Mr. Natural

Is Masculinity a Cultural Construction or a Biological Fact? Science (and Sci-Fi) Enter the Gender Fray.

Why they call boxing "the sweet science" is a mystery, unless you understand the sport as a powerful repository of ideas about men's primal nature. In the spectacle of a titanic fight and the glory of a world champion lie the deepest codes of male violence and its sublimation into sport. The ring is a holy arc, the bout a sacred rite in the religion we call masculinity. All the more fearsome when a girl, fercrissake, whups a guy.

That's what happened on October 9, when Margaret McGregor won a unanimous decision against Loi Chow. Before the battle in Seattle, sports writers— chivalrous bunch that they are— warned of dire damage to McGregor. But once she won, their concern became contempt. McGregor went from being a vulnerable frail to what the Post's Neil Travis called "a ballyhooed bimbo." The bout was widely labeled "a freak show," and a Washington legislator promised a bill to bar such fights, asking, "How many times can a woman be punched in her ovaries before she loses her reproductive capacity?"

Notice how readily women's delicate condition becomes a reason to forbid them from boxing men, and how easily McGregor's victory invites comparison to a freak show. Such rhetoric suggests that something besides right reason might be coloring the response from many sports "professionals." These defenders of the fight faith sense the heresy in a woman who beats a man. On a symbolic level, she puts another chink in the armor of masculinity by showing that you don't need a dick to be The Man.

It may be true that McGregor benefited unduly from the short stature and limited skills of her opponent (who pled high blood pressure as an excuse for his defeat). It may also be true that much of women's boxing is an excuse to watch ex-exotic dancers get pummeled for pay. But no one can say that McGregor is anything but serious about her craft, and the recent debut of Muhammad Ali's daughter Laila portends a time when women, too, can float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Already, the number of registered female fighters has climbed from 54 in 1994 to nearly 1300 today, and it's likely that women's boxing will soon be added to the Olympic Games. Ten years from now, when there's a tradition of training women to box, it may not be so unusual for a girl to wallop a guy. It will be interesting to see the sports world's attitude change from contempt to rage as they realize that yet another male preserve has been invaded by a culture hell-bent on making sex a fact rather than a fate.

Of course, males still hold the lion's share of the world's wealth, pull the strings of religious authority, and unleash the dogs of war. Even in America, where women do relatively well in the workforce, they earn only about three-quarters of what men do. In the material world, guys still rule, but on the symbolic plain of status, a real shift has occurred. And each new challenge to the prestige of masculinity makes it harder to argue that there's anything natural about it. Thirty years of feminism have convinced us that, at least when it comes to human potential, most of the traits we consider to be essentially male are culturally constructed. And the media beam a message of self-actualization so powerful that it has even been enlisted by military recruiters: "Be all that you can be." Margaret McGregor took that slogan seriously, and the result is fear and loathing in the primal ring.

Welcome to the crisis of masculinity '90s style. It's a market-driven trend with enormous resonance for every man who feels the hot breath of change. For every guy who longs for the days when he could swagger and bray with impunity; for every dude who's deeply pissed that women won't lie still under him (in politics or in bed); for every boss who can't tweak the girls in the typing pool, and every Joe Sixpack whose boss is a goddamn broad: This backlash is for you!

Since this is a crisis of status rather than substance, the cybercrat is as likely as the working stiff to feel under siege. Which makes the current situation tailor-made for a publishing boom, as shrinks, scientists, and revisionist feminists line up at the gender-studies trough. From Susan Faludi to Lionel Tiger, the trade-book cognoscenti are creating a new image of the oppressed and fragile male. Meanwhile, in the mass media, there's a rude dude rising, and the networks are perfectly willing to market him right alongside the subversion of masculinity. Check out that t&a fest The Man Show or Action, the new sitcom in which a nasty, narcissistic young boss calls his male underlings "my bitches."

On Politically Incorrect, Bill Maher inveighs about the need for "a male agenda," rendering as infotainment what could be George Bush's secret weapon. Beneath the carping about Al Gore is the uneasy sense that he's something less than butch. Bill Bradley comes across as a real man, but he's liberal, so how real can he be? Bush is the likely winner in this stud-stakes, rollicking on as the classic good old boy. There's an odd nostalgia surrounding W's persona, fueled by powerful anxieties about the new way men and women see each other and themselves.

But when it comes to capturing the rage this panic provokes, nothing is as compelling as Fight Club, the new guy-fi epic in which Brad Pitt arouses the animal within the postmodern man— and plays it to the hilt. While David Fincher's film reminds us that there's a direct link between male resentment and fascism, it also can be enjoyed as a spectacle of feminized guys recovering their primal energies in the timeless arena of the fight. All the tropes of male bonding are here, from the stripping away of weakness in a violent secret rite to the worship of an alpha male. It's Nietzsche meets Orwell, except that this time Big Sister Is Watching You. "We're a generation of men raised by women," Pitt tells his querulous alter ego, "and I'm not sure another woman is what we need."

Back in the 1980s, the male backlash needed a social justification, as in those Michael Douglas revenge thrillers where a fed-up white guy strikes back at rapacious minorities, an unscrupulous female boss, or an unfaithful wife. But in the age of Fight Club, masculinity itself is under siege, so it's not enough to listen to Rush and vote Republican. Manhood must be reinvented in terms that legitimize its demand for power. Instead of railing about feminazis, how much more righteous is it to regard masculinity as a force of nature, a pressure cooker that will pop if it's too tightly sealed by the culture. This is the new return of the repressed.

Not that there's anything novel about the idea that sex is grounded in human nature. Feminists have always had to do battle with the assertion that, in Freud's famous phrase, "anatomy is destiny"— and there were ample data to prove it, just as scientists before the Enlightenment could show that women were imperfect versions of men by demonstrating that the vagina was an interior penis and the ovaries were junior-miss testicles. Every social order finds its justification in nature, so it's no surprise that the current quest for male legitimacy hinges on a certain reading of biology and evolution. These "hard sciences" are a fortress against the argument that gender is a social construction.

Of course, it's no contradiction to say that nature and nurture interact to create the sexes as we know them. The question is, to what extent? Striking recent findings about the impact of hormones bolster the contention that biology plays a powerful role in being a gal or a guy.

We know, for example, that maleness is conferred upon the fetus by a flood of certain hormones, and that absent this chemical soaking the resulting child will be female. This has led psychologist John Money to note that "to differentiate the male, something must be added" (quite a turnaround from the traditional view of women as deficient men). Estrogen, the female hormone, confers a greater immunity to illness than men possess, not to mention a longer life span. So much for the myth of the weaker sex.

As for testosterone, the macho elixir, recent research shows that it rises and falls dramatically according to the circumstances of life. Stressed out guys have lowered levels of testosterone, but so do happily married men, suggesting a biological basis for marital bed death. But perhaps the greatest implication for the sex wars is the finding that men with high status have higher testosterone levels— hence the alpha male not only fucks more but feels more vital. In the drive for that hormonal high, science writer Deborah Blum observes, "the link between high testosterone and the quest for dominance looks fairly real."

Of course, it's not the data that are debatable, but their interpretation. Backlashers look at this research and see a man who is physically strong but fundamentally fragile, especially when it comes to keeping his testosterone flowing. This biochemical image is an oddly fitting correlate to Susan Faludi's description of the American male as "shafted." Whether he's a victim of the culture or a hormonal casualty of his reduced status, the consequences are clear. Sociologists report sharply rising rates of depression and suicide among men. So there really is a crisis of masculinity, though it probably has less to do with the earning power of women than with a world where the traditional ways of celebrating masculinity have all but lost their glory. You can't even bask in the glow of a champion if he might be a she. And if a woman can be the alpha, how do you keep that pecker up?

One answer is to find new ways of generating spunk, such as discovering that powerful women can be sexy and that nurturance can be a source of pride. But instead of considering the libido as a force plastic enough to function in a changing world, scientists with a big investment in trad masculinity are promoting a much more fatalistic reading of the current moment.

Among the most influential of these macho apologists is Lionel Tiger, the anthropologist who coined the term "male bonding," grounding it in a particular view of anthropological reality. Tiger's description of life in the primordial era— when men hunted in groups while women cared for babies and gathered crops— was immensely important during the 1970s, when feminism was struggling for an intellectual foothold. Tiger's speculations still haunt many discussions of human nature, though there's no conclusive evidence that his view of primitive society is accurate. "You essentially made up a story," Barbara Ehrenreich railed at Tiger during a recent Harper's dialogue, "and what made it so suspect is that the picture of prehistory you created looks so much like Levittown in 1957."

Tiger's rationale has hardly changed, but his tone has gone from cocky confidence to an almost elegiac poignancy. Tiger's new book, The Decline of Males, offers an ominous warning about what kind of world the rise of women is creating. Everything from shrinking birth rates and soaring divorce rates to the proliferation of take-out food is, for him, a consequence of this power shift. Male dominance, Tiger maintains, is critical to social stability, since it "disciplines men by imposing on them an extraordinary lifelong financial if not also emotional responsibility to spouses and children." Without this patriarchal perk— and the celebration of male power as a basis for mating— men are regressing to a pathological version of their natural state. They are becoming "outlaws, not inlaws," drawn to violence and fixated on the power fantasies of porn and sports. All that's missing from Tiger's dark vision is the prediction that these solitary men will band together in secret cadres with terrorism on their mind. This is the premise of Fight Club, which takes place in a world where the new trinity Tiger describes— "a woman, a child, and a bureaucrat"— has made maleness beside the point.

Tiger is hardly the only proponent of this dour worldview. Policy guru Francis Fukuyama equates "the sexual and feminist revolutions" with what his new book calls The Great Disruption, grounding a defense of the traditional order in human nature. "The family bond is relatively fragile," he argues, "based on an exchange of the woman's fertility for the man's resources." Effective birth control and the prospect of economic autonomy for women have conspired to breach this biological contract. The result is a society in which men abandon all responsibility— the sexual equivalent of the world turned upside down.

By the time this scenario filters down to a pop figure like syndicated rabbi Dennis Prager, it's not just the family that's in crisis, it's Him. Prager sees a move afoot to "emasculate the God of Western religion." The male, Prager explains, "is more rule oriented." It is therefore "natural and desirable" that God will be identified with men. "Females are more naturally inclined toward feelings and compassion— essential qualities for a decent personal life, but not for the governance of society." This sort of thinking used to be dismissed as essentialist, but these days, that's a compliment. Nature has become a guarantor of male power.

Given the stakes in this debate, no wonder it's raging not just in the media but in the academy, where "controversies about sex and Darwin have replaced those about money and Marx," as Tiger notes. One such clash, between the progressive anthropologist Stephen J. Gould and his more conservative rivals (whom he calls "Darwinian fundamentalists"), has spilled across the pages of The New York Review of Books. Under attack is Gould's view of evolution as a series of auspicious accidents, in which traits that have no biological function (such as the religious impulse) can nevertheless play a defining role in human history. To scientists like Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins, the world is a much more determined place, where everything functional about behavior has its origin in "selfish" genes.

It's not the facts that are in contention here but the frame. Liberal times favor a dynamic view of human nature, in which people are constantly creating themselves, using culture and consciousness as instruments of evolution. But in conservative eras, the fundamental things apply. Nature provides a template that dictates a specific set of human responses. As the right-wing dominance of American life concludes its second decade, it's no surprise that this essentialist perspective is on the rise.

For biodeterminists, the basic assumptions of psychology need to be revised. The unconscious is nature, the id an ancient imprint on the brain. As for gender, it's a p.c. invention; only sex is real, and its organization has everything to do with how humans evolved. Church fathers used to call this process "natural law," but there's a trendy new term fit for a secular time: hard wiring. We ignore this genetic circuitry at our peril.

Yet in the end, this is not a fight about the nature of reality but about status— in the academy and in the social world. Men are being told that their very vitality hinges on taking back their former glory. And, indeed, if winning raises testosterone levels, it may well be that the challenge to male supremacy is prompting a widespread hormonal slump. This is not just a bedroom tragedy; after all, the classic way for downcast guys to recover their pride is making war. That does not bode well for men or women, traditional and otherwise.

"I don't want males to decline," says Ehrenreich. "I want females to rise up." New thinking points the way to gratifying both desires. In the more progressive precincts of postfeminism, there's a feeling of rapprochement with men. You can see this in Faludi's thesis that guys, too, are victimized by sexism and consumer society. Empathy may be a way to promote the preservation of male arousal without abandoning the goal of gender equity. Give them status (not to mention sex), the do-me feminists proclaim, but keep your eyes on the prize.

Not that this is a conscious strategy. But despite its justifyable rage, feminism has always been animated by a sense of where the deepest interests of both sexes intersect. It's the only revolutionary movement that is determined not to crush the enemy. On the contrary, if feminism's vision of an intimate democracy is to be realized, it must not only unleash women's full potential but inspire a new basis for men's self-esteem.

Will that be enough to end the crisis of masculinity? Will guys settle for respect once their monopoly on power is broken up? Who knows. But since the sexes are intimate in a way the races and classes usually are not, it's just possible that, in the arena of sexual politics, empathy can be an effective mediator of change. One thing is clear: the alternative to love is fight club.

Research: Jason Schwartzberg

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