Societal gender norms tell us men that are supposed to be strong, virile and masculine. They are not supposed to be weak, indecisive or—god forbid—sensitive.
At least that’s what stereotypes and gender binaries tell us. But such norms are human conventions, and humans are of course imperfect beings. One should always consider the source where they get their gender roles from.
Yet, this mythologized concept of masculinity is commonplace in nearly all of the world’s civilizations for millennia. Even today, in our post-feminist world, the uber-masculine with its unfettered sexual prowess and penchant for violent action films (again, stereotype) still saturates our daily lives. Take a look at an alcohol ad sometime and you’ll see what we mean: barely clothed women, sport themes and manly men. Yep. It’s pretty brash.
If one were to search the literary epitome of Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man in the World,” one would easily come to Beowulf. Beowulf, the old English epic poem about a heroic warrior who slays dragons, menacing monsters and even their overbearing mothers, is laden with ancient testosterone. It’s certainly no surprise Hollywood producers thought to make Beowulf into a feature film and cast a sexy Angelina Jolie—even though she’s supposed to be an ugly monster. Beowulf’s masculine vibe is, of course, sourced from his strength, skill and success. In fact, strength is a major theme of the poem. It would have to be, if the warrior of the story needed to live at the end. Beowulf the man goes to extreme lengths to prove his ability and strength—he swims to the bottom of lakes, saves entire towns and even violently slaughters Grendel in hand-to-hand combat when he could have just used his sword. He’s a bit a of a showoff, but you gotta flaunt what your mama gave you.
While Beowulf stands as the man’s man of English literature, gender and strength become more complicated as time goes on in literary canons. For example, take John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. In the novel, the men are constantly undermined or made to appear weak, creating a tension-ridden story and plot in the equally disempowering Great Depression. Lenny, though extremely strong of body, is also extremely weak of mind. His buddy, George, is financially powerless in achieving his dream of owning his own ranch and Curley? Well, Curley’s got an Napoleon complex that causes him to overcompensate for his short stature with endless bullying and pugnacious behavior all in effort to assert his manhood, even though the former boxer’s hand is later symbolically crushed like a soda can.
These weaknesses, of course, feed into the novel’s overall psychological and social commentary of the time when the country’s economic woes left a once powerful and daresay masculine nation weak and unstable. What’s more, the male weaknesses also reveal the security and pride men are believed to derive from the masculine abilities. They pay for sex or obstain from female relations at all, like George, suggesting a lack of virility that comes with manliness. They are essential powerless, the antithetical situation to masculinity. They are all striving to be Beowulfs, but end up being Lennys and Georges. Whether it’s a gang like in The Outsiders or a pack of impoverished men in the great depression, they all want to feel like Beowulf. At least that’s what social gender norms tell us.