Retro Quote #11: Updike on Masculinity

Cool in the City

My earliest sociological thought about myself had been that I was fortunate to be a boy and an American. Now the world was being told that American males – especially white, Protestant males who had done well under ‘the system’ – were the root of all evil. Law abiding conformity had become the opposite of a refuge. The Vietnam era was no sunny picnic for me.

- John Updike

John Updike believed that the chief malady afflicting modern man is manhood itself. It’s an interesting thought – one that Updike spent decades writing about. The Rabbit novels chart the decentering of white masculinity, from its secure position as the self evident standard against which all other identities are measured and found to be ‘different’.

Good or bad, you can't argue that there was a massive shift in the role of men in society - and I would argue that it extends to all races, not just whites as Updike contends.  And don't get me wrong - I don't think we should revert back to the 'good ol' days' when women were secondary citizens and men held court in every business place and homestead in the country without exception.

However, it has resulted in a male species that does not quite understand itself - their identity is kind of in limbo.  Updike, during the last few years of his life (around the publication of the sequel to The Witches of Eastwick), posed the question of whether men were even necessary at all anymore.  All the things that required a male are basically gone: we don't hunt for food anymore, and heavy lifting - jobs that require physical strength - are vanishing or rendered obsolete by machinery.

As far as office jobs go, it certainly doesn't need to be a man.  In fact, many would argue that women are more suited for the modern day office job, since it's been shown they are better, as a general rule, at task managing, organizing and attention to detail.

As far as sex is concerned - the continuation of the species is in no jeopardy without the male.  Sperm keep nicely in freezers.

It's a pessimistic outlook, I know.  But an interesting thought, nonetheless.  One is reminded of those species in the animal kingdom where the male has become nothing more than a midget sperm donor. 

This quote from The Male Dilemma: How to Survive the Sexual Revolution (1974) attempts to explain the shifting gender dynamics:

Whenever there is a major revolution or change in the power structure of some aspect of society, the outs, the insurgents, the underdogs always become the center of attention and receive the major share of publicity. Thus, in the United States, the activities of racial minorities and youthful rebels are given center stage, while their adversaries, the white, middle class, middle age establishment, sink into the shadows. In the sexual revolution, the male has been cast as the adversary, the “enemy.”

Hmmm.  It's certainly something to think about.


  1. But if Men weren't around, who would open the jars of pickles? THAT'S job security!

  2. Jim said "pickles".

    And where would the world be without 4th grade humor? Not a lot of women who can do that.

  3. I once had to ask a lesbian friend to open a jar. That is all.

    I suggest reading the excellent story "Houston, Houston Do You Read?" as well.

  4. There was a female friend of ours who, in the middle of a party, came wandering in from the kitchen holding a jar and shouting "I need a penis!"

    Funny how the responses would never address the jar...

  5. Why do flashers always look like that? And what's with the trenches...is that their 'signature piece'?

  6. And it's still pretty hard to maneuver a forklift in the kitchen, no matter how many males 5'8 and up cease to reproduce.

  7. I mean, positing that men are no longer useful sounds a lot like victimization. The whole point is to move past anyone being a victim so we can live as equals. But I see what Updike means: it makes perfect sense for men to rethink masculinity as the same time women are rethinking femininity.

    -Desiree, Desiree, Pop-o-matic Deluxe!

  8. I get what you mean, Gilligan. I saw a cover story in USA Weekly about something like that but in was in the grocery store line so I didn't really get a chance to read through it but the main point I got from it was this generation was men are feeling 'lost' and their manhood is being challenged and questioned.

  9. Thanks Gilligan for doing a post wherein you mention Updike, who was one of the best authors at this time, The Rabbit series especially. There may be some truth in what you say here, however, humans beings have a million things abut them that don't have much to do with gender. We are more than our roles.