Donald Trump’s media-circus candidacy has been bringing plenty of cultural taboos to the fore for all to see. This being the USA, any contest between a man and woman for the highest office in the land was doomed to draw trolls and patriarchs out of the woodwork, but the Trump vs Clinton contest has been particularly virulent from the get-go. From Trump’s admission that he can grab women by the genitals because he’s rich and famous, to the “Repeal the 19th” rhetoric spawned by Nate Silver’s claim that Trump would win if only men voted, this has been more than just a presidential election, it’s a referendum on what manhood means in America.
The satirical format of Cracked magazine is what enables their writers to play the jester’s role in speaking truths that are hard to admit otherwise. A recent listicle of theirs, “How Half Of America Lost Its F**king Mind,” accurately yet sympathetically breaks down for more liberally leaning readers just how anyone in their right mind can support Trump. There really are at least two Americas, culturally speaking, and it’s nigh impossible to get one side to understand the other side, especially on such basic concepts as religion, money, and what manhood is all about. (For example, is Trump’s brag about sexually assaulting women the sort of thing “real men” do, or is it something that real men would shun as shameful?) The liberal folks, who usually live in urban areas, see country folks as backwards rednecks with fossilized gender roles, but the country folks look at the city and see the fluidity of gender nonconformity as being unnatural. It’s stereotypical both ways, but stereotypes exist for reasons, after all.
It’s at least part biological, since undeniable physical differences exist between the genders such as average muscle mass and concentrations of hormones like testosterone (despite the existence of rare, intersex individuals). Children as young as four years old show gendered differences in how and when they decide to speak or submit. Despite the best intentions of some openminded parents, toy preferences really do seem to break down along gendered lines, with females often preferring plush toys and males choosing toy cars and balls, even making neutral toys (such as sticks) into dolls or guns as if programmed by nature to do so. This is true even among other primates who don’t have our cultural hangups.
What is a monkey’s favourite toy? From BBC Two
In the vast majority of human cultures, manhood exists as a status separate from that of boys and women. Biology contributes the genes, but a combination of nature and culture make the man. Exceptions can and do exist among individuals, but for the most part, the tasks assigned to men had to do with their natural proclivities and interests, as well as the ability to take on potentially dangerous tasks like hunting or working in a factory when women, as primary caretakers for young children, could not. Rites of passage for boys approaching manhood often involved danger and pain, such as making a first kill, circumcision, tattoos, or wearing a glove that contained biting ants. This is important in societies where tolerance for pain and privation is necessary in order to bring home the bacon, secure the home place, and fight off intruders or raiders. The responsibilities of men are many.
At the heart of the challenge is the more or less unspoken truth that not all boys will succeed at attaining manhood. In most species, ours included, males are more expendable than females, since one male and several females can effectively keep a population going, while one female and several males would have a hard time. Tests of strength and courage have the advantage of weeding out boys who are lacking in these areas, while assuring that those who make it through are more likely to achieve reproductive success and pass on their traits to the next generation. These biological and cultural truths have far-reaching implications today, and I’ll explore some of these in Part 2.