Monday, March 24, 2014

"Manly men with brains," masculinity and writing.

In a writing context, what exactly defines being “manly”? Really, I’m starting to wonder. It’s a word that’s been tossed around a lot lately: Cedar Sanderson and Sarah Hoyt talked of emasculating women in their SFWA posts, a writer’s group I’m a part of recently lamented the death of the “manly male” characters like Dirt Pitt in popular novels. Even A Pius Man in a review by Robert Bertrand referred to it as “a book for manly men with brains,” though on the other hand, I've been praised for my strong female characters, both in private and in public. Both were aliens concepts to me, namely because I never considered either while I wrote it, the characters weren't “strong women” or “manly men,” the characters just … were.

Then again, let’s face it, William Shakespeare would probably fail a course on his own plays, considering what people have seen in his own work that he, in all honesty, probably hadn’t seen himself when he wrote it.

Now, I'm going to presume that the common definition of masculinity will involve men who can beat the crap out of other people. However, physical prowess isn't exactly exclusive to men anymore.

Manliness also includes a willingness to draw a line, hold it, and be willing to defend it, and fight back.  Also not exclusive to men, but few men have ever been pushed around and been considered "manly."  Then again, the ultimate Man, Jesus, did instruct us to go the extra mile when someone's walking all over us, but a "manly male" could take that and make it into "You want to shanghai me into carrying your stuff for a mile? I'll do it for two. Hah, you wuss."

So, two down.  Next would be to discuss men on an emotional level: what to express, how to express them, that sort of thing.

And, since I mentioned the Bard, Shakespeare has also had some thoughts on manliness, particularly in MacBeth. After MacDuff is informed that his family has been slaughtered, he is told to take it like a man; MacDuff replies that he must also “feel it as a man.” So, I guess a man actually can be "in touch with his feelings" – feelings of loss, of love, of filial devotion, as well as rage and homicidal intent.

Recently, my own character was commented on, that I’m a “cool and detached” person. That could be, but that’s only because I've noted that feelings have to be beaten, forged, and molded into a proper tool; hot, passionate feelings just turn into shrapnel, unfocused and wasteful. I like to think I have a good lock on my passions. I love truth so much, I made a trilogy dedicated to defending it, and beating back lies about a man who died before most of my friends and readers were born. Being detached keeps those passions controlled.

Heck, Jesus has called us to love one another, not like each other. Which is good for me, because I can’t stand most people, but will rush to their aid if they truly needed it (and you thought I was schizophrenic because I’m a writer, didn't you?). Most people who trip over me have conversations that are so self-centered, I can just smile and nod and get away with it.

Don’t get me wrong, I used to care about everything that everyone would tell me. I’d do my best to give advice and council, and I’d hurt when they’d hurt and fret when they did … then I concluded that they just wanted attention, and someone to tell them that they were right and they were perfectly justified to do whatever it was they wished. Now, I will only invest myself in a select few.

And let’s face it, you've all seen me when I become invested in a person. When my best friend (who I was a bit in love with) burned me, I had a full-on public nervous breakdown, disguised as a writing lessons: emotions varied from painto rage to murder to tears.

So, which is “manly”? The passionate rage? The hurt? The tears? All of them?  None of them? No idea. My men in The Pius Trilogy are hurt, get sad, depressed, enraged, and homicidal.

Even in the Facebook conversation that started this discussion mourned for a manly character who fights, gets laid, saves the girl, smokes, drinks, but is also educated. Really? Does that mean James Bond, perfect psychopath, counts? Spider Robinson once noted Robert Mitchum as a perfect example, but I never saw the man as more than a moving block of wood. Neither of them are the sort of man you find in Inigo Montoya of The Princess Bride.

Manly? Or too much
Looking at all of the “manly” characters I can think of, the best I can come up with is being vaguely detached. At least the ability to be detached. Looking at men who are manly without being He-Man exaggerated, what is there: Bond, Montoya, Batman, Tony Stark, all exude “I don’t give f---,” either about the opinions of others, law (occasionally morals). Captain America, Thor, Superman, all stand for something, defying what others think or feel. They are in touch with their own feelings – honor, patriotism, ethics.

No, I don’t necessarily mean Alpha dominant bull, because that just seems to lead to macho stupidity or being a schmuck. But to have the correct level of self-possessed spirit that says “Yes, I can act independently if abandoned.” Sure, a manly fellow can fit in with society, any Band of Brothers sentiment relies on it, but he is not attached at the hip to society write large.

But all things in balance, please. Even “sociopaths” who kill in the military can feel the loss of a friend, feel sad over the loss of a civilian, et al. They love who they love, and if you mess with them or theirs ... well, let's just say that they don’t love you. James Bond shows an unnatural level of detachment, caring about … nothing, really. At the end of the day, attempts to give James Bond depth fail because he only cares about his job – not any woman he sleeps with, and his sense of patriotism only seems to go only as deep as it is his job to defend the country. If one day, someone ever writes a book where Bond’s failure leads to mass casualties, his biggest response will be to shrug and treat it like an unsuccessful chess match.

So, does being a man entail sociopathy? Well, let’s break that down a bit. In John Ringo’s Under a Graveyard Sky, two men say that they’re sociopaths because killing doesn't bother them, and they don’t see the enemy as people. I don’t find that too strange, since if I’m being shot at, I’d see the threat, not a person. Little definitions like this lead some people to say that a sociopath is defined as someone who merely scares the psychologist. And now that sociopaths come in flavors (high/low-functioning, genetic, situational), sure, maybe being a man does involve that on some level, the same way that Autism Spectrum Disorder has been expanded to cover people who were once merely assholes.

Sherlock, with Benedict Cumberbach, is frequently described as a “high-functioning sociopath,” but is not usually considered manly because he’s so detached, he borders on being a thinking machine, as was the original. Yet Martin Freeman’s Watson, in the first episode, shoots a serial killer with no remorse, and it didn't faze him one little bit. Psychology has gotten to the point where many would see Watson as a sociopath, so let’s not get too carried away with that, shall with?

Heck, Kevin Anderson, the hero of my co-authored novel Codename: Winterborn, has a lot of similar characteristics to all of these "manly" qualities mentioned: rage, love, filial devotion, will stand up for what he believes in, up to and including killing people, will let no one push him around unless he wants to be pushed around ... and one review (who gave it 5-stars) slapped a label on Kevin as a simple psycho.

Is he crazed and damaged in Codename: Winterborn?  Oh, you betcha.  But just calling him a psycho because he has no problem killing people might simplify things just a little too much. Heck, he had no problem killing people before the book started.

At the end of the day, for a literary character to be manly, yes, he can have feelings – in fact, he must – but he must also have the right ones, and in the proper degree, otherwise, he becomes a caricature.   

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