In a recent creative non-fiction writing class, I had 14 male students, so I had the bright idea of asking students to consider this question as a writing prompt: “What does it mean to be a man?”
Their eventual written responses were the usual college fare, but what fascinated me was the students’ initial reaction to the prompt.
It was as if I had asked them what it is like to live on Mars. They were all white males from the privileged class, in their early 20s. The notion that they were “men” seemed almost foreign to them.
I thought of this moment of teaching when I read a couple of news stories recently.
The first story was widely reported: for the third year in a row, average life expectancy in the United States went down again, with death rates not seen since World War I.
The same causes were at work behind the statistics as in previous years: drug overdoses and suicides, both of which continue to increase to record levels.
Suicide was significantly higher in rural areas, where access to guns is more common.
The main cohort behind the continuing dip in longevity was white males, as it had been in previous years.
What really caught my attention, however, was an article in the Washington Post with this headline: “How Donald Trump appeals to men secretly insecure about their manhood.”
Researchers Eric Knowles and Susan DiMuccio took Google search terms correlated with male insecurity — terms like “hair loss,” “erectile dysfunction,” “how to get girls” and “Viagra” — and then used statistical data-mining to suggest that people from areas of the nation where those terms are most commonly searched also voted most heavily for Trump in 2016 and for Republicans in 2018.
The authors coined the term “masculine fragility” to suggest that Trump receives the most support in regions where men feel most insecure.
Pondering this link, I looked at life expectancy rates for males among the states. I found that of the 20 states with the lowest life expectancy, 18 were solidly Trump country — only Nevada and Delaware were exceptions.
It can be hard sometimes to understand how Trump continues to receive support from about 40 percent of the nation, when the remaining 60 percent disapproves of his presidency.
Apparently, much of his strength lies in those regions where men are most fragile and most susceptible to early death.
* * *
Trying to make sense of this, I thought of a conversation I had had recently.
My wife (a black woman) and I (an Anglo-Sicilian white man) were joined by our friends, a black man born in Africa and a biracial gay man. All of us identify as cisgender.
We found ourselves talking about stereotypes and the ways in which cultural transmission creates images of who we ought to be — images that we must overcome in order to become who we are.
We talked about the traditional stereotypes for black women: Mammy, made iconic in Gone with the Wind; Jezebel, with her dangerous, animal sexual allure; and Sapphire, who will slit your throat if you mess with her. We talked about the new emerging stereotype: the black superwoman, the Michelle Obama, the Beyonce.
We talked about what it felt like to be a small boy with an olive complexion, separated inadvertently from your black father at F.A.O Schwarz in Manhattan. We talked about how hard it was for your black father to prove that you were his son.
We talked about the way men with dark skin are regarded in American society — seen both as a threat, with all the police killings of black males, and as an object of sexual attraction.
One of us mentioned a recent study from a research group at Rutgers that found that 83 percent of white women had an interest in sleeping with a black man, but only 8 percent considered that they might marry one.
* * *
In talking about how pernicious stereotyping is in our culture, I thought of my own stereotyping.
I was born into the white middle class in the 1950s. To be a white male in the era of my youth and early adulthood was to be the type, not a stereotype.
Sure, there were cracks in the façade — not everyone could be John Wayne or the Marlboro Man. Not all of my generation fully accepted the idea that one would follow the straight path to career, marriage, children, and bread-winning.
But that was the type, for white men, and the burdens of assuming one’s role within a white patriarchal society were surely outweighed by the advantages.
That era is gone now.
The age in which one could simply assume one’s privilege as a white man eroded over a long period, beginning in the 1960s, and ended when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008.
* * *
Obama’s election unleashed a virulent hatred on the part of a significant minority of the nation, a hatred that had already been brewing for a long time. His presidency was consistent with previous norms — he was a Democratic president, not a black president. But the symbolic force of his election within the engines of cultural transmission was profound.
Obama’s presidency was the punctuation mark to the beginning of a new era. Trump’s presidency is the last gasp of the old one.
We are at the cusp of an enormous transition in which the traditional assumption of white male privilege is no longer a type — it has become a stereotype.
White males still rule the United States; they control most of the wealth in this nation, along with the executive branch, the Senate, and the Supreme Court. But they don’t control Trump, who is the avatar of a generation of white males who have lost their position in society and are clawing hard to get it back.
* * *
It is impossible to talk about these issues without acknowledging the complex societal interplay between class, gender, sexual orientation, and race.
Much of the discussion about current societal ills has little to do with race, for example. There already was a drug problem within many black communities. Now it has come to the suburbs.
Depression has increased among college students by 50 percent in recent years, and the rate of anxiety has doubled: these are white problems. Black men were already subject to lower life expectancy; white males are just catching up to them.
Educated black women have greater problems in pregnancy and lower birth weights for their children than poor, uneducated white women — a legacy of the history of internalized racial oppression.
People who have money live longer than people who do not have money. The issue of life expectancy among white males has everything to do with class.
* * *
Trump’s electorate is mainly composed of older white men — men who were born and came of age in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, before the world changed — and they bring along their women and children.
These men have lost their sense of identity, largely because current economics in the United States have stripped away the main element of the old perception of manhood: the bread-winner who takes care of his family and calls the shots.
Their identities fragile, they are dying much faster than ever before. They vote for Trump because Trump presents an image of manhood — macho, sexually voracious, avaricious, wealthy, powerful.
But the image is hollow at the core, and the new era makes Trump’s own pathetic egotism and fragility obvious to anyone who lives in it, however dangerous he may still be.
This time will pass.
Inevitably, a day will come when Trump will no longer be president. A new generation is rising, as we saw in the most recent elections for the House. The #MeToo movement is not going away. Black Lives Matter is not going away.
The question still will remain, at least in white culture: What does it mean to be a man?