Richie Incognito may rank high on my list of despicable human beings, but I’ll give him one thing. The Miami Dolphins’ bully has ignited another national conversation about what it means to be a man in this era. It’s an important discussion, notably because Incognito’s brute characteristics are not on the list, and it’s important for men of all ages to tune in.
“For generations, just about every boy growing up in America felt obliged to prove his manhood, which generally meant demonstrating physical strength, a disdain for gentility, a willingness and ability to stand up for himself, especially with his fists, and a disregard for anything ‘soft,’ ” writes Neal Gabler in Tuesday’s Op-Ed pages.
Our view of masculinity has certainly changed. Just look at how the makers of cleaning products have changed the way they market their products. The sexist image of mom cleaning up her kids’ messes while her buffoon husband sits uselessly on the sidelines has given way to commercials that feature emotionally-involved and capable fathers. Take, for instance, Tide’s “Princess Dress” and Bounty’s “Select-A-Size” commercials. These men are tender, they’re affectionate. They reflect what it means for a man to support a family in this day and age.
But while our definition of manhood has changed in many ways, the idea of masculinity as muscular hasn’t totally evaporated. And that’s a huge problem for a number of reasons. As the Nation’s Dave Zirin wrote Sunday:
Yet while the NFL, the most popular entertainment in the United States, shapes our world, it also reflects a society steeped in sexism, violence against women and an ethos that reveres physical domination of others, all while affecting that “stiff upper lip.” We all suffer for this state of affairs: the bullies and the bullied, the abusers and the abused. Men commit suicide in the United States at rates three to four times that of women. Men are far more likely to be alcoholics and abusers. Taking your own life or obliterating your brain is seen as preferable to the simple act of asking for help.
So, while it’s maddening to learn the details of Incognito’s brutal and repugnant bullying of teammate Jonathan Martin, and absolutely nauseating to hear fellow NFL players defend Incognito, we have to keep talking about — or rather, criticizing — the incident so that men across all parts of this country understand that times have changed, even if the NFL hasn’t.
And it’s important to celebrate Martin, who went from victim to victor not by flexing his machismo but by blowing a whistle.
“Whatever else Jonathan Martin is the victim of, he has been preyed on by a form of ugly, vestigial, brutalizing masculinity. And he decided to resist it, not with his fists but with a legal process,” writes Gabler. “That may not seem ‘manly,’ but it is the way men do things nowadays — real men, that is.”