Controversial manliness

I haven’t read it, but Harvey Mansfield‘s book, Manliness, seems to have created quite a stir. From what I saw in a 10-minute excerpt of an ABC News debate with Naomi Wolf in 2006, Mansfield is unembarrassed about talking about the differences between men and women, and promoting the “quaint and obsolete” concept of manliness.

In the interview, Mansfield speaks about male and female differences in a direct and honest way. He’s not embarrassed that men are stronger than women and more interested in competition (also politics and sports, which are examples of manly competition).

These differences, of course, are generalisations, but they are true generalisations. Though some women are stronger than some men, and some women take more risks than some men, the generalisation that women are weaker and less risk-taking are still true.

Naomi Wolf, of course, reacts in shocked disbelief and reproach. With all her political prowess and intellectual strength, she understandably feels demeaned. At the end of the day, however, neither she nor any woman can escape having a female body (or brain). This is the tragedy of today’s gender-neutral society, in which, according to Mansfield, “women are trying to imitate men, but men are not trying to imitate women“.

Perhaps Mansfield’s most piercing (and controversial) statement is that women are:

…of course the weaker sex. I think it’s quite important that women are physically less strong than men. It means that they can’t exercise the same authority as men with the same easy grace and so they have to try a little harder. So the way they get around this is to either persuade with more seductive tones, or to make a scene.

Ultimately, being bigger and stronger does help one’s sense of authority. You can’t really escape the body, hormones and brain structure you were given. Nonetheless, being a woman doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t be authoritative, but having the body of a man makes it easier than having a woman’s body. I suspect there are complex socio-cultural factors enmeshed in all of this too.

Does all this mean that women shouldn’t be fire-fighters or members of parliament? My, and I think Mansfield’s, answer would be ‘No’. Biblically speaking, the endless number of specific roles are not spelled out, but the Bible writers made it clear that, ultimately, women’s roles will centre around the home and children much more than men’s (Titus 2:4-5). There may be some female individuals who are stronger and more competitive than most men, but the vast majority will not fit this mould.

Nor do I think all this means that men can’t be soft, nurturing and non-competitive. There may be manly ways to wash up, drive the car, relate at work (Mansfield would define this by a man’s competitiveness in how he does these things). There are therefore also womanly ways to do these tasks.

How to do these things, though, is not a matter of prescription. We should expect trends according to gender, just as we do according to generational difference and country of origin difference. Therefore, Mansfield’s reiteration of the age-old advice is necessary for our age: “we have a gender-neutral society, but we don’t have gender-neutral individuals, we have men and women. Different sexes… those differences need to be understood and respected.” Pretty obvious, but obviously not all that obvious.

Finally, I ask myself why it is that so many people want to minimise or ignore the observable differences betweens the genders? Is is because they will feel abnormal if they do not fit the stereotype? I suspect that debate over these issues of gender differences relates more often than we would like to admit to personal insecurity. Just a thought.

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