A case in point is the American radical writer Lakshmi Chaudhry. She has noted a shift in the image of masculinity in popular culture. She cites examples of male characters on TV and in novels who are self-absorbed, unable to commit, confused and unwilling to grow up. Her response is to compare this image of masculinity unfavourably with the traditional one:
popular culture continues to fetishize the traditional, '50s model of masculinity, but in a distilled form - kick-ass machismo stripped of the accompanying values of honor, duty and loyalty ... Where traditional masculinity embraced marriage, children and work as rites of passage into manhood, the 21st century version shuns them as emasculating, with the wife cast in the role of the castrating mother. The result resembles a childlike fantasy of manhood that is endowed with the perks of adulthood - money, sex, freedom - but none of its responsibilities.
Chaudhry understandably fears that the New Man is not promising husband material:
... if adult responsibilities are defined as emasculating, then it's no wonder that popular culture now defines "commitment" solely as a woman's goal.
Domesticity may have always been a feminine realm, but marriage and children were once defined as integral to the traditional gender roles of both men and women. Today, it's the woman who is cast in the role of caveman, eager to club some unsuspecting, reluctant male on his head and drag him to the altar.
It's not surprising that Chaudhry, as a left-liberal, blames the market:
this resistance to adulthood is closely associated with a market-driven consumerist culture that feeds and sustains a Peter Pan version of masculinity. "To be grown up is to be settled, comfortable, stable, responsible and secure," Kimmel says. "Those are bad conditions for advertising ..."
The market also has little time for the old-fashioned male virtue of self-denial, the imperative to do the "right thing" at the expense of pleasure. A stoic John Wayne has been replaced by the "metrosexual," a man who is all about self-indulgence ...
Susan Faludi foreshadowed the rise of the metrosexual in her 1999 book, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, which describes an "ornamental culture" that tells men "manhood is displayed, not demonstrated. The internal qualities once said to embody manhood - sure-footedness, inner strength, confidence of purpose - are merchandised to men to enhance their manliness."
It's refreshing for feminists to accept gender difference and to express admiration for the stronger masculine qualities. But the market is not primarily to blame for a decline in the traditional male virtues.
The problem has more to do with modern philosophy. Both the left and the right in Western societies accept the basic ideas of liberal autonomy theory. According to this theory, our humanity is defined by our ability to be self-determined. The aim is for individuals to be self-defining: to be unimpeded in choosing who they are.
In a culture which emphasises autonomy, it's likely that both men and women will defer commitments to marriage and family. After all, we are most independent and most unimpeded in our choices when we pursue a single girl/single guy lifestyle.
Chaudhry herself is a follower of the modern orthodoxy. In an article discussing race, she follows the usual pattern of denying that racial identity is based on any "essence", which then means that it is something we can create for ourselves as individuals (i.e. that it's something which is self-determined):
[leading scholars] instead draw attention to the performative aspect of race, wherein racial identity is not a fixed unchanging essence but a set of mutable and contingent cultural behaviors. As Sarah Susannah Willie writes in her book Acting Black, "By treating race as acquired, like a skill or behavior, we can begin to see it as something over which individuals have differing degrees of control and varying options for agency, as an aspect of identity that is at least partly performed, continuous, and contingent."
Later in the same article Chaudhry writes of a fellow autonomy theorist that:
his critique suggests that we should each be free to "act" our race according to our own needs and desires - rather than to confirm or subvert social expectations ...The freedom to perform our identity gives us the power to define its meaning.
So Chaudhry is stuck in a difficult position. She is committed to the ideal of the autonomous, self-creating individual herself and so cannot easily blame it for its negative effect on masculinity.
Notice too that Chaudhry in her article on men is reluctant to criticise autonomy for women:
While progressives and feminists have rightly championed a woman's right to reject marriage and motherhood, they rarely address the consequences of living in a culture where pair-bonding and parenting - the basic processes that form the foundation of all societies - are constructed as the antithesis of masculinity.
So it's right for feminists to encourage women to reject marriage and motherhood, but wrong for men to defer commitments to their own family responsibilities. Isn't this a double standard?
Which brings me to a final point. It seems odd that Chaudhry should be such a liberal autonomist when discussing race, but then such a traditionalist in her expectations of men.
The contradiction might be explained as follows. Chaudhry seems to most resent the idea that women are left to try and force commitments from men. It's not so easy, in this situation, for women to freely exercise their own autonomous choices: men are resisting playing their part in what adult women might want to do.
For female autonomy to work best, men have to fall in line with what women want at each stage of a woman's life. This won't happen if men are pursuing their own version of an autonomous, independent lifestyle.
So autonomy theory breaks down in practice. For women to maximise their autonomy, they require men to follow traditional, non-autonomous values (a willingness to self-sacrifice, reject self-indulgence, remain loyal etc).
But men are unlikely to accept the purpose of such self-sacrifice. Faced with a female individualism, they are likely to respond with an individualism of their own. This is especially true when male and female identities are held to have no essential existence.