“Manly men with brains,” masculinity and writing

In a writing context, what exactly defines being “manly”? Really, I’m starting to wonder. It’s a word that’s been tossed around a lot lately: there is talk about emasculating women in SFWA; a writer’s group I’m a part of lamented the death of the “manly male” characters like Dirk Pitt in popular novels. Even a review of one of my novels — A Pius Man: A Holy Thriller — referred to it as “a book for manly men with brains.” Huh? Really? Interesting Though on the other hand, I’ve been praised for my female characters, both in private and in public. So … I wonder what goes on here.

Both were alien concepts to me, namely because I never considered either while I wrote it, the characters weren’t “strong women” or “manly men,” the characters just … were. They’re characters. I write up their biographies — which, for me, is basically winding up the toys — and letting them wander wherever they want to go. But then again, let’s face it, how many writers evaluate their own stuff like their readers? William Shakespeare would probably fail a course on his own plays, considering what people have seen in his own work that he, in all honesty, probably hadn’t seen himself when he wrote it.

But I’m certain that the easy definition of manliness also includes a willingness to draw a line, hold it, and be willing to defend it, and fight back.  Few men have ever been pushed around and been considered “manly.”  Then again, the ultimate Man, Jesus, did instruct us to go the extra mile when someone’s walking all over us, but a “manly male” could take that and make it into “You want to shanghai me into carrying your stuff for a mile? I’ll do it for two. Hah, you wuss.”

And … what do you do with men on an emotional level? What feelings does one express? How does one express them? That sort of thing.

Since I mentioned the Bard, Shakespeare has also had some thoughts on manliness, particularly in MacBeth. After MacDuff is informed that his family has been slaughtered, he is told to take it like a man; MacDuff replies that he must also “feel it as a man.” So, I guess a man actually can be “in touch with his feelings” – feelings of loss, of love, of filial devotion, as well as rage and homicidal intent.

Manly? Or too much leather?

Even in the Facebook conversation that started this post mourned for a manly character who fights, gets laid, saves the girl, smokes, drinks, but is also educated….
Educated? Huh. Really? Does that mean James Bond, perfect psychopath, count? Spider Robinson once noted Robert Mitchum as a perfect example of manliness, but I never saw the man as more than a moving block of wood. Neither of them are the sort of man you find in Inigo Montoya of The Princess Bride.
Looking at all of the “manly” characters I can think of, the best I can come up with is being vaguely detached. At least the ability to be detached. Looking at men who are manly without being He-Man exaggerated, what is there? Bond, Montoya, Batman, Tony Stark, all exude “I don’t give a f—,” either about the opinions of others, or perhaps the law. Captain America, Thor, Superman, all stand for something, defying what others think or feel. They are in touch with their own feelings – honor, patriotism, ethics.
This has the correct level of self-possessed spirit that says “Yes, I can act independently if abandoned.” Sure, a manly fellow can fit in with society, any Band of Brothers sentiment relies on a variety of emotional connections, but he is not attached at the hip to society write large.
But all things in balance, please. Even “sociopaths” who kill in the military can feel the loss of a friend, feel sad over the loss of a civilian, et al. They love who they love, and if you mess with them or theirs … well, let’s just say that they don’t love you. James Bond shows an unnatural level of detachment, caring about … nothing, really. At the end of the day, attempts to give James Bond depth fail because he only cares about his job – not any woman he sleeps with, and his sense of patriotism only seems to go only as deep as it is his day job to defend the country. If one day, someone ever writes a book where Bond’s failure leads to mass casualties, I suspect his biggest response will be to shrug and treat it like an unsuccessful chess match.
So, does being a man entail sociopathy? Heck, one of the Superversive Roundtable discussions brought up that “male” and “sociopath” weren’t all that far off.
Well, let’s break that down a bit. In John Ringo’s Under a Graveyard Sky, two men say that they’re sociopaths because killing doesn’t bother them, and they don’t see the enemy as people. I don’t find that too strange, since if I’m being shot at, I’d see the threat, not a person. Little definitions like this lead some people to say that a sociopath is defined as someone who merely scares the psychologist. And now that sociopaths come in flavors (high/low-functioning, genetic, situational), sure, maybe being a man does involve that on some level, the same way that Autism Spectrum Disorder has been expanded to cover people who were once merely a-holes.

Sherlock, with Benedict Cumberbach, is frequently described as a “high-functioning sociopath,” but is not usually considered manly because he borders on being a thinking machine. Yet Martin Freeman’s Watson, in the first episode, shoots a serial killer with no remorse, and it didn’t faze him one little bit. Psychology has gotten to the point where many would see Watson as a sociopath, so let’s not get too carried away with that label.

Heck, Kevin Anderson, the hero of my co-authored novel Codename: Winterborn, has a lot of similar characteristics to all of these “manly” qualities mentioned: rage, love, filial devotion, will stand up for what he believes in, up to and including killing people, will let no one push him around unless he wants to be pushed around … and one review (who gave it 5-stars) slapped a label on Kevin as a simple psycho.

Is he crazed and damaged in Codename: Winterborn?  Oh, you betcha.  But just calling him a psycho because he has no problem killing people might simplify things just a little too much. Heck, he had no problem killing people before the book started.

And let’s face it, the term “sociopath” is so overused, it’s become meaningless.

At the end of the day, for a literary character to be manly, yes, he can have feelings – in fact, he must – but he must also have the right ones, and in the proper degree, otherwise, he becomes a caricature.

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About Declan Finn

Declan Finn is the author of Honor at Stake, an urban fantasy novel, and nominated for Best Horror at the first annual Dragon Awards. He has also written The Pius Trilogy, to be released by Silver Empire Press. Finn has also written “Codename: Winterborn,” an SF espionage thriller, and “It was Only on Stun!” and “Set to Kill,” murder mysteries at a science fiction convention.

  • Philip Morris

    Declan,

    Even a brief overview of the term “sociopath” shows that mental health professionals have a difficult time with this sort of personality disorder: https://infogalactic.com/info/Psychopathy#Sociopathy.
    And please note, per the article cited above, the term has been stricken from the DSM since at least 1980.
    Regards
    PM

    • Declan Finn

      Philip: I know the term is struck from the DSM, but it’s still in common parlance: See “Sherlock.” I actually think it’s a useful classification … if it were better defined.

      Then again, I gave up on the DSM in 2000. I had just heard a lecture that defined one disorder that “affects only juveniles, leading them to not listen to authority figures, and causing them to vandalism, provoke animals, and show mild sociopathic tendencies.”

      …. Basically, the lecturer had described being a teenager as a pathological condition. And THEN he started discussing medications for it.

      So, I’m cynical.

    • DeclanFinn

      Thought I replied to this. Huh

      It’s still used in common parlance. Just ask Sherlock. And John Ringo.

      Also, the DSM is fallen out of favor with ME when I attended a conference, and saw a disorder that described a disease that only effect juveniles, includes: a disregard for authority, vandalism, rebellious behavior.

      Yes, they made being a teenager a disorder. With accompanying medications to “treat” it.