Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Nancy R. Pearcey’s splendid The Toxic War on Masculinity deftly traverses a terrain divided into armed camps and pocked with land mines. She resists pigeon-holing and sloganeering as she sorts through distortions and clarifies the meaning of manhood.

Pearcey’s controlling framework is a contrast between two ideals of masculinity, the “Good Man” versus the “Real Man.” Good Men are characterized by honor, duty, integrity, and a willingness to sacrifice. They’re responsible and generous, and they provide and protect, especially the weak. Real Men are tough, strong, aggressive, highly competitive, unwilling to show weakness, unemotional, imposing, isolated, and self-made. They grab all the guns, gold, and girls they can get, and don’t care much who gets hurt in the process.

The Real Man model has dominated many societies, ancient and modern. In the West, it was decisively challenged by the Christian ideal of the Good Man. Christianity elevated formerly feminine traits like compassion, kindness, and gentleness as virtues suitable to a genuine vir. Early Christians followed an un-Stoic Master who wept at the tomb of a friend, a seemingly un-heroic Lord who submitted to death on a cross. Still today, many Christian men are Good Men. Church-going evangelicals are least likely to commit domestic violence or exhibit toxic masculine traits, while evangelical men who are not active in church are the most likely to act out the Real Man script. Church is, Pearcey observes, one of the few places in our world where men talk seriously about our marriages and families.

Pearcey fills out the profile of the Good Man throughout the book, primarily through judicious and illuminating discussions of the Bible. She rightly notes that the word “helper” (Gen. 2:18; Hebrew ‘ezer), applied to the woman in the Garden of Eden, doesn’t refer to domestic helpers, but rather to military allies and battle-mates. God created the woman to serve alongside the man as they strive together to fulfill his command to fill, subdue, and rule the earth. As “helpers,” women are, in the words of Carolyn Custis James, “warriors who stand alongside their brothers in the battle for God’s kingdom.”

Peter commands husbands to treat wives as a “weaker vessel” (1 Pet. 3:7). Pearcey links this with the recurring biblical exhortation to care for the vulnerable, since women are physically weaker than men and, in many societies, lack social power. For decades, evangelicals have debated the meaning of male headship (Eph. 5:23), staking out positions as egalitarians, patriarchalists, or complementarians. Pearcey cuts through the fog by arguing that a husband’s love and respect for his wife, and his commitment to his marriage and family, are more decisive than his theory of headship. Christian husbands and fathers are most effective when they act like Christians. Who could have predicted it?

A long section of the book traces the emergence of the Real Man ideal within American Christianity. Like Ivan Illich, Allan Carlson, and, more recently, Mary Harrington, Pearcey targets the Industrial Revolution as a primary cause of the disruption of traditional sexual order. Prior to the Civil War, some 90 percent of Americans owned their own farms, businesses, or shops, most of them family enterprises where husbands, wives, and children worked together. Industrialization separated work and home, and this evolved into a two-ethic social world, split between the cutthroat, amoral world of labor and public life, and the kinder, gentler world of the home. The two worlds were, of course, sexually indexed. Men were identified with secular work and the rough-and-tumble outside world; women became economically unproductive goddesses of sacred domesticity. Men were profane Real Men, women naturally religious.

At home, working men inhabited an alien, feminine world. Strangers in their own houses, they were apt to become strangers to their children. To the extent they were involved with their children at all, they were playmates, because, while the home was feminine workspace, it was masculine leisure space. During the nineteenth century, boys’ movements emerged to subject them to masculine disciplines and introduce them to manly pursuits. Scouting, for instance, was a rite of passage to help boys cross from the maternal private world into the wide world of men.

Reform movements, often led by women, were intent on re-moralizing public life. Though the phrase “toxic masculinity” wasn’t current in the Victorian age, the concept was already there: Men are savages, naturally promiscuous, unsuited to monogamy, parenthood, and home, unfit for civilized life until tamed by a good woman. Reform efforts had predictable effects. Men recoiled from being treated as brutes or bossed around, and they sought refuge in Real Man activities or fantasies like American Westerns, where men escape the petticoats and the refinements of city life to plunge into the wilderness, where they can be the primitive loners they naturally are. Muscular Christianity tried to win men back to religion, but in the process injected a Real Man ethos into the church.

The problem with the reform movements, Pearcey says, is that they let men off the hook. After all, if a man is naturally brutish, he can’t really be blamed for his bad behavior. Reform movements presented a shrunken, distorted view of human nature and manhood, ironically reinforcing the Real Man ideal they were trying to correct. Reform and Real Man ideology to the contrary, monogamy and fatherhood aren’t unmanly; rather, the home is one of the primary arenas for developing and manifesting masculine responsibility, virtue, and strength.

Pearcey offers realistic proposals to overcome the division between workplace and home, such as forgoing a promotion and salary increase that would require more hours at the office. She urges men to take responsibility for their homes. We are what God made us to be, heads of our homes, and the health of our marriages and families largely depends on us—our attentiveness to our wives and our spiritual leadership of our children. If “the flight from fatherhood” is “the most devastating social problem of our day,” it’s a problem only men can solve, because only we can be fathers. Men are the antidote to toxic masculinity, because “the key to developing a positive masculinity is a boy’s close, loving relationship with his father.”

Men’s movements today frequently present men as victims of a feminized culture. Pearcey will have none of it. She challenges us to stop moaning, recognize our God-given stature and power, take responsibility for ourselves and our families, and man up.  

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.

First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.

Click here to make a donation.

Click here to subscribe to First Things.

Image by Pavel Danilyuk licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles