Sarah Churchwell: How to be a real man – and a jerk

Share
Related Topics

I'm as susceptible to nostalgia as the next girl – and she probably falls short of my devotion to Cary Grant – but some things are just obsolete. Blood-letting as medicine, chamber-pots as hygiene: we've moved on for a reason. But some primitive forms die harder than others. With shows like Mad Men and books like The Retrosexual Manual: How to be A Real Man, it seems the unreconstructed he-man is back. If only he'd actually left.

The author of The Retrosexual Manual – who shall remain unmanned, I mean unnamed – has been publicising his book with articles explaining its provenance: "It was my girlfriend's fault," one article begins. Of course it was. She talked him into wearing mascara a decade ago, and his masculinity has been in crisis ever since.

The real culprit emerges soon enough: "30 years of feminism have emancipated women, but emasculated men. While girls gained their freedom ... to sleep with whom they wanted and to succeed in any career they chose to pursue, boys were gradually formed by social pressure into what women – confused and giddy with their new-found freedom – thought they wanted their men to be." Yes, there's nothing like having sex and getting a job to really fluster a girl.

So he explains how to be a real man. I hate to get all phenomenological on Mr Castrato, but realness isn't technically something that should require instruction. His idea of virility is, predictably, pure cartoon: hirsute, drunken, and boorish sums it up. But it's a free country: if he chooses to be a selfish jerk, good luck to him. I hope no woman would deign to sleep with him, but sadly the sisterhood can sometimes lack self-respect.

I object, rather, to two covert aspects of this tired argument. First: pleas for the return of real men always blame castrating, omnipotent feminists who have brainwashed society with their nefarious demands for equal pay and physical safety. In such arguments, heterosexuality is a zero-sum game, in which any gain made by women entails a loss to men (a loss always located around their testicles, for some reason), instead of just, well, happier women. The "real man" is an allegorical figure: introducing Mr Backlash, invented specifically to force women back into their places.

Which leads to the second objection: these arguments always insist that women prefer voluntarily submitting to men. "The family unit will become happier and stronger as we play our natural roles," Mr Backlash ordains. "There will be a return to the stable marriages of the Fifties and Sixties as the man feels free to do things he wants to do and to be himself."

Marriages were "stable" 50 years ago because people had no other options. This doesn't mean they were happier: prisons are stable, too. Why stop with longing for the days when it was legal to rape your wife? Or when a woman couldn't hold property in her own name, or get a divorce? Then you can really do what you want.

But Mr Backlash goes further, insisting that women prefer this world, too – that it's "natural." By no coincidence, racists used precisely this argument to defend chattel slavery. White people didn't just prefer having slaves, black people preferred being slaves, because it was the natural order of things. Imagine a book called The Retrosupremacist Manual: How to Be A Real Bigot, saying that it can't wait for a return to the good old days of one race in forced servitude to another. He'd be prosecuted for hate speech. But retromisogyny? That's just natural.

Sarah Churchwell is senior lecturer in American literature and culture at the University of East Anglia

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

There is far too much sexism in the UK - but a point scoring system against other countries won't help to tackle it

Victoria Richards
 

Upmarket and downmarket – why the modern consumer loves a bit of both

Sean O'Grady
How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers