What Defines a Man? Maybe It’s His Shave.

Sensible answers to the questions of modern manhood.
Oct. 2 2013 4:32 PM

What Does Manhood Mean in 2013?

Stop defining manhood against women. Start defining it against boys. And go get a good shave.

Troy Patterson.
Troy Patterson

Photo by Christina Paige

Please send your questions for publication to gentlemanscholarslate@gmail.com. (Questions may be edited, or lifted wholesale from other websites.)

Thank you, Ann Friedman, for publishing a perfectly impossible question, and thank you generally, website of New York magazine, for maintaining a fashion vertical that engages cultural anthropology. It says something about the state of discourse regarding gender and sex that the one can so frequently encounter the pursuit of wisdom in the same space that lavishes analysis on Rihanna’s shorts. That’s not a diss: Hemlines are economic indicators; clothes make the man and woman. The culture chooses fashion styles to suit social modes and popular mores, and it is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.

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The essay that attracted my attention connects data points including the media tour of Bryan Goldberg, upon whom entertaining opprobrium has been heaped for his idiocies in launching Bustle. (Goldberg’s professions of shock that women are confoundingly complex imply that men are astoundingly simple, a corollary near borne out by his behavior.) Also, Friedman notes that Slate’s Hanna Rosin has counterrebutted her critics in a new epilogue to The End of Men. (Restating her theme that we no longer live in your father’s patriarchy, Hanna diagnoses the criticism as symptomatic of the chaos wrought by the fall of the old order.) And Friedman also draws our attention to a marketing report—from an arm of JWT, the ad agency that packaged the masculinist thrust of the Mustang and the pride of the Marines—that sifts through a survey and discovers further evidence of blurred gender lines. (The report is worth a look, especially if you are interested in how to sell eye creams to fathers who’ve been up all night bottle-feeding. Or Easy-Bake ovens to their sons.)

The big idea is that no one has any idea what post-postmodern manhood is. To summarize the matter, we need to reach back to 1831, and a Thomas Carlyle essay about his own transitional age: “The old ideal of Manhood has grown obsolete, and the new is still invisible to us, and we grope after it in darkness, one clutching this phantom, another that.”

The problem is obvious: To go around identifying the traditional masculine virtues of courage and stoicism as masculine is to deny women the right to them—and also to deny men the right to express traditional feminine virtues without feeling like wussies. It is perhaps less dicey to define manhood by its responsibility to serve and protect, but there’s a whiff of dreaded paternalism to the concept—not to mention the puzzle of reckoning with an era in which women have the same rights as men without necessarily the same responsibilities.

So where are we left? Biology. But it is far from clear that a definition of manhood keyed strictly to the penis would clarify, and in any case the conversation necessary to produce a broadly agreeable definition on those terms is impossible to have in mixed company. This leads us to the secondary sex characteristics, and an observation from a friend of Friedman’s, who believes that, in the absence of rigid gender rules, thrown overboard by waves of changes, men cling to floating signifiers like life preservers: “One of the reasons that I think facial hair — mustaches and beards, specifically — have come so much back in vogue is because there seems to be an almost primal urge to reclaim our right to be men and to look like men.”

Yesterday, having mulled this all over for a while, I stroked my chin philosophically—though its hairs were not those of a proper philosopher’s beard. My face hadn’t been clean-shaven since the spring morning I had my portrait made for this column. Its hirsuteness was not a purposeful expression of a beard so much as evidence of a strong dislike for shaving. There had been some goes at the thing with electric trimmers when I ducked into my usual unisex salon for a haircut, and at the medicine cabinet, I’d made sporadic and hasty attempts at taming the bristles with whatever scissors were at hand. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't good, either—no way to make a face to face the world, I decided, starting to devise a theory of manhood based on a meaningful relationship with the man in the mirror.

I want to suppose that the beginning of a practical definition of what it means to be a man lies in defining men not against women but against boys. I want to argue in favor of approaching facial hair with moral seriousness. If a man shaves daily, then he should treat the process as a rite, not a chore—and chuck his plastic disposable razors in the trash. If he wears a beard, he should give it the same respect he shows to his teeth. Each man must do this in his own style; it can be as solemn as a daily ablution or as jolly as singing in the shower. But you do it with an underlying sense of self-reflection and a commitment to self-respect.

Yesterday, I walked into the fancy barbershop in my neighborhood—a new-school joint with tattooed barbers and high-end hair gel. One guy had an opening, and the idea that the scruff on my face had promise. The front desk told me to grab a seat and a beer, which I did. Knowing that the soul of a barbershop is in its reading material, I scanned the selection: Playboy, Monocle, High Times, the Hollywood Reporter, Ian Fleming’s Thrilling Cities, a vintage WWF program fronting “Macho Man” Randy Savage, who wore a sequined pink cowboy hat.

I got in the chair and enjoyed an electric trim of the central beard. Then the barber cleaned up the edges in the old-school style, and I really enjoyed my first hot shave. It was like my face had a spa day—a procession of hot towels scented with bergamot and sandalwood, a satisfaction in the barber’s dispassionate study of my mug, a moment of meditative peace in a sanctuary flowing with good hard hip-hop and grand October daylight. There is nothing to sort out your thoughts on mortality like a stranger’s hand spreading your neck to its full length while drawing a straight razor across your Adam’s apple. What does it mean to be a man? I’m unsure, but I know strutted out of the shop feeling like a new one.