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Boys to Men: Some Thoughts About This Marvelous Transformation

September 20, 2019

Manhood. It almost feels archaic to write such a word. It’s become a muddled term, seeming to have as many definitions and contradictions as there are coffee beverages offered at Starbucks.

But despite all the opposing interpretations of what manhood should or does mean – from treatises on “toxic masculinity” to the men’s rights movement; from domineering fictional fantasy lovers like Christian Grey in the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise, to men who bare their souls the way sweet, sensitive Noah does in the blockbuster novel and film, The Notebook – I don’t think this manhood thing is all that difficult.

It may indeed seem we have a polarized view of what a man should be nowadays. If we’re to trust the media, we might conclude that men are confused and women are angry. Or perhaps it’s the other way around? At our core, I don’t think women’s expectations of men or men’s expectations of themselves have changed all that much, though. Certainly some aspects of the way men and women relate to one another have been reshaped dramatically. The sexual revolution forced us to look at one another anew, struggle through a fresh way of defining courtship and marriage. We’re still not done sorting it all out.

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Photo by Pavel Nekoranec on Unsplash

When it comes to the fundamental tenets of manhood, however, those remain remarkably intact. I see them everywhere – on the left, right and center, in books, movies, news segments. In atheist reasoning and religious dogma. In whatever political football is being punted on whatever given day. Certainly in the way I raise my son, love my husband, and approach constructing both male and female characters in my work.

Classically male virtues are ones of courage, fidelity, industry and duty. These are ancient tenets of manhood that still linger today. The Romans were a bit more specific, placing humor, mercy, frugality, wholesomeness (health), honesty, dignity, and a host of similar traits on the roster of model masculine attributes, but they ultimately concluded that the sum of a real man is one who lives a life of virtue, plain and simple. One who aspires to answer to his better angels. And while today we may have differing ideas of how to arrive at what constitutes a virtuous life, I think the essential elements of what we value remain refreshingly stubborn.

Yet from a purely romantic perspective, all this virtue business is a bit dry, I’ll admit. Cute as they were in their togas and gladiator outfits, the Romans weren’t particularly romantic in nature, and neither are our current pundits and politicians for that matter. If we want to understand what a woman craves from a man, how a man is just dying to be seen by a woman (and the world), we’ll do better to keep our eyes trained on fiction.

Anywhere from the legend of King Arthur to Jane Austen will do, if you want to stick to the less ancient classics. Both the Arthurian legends and their more modern literary cousins are damned good at clearing away the cultural debris and getting to the bones of what a man should be. Mid-twentieth century writers such as Kerouac, Hemingway, Stienbeck, even Salinger and gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson have shown us what deep down a man wishes he was like, sometimes at his wildest and most tried and true. More recent scribes – Diana Gabaldon, Maggie Shipstead, Nora Roberts and Amy Harmon – offer a more updated and feminine view of the kind of man a woman goes nuts for, and a man follows around like a good dog. The Tonto to his Kemosabe.

But all of these authors, even the most manly man wordsmiths among them, seem to understand that women’s expectations of men boil down to one crucial element from which all of the other virtues quite naturally flow. A woman wants to be the center of her lover’s universe. No matter what and forever. She wants him to be that immovable force.

That is the key maxim of every work of fiction that trains its eye on a pair of sweethearts, but it’s not only romance novels that draw attention to this fact. Such a sentiment hovers unspoken in almost every genre. Even in high testosterone spy thrillers, players like James Bond – a man who finds a new paramour in every adventure – adheres to this dictum. Is he not prepared to give his life for even the most undeserving damsel in distress? The gangster’s moll, the double agent, the fellow assassin?

As I endeavored to delve into lovers and love stories with gusto in my fiction this time around, I gave a lot of thought to how much a romantic story really does hinge on the creation and evolution of a man worth falling for. After all, if a man is going to make my female protagonist the center of his world, that world better be interesting and worth living in. It better be one of virtue.

As a mother, I’ve been downright obsessive at times about the kind of boy I want to raise to manhood and unleash upon humanity, especially on fellow members of my sex, or even of his same sex if he’s so inclined. I’ve tried to bring that same passion and self-interest to my stories, aiming to cut through the dither and disorientation that surrounds the conversation around men and manhood these days. Build from scratch the kind of man we all want in our lives, and in the lives of our sons and daughters.

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Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

I knew I needed to feature rituals that usher a boy into manhood and then unveil opportunities for my male protagonist to fulfill his promise, earn his place among the adults in the room, and ultimately, even lead them. “When” is a seriously underrated concept in my view, and rituals have historically played an important role in our development, giving us the ready, set, go! signal we’ve been waiting for. The one that dares us to put our virtues into play. Make them more than mere ideals.

From baptism to filling out a draft card, ceremonies and other officialities have let us know that ready or not, it’s time. To step up, to fight, to finish, to make love, to marry, to make a decision. About who we are and what we stand for, what we’re willing to do and risk everything for.

And that is the crux of what makes up a man in the end, is it not? His decisions. His ability to make them and stick to them, accept responsibility for their outcome. A man’s ideals may tell him how he should behave, his rituals may let him know when it’s time to employ those ideals, and fate may offer him an opportunity to take action, but it’s by his decisions that he’ll be judged and remembered.

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Photo by EVREN AYDIN on Unsplash

“The women take care of a boy’s hair until his hifi ulu,” Ku whispers. He’s come up next to me, too, and I’m glad for his company. 

“Of course with Will, that’s been a no go. He hasn’t let a woman touch his hair since well before he left for England. Except for Oliana, of course.”

That just about stabs me through the eye.

“Of course,” I say.

Sure enough, Oliana takes up the scissors and lifts up one of Will’s ribbon-wrapped locks. She takes a first snip right above where the ribbon is tied up top and holds it high for everyone to see. There’s a big cheer and Will meets my eyes, so I swallow hard and give him the best and biggest smile I’m able. This is his day and I’m not about to behave like a jealous harpy.

One by one, each of the women and girls take a turn cutting off a beribboned lock of Will’s hair – something they get to keep for themselves as a memento of the occasion, and symbol of their role in making a man of Will. –Savage Island

The hifi ulu, the Nuiean hair cutting-ceremony that acknowledges the passage of a boy into manhood is real and I chose to feature it in my upcoming novel, Savage Island, precisely because of how important I feel such rites of passage are to young people. On Niue, until a boy’s hifi ulu, the women of his family take care of his long hair – brushing, braiding, doing whatever is necessary to keep it in shape. After his hair is cut, the implication is that the boy must begin behaving like a man, not only caring for his own person, but getting himself mentally and physically prepared for caring for a family and for others who may need him down the line. It’s a lovely ceremony, and crucial to my protagonist Will’s journey, as from that moment on, the responsibilities of manhood will fall on him in a way he never expected or could have ever dreamed of.

 

Savage Island…coming October 1, 2019

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2 Comments
  1. Gosh, Vic. Well written and thought out. Too deep for my shallow mind. 🙂

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