“Reimagining Masculinity” and the Macho, Macho Murse

by Jack Donovan on September 27, 2010

Newsweek to Men: MAN UP! (And become a nurse.)

On the heels of Hanna Rosin’s smugly shrugging, short-on-solutions piece in The Atlantic, titled “The End of Men,” Andrew Romano and Tony Dokoupil cranked out a cover article for Newsweek recently that goaded men to “MAN UP!” With a supportive hand on one another’s shoulders, they coughed and tried to muster up a tone that sounded authoritative – no doubt consulting the former writers of television’s Home Improvement – and offered some suggestions for ways men might get back on track. Or at least remain men together.

The only suggestions they could come up with, though, were the same “suggestions” feminists have been giving men for decades. In a nutless nutshell (they are at least as biased and as dismissive of men who disagree with them), Romano and Dokoupil want men to “reimagine” masculinity so that they can adapt to the future that political progressives prefer to envision – a social, design and managerial class future where everything is magically grown and manufactured somewhere else. Feminists like anti-“tough guise” activist Jackson Katz, Gloria Steinem-approved Michael Kimmel, and MTF transsexual R.W. Connell have likewise been imploring us to “re-imagine” masculinity for decades. By thus “reimagining” hegemonic strength and dominance-based masculine hierarchies to value a spectrum of “masculinities” – from the mountain man to the meterosexual – equally, Connell et al. assure men that they will feel freer and become more socially and emotionally (and now financially!) successful.

From the perspective of most feminists – and the “MAN UP!” guys don’t even bother to cite the male feminists, they quote directly from the gospel of Susan Faludi – traditional strength and dominance based masculine ideals emphasize sex differences, exclude females, oppress weaker men, and perpetuate a culture of violence. These positions are politically loaded and morally gerrymandered, but when taken at face value, they are basically accurate and can be reasonably convincing in the absence of good counter-arguments. However, the most important thing about traditional masculinity to feminists is that, by excluding women and emphasizing sex differences, it undermines the interests of feminists.

Amusingly, as at least one feminist noticed, Romano and Dokoupil undermine their own message by awkwardly wielding the language of the traditional man to convince readers his appeal is on the wane. After characterizing men as layabouts who need to take the “path to masculinity paved with girly jobs and dirty diapers” the “MAN UP!” guys invoke the heroic ideal – the man of action– when they imply that it is most masculine for a man to do “whatever it takes.”

It’s not that there is anything wrong with changing dirty diapers if it is a job that needs to be done.  But that’s a bit of a canard, too. I’ve never met an average, middle class father who actually refuses to diaper or feed his children. It’s just that it isn’t part of any “path to masculinity” per se. Changing diapers isn’t about manhood; it’s not a gender-defining behavior for men. It’s a task. You don’t have to overreach and “reimagine masculinity” to the point where masculinity is a meaningless, gender-neutral feel-good word to get men to help raise their kids.

And you don’t have to turn daddies into mommies. Romano and Dokoupil mention Sweden’s paternity leave system positively in passing, so while this would normally seem like an absurd slippery slope argument, it seems relevant to mention that at least one Swedish dad is now attempting to breastfeed. Sweden also has a different culture, a different demographic makeup, and an economy just smaller than that of the State of New Jersey. The “argument from Sweden,” a favorite of liberal American europhiles, remains far from compelling.

Conspicuously absent here is any mention of the advantages women have in attaining custody of their children following a divorce. If women are truly thriving, and men are being left at home, an inverse arrangement where women work twice as hard to pay child support to stay-at-home dads seems reasonable enough. Given the rate of divorce and the fact that most divorces are initiated by women, one would think this would be relevant if you are sincerely worried about dads getting more involved in parenting. Fewer people seem to care about disparities that favor the interests of women. But if you’re going to re-imagine masculinity and get men to take an equal or better role at home, you also have to fight systems that treat them like secondary parents.

The “MAN UP!” guys also note that more men need to go into teaching, but again, they go by the feminist playbook and blame “Marlboro Man” masculinity (when will that cliché wear out?) instead of addressing any other legitimate concerns men might have. For instance, many men feel especially vulnerable to accusations of inappropriate conduct around children. This is not because they are afraid they might be tempted to do something wrong, but because people are more likely to suspect and accuse men of career and reputation-killing misconduct.

Family and educational matters aside, Romano and Dokoupil also believe men need to reimagine masculinity so that they feel more comfortable pursuing careers in the booming healthcare industry – specifically, nursing. This is one of my favorite feminist tropes, because a lucrative career in nursing seems to be one of the only advantages tone-deaf feminists can come up with to sell the complete abandonment of traditional masculine ideals. Your detachable manhood, apparently, is the key to your exciting and rewarding future as a nurse.

"Helloooooo Nurse!"Nursing is an iconic career. As with a policeman or a firefighter or a farmer, we carry around a picture of a nurse in our heads. For many of us, the nurse remains a compassionate female figure, dressed in white. Perhaps she has a cap on her head with a big red cross in the front.  Maybe she’s a sexy cartoon.

If you’ve been inside a hospital lately, you know that modern nurses don’t wear sexy white outfits. The modern nurse spends most of his or her workday in some sort of frumpy pajamas. Further, the highly qualified modern nurse is probably not the person who wipes your forehead or holds your hand. Other, lower level healthcare professionals and caregivers do that sort of thing. A modern nurse is an educated, skilled intermediate level medical professional. They often have specialties and some are involved in medical research. Very little of what nurses do today requires an overflowing abundance of oxytocin.

So, from my admittedly limited knowledge of what nurses today do, I really don’t see nursing as an emasculating profession. There are manlier professions, sure, but our culture caters most to female consumers, so it’s hard to find a job today that doesn’t require one to listen sweetly to the troubles of strangers and dutifully say “yes, ma’am.”  Plenty of manly contractors and movers spend their days prostrating themselves before a woman with a wallet. As such, I use the slang “murse” (male nurse) above only in jest. Men everywhere are made painfully aware that it is no longer a man’s world, and the job of a nurse has changed a lot since the days of Florence Nightingale.

If writers like Rosin and Romano and Dokoupil were truly concerned about the plight of men in America, and sincerely wanted to help them transition into female-dominated—but not necessarily effeminate – areas of the healthcare field, why not address some of men’s concerns about those fields honestly? Telling men to “MAN UP!” and become nurses is dissonant. If, as Romano and Dokoupil unconvincingly claim, emasculating men is not the point of this exercise, then why not lobby the healthcare industry to make nursing more appealing to men?

Why not reimagine nursing?

Separate the job from its female iconography and sell it to men. It’s my understanding that a decent looking straight male enrolled in a nursing program can more or less play the harem bull, but that’s not what I mean.

Why not change the name of the profession?

Sure, you’ll have to change some stationary, but if it’s that important that men become nurses, why not do what we did for the secretary? Outside of high profile government and military realms, the word “secretary” carried a lot of cultural baggage. At least partially due to portrayals in film and television, the secretary was seen as a perky female helper to the male boss. In the wake of the sexual revolution, women found this image demeaning, and the industry standard changed. The person who filled the role of secretary in the old days is now an administrative assistant, and very few men are going to bother ribbing a male admin about being a “secretary.” It’s not a manly job or a womanly job. It’s just a job. No one really had to change ideals of womanhood or manhood to change the way we looked at the job. The old image is preserved on film, but more or less forgotten in the everyday working world.

Men don’t seem to have a problem being radiologists or physical therapists or EMTs or X-Ray techs. They have a problem with the image of the nurse, and the word nurse. It’s an understandable problem. The word “nurse” is a verb that we still use to describe the act of suckling a child on a woman’s breast. It’s anything but gender-neutral.

If you want to make the field of nursing gender-neutral, change the name of it and create some space between the old image and the modern job. It will take some time, but it’s a simpler, more straightforward and more practical fix than “reimagining masculinity.”


Jack Donovan moonlights as an advocate for the resurgence of patriarchal, paleo-masculine values among the Men of the West. He is a contributor to The Spearhead and AlternativeRight.com, as well as the author of Androphilia and co-author of Blood Brotherhood and Other Rites of Male Alliance. Mr. Donovan lives and works in Portland, Oregon.

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