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Masters of the Universe

There it was, the Rome, the Paris, the London of the twentieth century, the city of ambition, the dense magnetic rock, the irresistible destination of all those who insist on being where things are happening—and he was among the victors! He lived on Park Avenue, the street of dreams! He worked on Wall Street, fifty floors up, for the legendary Pierce & Pierce, overlooking the world! He was at the wheel of a $48,000 roadster with one of the most beautiful women in New York—no Comp. Lit. scholar, perhaps, but gorgeous—beside him! A frisky young animal! He was of that breed whose natural destiny it was…to have what they wanted! (Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities, ch.4, p.100)
Sherman McCoy is (at least, at the start of Wolfe's 'quintessential novel of the 1980s') a Master of the Universe. The realisation dawns on him "one fine day, in a fit of euphoria, after he had picked up the telephone and taken an order for zero-coupon bonds that had brought him a $50,000 commission, just like that" (p.31). He has an income of $980,000 a year (i.e. nearly $2.1 million in today's money), a 'mansion' of an apartment on Park Avenue (two floors connected by a five-foot-wide walnut staircase which sweeps up from the marble-floored entrance hall accessed via a private elevator vestibule), a prestigious reputation as the 'number one bond salesman' in the fiftieth floor trading room where he works, a wife to whom he feels sufficiently superior to justify the taking of a glamorous mistress, a 'perfect' and expensively educated six-year-old daughter, and the flashiest of flashy cars. Conveniently for Sherman, he also has sense of entitlement enough to square his privilege as well-deserved, and to help him re-narrate any dubious behaviours and events to his advantage. Thus, an ambiguous set-to in the Bronx culminating in the life-threatening hit-and-run of a scared young black teenager from 'the projects' comprises (temporarily, at least) the grounds for exultant self-congratulation:
Tonight, with nothing but his hands and his nerve he had fought the elemental enemy, the hunter, the predator, and he had prevailed. He had fought his way out of an ambush on the nightmare terrain, and he had prevailed. He had saved a woman. The time had come to act like a man, and he had acted and prevailed. He was not merely a Master of the Universe; he was more; he was a man. (Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities, ch.4, p.122)
Manhood according to Sherman McCoy seems pretty much the archetype of patriarchal masculinity. To dominate, to win, to exert force and accumulate power. That's the way to 'do' life. Might is right: if you can get it, you deserve it; if you can do it, you're entitled to.

Most of us are driven, on some level at least, by a desire to flourish, to live a 'good life'. But deciding or discovering what one of those actually is -- what a good life is supposed to look like -- is highly non-trivial. We look around, to gauge the consensus: what do our peers seem to be aiming for? what does the media encourage us to aspire to? what do our leaders and authority figures have to say?

It seems to me, looking in from the outside, that 'being a man' carries with it an inordinate amount of pressure to 'BE a MAN'. (Consider, for example, the sheer weight of mockery, insult and correction with which the word 'girly' is loaded). And wherever you turn for hints towards that end, you see variations on a theme of Sherman McCoy. For many, that's the most convincing benchmark they've got for acceptability and meaningful progress in life. So -- perhaps with a few reasonable customisations; a little softening around the edges depending on taste -- that's what they try to become.

As for 'being a woman' -- well, nowadays, thanks to some feminisms, there's a sense that that isn't really supposed to make the slightest bit of difference. When equality is understood as the opportunity to go head to head with men on their own current turf and terms and to win, to flourish as a woman is essentially to BE a MAN also -- as though the existing male deal and ideal are unambiguously noble and grand. So, many females are adopting the 'Sherman standard' too, or something like it. [1]

By no means is everyone sold on the mainstream brand of manhood. Some (males included) are so appalled that they want 'out' from masculinity altogether -- either by doing away with gender distinctions, or by championing (some notion of) femininity until the status quo is reversed.

For the 'average man on the street' just trying to find his way in the world I imagine this whole shebang might be rather traumatising. The aforementioned pressure to 'BE a MAN' hasn't let up any, whilst now he has twice as many opponents to that end since women entered the fray. Meanwhile anti-male sentiment abounds, so that his successes, as 'traditionally' understood, are met at least as much with reproach as they are with acclaim. And since 'BEING a MAN' seems often to intrinsically involve the obligation to suppress and contain emotion [2], the avenues for processing all of these challenges healthily -- the undermining of identity, the disappointments and confusions, the sense of disenfranchisement -- may be limited or closed. So there's lots of pain, and a fair amount of blame (some fair) ... and there's a violent and control-re-asserting backlash against women/feminism. It all sounds a lot like Genesis 3:16 to me (see previous post).

The phrase 'crisis of masculinity' is much parroted. Bell hooks (in her 2003 book The Will to Change) emphasises that the crisis is really one of patriarchal masculinity: it's not those principles truly intrinsic to manhood and male identity which are under threat, but the limiting and diminishing gender expectations imposed by the dominator model-based power structures to which we are in thrall. She urges for a re-envisioned masculinity -- one rooted in selfhood and partnership rather than in power and control. This, she advises, will bring about much-needed liberation and healing to men as well as to women.

Poor Sherman will not serve as much of a role model in this renewed vision; he could probably do with some fresh role models of his own. So, to whom do we turn? Maybe you can see where I'm going with this ... you're bracing yourself for the Sunday school answer already [3] ... But before you sigh and roll your eyes and go and refresh Reddit, just you try reading the gospel accounts with the question in mind "what is manhood according to Jesus?" -- Jesus, considered by many the perfect man (among other descriptors). To say that he doesn't conform to patriarchally masculine ideals doesn't begin to cover it; he expressly exposes and overturns them, and examples in their place a radical alternative ...
When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. (John 13:12-15)
And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45)  
When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (Matthew 9:36)
Jesus wept. (John 11:35) 
Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” And he laid his hands on them and went away. (Matthew 19:13-15)
“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. (Luke 6:27-30) 
Then they came up and laid hands on Jesus and seized him. And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” (Matthew 26:50b-54) 
And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:33-34a)
... How's that for a man who many believe really is the Master of the Universe? Ultimate surrender of ultimate power: the ultimate role model (among other things) for all who find themselves in a position to dominate -- whether men over women, or within other asymmetric dynamics. Some take the fact that Jesus was a man as evidence that Christianity is just one more weapon in the patriarchal armoury. But suppose he had come as a woman, or been otherwise marginalised within his particular community -- then worldly lowliness would have been par for the course. Expressed in the life of a man, such radical demonstration of willing surrender, humility and love achieves its fullest impact in this power-infatuated world.

[N.B. This is sort of part 2 of a sort of series, of which Reigning Men is sort of part 1, and Me and You Versus the Patriarchy is sort of part 3.].



[1] What this does for traditionally 'female' contributions to society and family -- so scorned and undervalued that men are hardly incentivised towards embracing an equal part in them -- is a whole other, troubling, story.

[2] See, e.g. bell hooks: "Patriarchal mores teach a form of emotional stoicism to men that says they are more manly if they do not feel, but if by chance they should feel and the feelings hurt, the many response is to stuff them down, to forget about them, to hope they go away. [...] The masculine pretense is that real men feel no pain." (The Will to Change, p5)

[3] Sunday school teacher: "What lives in a tree, collects nuts, and has a long bushy tail?"; small child: "I know the answer must be Jesus, but it sure sounds like a squirrel!"


[Thumbnail image cc from semihundido on Flickr].

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