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A Defense of Manliness

By Rachel L. Wagley

My dad cordially invites you to play Risk. Or talk sports. Or just wear a stained t-shirt and eat meat.

Plagued with five daughters, he sought consolation in mandatory family nights, reading aloud “Danny, the Champion of the World,” “Tarzan,” and the “Lord of the Rings.” During a reading of “The Two Towers,” we sketched Gandalf with pastel pencils and dozed behind the couch. Although I didn’t always listen, his treasured classics exposed me to manliness worthy of respect.

The timeless literary heroes of those works didn’t attend Harvard, but our campus boasts more than a few good men. Our tendencies to harp on gender inequality, denounce final clubs, and reprimand male pride lead us to ignore manhood’s intrinsic good. We all believe in equal pay for equal work, but Harvard’s culture misrepresents and neglects manliness in a good-willed attempt to promote women.

Manliness is confidence in the face of risk, according to Professor Harvey C. Mansfield ’53 in “Manliness.” It stresses forthrightness, honor, and determination. Admiring the ideals that define manhood affirms the life codes exhibited by many Harvard men. I’ve met many courageous women, but in our quest to prove that women are equal we deny our men parallel recognition and the right to pride.

On Tuesday, Apr. 20, Harvard Men Against Rape invited Michael Kimmel, author of “Guyland,” to explore the “Perilous World Where Boys Become Men.” Ironically, at an event co-sponsored by a final club, fraternities, and the football team, Kimmel opposed men building a group identity. We’ve heard it before: Men are privileged megalomaniacs; male groups are arrogant and purposeless.

A more constructive discussion might acknowledge that the fundamental reason our world is so perilous for young men is our negative conception of manhood. Our culture emasculates men by stripping manhood of its corresponding virtues and reducing manliness to predatory sexuality. Instead of envisioning a gallant standard, Kimmel told the men to always “get consent” before continuing on their merry sexual ways. Consent is a miserable substitute for nobility, a legalistic detour around an incredibly personal situation. It doesn’t necessarily imply mutuality, and in fact, suggests that casual sex is an inherent intrusion where men act upon women.

If men enjoy asserting meaning and power, then give men dignified aspirations, so they don’t assert their power on the dance floor. Affirm male friendships, bonds that serve men by providing forums for respect and codes of honor. When we treat men like sexualized predators, men can cunningly take advantage of this constructed freedom from virtue. Maxims like “Just get consent” and “Follow the rules” are sterile abstractions that lack exhortations to reform character.

Men do not employ their determination and honor to woo girls with mandolins in House courtyards. But we no longer expect this. Instead, we call respect and chivalry patriarchal. Without affirming the virtues of manhood, we “empower” our women by delegitimizing manly pursuit and admiration. Chivalrous romance that animates the soul is outdated, but our rational modernity threatens our deepest fantasies.

Our frantic mission for “gender equality” in romantic relations assumes that female patience, passivity, and committed enduranceperhaps the most demanding trials of allare less equal. Despite the cultural message that “real” liberation eschews commitment, Kimmel wisely mentioned that girls generally seek something more than a consent-based hook-up. He light-heartedly suggested that girls who seek a commitment for their affections are hardly obsessive or clingy. By Kimmel’s own logic, holding men to a higher standard would benefit both men and women.

An optimistic male audience member asked Kimmel how we can re-inspire manly virtue and create noble men. Kimmel responded that there are no good distinctively manly qualities, rejecting the uniqueness of manhood in a room full of talented men.

Claiming that re-inspiring nobility is too lofty of a goal is an affront to manly dignity. But Kimmel lowered the bar: Forget nobilityKimmel encouraged men to install urinal splashguards reading, “You hold the power to stop rape in your hands.” After all, reaching for the stars is just a cliché.

I contest the popular supposition that most young men are disenchanted predators. Many Harvard men do positively exercise their manly qualities for the good of this community, their relationships, and their pride.

Denigrating manhood harms society because when we assault manliness, we devalue men. Take a moment to admire Heinrich Harrer’s aggressive spirit of pursuit, Tom Sawyer’s territorialism, Nelson Mandela’s courage, and the stranger in the courtyard who held open the gate. Endless illustrations of manly nobility, honor, and courage abound on Harvard’s campus. To Harvard men: You are worthy of honor and respect.

Rachel L. Wagley ’11 is a sociology concentrator in Quincy House and the president of True Love Revolution.

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