Steps towards manhood

I’m Proud of You: My Friendship with Fred Rogers by Tim Madigan. Gotham, 2006. 208 pages.

Dear Chris,

Your questions about manhood and manliness following your first semester at the university, questions raised in the light of discussions both inside and outside the classroom, intrigued me. You asked particularly about recent books that might address this subject.


Tim Madigan’s I’m Proud of You: My Friendship with Fred Rogers is a touching portrait of this children’s television star, Mr. Rogers. Over a number of years, Madigan and Fred Rogers became close friends, drawn together particularly by Madigan’s remorse and suffering in regard to a brother’s death. Madigan shows how Rogers helped him overcome several personal difficulties. Mr. Rogers comes across much as he does on television: a compassionate soul who wants to be our neighbor (strangely enough, we learn far more about Madigan than about Rogers, whose personal life remains hidden).

Madigan’s friendship with Fred Rogers may provide some insights into the idea of male bonding, yet this account offers such a candy counter of treacle that the reader may sometimes feel as if the pages are sticking to his fingers. Moreover, the goodness emanating from Mr. Rogers sometimes seems artificial. At one point he asks a desperately ill boy to pray for him. All well and good, but after he asks the same thing of several other people, his request assumes a tone of insincerity.

Conclusion: Mr. Rogers is the Hawkeye Pierce of M*A*S*H without the sarcasm, Chris. He may be a saint, but he won’t serve as a role model for manhood.

On the other side of the literary docket is Jim Belushi’s Real Men Don’t Apologize, which is billed as “a hilarious new book about dating, marriage, and sex that is sure to hit home with every red-blooded American male, and the women who love them.” The awful syntax of that sentence — “every male” is singular, while “them” is plural — is characteristic of this poorly written book. Belushi can be hilarious at times, and you may even find some practical advice here that works, Chris (ask one question to every three asked by your date, women despise men who whine), yet Real Men Don’t Apologize seems written more for locker-room boys than for men. Belushi is a second-rate comedian who goes for the laugh at the expense of truth, so that readers are finally left wondering whether the book itself isn’t some sort of ghastly joke. The crudity of approach and of language alone reveal that Belushi may be qualified to write about sex, but not about love or manhood.

Chris, these two books reveal the debased ideas of masculinity in our society. A great number of citizens — Team Nut-cutter, if you will — want to castrate men, want men to become more feminized, more like Mr. Rogers. Some extreme feminists even argue that we no longer need men, that men are indeed dangerous. In contrast, there are men who simultaneously desire their women to be both saints and whores.

Fortunately, Chris, authentic models of manhood do exist, models that are not, as you requested, “as old as dirt.”

Let me first recommend The Road by Cormac McCarthy. In this novel of a post-apocalyptic America, a nameless father guides his son through a wasteland of desolation and death. A host of enemies — starvation, cold, disease, cannibals, murderers, thieves — stalks them on their grim journey. The father makes mistakes along the way, and several times his son serves as his better conscience, yet in this man’s character we find a masculine ideal, an image to which a stouthearted Roman patrician or a medieval French knight could easily relate. Here, Chris, is a man to admire, a father who struggles when his burdens seems hopeless, a man who, from the love of his son and the memory of his own ideals, forces himself to stand and face impossible odds.

Now let me recommend two films that might point you toward your own definition of manhood. Both movies are about boxing, a sport where the fighter battles alone in a contest in which, win or lose, he must frequently take a beating. The fighter accepts pain and punishment as part of his ticket for being in the ring. In many ways, that ring is a metaphor for a man’s life.

The first film is “Cinderella Man,” in which Russell Crowe plays James Braddock, a heavyweight champion in the 1930s. You can enjoy the boxing sequences, but what I want you to watch is how Braddock treats his wife, how he teaches his children, how he embodies what should be for all men an ideal: the willingness to sacrifice the self for family and for ideals like honor and love.

The second movie I’d advocate is “Rocky Balboa.” Fashionable people sneer at the Rocky movies (“Rocky V” deserved that sneer), yet Sylvester Stallone’s latest film about the fighter he made famous, Rocky Balboa, will give you an inkling of what it means to be a man. Here is a fine movie about a fighter, once a world champion, now beset by sadness and defeat. As the aging fighter faces his own demons and desires, Rocky points the way toward some workable definitions of manhood. He stresses the concepts of courage, of struggle, of taking chances, of protecting the weak. If nothing else, Chris, you can ponder the quote: “It ain’t about how hard you can hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.”

Many modern people will tell you that these ideas, the visions of men as diverse as McCarthy and Stallone, are too simplistic. Life, these observers contend, has grown too complicated for such standards, which they doubtless regard as belonging to the Stone Age.

These people are dead wrong, Chris.

To devise a code for manhood isn’t even all that tough. Real men work. They stand up for their family and friends. They avoid whining or blaming others for their own failures. They take hits, get up, and take more hits. They seek to combine justice and compassion. They look for something higher, something better, to worship than themselves.

You can design your own list, Chris. This code, this vision of manhood, is, as I say, relatively simple.

But living out that vision, following that code — that’s the tough part, Chris. That’s the part that separates the men from the boys.

Keep up your quest and let me know from time to time how it goes.

Jeff Minick

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