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

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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

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