[su_note note_color=”#d5d5d5″ text_color=”#91201f”]The following is a reprint from Volume 3, Issue 15 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “Walk Like a Man.” You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.[/su_note]
I’ve never been into comic books, but I’ve always had a fascination with Superman. His duel personalities of Clark Kent and the Man of Steel intrigued me, even gave me hope. I wanted to be Superman, not simply because I desired powers making me “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall building in a single bound”—although that’s part of the fascination. More than the superpowers, Superman intrigued me because I identified with Clark Kent. On the surface, nothing about Clark Kent sets him apart from other guys. He’s an average man who is struggling like every other man to get by in the world. Clark Kent is the epitome of the weak man emasculated by the superior masculinity of those around him. A bespectacled weakling writer slumping his shoulders while berated by his boss; a dork lacking any swagger bumbling through sentences around Lois Lane; a mid-mannered lackey lacking luster. As a kid mocked and beat up in middle school, this hit too close to home for me. Cartoonist Jules Feiffer wrote, “Superman’s fake identity was our real one.”In the Kingdom of God, a man isn’t a man because of his ability to buy into an ideal. A man is a man solely because God has called him “son.”
No one had to convince me I was Clark Kent. Despite lacking the ability to see through walls, most people, including me, could see that I wasn’t hiding a super suit under my clothes. Growing up, other kids got noticed: Bryan for his athletic ability; Brad for his encyclopedia-like knowledge; the other Brad for being able to climb to the top of the rope in gym like a monkey; Heath, Luke, and Lee for being triplets. I wanted to be noticed too. If only I had some yet-to-be-discovered ability I, too, would be loved for being sui generis among my peers. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be unique. I’d like to say that I’ve risen above that desire, growing out of my childish aspirations to embrace a more egalitarian view of my fellow humans; but I’d be lying. I still want to be special. Mostly, I want to be noticed. Maybe it is the plight of the average man to long for something that sets him apart from everyone else—some ability, some strength, some secret power giving him the competitive edge needed to stand out.
If I’m being honest, my functional belief about how the world works is that in order to be noticed, you have to be special. Our celebrity-obsessed culture has worked its way into my psyche, and I, at an instinctual level, have bought into the myth that being someone that people recognize is important. Sure, I know this is a lie. I’ve heard enough sermons, even preached a few as well, countering this point. And yet, the struggle is real. I want to be the man. Superman.
Exchanging the Cape for the Computer
Superman reflects our cultural ideals about the ideal man: confident, honest, strong, a heroic defender of the weak, willing to do battle with evil, always there when needed, and, of course, good with the ladies. He stands out in all the ways we men wish we could. Our heroes have a tendency to shape, or reflect, or some combination of the two, the hegemonic ideal man—that pervasive archetype that informs our imagination about what a real man is. Superman is, and has been since his introduction to America in 1938, the embodiment of this ideal. For much of that run, Superman’s ideal was the dominant picture of the ideal man. Sure, there were variations of it, but by and large the strong, confident, heroic man has been the preeminent archetype.
Other movies have reflected the values of the hegemonic man. We can see this man showing up as William Wallace, Luke Skywalker, Maximus Decimus Meridus, and James Bond. For much of American cinematic history, these men were the protagonists, providing those of us watching lessons on how to be men. But a slow shift has begun to happen. The hegemonic ideal has been breaking down and our heroes are exchanging their capes for computers, x-ray vision for coke-bottle glasses, and confidence for geekiness. Or, to return to the comic book for a metaphor, Robin is upstaging Batman.
The computer boom changed the world. With the advent of the personal computer and Microsoft, Bill Gates went from being a nerdy kid building computers in his garage to being one of the richest men in the world. Steve Jobs went from being an eccentric computer geek with an aesthetic flair to a cultural icon who transformed how we interact with information. These two men are largely responsible for the world we live in today. It wasn’t Superman who changed the world. It was Clark Kent. A very nerdy, geeky Clark Kent.
These real-life geeks changed the way we think about what it means to be men in the world. Shows like The Big Bang Theory do not have your typical macho protagonist. The show spotlights two roommates who are physicists at Caltech and then features an aerospace engineer and an astrophysicist. Everyone on the show (except one woman) is what we would call a nerd. Chuck is another TV show whose main character doesn’t sport muscles. Chuck was your average computer whiz working at a chain electronics store who got caught up in a spy narrative. The show was so popular that, when the network talked about canceling it, fans mounted a campaign to ensure the show’s return. Average people working to save the show about the average guy. And then there’s Phil Dunphy, the goofy dad from Modern Family, who is the face of the All-American family. A new man for the new family, if you will. Culture has begun to shift how it thinks about men. At one time, nerds were simply sidekicks tagging along behind the real men: Barney Fife behind Andy Griffith, Radar behind Hawkeye, Robin behind Batman, and Steve Urkel behind, well, everyone. But now, a nerd can be the hero.
New Hero, Same Story
While America’s ideal man may be broadening or changing in appearance, the narrative of a successful American man remains the same. The ideal that was once hegemonic is being superseded by a narrative of manhood that is hegemonic. The expectation is that men will climb, conquer, celebrate. Physical characteristics of the ideal man are changing—no longer requiring men to be born with the genetic silver spoon in their mouth. Men can now have a dadbod and still be found attractive. Shifts away from the stoic, machismo typically associated with manhood in America is also happening, making room for the goofy, nerdy man. But, what isn’t changing is our expectations of what a man will do in the world. A man can be a Bill Gates, as long as he climbs, conquers, and celebrates. The nerd is an acceptable way to be a man if you can fulfill the American Dream and be successful in the world. Manhood, then, is about pragmatism. What helps you get by in the world? What helps you conquer those around you? What gives you the competitive edge? Whatever characteristics are most advantageous is what begins to define masculinity in our culture.
These shifts have always happened, but we rarely recognize them. Paying attention to history, we can begin to see just how often they show up. During the American Revolution, real men looked like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. But as Americans sought to distance themselves from England, even they weren’t immune to having their manhood questioned. Jefferson was accused of having a “womanish attachment to France.” The Self-made man usurped the landowning patriarch as the true American man. Other more subtle shifts have occurred in our history. During wartime, a real man is the one with a gun slung over his shoulder and a cigarette in his mouth. (The same ideal is true all the time in Texas, except that he is wearing cowboy boots.) During economic booms, a real man is a modern-day Donald Draper, full of business acumen. In the suburbs, a real man is the guy with the nicest car, best-kept lawn, or biggest house. Baseball players used to embody American masculinity, but they have been usurped by the larger, faster, more aggressive football player.
Manhood is not static, but our expectations about our men are. Characteristics defining the quintessential man are dynamic, constantly shifting according to the winds of the day. But the narrative is fixed. Men must conquer, whether it be a mountain, an army, or the market. The pressure on a man is the same regardless if they are the prototypical American man or the goofy nerd: climb, conquer, celebrate. This forces the questions: Can a man be a man if he doesn’t succeed? If a man fails, does that lessen his claim to the title of “Man?” If he doesn’t climb the corporate ladder, but in fact slides down the ladder, does his manhood status go with him? If he loses or is undercut, conquered, bought out, laid off, overshadowed, put down, sold out, or walked on, can he, in any way, be considered a man?
The Reverse Kingdom
In the Gospel of John, Jesus predicts His death with a story. “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” The Kingdom of God challenges the cultural demands to climb, conquer, and celebrate by calling followers of Jesus to descend, deny, and die. In the Kingdom of God, it is the first who will be last and the last who will be first. Christian spirituality recognizes the transformational nature of death; for it is in death that something new is born. Coming face-to-face with our limitations humbles us—waking us up to our dependence on God, the delusion of our dreams, and the arrogance of our pursuits. Or another way to say it: Finding out we aren’t Superman is good for our souls.
In the Kingdom of God, a man isn’t a man because of his ability to buy into an ideal. A man is a man solely because God has called him “son.” We are all prodigals, coming home to find the signet ring of the father placed on our finger and his robe hung on our shoulders. We didn’t earn this. We are not self-made men. We did not climb any ladder, conquer any foe, or celebrate any victory to receive this award. No, it was given simply because we are loved. Acceptance isn’t based on merit or standing out from the crowd like Superman. In the eyes of the Father, the most ordinary of men has meaning and purpose, even Clark Kent.