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Do you have to be Dumb to be a Man?

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There's a trend in the way men are portrayed in films, TV comedies, and ads today: they're getting Dumb and Dumber.

Comedies have always celebrated stupidity, but until recently there were certain rules about who could or could not look like an idiot. In the old days you had to be unattractive, middle-aged, member of a minority, working class, or all of the above. An attractive leading lady could be ditzy--in the tradition of Carole Lombard, Lucile Ball, and Marilyn Monroe--but not a leading man. Lou Costello, the Three Stooges, Ralph Kramden and Morton could be stupid, but not Cary Grant.

Of course, no red-blooded macho hero was ever a Mensa candidate. Men with exceptional mental ability were either mad scientists trying to rule the world, or well-intentioned but doddering and ineffectual eggheads. And the heroes of all action flics did stupid things--so they could be captured, beaten up, and nearly killed to advance the plot--but they never looked dumb.

All this began to change toward the end of the 20th century. Films like Dumb and Dumber, Dude Where's My Car, Saving Silverman, and American Pie are increasingly common and increasingly popular. Beer ads show men grunting like neanderthals, repeating the same word moronically, and generally reveling in a kind of apelike idiocy.

This unflattering portrait fits the negative stereotype often voiced by women today. But most of these roles aren't created by women. They're written, directed, portrayed--and enjoyed--by men. Men who drink beer certainly like it, since it sells beer. But why are men so accepting of this image? It's as if they were saying: "Yes, we're dumb, and proud of it! That's what it means to be a real man!"

A friend has suggested that American men have simply taken the President as a role model, but the problem goes much deeper. Men are struggling today to define themselves--books on the subject fill the bookstores. But all attempts to define masculinity run up against the same dilemma: to define masculinity is to restrict it, for it means distinguishing it from femininity. "Masculinity" must include only what "femininity" leaves out. To be "masculine" is therefore to be limited. Men had to be content with leftover scraps from the women's behavioral dinner table.

Today's male is like the skilled craftsman of old, displaced by the machine. Feeling a sense of loss, of uselessness, of vanishing function, men are clinging desperately to ever-shrinking definitions of masculinity. As women have expanded into "male" arenas there has been a huge increase in body-building and steroid use by men--part of what psychiatrist Harrison Pope calls the "Adonis Complex," a growing male preoccupation with body-image. When women burst the bonds of gender constraint and decided to define themselves as full human beings, "masculinity" had to shrink itself into a narrower and narrower corner.

In the United States a few decades ago twice as many men as women went to college, but by 2000 women accounted for 56% of the bachelor's degrees and 57% of the master's degrees. And while in 1970 only 10% of first-year law students were women, they're now a majority. Women are outnumbering men in most professions and in starting new businesses.

Perhaps this is why it's considered masculine today to be an underachiever.

Part of the problem is childrearing. For six thousand years parents have tended to raise their boys as if they were destined to be soldiers--that is, to be stoic, rigid, and aggressive, so they would not easily intimidated by their opponents in hand-to-hand combat. War today involves very little hand-to-hand combat, yet men are still being brought up as if they were being prepared to fight in Caesar's army.

Since men for thousands of years have been brought up to be belligerent, unfeeling, and insensitive, it has fallen to women to take care of those human needs irrelevant to combat. Women have had to become skilled at negotiation and compromise, at recognizing and anticipating the rights and needs of others, at mediating ("Your father really loves you, dear, he just doesn't know how to say it").

As a result, today's women have a head start in the new woven world we live in. Since young girls aren't trained to be compulsively competitive the way men are, it's a lot easier for women to join forces to achieve common goals. Women in all fields of activity are getting together to pool resources and improve skills. They have writing groups, artists' groups, executive support groups, entrepreneur support groups, professional support groups, academic support groups--whatever women set out to do, they tend to do in a cooperative setting.

Women have expanded their lives by asserting that anything a woman decides to do is thereby automatically feminine. Men need to come to a similar conclusion about masculinity. Otherwise they'll be stuck with Dumb, Dumber, and Still Dumber. If they're limited to doing only what women don't do they're in danger of becoming the drudges, the grunts, the expendable bodies in a world where communication is everything.