A positive discourse on masculinity, via comic books and etymology

6 Jun

by Jess

Amanda Hess has a reader who’s been repeatedly submitting requests for a “positive discourse on masculinity.” On the whole I find this idea pretty bankrupt — akin, as one other commenter brilliantly put it, to asking for a positive discourse on white supremacy. Ironically, though, I was thinking about it the other day while rereading the comic book series Preacher, which at first glance looks like a fucked-up perverted cowboy fantasy delighting in all the negative aspects of masculinity. Preacher is dark, very violent, blasphemous to the core, and not a little twisted, all of which figure into why I like it so much. Let me be clear, though: This is a very dude-ly comic, in the sense that it is full of the things that are usually considered to make something a “boy book” or “boy movie.” There are a lot of views of blown-open heads. One character is named “Arseface.” There are naked boobs, and vague homophobia, and lots of people fuck things that aren’t people. John Wayne makes several appearances. A punch in the jaw is pretty much the least violent fate you can hope for in this comic, and nearly everybody gets at least one. Literal emasculation is a repeated trope — actually, emasculation followed by suddenly having an awful lot of frustration that needs violent expression. But implausibly, Preacher, with its hard-punching, chain-smoking, John Wayne-loving cowboy of a hero, ends up having a lot to say about the pitfalls of manliness and the possible redemption of the concept.

Necessary backstory: the preacher in question, Jesse Custer (yeah, that’s his name, Custer), is railroaded into the church after a nightmarish childhood and a criminal adolescence. Both contributed to teaching him how to fight with almost superhuman skill, and also just be generally tough as a motherfuck. His girlfriend Tulip is equally as tough and particularly handy with guns. The other main character, Cassidy, is super-tough physically as well on account of being a vampire, but on a personal level he’s terribly weak, and he’s prone to bouts of drug addiction and binge drinking that lead him to be violent towards everyone around him including his girlfriends. And that’s what you missed on… PREACHER!

I’m not going to go too heavily into plot points because I like the series and think you should read it without too much spoiling, but I am going to jump straight to some events at the end. A couple salient parts: Jesse, after swearing to Tulip for the jillionth time that he will never again leave her behind to keep her safe while he goes off to do something dangerous, puts knockout drops in her water bottle so that he can… leave her behind to keep her safe while he goes off to do something dangerous. So yeah: lies to her face and drugs her. Chivalry! Plot point two is that Jesse, having found out about Cassidy’s secret douchebaggery, beats the snot out of him. Recriminations about hitting women figure in heavily. Then some other stuff happens and Jesse and Tulip eventually ride off into, I shit you not, the sunset on, I shit you not, a horse — but not until after Tulip walks out on Jesse for what he did to her, asks him point-blank whether honor and trustworthiness and keeping his word stop mattering when he’s talking to a woman, and tells him to take his “macho bullshit” and shove it. Oh, and Jesse learns to cry. Not joking. I know it doesn’t sound awesome but I promise that it is.

During the fight with Cassidy, Jesse tells him to “act like a man” — which means not hitting women, part of Jesse’s manliness code, but because of Cassidy’s particular situation (nothing enables addiction and violence like being unkillable and super-strong) also clearly means acting like a human being instead of an undead thing. What I think the end of Preacher is about is realizing that “acting like a man” is just an abbreviated version of “acting like a HUman.” Cassidy’s willingness to turn his preternatural strength against women who trust him is abhorrent, not only to some chivalrous code but objectively. But by the same token, Jesse’s fixation on protecting women — on protecting his woman, specifically — actually gets in the way of him treating Tulip with humanity or respect. Put them side by side, as they’re presented in the plot, and the implication is clear: Cassidy’s crime is not in hitting women, but in hurting defenseless people weaker than he is. Jesse’s gallantry is misguided because he’s trying to protect someone who doesn’t want or need it, simply because his code dictates that she must — and because she doesn’t want or need his protection, he’s forced to manufacture the weakness that would make her unable to object. Cassidy doesn’t “act like a man” — like a human, that is — because he is willing to hurt people who can’t defend themselves against him, or unable to stop himself from doing it. Jesse doesn’t “act like a man” because he’s too busy trying to act macho.

What manliness means for Jesse is being a straight shooter — protecting the weak and innocent, being forthright and trustworthy, and taking no shit from fools. But he finds that his “macho bullshit,” as Tulip calls it, actually gets in the way of his manliness. Because it makes him unable to resist protecting — and therefore deceiving and abandoning — a woman, even at the expense of treating her like a person and an equal. His masculinity impedes his humanity, and humanity was really what Jesse’s dream of being a real man was always about. One of the final images of Jesse in Preacher is of him riding a horse through a New York traffic jam to find Tulip, with tears streaming down his face because he’s realized that he fucked things up royally with his paternalism, pledging the “macho bullshit” has to go. He’s the cryin’ cowboy, determined to sort out decency from posturing. But the final final image of the comic is Cassidy, un-vampired, making his own pledge to act like a man. That is, to act like a human.

This is what a positive discourse on masculinity looks like: realizing that the positive aspects of masculinity are just decency and humanity, coopted by men as their personal invention. A code of honor where you help those in need isn’t the exclusive province of men; it’s the province of mensches.

My therapist was telling me the other day that “man” in Old English actually meant “person.” Both male and female humans got modifiers — “wer” for men, which stuck around pretty much nowhere except in “werewolf,” and “wif” for women, from which we get “wife” of course and also “woman” (wifman). I checked this out in the OED but if you don’t have access to that it’s all on Wikipedia.

The point here is that a) people who insist on “womyn” are being even sillier than you thought and b) “man” used to mean everyone, and then males were substituted for everyone. It’s an etymological origin story for the male as default. When did the word that meant “people” start meaning “people with penises”? Well, the OED starts showing examples that clearly distinguish between “man” and “woman” in the 13th century, though of course that’s not necessarily when the distinction began. Guess what else was arising around this time! If you said “the concept of chivalry as a code of conduct dictating protection of women,” award yourself something manly like a Bro Icing! (Which I just learned about last night, because I am old and it is awful.)

In other words, human decency became gender-specific and gender-codified around the same time that “man” did. Ideals about how people should treat other people turned into ideals about how males should treat other males and non-males, as though honor and decency were somehow man-specific values. A “positive discourse on masculinity” would have to acknowledge this, and acknowledge that the parts of the Man Code worth keeping are the parts that aren’t really about men at all. It would mean putting the “hu” back in “humanliness,” and giving the concept of human decency back to anyone who’s willing to act on it, not just those with the right genitalia. And it would mean talking about why men want to think that they invented civility and women are just its beneficiaries. It would, in other words, involve a lot of feminism. I think Jesse Custer could handle that.


One Response to “A positive discourse on masculinity, via comic books and etymology”


  1. Comme des Garçons « Birthday Bread Horse - June 16, 2010

    […] worst so far from the worst stuff out there that I have no interest in calling them out. But it is (again) about manliness qua “a particular code of presentation and behavior” vs. manliness qua […]

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