Cultural Animal

How we find meaning in life.

One Ideal Image of Manliness

Who is your image of the ideal man?

Who is your image of the ideal man? Our culture has gotten confused about how to depict manhood in a positive light. Hollywood movies have changed. When I was young, cowboy types like the young Clint Eastwood showed abundant competence and minimal emotion, had complete self-control, mastered violence, and did what was right. Rebellious images of manliness such as Marlon Brando swaggered and dominated. Then we moved to sensitive guys like Alan Alda. Strength and competence continued to show up in the characters played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who gradually added a sense of humor as well.


Let me offer a very different sort of candidate. I recently watched the film Hotel Rwanda. The lead character in that film, Paul Rusesabagina, played by Don Cheadle, offers a great model of manliness. Slight of build, gentle, with soft high voice and almost servile manner, he bears no resemblance to the Schwarzenegger type of manhood. Yet the inner strength and resourcefulness that he exhibits throughout the story were remarkable. (Incidentally, the story behind the film is true.)

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He has a nice job managing a hotel when suddenly the society around him descends into mass killing. He belongs to the dominant Hutu faction and would be safe, though his wife, a Tutsi, is at risk. Yet he resists the violence and uses every ploy and trick he can think of to save the lives of the vulnerable people at his hotel. He bribes, flatters, pleads. Knowing appearances count, he interrupts his increasingly desperate efforts to deal with the situation in order to take the time to dress properly and look good, so that his meetings with the generals and others with power will bear more fruit, and he can reassure the frightened guests that things are still under control. (At the end, when no one with power is willing to help, the concern with appearance is abandoned, revealing it to have been purely pragmatic.)


What made him manly, in my view? Although not physically overpowering, he was strong, resourceful, and effective. Patient, smart, realistic. He accepted more responsibility than was necessary and did his very best without complaint. He took care of a great many people, including his family but also a large number of complete strangers who had fallen under his care. (Women tend to specialize in caring for the small circle; men operate in larger social spheres and groups.) He maintained superb self-control, remaining restrained and pragmatic even as his world disintegrated into horror.


Paul did have a moment of emotional breakdown in the film. He had gone out on an errand to seek help and on the return had driven down a bumpy road, which he discovered was bumpy because it was strewn with corpses. The full realization of what was happening hit him then. Back at the hotel, he briefly was moved to emotionality and tears. Men do have feelings! Crucially, however, he did not let his fear and panic show to the frightened people who depended on him. He broke down for a few brief moments while alone. When there was a knock at the door, he asked for a moment, pulled himself together, and was able to present a resolute face to all who saw him.


To me, the only deficit in his manliness came in a moment when a nurse brought him a dozen Tutsi orphans to save them from being slaughtered. He said he would try to find some foreigners to adopt them. She asked, who would want to adopt these children? He made a firm promise that he would find some foreign hosts to adopt them. In my view, a vital part of being a man is keeping your promises. That requires that a man shouldn't make promises he may not be able to keep. How could he promise that those children would be saved from death and adopted by foreigners?


I notice, though, that making lavish, unrealistic promises has become a staple of Hollywood male characters. (Jack Bauer, the superman of "24," is notorious for this.) To my mind, this is a very bad thing for our male role models to do. We should not encourage young men to make wild, wonderful, extravagant promises they may not be able to keep. The breaking of promises to wives and children (see my previous blog on men who leave their wives and children) is unfortunately promoted by this casual attitude toward promising.


Even so, this is a small blemish on Paul's performance under extraordinary circumstances. By and large, his heroism was exceptional.


If you have a son, you might show him this film as a positive example of manhood. Over the years, if he watches films and television he will see plenty of exemplars of the violent, musclebound, arrogant type, but these are not helpful models toward which our young men should aspire. He will also see plenty of male film characters doing wicked, irresponsible things, and the effects of these on our youngsters are not likely to be positive. Seeing a quiet, gentle man thrown into a desperate situation and taking heroic responsibility to care for others might just inspire some of our boys to become better men.

Roy F. Baumeister is Eppes Eminent Scholar, Professor of Psychology, and head of the social psychology graduate program at Florida State University.

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