaginatively dabbled with Guinevere, while a benign and understanding Arthur has stood patiently by, restrained by the wisdom of a Merlin or a Dr. Spock.
Spurred by the insistent flow of testosterone, with its resultant increase in aggressivity and physical growth, a boy’s marriage to the Mystique is further cemented. Through his rearing, his training in school, and the attitudes of the women he encounters, our young knight is encouraged to further flex his musculature. In the good old days, so much of this was symbolic. Differentiating himself from “the frail sex,” he would gallantly offer them his seat on a bus, carry their school books, and pick up the tab at the local soda fountain. As our society has “advanced” however, this is increasingly acted out instead by joining gangs, referring to women as “hos,” and throwing “motherfucker” around with bravado and careless abandon. Conformity to the Mystique rapidly becomes a measure of manhood, a thermometer of “masculinity.” Again, little boys or big men don’t cry. Instead they are to become the image of John Wayne, walking down the streets of Laredo or Saigon, with catlike mincing steps and swaggering hips, ready and able to deal with any adversity without the shedding of a groan or a tear.
Following the puberty rite of his particular culture, be it confirmation, bar mitzvah, or a vest impregnated with live wasps placed upon his chest, the boy theoretically enters “manhood,” with all the “privileges” accorded to the Achiever. Regardless of economic conditions or physical limitations, he is to return with the spoils of the hunt, or suffer the loss of self-esteem. He is to attain status and prestige, and transfer these to his family, in a society that has precious little status and prestige to bestow. Furthermore, our Achiever is expected to assume ill-defined responsibilities and to cope effectively with them. His legendary sexual prowess is awesome. Expected to produce an erection on demand, and to insistently and everlastingly satisfy his mate, the man must become a sexual athlete. Impotence or infertility equals personal inadequacy. Finally, he must present the appearance of independence in a society predicated on a complex of mutual interdependencies.
Like creativity and rumor, the Masculine Mystique is difficult to delineate. However, recurring themes in dreams, fantasies, actions, and aspirations of men define certain constellations around which it settles. These by no means define its limits, but they will serve as representative illustrations of its manifestations.
The Superman Syndrome
Superman has been embedded in the recesses of men’s minds for thousands of years. The image of an indestructible being, all-powerful and victorious, has persisted from the anthropomorphic deities of prehistoric times, from the Grecian Zeus, the Teutonic Wotan, the Aztec Quetzalcoatl, to our more contemporary Promethean figures. It has currently emerged among the demigods created by our culture of celebrity, and may best be observed in the Olympian heights of the athlete and the entertainer, and in the depths of the Faustian partnership between the advertising and media enterprises.
Human beings seem prone to feel a “lack”—a lack of importance, significance, control of their destinies, et cetera, and are all too ready to identify with proxy figures that they create to serve as their surrogates. Men, after all, did create gods in their own images. In place of the stars in the heavens, they have fashioned stars on Earth, and have positioned them on athletic fields, motion picture screens, in newspapers and magazines, and have regarded them with awe.
Consider the psyche of the rabid fan of a professional ball club (baseball, football, basketball, soccer). He designates “his” team as his alter ego, even though the players are merely highly paid alien journeymen who skip from team to team with remarkable agility at the drop of a dollar (the average basketballer earns $3.5 million, and the base-baller pockets $2 million, while the professional football player must content himself with a mere $1.5 million per year). One quarter of a billion dollars for ten years of shortstopping, while the Yankees pay a pitcher the equivalent of $3,000 per pitch. Yet the fans continue their wild applause and subsidization even though the price of a seat in the upper deck in Yankee Stadium has increased by more than 25 percent, from $26 to $33 in the past year. Why? Do they see their stellar surrogates twinkling all the brighter if they up the ante? Or sympathize with their beloved “home team,” a corporate entity concerned only with the bottom line à la Disney, which will rapidly relocate its franchise to the town that will provide the newest stadium to milk the maximum from its fans, who can no longer pay the inflated prices at the ticket window or refreshment stand? The fan identifies so strongly with the players that his testosterone level rises along with theirs, and remains high after the victory, resulting in soccer fans killing each other at the end of a match. The loser, with plummeting testosterone, slinks into some darkened corner of some seedy bar, not to be heard from again until the next game. The barrier between the Supermen on the field and the poor souls in the stands has dissolved, for better or worse. Journalism slavishly cooperates. The front page of the New York Times of April 16, 2000, featured the bulletin that “Cal Ripken, Jr., hitting his third single of the night, became the 24th [sic] major league baseball player to accumulate 3,000 hits.” A bulletin of such magnitude pushed stories of stalled flood relief in Venezuela, the failure of the diplomatic quarantine of Yugoslavia, and other trivia to the back pages.
The stars seen on the silver screen are presented, literally and figuratively, in larger-than-life proportions. William Goldman, a screenwriter of Oscar proportions, in his book Which Lie Did I Tell? advises future screenwriters as follows: “Stars do not—repeat—do not play heros—stars play gods. And your job as a screenwriter is to genuflect, if you are lucky enough to have them glance in your direction.” Imagine Leonardo DiCaprio, of puerile features and questionable intellect, as the chairman of Earth Day 2000, and interviewing the president of the United States on the problems of Earth! And the president acting as coconspirator! How bizarre can it get??? John Wayne, Superman of the westerns, is reported to have disliked riding horses, innumerable supersex symbols were same-sex oriented, and one can, of course, go on and on with innumerable misreprepresentations manufactured by studios, their PR people, the stars’ PR representatives, but, most of all, by the fantasies of their fans. Consider the astronomical prices paid at auction for inconsequential memorabilia from one ex-star or another. Why do their fans have to physically touch them, get an autograph or a wisp of their clothing? Recall the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, in which God’s finger nearly touches Adam’s, and reflect on the similarities. Is the godhead physically transferred from the deity to the acolyte?
The media need advertising and vice versa; ergo the formation of an unholy alliance, with each contributing to the conning of America. Michael Jordan, the Superman dubbed “His Airness” by the media, was an extremely talented player of basketball with a winning personality, who earned 35 to 50 million dollars per year simply by lending his name to products that were not only out of the financial reach of many of his adoring fans, but were perceived as worth killing for by some of them. Tiger Woods is a walking advertisement for Nike, Andre Agassi hawks razor blades and cameras, while Arnold Palmer, who had an army of fans devoted to him, pitches tires on the radio. Larry King, TV pitchman extraordinaire, endorses so many health food products, which are to be ingested each day, that one wonders how any stomach can accommodate them in a twenty-four-hour span.
Men are swamped by the multiplicity of idealized images instructing them as to what to purchase, what to feel, whom to vote for, and how to live their lives. The Mystique, with its imperative of the superlative, makes its contribution. So many men are blinded by the Mystique’s utilization of the manufactured Superimages that dispassionate rationality is too often put on hold.
The media, in collusion with the Mystique, promotes the nonsensicality produced by the endorsers, who exploit the Superman-fan relationship. The real Superman never would have done it.
The Sexual Athlete
The Mystique has encouraged what Freud’s biographer, Ernest Jones, referred to as “an unduly phallocentric view” of sexuality in our culture. Man, the primate with the largest penis, is too frequently regarded as a phallus with a body attached as an addendum. Seizing upon the obvious fact that the male has a projecting appendage that must be actively inserted into a female, the Mystique has, at times, deified it, endowed it with magical powers, and expected men to live up to this glorious exaltation. The male member has consequently been regarded as majestic, while the woman’s pudendum—“(1) from the Latin: something to be ashamed of; (2) the external genitals of the female, vulva”—has been accorded second-class citizenship. Dreams of towering steeples, racing automobiles, and spaceships blasting off may be penile representations, while purses and vases may represent the vagina. The fact that a woman’s sexual apparatus has greater orgastic potential than the male’s is only now coming to light after thousands of years, and is causing the Mystique considerable concern.
In dreams, the size of a person or object is frequently an indication of its importance or power to the dreamer. To a child, the size of his parents and other adults is itself indicative of their importance and strength. A young boy is awed by the size of his father’s phallus, and aspires to reach the same proportions. Similarly, the size of the penis is often equated with a man’s virility. The equation states that the massiveness of the penis is in direct proportion to the virility of its possessor. Since all but a very few men have approximately the same erect penile size, and many feel their organs to be abnormally small, something is obviously amiss. The problem is that men ofttimes focus their feelings of masculine inadequacy onto their penises. An illustration of this concerns one particular segment of the homosexual community, the members of which compulsively journey from one public toilet to the next, seeking encounters with a penis larger than their own. They have their trousers tailored to accentuate a genital bulge, producing a modernized version of the codpiece of yore. Comparisons are made nightly at gay bars and baths. The unconscious wish is to magically incorporate the other man’s virility, via fellatio or anal intercourse, or, at the least, to neutralize the other man’s presumptive superior masculinity. This fruitless and unending quest is both poignant and pointless. They never win: the next one may be bigger.