Because my private thoughts cannot seem to pass the Bechdel Test, I have once again been thinking about men. Or perhaps, if I want to sound more high-minded, I’ve been thinking about masculinity and how it is and is not constructed in our current cultural moment. If this all seems a bit phallo-centric, please forgive me. It’s kind of hard not to think about men right now. Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux over at FiveThirtyEight.com worries that the Democratic presidential field hasn’t a sufficiently tough guy to slay Donald Trump. Oh, and two weekends ago there were two mass shootings in less than 24 hours — which is a lot, even for the US in the early 21st century. The El Paso shooter was a white nationalist driven to his crimes by a radicalization process exactly like those young men who join ISIS. In Dayton, well, the shooter really hated women: his first victim was his own sister. Angry men: it’s a common theme.
Before I go any further, let us be clear: Trump is a narcissistic bully who will be a phenomenal asshole to whoever emerges as his opponent in the general election. The guy only has one speed, and America has a gun problem. Everything else I am about to talk about is a global crisis of modernity, but America is the only place where mass shootings are a problem. The guns are an issue; the NRA is a blight. Those things are so obvious it’s hardly worth discussing at this point, because it seems so unlikely to change. So instead, I want to talk about masculinity and what we’re all getting so wrong.
Which brings me to — you guessed it — the Romanovs. I’m reading a book right now about the four Romanov princesses and their time as nurses during World War I. It was the first and only time in their lives that the cloistered grand duchesses were allowed to mingle with anyone outside the palace. In the ward in which they worked, Olga, Tatiana, Maria and the most famous of them all, Anastasia, befriended the wounded young officers for whom they were sent to care. Olga, then 17, most certainly fell in love with one of the men. In her diary, she refers to him only as “darling Mitya.”
Some historians believe “darling Mitya” was the Georgian Dmitri Shakh-Bagov. In surviving photographs, he appears to be a bear of a man, one of the dark men of the Caucasus who must have seemed so exotic to princesses who’d been surrounded their whole lives by the Nordic guards favored by their mother, Empress Alexandra. There were rumors (and that is what they were — whispers amplified by friends decades after the Romanovs were murdered by the Bolsheviks) that Olga avoided marriage to Crown Prince Carol of Romania and perhaps to the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VIII, so loyal was she to her “darling Mitya.”
It all seems unlikely. While it is marginally possible that the softhearted, not terribly diplomacy-minded Tsar Nicholas II might have allowed his eldest daughter to marry a Russian nobleman and remain in her own country, a wish she expressed again and again in diary entries and in letters to friends and family, including in letters to her father, it would have been unthinkable for the Tsar’s daughter to marry an obscure, untitled young officer from the edges of the Russian empire. No one would have been more aware of this than Olga. Attempting to marry a commoner was fool’s errand. Moreover, if Olga did thwart marriage to Prince Carol, Prince Edward or any foreign prince, for that matter, in order to prove her love for “darling Mitya,” it was an ill-advised choice that cost her her life.
I am in the capital of Georgia, Tbilisi, at the moment, the city where Shakh-Bagov was born. I must confess that I do not understand the Romanov sisters’ fascination. Though to each her own, I suppose. I also have not spent my life locked away at the Winter Palace nor do I have much taste for ruggedness in men that is not tempered by something else. The brutish masculinity of the Caucasus does not suit my fancy.
Of course, I cannot stand too much softness, either. I am usually not interested in the kind of men that many women I know, who think of themselves as enlightened, seem to date and marry, often compulsively. Sensitive men. Men so tamed and mild-mannered, so soft they seem scarcely to qualify any longer as men. The kind of masculinity I crave is a bit like fugu — toxic, but not necessarily dangerous, per se, if expertly curated. The poison is what makes it interesting, attractive. A small amount of it, just enough to flavor the flesh and tingle your lips, makes it desirable. The only problem is when there’s too much toxin or it leaks into the wrong place and it kills you. Risk is part of the fun, isn’t it? It’s much better than eating cod, which won’t kill you, but has no flavor.
These women — the kind inexplicably drawn to soft men — are the very women clamoring on social media about the new trailer for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the Fred Rogers biopic starring Tom Hanks, set for release later this year. Before I go further, let me be clear: this is not about Mr. Rogers, who by all accounts was a perfectly good man, if not necessarily the kind of man I’d go to bed with. Plus, I have a general policy of not speaking ill of the dead, primarily because one day I will be dead and I imagine that people will have plenty to say that I would rather they not say. This is about the strange cult that has developed of late around Mr. Rogers, now invigorated by the impending release of this film. It’s a cult seemingly devoted to the notion that any harshness, any steel in a man is to be suspect. My suspicion is that this notion of masculinity, as much (if not more) than the Trump-style tough guy, has done so much of the damage we are seeing.
In the early 1970s, Joan Didion noted that “hardness,” a trait that had fallen out of favor in women a century before, was now also becoming derided in men. The transformation noted by Didion is now largely complete, particularly among the Wokerati. The alternative we are presented — as though here and here alone we must think in a binary — is the Neanderthal brute of the MAGA crowd, who, let’s be honest, is ever as soft as his man-bun-wearing Brooklyn dwelling counterpart. He might be even more so, because a man should be able to admit who he is, before all else, with a clear-eyed robustness. That is, after all, the first and final test of courage, if for no other reason than it is seldom an entirely pretty picture. The second test is an ability to take responsibility for yourself. A test once again failed. Both matters require a bit of hardness, a moral and temperamental toughness, that seems to have largely vanished from our culture across the political spectrum. Neither the Ohio steel-worker whining that immigration is the reason he can’t get a job nor the Democratic Socialist convention delegate terrorized by side chatter seem to pass the test, at least not in any truly meaningful way.
Which is my problem with the worship of Mr. Rogers. His soppy masculinity is not an alternative to the hollow tough-guy swagger of Trump, it’s two sides of the same coin. Men are told that their strength lies in letting us all know what they feel all the time, instead of learning how to tame their passions. Sure, it is less destructive if they start crying instead of shooting, but “not destructive” also does not mean “constructive.” If not killing people indiscriminately is the test of manhood, the bar is too low. Victorians would blush.
And it is probably not going to work. This isn’t popular to say, but there are real biological factors at play here. Men and women are different: testosterone is a hell of a drug. Society has to account for it, and pretending that the best way to deal with violent men is to erase any meaningful expression of masculinity is as foolish as the daughter of a Tsar marrying a Georgian NCO. We have to talk about masculinity, but not how we change it. We need to talk about how to channel it. If we were doing a good job at this there would be no Proud Boys and Jordan Peterson would be an cranky psychology professor in Toronto, not an international manhood guru. The only way that guys like Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes and Peterson get hearings whatsoever on the subject of masculinity is if there is literally no other quasi-plausible alternative. Young men can feel in their bodies the ways in which they are primed to be aggressors: hunters and defenders. We lose all credibility to tell them otherwise. The only honest response is to offer a vision of how that aggression, that strength, can be put to good use. And that means looking for men with steel in their spines, instead of placing our offerings on the altar of the spineless.