Perhaps you've seen the latest commercial from Miller lite. A group of men sit in a glass enclosed room, each of them celebrities with a reputation for iconic masculinity. They sit around a table discussing the things that bother men. They try to come to some resolution and at the end they issue a "man law". Burt Reynolds plays the avuncular de facto leader of the group, but it also includes a pro-wrestler who is apparently transactionally obligated to tear off his shirt at a spot in the script that makes the least sense. I guess "Triple H" stands for 3 doses of "huh?" The spots also feature Jerome "The Bus" Bettis, 2 comedians known to be edgy (what - no Nathan Lane?), a rodeo cowboy, and an ancient, grizzled librarian recording things in a large leather bound book.
One of the men is unlikely to be recognized by most viewers, but you will notice that he is missing an arm. His name is Aaron Ralston. He's the rock climber who's arm was pinned under a boulder. To survive Mr. Ralston Cut off his own arm with a pocket knife in order to escape. If you define "manliness" as the ability to endure your own screams of abject horror then Ralston get's my vote... but I digress. You see, something is bothering me about this campaign. Something bothers me about the way our perceptions of masculinity are being assaulted by crass, buffoonish archetypes' of aggressive, mindless, scared-of-my-own-feelings men.
If you are a man, ask yourself this question. Are men really only about the 3 B's? Beer, Breasts and Brawn? Incidentally, too much beer over a life time will steal your brawn, but eventually give you breasts - so I guess it's an even trade. Anyway, in one of the recent spots the men are gabbing... kvetching...uh... the men are up in each other's face about what to do if a guy sticks his stinky finger in your beer. The solution? A "You poke it you own it" man law. Obviously this is a thinly veiled attempt to be funny using sexual innuendo. Real men, especially ones with daughters and wives that they love and appreciate, should be outraged that this still passes as funny.
Now I know it is meant to be satirical. Like the "Red Green Show", "Blue Collar TV", and NASCAAR, attacking how silly and stupid men are is in vogue. I suppose it's payback for years of Miss America Pageants, sexy music videos and the entire "E!" cable network. In the current climate poking fun at anything "manly" is safe to the point of being passé. Still, at what point does absurdity morph into the new conventional wisdom. These ads are not particularly insidious, but they do illustrate a viewpoint. Most people find a nugget of truth buried in the subtext. That's why they think it's funny to begin with. If you don't believe me, try watching "Larry the Cable Guy" do his stand-up routine on Comedy Central. After every funny line they show crowd shots. Take a close look and you will see husbands and wives and girlfriends and boyfriends nudging each other throughout the show. Larry's act is all about satirizing manhood. It's funny because it is selling on some level.
Cultural icons and media inform our viewpoint of what it means to "be a man". Obviously it does not literally mean having an outrageously oversized body like triple H - which apparently gives you license to be piteously dull about everything else. But maybe it's supposed to mean physical aggression or toughness. It probably does not mean, like most of Burt Reynolds on screen portrayals, substituting a wise cracking superficial view of life and relationships for depth of character. But it may mean putting personality above substance and pleasure above hard work and diligence. It probably does not mean the ability to endure the self-amputation of a limb. But it may mean the willingness to take personal risks without collaboration. Yes, I do believe that culture has an impact on our viewpoint, and as such, on our collective behavior.
As a parent, I do not want a young man who buys into this view to date my daughter. As a father trying to raise 2 sons I know that I do not want them to subscribe to this view. The prevailing view of manliness masks a great lie - that contentment is possible outside of love and relationship. Fame, money, talent, physical ability, and even accomplishment, do not create adequate conditions for contentment and happiness. Men are admired who are talented or strong or witty or wealthy, but the cost of being king of the hill is often that you have to keep everyone else off. Instead it is through giving and not receiving that true contentment is found.
I'm not saying that I have all the answers. I'm not saying that I know all the things that a man aught to be, and I'm struggling to teach my kids a balanced view. I'm just saying that if the world was full of the emotionally stunted specimens in the "man-law" commercials it would be a sorry place indeed. I want my boys to have the confidence to connect to others and to know themselves. I want them to grow into the kind of men with the courage to love and forgive... men of faith who connect with others and know how to give of themselves and show empathy.
On this father's day, as I contemplate fatherhood, I hope I'm sending that message to my kids.