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The Marriage Plot and the End of Men, Part II: Feminism’s Future

By Oliver DeMille

This is Part II of a series. Click here for Part I.

So where are we heading in modern male/female relations? The trends seem to indicate that men will be even less inclined toward or committed to marriage, and women will earn more.

Men and women will expect less and less from each other, except in marriage — where the expectations will be unrealistic, unfulfilled and frequently short-lived.

What an irony! Even as feminism seems to be obtaining many of its most cherished goals, the male/female debate may just be starting.

The next natural step for women [having progressed through A) underprivileged, B) seeking equality, and C) increasingly equal] is to D) Demand that men be a certain way in order to fulfill women.

For example, there is a growing push by some women for states to enforce laws against infidelity.

The culture is increasingly centered on getting, taking, having, receiving. The debate seems to assume that romance, love and marriage are all about what “I” can “get” from someone else.

Children and youth are raised to think about what kind of boyfriend, girlfriend, husband or wife they want to have — with little attention to what kind of girlfriend or husband they will be.

We are trained to approach romance and marriage for what we can get out of it — not for what we can give.

Our popular culture reinforces this self-centered view every night in primetime and on the big screen in theaters and homes across the nation. The youth are watching; and so are their parents.

Ironically, the many books and articles on how girls and women should treat their BFF are mostly about giving. Indeed, if women and men just applied this same advice to how they treated each other, some significant male/female conflicts might quickly disappear.

But such advice is about friends, not romantic interests. In the latter, self-centeredness is the name of the game in our current pop culture.

Personally, I do not believe that the “typical man” as portrayed by our modern entertainment accurately reflects the many hardworking husbands and fathers across the nation. Nor do I accept that the Real Housewives are a true portrait of America’s wives, mothers or single women.

These are just shows and movies. Unfortunately, they do have a major impact on how we view our spouses, friends and ourselves.

And more to the point, where are the other true role models, ideals and icons which we should idealize and seek to emulate? Can we aspire to an ideal we do not even imagine?

Earlier generations studied and debated (as part of the culture, not during a two-week segment in high school) the romances and marriages found in Shakespeare, Austen and Bronte, among others. They compared the good with the bad, and contrasted the various types of romance, marriage, male and female relations and roles.

These things were seen as entertainment, and were compared and contrasted with the numerous real-life relationships children witnessed in their community.

Little of this exists today. The entertainment relationships are those on TV and in movies, and we seldom see other romantic or marriage relationships outside of our own home.

Children and youth very rarely directly witness their teacher, coach, church leader, mayor or even neighbor in a relationship with her spouse. All relationships seem single — or at least detached.

In short, we may be facing less the end of men and more the end of marriage. For example, where Austen ended Pride and Prejudice with a discussion of the Darcy/Lizzie married life, the movie versions nearly always end at the wedding or even the engagement.

This is “formula” for many movies and television programs now. It is also the plot of nearly all contemporary teen literature — it ends well before or at a wedding.

Over and over, in many ways and from numerous directions, the message is repeated: romance is fun, but marriage is a bundle of problems and should be avoided or at best endured.

Divorce is often portrayed now as the beginning of freedom, romance, happiness and wisdom. Rare exceptions to this plot (like the functioning marriages found in White Collar, Chuck, Covert Affairs, Undercovers, Parenthood, Friday Night Lights and No Ordinary Family) notwithstanding, marriage is out of vogue in America’s pop culture.

Is this just entertainment, or is it real? The rise of reality television has boosted the popularity of tabloids which tell us the “real” stories behind our favorite reality shows, but if reality shows are real, why do we need tabloids to tell us what is really going on?

Round-the-clock sports channels tell us what the athletes are doing, tweeting, and thinking at all times, and our cell phones are set to chime whenever someone in our social network has a new thought.

But American couples spend less than 16 minutes a day talking to each other — and over half of this time is spent on scheduling and finances. Clearly marriage is facing challenges.

The Newest “New Feminism”

The gains of feminism are many and have blessed today’s woman with a lot of opportunities barely dreamed of three generations ago. Nothing should take away from this positive progress for women, and we should praise the pioneering women who struggled and sacrificed to bring these changes.

I think most people today want a nation where husbands treat their wives as true equals, and where wives do the same with their husbands. I doubt many moderns feel that women shouldn’t enjoy truly equal treatment in business, compensation, promotion and other career opportunities.

These gains have been a great blessing to our society. But what kind of society are we creating when many women and men no longer seriously idealize “having it all?” What is the future of a nation where the following phrases are common:

“I’m too busy with my career to get married. Besides, I’m having so much fun!”

“Why would I get married? I have all I need, including children, without it.”

“All my married friends are overworked, fight all the time, never have enough money, and hardly ever have sex. I’ll pass.”

“Marriage sucks everything good out of the relationship.”

“Divorce is the best thing that ever happened to me!”

“I love the single life! Why would I give up my freedom?”

“Don’t put up with that crap! Just get divorced! Being single is so much fun.”

“Marriage is so hard. Why bother?”

Note that each of these could have been said by a man or a woman. A feminist, anti-feminist or even a chauvinist could easily utilize any or all of these phrases. Certainly there are many who do want marriage and are actively seeking it. Still, these contrary views are not limited to a rare exception.

Perhaps we aren’t at a new age of male/female conflict at all, but at the beginning of a truly post-feminist era where the “enemy” is lasting marriage.

Of course, as I said above, weddings are still popular fare among women and pop culture, but the years and decades after the wedding — not so much. Young women have long called their wedding “the best day of my life,” which makes one wonder how they feel about the many years which follow.

For a lot of people in our society, the new mantra could well be: “I am single, hear me roar!”

If this is the new divide of male/female relations, it doesn’t bode well for women or men. As for children, they had better get used to being raised by a society of single parents.

During the decline of Rome, and later just before the French Revolution, upper-class women delegated nursing the baby and tending children to others in order to spend their time in society.

Men and women during these eras routinely slept around, emphasized increasing their power and wealth, and spent little time with their children. As family naturally collapsed under such traditions, the nation soon followed.

Interestingly, as family connections failed and fidelity within marriage was considered quaint and even ridiculous, national leaders took the same view of their responsibility and fidelity to the national treasury.

Without deep loyalty to spouse and family, little was left to the nation as a whole. Leaders spent nations into bankruptcy, weakness and collapse. The most important lessons are taught — or not — at home. This simplistic truism is a reality in all of world history.

Still, the ideal of effective marriage remains popular in many circles. The several, albeit few, good marriages on television and at the movies show that many still idealize great marriage.

Indeed, outside of Hollywood and other entertainment enclaves, I think it likely that a majority of people still hope for a terrific marriage at some point in life.

A Proposal

With all this said, I’m convinced that it is time for two major revolutions in America: 1) a deeper feminism and 2) a return to real manhood.

I’m probably not qualified to take the lead in promoting whatever the deeper feminism should entail. Personally, I think my wife Rachel’s essay “Steel to Gold” and the writings of Anne Lindbergh and Laura Munson are a good place to start a deeper feminism; but I’ll leave the topic to women.

As for men, a return to real manhood might start with the following characteristics:

Restraint

Compare Jane Austen’s Colonel Brandon to Willoughby. Or consider the hero of Wister’s classic book The Virginian. Real men, according to these and other examples, have self-control and “self-possession.”

The real man doesn’t have to show off, because he knows who he is and is comfortable with himself. He has no need to impress, bolster or try to make an impression. As needed, he takes action. But he lets his actions speak for themselves.

His “moral vision is of men who struggle with and eventually master” themselves and take a stand to improve the world. He doesn’t need “to compensate for anything.” He is “his own man.” And that is enough.

Strength

The real man knows that his greatest challenge and the true measure of his valor is to conquer himself, to overcome his own weaknesses, temptations and fears and choose to be the man he really wants to be.

In this process, he has the courage to learn from others and also to take a stand alone when it is right.

As part of this, he learns from his mistakes and changes himself — no matter how hard this process is — making his life an uphill path of progress and improvement. He uses this inner strength to do good in the world.

Action

A real man is great at something. He doesn’t try to be great at everything, and he doesn’t make excuses for his areas of weakness. But he does develop true excellence in something that really matters to him. And he uses it to improve the world.

Open-minded and creative and daring and still hold[ing] on to the old virtues.”

The real man blends what works with exploring the new. He believes deeply in the small and simple things which are often called common sense, but he is always looking and seeking.

He equally loves the little comforts and great adventures which make life great.

Caring

The real man cares. He cares about his deepest goals, about those he loves, about other people in general. He cares about freedom. He cares about fairness and opportunity and ability. He cares about the future.

He cares about a lot of things, and he considers simple caring a personal call to action. He doesn’t expect everyone else to care about the exact same things he does, and he doesn’t require anyone to care about him specifically; but he does demand of himself that he face his cares and live by them. And when someone else does choose to really care about him, he is profoundly touched.

None of us live up to these ideals enough, I think, but they are all worth pursuing. After an Esquire survey of 20- and 50-year-old American men selected Clint Eastwood as the coolest man in our nation (for both age groups), Stephen Marche wrote:

“And now that we are supposedly entering the next crisis of masculinity — this time the world doesn’t need men because we can’t listen, we can’t sit still in kindergarten, and so all society will shortly be a massive gynocracy in which men’s primary role will be as the problem children of successful mothers and wives — we need Eastwood more than ever.

Whatever else has changed over the past fifty years, self-mastery and control over our lives are still what we want more than anything.”

Marche further suggests that many Eastwood movies show examples of manhood. For example, he “drives around the country with an ape, brawling for money and seeking for love.”

What could be more manlike? In other words, men sometimes grunt like monkeys, or Tim Allen, but they daily put themselves on the line working to support those they love, hoping to be loved in return.

Above all, I’m convinced that a significant part of a return to real manhood includes seeking romance, love and marriage less for what we get out of it than for what we can give.

Men who go into the marriage relationship mainly for what they can get usually fail. Only those who truly love their partner, who are willing to give their heart and soul to helping and serving, to giving rather than getting, become great husbands.

In short, men who are in a romance, love or marriage primarily to get something for themselves probably won’t be happy with the result. The same is true about fatherhood.

Being a man is about freedom and the responsibility that naturally attends it, and about using one’s freedom well by committing to the right things and giving our hearts and lives to them.

When we are real men, we’ll work to build great marriages, great families, important daily work, a lot of happiness, and a great nation. It’s time for a focus on real manhood in our world, measured at least in part by the quality of what we give to our marriages.

So in addition to restraint, strength, action, daring, creativity, open-mindedness, courage, self-possession, caring and selflessness, I add commitment to the beginning list of how to be a real man.

I have no idea how the feminist debates of the 21st Century will shake out, but I do know that if more men (married and single, of all views and types) work on becoming truly great husbands, the whole world will greatly benefit.

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Oliver DeMille is the founder and former president of George Wythe University, a co-founder of the Center for Social Leadership, and a co-creator of TJEd Online.

He is the author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, and The Coming Aristocracy: Education & the Future of Freedom.

Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.

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The Marriage Plot and the End of Men, Part II: Feminism’s Future