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Gary Cooper and Clint Eastwood Were Once Masculine Icons. What Happened?

In a recent profile, the former president takes a long hard look at the deterioration of masculinity among conservative leaders

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The steely gaze of heroes played by Gary Cooper and Clint Eastwood would regard modern men with derision. No, we’re not talking about the fact that Harry Styles was wearing a dress on the cover of Vanity Fair. He’s too young and liberal and soft to ever draw the attention of men like them anyway. It’s the other guys, the ones in power. Once upon a time, a “man’s man” taught a lesson to the greedy railway baron and stood up for the little guy being bullied by bandits. Once upon a time, a stoic stare-down bested a cheap, defensive retort. But now, the loudest of manly men seek to intimidate and retaliate. They don’t give a shit about your feelings and are panicked and incensed by the prospect of being replaced. Their masculinity is self-centered and self-serving. What happened to the conservative man?

This question came from none other than former president Barack Obama, who has looked upon the leaders of modern American conservative man and wondered what kind of masculine ideals they were following. Obama offers his crystalline critique of misguided manhood in a revealing profile by the Atlantic magazine published early on Monday morning. His thoughts on masculinity are just a small passage in a wide-ranging conversation on American politics and culture, but it’s clear that in writing his new memoir A Promised Land, Obama has not shied away from examining masculinity.

His comments are made while turning over the figure of right-wing populist Donald Trump. Essentially, Obama wonders why conservatives, generally concerned with traditional examples of masculinity, would choose someone who, in Obama’s estimation, is anything but. The former president offers a comparison to popular visions of American manhood like “the Gary Coopers, the Jimmy Stewarts, the Clint Eastwoods, for that matter.”

“There’s a notion that a man is true to his word, that he takes responsibility, that he doesn’t complain, that he isn’t a bully — in fact he defends the vulnerable against bullies,” Obama tells interviewer Jeffrey Goldberg. “And so even if you are someone who is annoyed by wokeness and political correctness and wants men to be men again and is tired about everyone complaining about the patriarchy, I thought that the model wouldn’t be Richie Rich — the complaining, lying, doesn’t-take-responsibility-for-anything type of figure.”

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What’s refreshing about Obama’s brief critique of a certain brand of “manliness” is that he shies away from characterizing masculinity as toxic. (Coming from a progressive paragon, that’s newsworthy in and of itself.) Instead, the former president acknowledges that there are positive masculine traits — ones that American society once used to celebrate! Imagine.

Obama lists a couple of these traits, along with the actors who epitomized them. But a 2019 study from the University of South Alabama found some 32 positive masculine traits primarily expected of men. These included traits like having a good sense of humor, being courageous and brave, emotional stability, serving the community, protecting others and being straightforward.

What’s interesting is that there is research which suggests the traditional masculine traits can have positive outcomes for men. A 1999 Australian study found lower rates of problem drinking in men who internalized positive masculine traits. Additionally, a 2014 study published in the Journal of Men’s Health found that adherence to masculine traits like emotional control could improve mental health. There is evidence that teaching these positive traits to boys offers them a path to a healthier happier life, but the science of positive masculinity is still very much in its early stages.

But as Obama notes, many of the positive masculine traits seem to have been de-emphasized by the men who most embrace a conservative brand of manliness. Instead characters like Trump and Rudy Giuliani lean into performative victimhood and boastfulness.

Gary Cooper’s white-hat cowboy heroes would be appalled. Once upon a time, the man’s man made his name by teaching a lesson to the greedy railway baron and standing up for the little guy being bullied by bandits. But now, the loudest of manly men seek to intimidate and retaliate. They don’t give a shit about your feelings and are panicked and incensed by the prospect of being replaced. Their masculinity is self-centered and self-serving. It’s also dangerous.

Buying into masculine traits like toughness and anti-femininity have not gone well for men, or women. Men conforming to the idea that they must weather all and do it in a way that a woman can’t, have led to a health crisis. Men who’ve internalized masculinity that clings to ideas of power or misogyny are unlikely to seek help. They are more likely to self-medicate and self harm. They are more likely to engage in violence to the detriment of themselves and their loved ones.

Back in the days of the silver screen, as recalled by Obama, those were the men who were driven to edges of society. They were the drunken gunslingers, cynically pursuing power. And we used to call them villains.

Obama stops far short of using that term but remains perplexed by masculinity’s heel turn. And, frankly, we should all be. Men and boys deserve a more nuanced and thoughtful masculinity. And that masculinity should be celebrated. Like the man said, it’s not about being woke or tearing down the patriarchy, it’s about lifting up real men — whoever wants to claim that title — focused towards service, support, care and protection.