Several things recently have turned my mind to the notion of The Real Man. One of these was a conversation with someone at work which basically went along these lines:
Him: I must be a man, because I’ve got testicles.
Me: I’m not entirely sure that testicles is all there is to it.
Him: Of course it is.
Me: Perhaps biologically, but culturally it’s a bit more complex.
Him: Yeah, but I’ve got testicles.
Then recently someone called Jane Gilvary wrote a hate-tract about the John Wayne American Man being killed off by man-hating feminists and their appletinis. A few things came from reading some hilarious comments over at Shakesville, and I myself wrote a longer-than-necessary remark. I now have some questions:
First, and probably most importantly: Who exactly wrote down the list of rules for what constitutes a Real Man, and could they let us actually see the list? Because I’m not sure anybody knows what’s actually on the Mythic List of Real Manliness. I mean, we’re sort of told, but nobody seems really very sure, do they?
Secondly: Hasn’t anybody noticed that nobody actually seems to fit the slightly mysterious list of requirements? Even John Wayne wasn’t actually John Wayne. He was an actor who, at best, chose not to fight his studio about taking part in the Second World War (the studio of course, wanted to keep their cash cow safe at home, making them money movies). James Stewart, gangly American everyman, rather than Real Man, went to war. Clark Gable, certainly a contender for Real Man status, went off to war, but in part because he was hoping to join his wife in the Great Beyond. John Wayne stayed at home. Not through conscientious objection – which I personally feel is very brave – but because he could… and then made his name in fucking war movies. Hypocrisy isn’t part of the Real Man requirements, is it?
Jane Gilvary says that Real Men don’t wear skinny jeans. Or v-neck tees, or accessorised scarves, the colours purple and pink, pedicures and waxing. She says American men are supposed to be like in The Old Days, when they ate steak, wore plaid shirts and Old Spice. They also liked football, hunting and Clint Eastwood movies.
That’s Clint Eastwood, who made Million Dollar Baby, which is a movie entirely designed to make you cry, boxing or no boxing. And also the Clint Eastwood who starred opposite an orangutan. Twice. How ‘Real Manly’ are either of those things, exactly?
And while we’re at it, Clark Gable was warned to be seen hunting and shooting because he wasn’t manly enough. Clark Gable. You remember Clark Gable, don’t you? One of the most, the most masculine people to ever set foot in front of a movie camera.
The Real Man has been an endangered species for as long as anyone can remember for one very simple reason: He never really existed.
I mean, I know lots of people of the human man persuasion. I even like some of them. I hate to spoil some people’s notions of men all being the same lazy, smelly, sports-watching brutes, but they’re not all like that. In fact, if we look at some of the guys who are considered Real Men in culture, we can see that none of them fit the bill.
John Wayne and Clark Gable, we already know about. Howsabout Humphrey Bogart, a hardened drinker and raiser of hell, and yet also suave and intelligent. He was one level below chess master, for fuck’s sake (apparently Paul Henreid was better, though).
Now, let me really stump some of you out there: Rock Hudson.
There are fewer more perfect Real Men on screen than Rock Hudson, the man who got Doris Day’s knickers off three times (in the movies, of course). Rock Hudson, beautiful Rock Hudson. He was sporty, beefy and gorgeous. He was charming and a half decent actor, too. NEWS FLASH: Rock Hudson was also gay. I don’t think ‘gay’ is allowed according to the Mythic List of Real Manliness, and yet there is Rock Hudson, so fucking manly that when he was forced to come out by truly tragic circumstances, anyone not in the know was genuinely shocked.
By the way, if anyone ever tells you that gay actors can’t play straight, mention Rock, would you?
So there’s Rock and Bogey and The Duke and the King. Anyone else?
Well, how about Errol Flynn? A man so beautiful that the world fell at his feet, who claimed to have slept with around 14,000 women and had the phrase ‘In Like Flynn’ coined due to the legend of his sexual prowess. Sure, he was also taken to court for statutory rape more than once, but thanks to the ridonkulousness of our culture, this just made him look More Manly. Errol Flynn liked sailing (surely a manly pursuit, see also Bogart, Humphrey) and fucking. He also liked alcohol, narcotics and fifteen-year-old girls. You couldn’t call him honourable, but you could call him manly.
Except that he was desperate to be taken seriously as a writer and a thinker. Caught up in the Cuban revolution (I think he was there for the brothels), he went and hung out with Castro and Guevara in one of the least likely moments of political and cultural melding. Are Real Men left-wing? Probably not in Gilvary’s world. (this is working on the presumption that the 1980s allegations of him being a Nazi spy are total bollocks.) Oh, and he was bisexual, we’re told. Hell, a chapter heading in one book about him is called ‘If It Moved, Flynn Fucked It’.
When Valentino’s star burst bright over the world, commentators not unlike Gilvary and her ilk decided that he was the Great Threat to Real Men. He was a foreigner of course (have I mentioned that Real Men are of course, white and generally American or English, depending on the tosser writing), and was effeminate. Women loved and adored him, but instead of using this to buy a clue, writers accused Valentino of being gay (because you see, Real Men cannot be gay. See also Hudson, Rock) and yet also a marriage-wrecker. He was a vain man, which Real Men aren’t supposed to be. A London hotel complained of black boot polish on the pillows after his stay: he was hiding his increasing baldness with it.
If even John Wayne, Clark Gable and Valentino aren’t Real Men, then who the hell are?
Might I then ask my third question: do we need to redefine what exactly makes a Real Man? Some of the things on the list are worth keeping: a sense of honour and decency, for one thing. Another thing, which seems to be forgotten easily is this: Real Men don’t take shit from anyone. Did you ever see John Wayne just shrug off slights and insults? I think not! How many scenes in how many movies are sparked off by a Straw Real Man insulting a Real Man’s sense of self?
Hell, the underlying theme in Back to the Future is the notion of ‘chicken’. As soon as we arrive in 2015 (and fuck, didn’t that seem like a long time ago then? We’ve only got five years to go now!) we are informed subtly that all is not entirely well in Marty McFly’s household. He is a failure. Something happened, you know, to his hand. All through the trilogy Marty is completely incapable of ignoring the accusation of ‘chicken’ or ‘yeller’. And at the end of the trilogy, when he outsmarts the dude from Red Hot Chili Peppers, when he has resisted the urge to do something stupid for an absurd notion of ‘bravery’, then he’s a man, my son.
No, as far as I can see, the true meaning of Real Man is honour, decency and bravery. Not Straw Bravery, where one spends all of one’s time fighting to prove how tough one is. Bravery is not toughness and toughness is not bravery.
No, real bravery is being oneself – whether it ticks the boxes on the Mythic List of Real Manliness or not – and being unapologetic. That’s why Real Men wear silk stockings – they did when the Declaration of Independence was signed. Real Men do wear plaid – if they want to. Real Men wear jeans – skinny or Wranglers – if they choose to. Some Real Men wouldn’t be caught dead in jeans. I mean, can you see Sinatra in denim?
Real Men don’t let anyone tell them how to live. Rory Gallagher, my hero, wore plaid shirts until he got bored of it and switched to blazers and shirts. He also told record companies to basically get fucked and refused to release singles. He hated big stadium tours so he stuck with smaller venues. As I saw him described recently: he was quiet and gentlemanly, but he was also a non-conformist.
Real Men don’t take shit from anyone. That’s what being a Real Man is to me, and that’s why John Wayne had the appearance of it at least: his most memorable characters are that type, but they aren’t that way because they’re fresh off the trail, or because they’re unshaven or wearing plaid shirts. In The Searchers, he is a Real Man because of his dedication to his family, and ultimately raises himself to True Real Man status by facing and tearing down his own prejudice, before accepting the damnation that was born from it. John Wayne’s most memorable characters are men of integrity, you see.
Integrity. I think that’s where this has all been leading. It’s not about fucking Appletinis or skinny jeans. Those are cosmetic choices people make. What really makes a Real Man real is integrity.
It’s why I suspect the most real Real Men put on screen are not John Wayne’s, but Gregory Peck’s characters. Not just Atticus, although he’s probably a perfect example. I mean also Joe Bradley in Roman Holiday, who starts out with a selfish scheme and ends by giving it up for a larger ideal. I also mean Philip Green, his journalist in Gentleman’s Agreement, who put everything on the line to expose anti-Semitism in post-war America. Even in light-as-a-feather fare like Designing Woman, Peck’s character is a sports writer working to expose the criminal dealings of a boxing promoter. And what of James McKay in The Big Country? Or Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty in The Scarlet and The Black? A priest who dresses up as a nun in order to evade the Nazis and in so doing helps people in occupied Rome? Sounds like a Real Man to me.
I think the point I’m actually getting to, rather than just lauding Gregory Peck (and I have only been a little bit selective in my examples there. I left out his portrayal of infamous Nazi doctor Josef Mengele in The Boys From Brazil, for instance), is that being a Real Man is a state of mind.
There are Real Men marching in Pride parades, or dancing ballet, or watching or playing baseball. There are Real Men looking after children, or doing the washing up, or singing opera. There are Real Men getting mani-pedis and drinking Appletinis.Some Real Men dislike football, some Real Men love cars. Some Real Men are soldiers and some are pacifists. Some Real Men like whiskey and some Real Men like caramel macchiatos. There are Real Men wearing pink, blue, green, mauve, fawn and fucking paisley prints.
Hell, Jimi Hendrix was pretty manly (have you seen Cynthia Plastercaster’s work?) and that man mixed prints constantly!
There are Real Men across the world and they are as different from each other as any arbitrary selection of women. Some of them cry, some of them don’t. Some of them are awful when they get sick, some of them aren’t. Gilvary got it dead, dead wrong when she said feminists are to blame for making men less manly. Feminism, as I know and understand it, isn’t about making everyone girly and feminine (if so, I am a pretty poor feminist), it is about giving every single person on the face of the planet the opportunity to be Themselves and be accepted for it. It is the quest for women to be taken as individuals, not as generic members of a group who all think and feel in the same way. In that way, I think feminism is in fact, absolutely in line with how Real Men go about things.
So… isn’t it about time we stopped worrying about who’s a Real Man and who isn’t? Not one person truly fulfils the list (I’m sure Peck falls down somewhere, but I’m not inclined to search too hard), so why don’t we just ditch the list? In fact, let’s go with the notion of Good Human: honourable, kind, generous, brave, open-minded and full of integrity? None of the things on the list of things for a Real Man is truly gender-specific, except the testicles perhaps, so let’s stop worrying about Real Men and concentrate on Good Humans.
*tumbleweed blows across internet*
Yeah, I thought so. Well, hopefully we’ll get there one day. I live in hope.
Author’s Note: Some of the examples of Real Men I gave were of men who exhibited problematic behaviour. I do not condone violent, bigoted or otherwise prejudiced behaviour. Nobody’s perfect, not even Gregory Peck. In particular, Errol Flynn was off-screen a bit of a total fucknut, but it is possible to appreciate the figure on screen without condoning or turning a blind eye to his off-screen nastiness. If you’re looking for movie stars who aren’t complete wankers, you’ll have trouble, I suspect, but I can lend you my Gregory Peck DVDs. That most of the people considered ‘Real Men’ were/are tossmonkeys is probably a post for another day.