The Lost Iconography of Masculinity
How did we come to lose sight of and appreciation for real heroes?
By Mark W. Fowler
“I define a man simply: Men should be tough, fair, courageous never petty, never looking for a fight, but never backing down from one either.” —John Wayne
Somewhere, somehow, we lost track of true masculinity in our culture. Gone are the days of Ward Cleaver or Andy Taylor, who portrayed strong, moral, decent men. Men of wisdom, compassion, and steadfastness. The prevailing images we have tend to be deranged, hormone-fueled sociopaths or bumbling nitwits who must be saved from themselves repeatedly. Tom Cruise’s character as Maverick is a classic example. He is an undisciplined narcissist. Unable to follow rules, he remains at a rank well below his level of experience. (In the Navy, he would have washed out shortly after the first flyby.)
How did we come to lose sight of and appreciation for real heroes? We seem not to talk about men of stature and accomplishment like Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Crockett, and Lewis and Clark. We have replaced admirable male iconography with the likes of hip-hop singers, rap singers, and self-absorbed actors.
What happened to John Wayne, not the man but the myth, in popular culture?
In the latter portion of his career, Wayne perfected male iconography — the Myth of Masculine qualities. There were others, of course, but he is the archetypal male hero. This image had a range from the cartoonish (Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn) to cruel (Big Jake). His characters are often flawed — former outlaw, alcoholic, absent father. But there were prevailing themes: courage, principle, resilience, and understanding of right and wrong. In “Rio Bravo,” Wayne plays Sheriff John T. Chance, whose character is the epitome of the ideal man. He is courageous, loyal, compassionate, demanding, and steadfast. The sheriff has arrested a local thug for murder, holding him in jail for the U.S. marshal. While doing so, he must shepherd his alcoholic deputy, Dude (Dean Martin), through withdrawal precipitated by a failed love affair. He must also look after Stumpy (Walter Brennan), who has lost his farm and now suffers from a serious limp. The murderer’s malice is enhanced by the power and influence of his rich brother who hired numerous gunmen to threaten the sheriff and who is the one who stole Stumpy’s ranch. At the same time, he must keep well-intentioned friends from interfering in the dispute. He is alone, understaffed, outgunned, and under serious threat. One friend who attempts to help is assassinated.
The first act of compassion — you might call it tough love — is when Wayne disgustedly kicks away a spittoon from Dude’s grasp as he is about to rummage through it for a dollar thrown in the spittoon by someone to humiliate the deputy going through withdrawal. This is the first moral lesson: No man should participate in his own humiliation, even if he is desperate for a drink. There is a time when human decency requires us to recoil from complete degradation. Like the prodigal son who comes to his senses, Dude comes to the realization that he must turn his life around. The sheriff supports the alcoholic deputy through a hangover and “the shakes” in a way that is both generous and stern. He has saved Dude’s belongings at his own expense, provided a place for Dude to stay, but insists that Dude meet his responsibilities as a man. Those responsibilities include sobering up and resuming his duties as a deputy. The sheriff insists that Stumpy remain in the jail where he has cover and is able to guard the prisoner, thus having relative protection from the gunmen outside.
There is a love interest in the part of a wandering female card player (Angie Dickinson) down on her luck, her husband having been killed, and she faces legal difficulties. Wayne’s character is demanding but kind and restrained toward this woman. The writers spared us gratuitous sex scenes while letting the relationship play out to a successful pared conclusion. Wayne insisted his movies be family friendly.
The movie was made in 1959. What is the point today? We live in an age of man buns, snowflakes, entitlement, trigger warnings, and safe spaces.
The point is that the qualities of masculine courage, compassion, loyalty, resilience, and fairness are often honored now more in their absence or by derision in the public domain. Too many males are presented as feckless, sexually obsessed, self-absorbed nitwits who have to be saved from themselves by strong, intelligent women. There is, of course, nothing wrong with strong, intelligent women, but there is something wrong with a pervasive portrayal of men as lecherous, dimwitted, narcissistic fools in popular media. Think of “Two and a Half Men,” “Friends,” “Seinfeld,” “Homer Simpson,” and “The Big Bang Theory.” All comedies, true, but the stereotype persists. Compare these to “Leave It to Beaver” or “The Andy Griffith Show.” Both comedies, but also with strong leading men.
Society and young men need role models. We need men of decency, courage, and integrity who build things, fix things, coach ball teams, and stand for the right ideas. We need to celebrate men who run toward danger. Art and culture should include both humor and satire, but it must also balance that view with portrayals of heroism, service, selflessness, courage, and resilience. We need much, much less sexual expression in art, media, and society and more of the noble, elegant, courageous, and selfless. We need to return to a culture of genuine masculinity.
It is said that Willie Nelson once hoped that Jesus Christ would return and bring John Wayne with him. Amen.
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