My 8-year-old, Alexander, is a tough kid. He’s not mean or aggressive; he’s just tough and has attitude.
Increasingly, it’s annoying and difficult that he’s tough; he has turned arguing into a sport and gives new meaning to defiant. His attitude is often funny — he comes out with lines like, “This place is stacked, sugarplum” — though I try not to laugh. (Yes, “sugarplum” is me.)
With allegations of sexual harassment now an almost hourly occurrence and calls increasing for an end to masculinity, I have been thinking a lot about his toughness. Although no one has yet to blame the mothers for the sins of their sons, I do feel a special obligation to raise a mensch. And I do think it takes more work to make athletic boys, which he is, into mensches.
When I was dating in my 20s, I used to say, “I want a guy who is strong enough to be sweet.” This has proven to be true time and again. It is typically weak, insecure men who brag, harass, bully, assault, rape — who are often the biggest jerks.
So, no, I don’t think we need to neuter men, but I do think we need to refine our concept of masculinity. Toughness has to mean real, inner strength, not just bravado. We need to build and reward confidence, not arrogance.
And there’s no reason that real strength can’t be combined with respect and empathy. In fact, it’s part of it. When I’m in a bind with Alexander, I ask him to think about two of his favorite biblical characters — Moses and Joshua. He particularly likes Joshua because not only is he strong, but he’s also — as portrayed in “The Ten Commandments” — cool. “What would Joshua do?” I ask him.
It’s a question that I wish many men I’ve known had asked themselves, let alone the Harvey Weinsteins of the world.
Interestingly, the times that Alexander completely transforms into a sweet, caring child is either when I’m sick or he sees an injured animal. I’ve thought about this while reading all of the conservative calls for men to return to the roles of “protectors” of women and children. Protectors, the argument goes, would never turn into Weinstein.
Leaving aside for a second the fact that plenty of Weinsteining went on before the sexual revolution, there is a point here that shouldn’t be ignored. In the hunter-gatherer days of evolution, men felt that they had a duty to protect women and children. What if men are hard-wired for that role, and when it’s taken away from them, they act out in unhealthy ways?
I should immediately point out: This in no way undermined evolutionary feminism — women gathered. That was their job. Extended families helped to watch the children. Much of that autonomy was lost, of course, until early 20th-century feminism again freed women to not just work outside of the home, but to vote and make personal choices not based on societal norms.
What I’m arguing for is a return to two concepts that late 20th-century feminism discarded in its rush to negate sexual differences: chivalry and courtship. Masculinity needed to be civilized, not weakened. We need strong men, just like we need strong women.
Not coincidentally, the original definition of chivalry included bravery, honor and a readiness to help the weak. In other words, a mensch.
I don’t think we have to neuter men. We need to redefine our concept of masculinity.
I for one have no problem with men opening doors for me; pulling out chairs; “protecting” me in a larger, big-picture kind of way. In fact, I love when men are chivalrous. Courtship not only allows men to feel strong in a very healthy way, but it is also the surest test of a man’s real interest.
Before Mattathias of Modi’in died, when he knew that his five sons, later to be called the Maccabees, were going to have to proceed in an epic battle against the Greeks, he told them: “Hazak ve’amatz.” Be strong and brave.
Each night after I sing the Shema to Alexander, I say: “Be strong and brave like the Maccabees.” If his future girlfriends (and wife) are able to say, “Alexander is strong enough to be sweet,” I will feel that I have accomplished my duty as a mother.
A future doctor? If he wants. Far more important: my son, the Maccabee.
Karen Lehrman Bloch is a cultural critic and the author of “The Lipstick Proviso: Women, Sex & Power in the Real World” (Doubleday). Her writings have appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, The Wall Street Journal and Metropolis, among others.