Terence Blacker: David Beckham exemplifies true modern manliness

Some confuse the manly with the rude or nasty - Alan Sugar, Simon Cowell, the Duke of Edinburgh
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We should probably face the fact that real men are now unlikely to play a significant part in modern, civilised life. They will be around, of course, knocking seven bells out of one another outside pubs on Saturday nights, banging the tables in boardrooms, standing outside a night-club in dark glasses and with hands clasped in front of them, starting wars, creating incidents on TV chat or reality shows, but these people are throwbacks, embarrassing cartoons of masculinity. The real man, as credible role model for today's youngsters, has had his day.

In the way of such things, he has also become a subject of curiosity. The mode has passed for pitiless critiques of the crisis of masculinity by stern, disappointed feminist writers (who could forget the classic Men - The Darker Continent?) and has been replaced by a slightly irritating mood of sympathy.

What, the question is naggingly asked, does it actually feel like to be a man these days? A woman called Norah Vincent dressed up as a man for a year or so and has put her conclusions in a book. The recently released film Transamerica has gone further, starring a woman who acts as a man who wants to be a woman.

Now, inevitably, the academic world is becoming involved. Later this month Harvey Mansfield, a professor of government at Harvard, will be publishing a book, part-study and part-polemic, which is dashingly entitled Manliness. His argument is that for society to deny the differing strengths of men and women, running things as if we were essentially the same, is stupid and self-defeating.

The professor does not like girly-men. "The 'sensitive male' who mimics female emotions and interests, while discarding the small favours men have traditionally done for women, is mostly just a creation of contemporary feminists who are irritated by the ways of men, no longer tolerant of their foibles, and demanding the behaviour that would pave the way for ambitious women." The essence of manliness is that "it defines turf and fights for it - sometimes to defend precious liberties, sometimes for no good reason" and it is that spirit, the need to stand up for something, which propels people into public life. And yet, mysteriously, "manliness has always been under a cloud of doubt - raised by men who may not have the time or the taste for it."

This is fighting talk. The undermining of masculinity has been brought about by nothing less than a diabolical alliance of ambitious feminists and wimpish men. Indeed, the natural divide between women and men, now so under threat, can almost be expressed in political terms, with social liberalism embracing the female virtues of co-operation and sympathy while rugged, free-market individualism represents the aggressive, competitive male. This view of the world is enough to bring out the girly-man in anyone, but, behind its simple-mindedness, there lies a small truth.

There are strengths which can be associated with men and which should be cherished, if only we could stop fretting about who is doing down whom in the gender war. Just as certain virtues, more female than male, have had an effect on the mood of the times (generosity, versatility, candour, empathy) so, in the past, have the qualities which have historically been associated with men: single-mindedness, risk-taking, an ability to think in terms of concepts rather than specifics, a useful emotional repression.

Many would say that these attributes could be summed up in the single word "dull", but there are times when a certain dead-eyed stolidity is useful, even admirable. Sometimes particularly at a time of general emotional intemperance, being buttoned-up and reluctant to share your every passing thought and neurosis with virtually anyone can have much to recommend it.

Gossip and open-heartedness may be treasured now but it is possible to imagine circumstances when manly moments, even the much-mocked stiff upper lip, might be rather more welcome than the weepings of someone who is in touch with their inner feelings. Manliness may have little appeal right now, and we may not want too much of it around us at home but, a bit like the Church of England, it is comforting to know that, somewhere out there, it still exists.

There are those in public life who confuse the manly with the plain rude or nasty - Alan Sugar, Simon Cowell, the Duke of Edinburgh. Others, most recently the self-promoting first novelist Nirpal Dhaliwal, promote the idea that real men should be oafishly insensitive to women ("Be a selfish jerk ... Just do what you want and let her tag along," was his relationship advice in a recent piece).

But there are still examples of true modern manliness: the courtliness of David Beckham, the steadfast refusal of Norman Kember to play the victim game, the buttoned-up punctiliousness of Peter Mandelson, the dogged refusal to buckle under pressure of Ruth Kelly. These people may be mistrusted when they decline to be girlishly open about what they happen to be thinking and feeling but, when necessary, they can also be courageous about sensitive matters, as Beckham proved this week with his dignified comments about his obsessive compulsive disorder.

Professor Mansfield is probably on his way to receiving a good kicking from critics who take pride in their own gender-free emotional intelligence but, in his own slightly clumsy way, he has opened up an interesting debate. It is a shame that someone who is truly manly would never dream of buying a book on manliness.