(This is my 700th blog)
Over the years I have been mystified by a statement that seemed ‘odd’ to me. This is the statement:
“Act like a man!”
I’ve always wondered what that meant . . .
Throughout the years I would even hear of more statements about the male that, to me, always seemed silly and asinine. Some of these statements are:
“The male must be tough.”
“The male cannot cry or show emotions.”
“The male is aggressive and a fighter.”
“The male is domineering and wants to control things.”
I’ve always questioned statements such as these. Something did not make sense about them . . . and they certainly didn’t seem to describe the male character, at least as I saw it. Then, to add to that, there are all the ‘tough guy’ image in the movies and such . . . why are they so prevalent? Not only that, they seemed to be describing a specific character of person, one which seemed unrealistic, and non-existent, to me.
What does it mean and where did it originate from?
Here are some thoughts I had on it:
THE ‘MYTH OF THE TOUGH GUY’
To me, this seems to be representative of “the myth of the tough guy”. It seems to be an American thing, reflecting the American mentality based on American values. Over the years, it created a specific image of the male with specific traits and qualities. Not only that, this image was often looked at as an ideal and something to be emulated and practiced. Despite this, it was something that seldom materialized or even appeared naturally in the male population. In addition, it did not seem to describe the male at all, at least in my opinion. In short, the ‘tough guy’ never seemed to be an “actual person” at all, though he was talked of as if he were, and there was no shortage of guys who tried to emulate it and become a ‘tough guy’.
Some of the traits that define the ‘tough guy’ are things like:
- They can handle any crisis.
- They are aggressive and willing to fight.
- They play ‘king of the mountain’ and always try to be the leader.
- They are always trying to outdo one another and are competitive and, ideally, always win.
- They do things no one else can do.
- They try to control everything.
- They don’t need anyone or any help.
- They work and get things done, often on their own.
These are only some of the manifestations of the ‘tough guy’ image. Because of the myriad events in history, and the varied circumstances and multitude of conditions in the country, there became many variations of the ‘tough guy’ image that have developed over the years. In some cases, the term ‘tough guy’ may not even fit this image at all. I’m using it here as a “generic” term to describe a specific image of the male the U.S. created. In its simplist form, one could describe this persona, in general, as a ‘tough-independent-who-can-handle-anything-do-all’ type of guy. But, keep in mind that there are many versions of how this appeared.
NORTHEAST ORIGINS AND AMERICAN VALUES
I was always of the opinion that the ‘tough guy’ image originated from the northeastern part of the U.S. in particular. It as if ‘set the stage’ for everything else that followed and created something like a ‘garden’ for everything else to grow. Naturally, as things grew and developed, there developed many manifestations of it as a result of the varying conditions that would appear.
The reason why the northeast was so important is that it is the ‘original settlement’, so to speak, of the U.S. and, accordingly, was the seat of American values. The south (the southeast, actually) was, in reality, a different world in itself as would become apparent in the Civil War. It was in the northeast where the original ideas of the U.S. are the strongest and had origin and developed. It is for this reason that it would create a ‘stamp of authority’ for all that would follow it. In many ways, all the ‘tough guy’ images and variations that followed were supporting, at least in some way, the original ideals of the northeast which reflected American ideals. As time went on we find that different events, conditions, historical realities, etc. tended to create myriad versions and aspects to the ‘tough guy’ image. Some, even, contradict each other and conflict at times, as we saw in the Old West (see below). This shows that the ‘tough guy’ image is not a single defined image but an image that changed and varied in response to conditions. One could very well say that there are many different ‘schools of thought’ concerning the ‘tough guy’ that has developed throughout the years.
Some of the ideals of the northeast, which are rooted in American values, and which began the evolution of the ‘tough guy’, image include:
- Idealism – the ‘worship’ of certain beliefs as something to aspire to
- Individualism – that what a person does matters
- Accomplishment – a person can achieve anything
- Competition – of ‘putting down’ opposition and in winning
- Freedom – that a person could do what they wanted and no one controlled them
- Optimism – that everything will get better
These are all American values and are reflective of America’s beliefs. By themselves they would not of created a ‘tough guy’ image. For that to happen needed more was needed. Several things that helped create it include:
- Practicing the values
1. PRACTICING THE VALUES
Being that these reflected American values it was only natural that their practice in everyday life would make an impact. In fact, the practice of the values is what made them ‘real’ and ‘living’. Without practice, the image would be empty. As a result, many aspects of the ‘tough guy’ image originated from ‘real world’ situations and conditions and of things people did.
Some of the ways the practice of the values appeared are through these ways such as these:
- The ‘working class hero’. This generally entailed a belief that the working man is ‘king’. As a result, they tended to glorify the working man, as if the whole world revolved around him and what he did.
- The ‘tough business man’. This, of course, referred to a successful business man, particularly if he did everything himself.
- The Protestant work ethic. This basically teaches that a person must “work themselves to death” and “endure anything”. This was often glorified and worshipped as some great achievement. I’ve seen many people practically kill themselves trying to cater to this value.
- The ‘rebel’ after the world wars. The image of a rebel became prevalent after both world wars. The rebel tended to glorify America’s ideas of individualism and freedom.
- New York and other congested cities. It seems, to me, that New York, in particular, emulated much American ideals particularly in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. This is significant as it was very crowded and had a lot of people with its associated tension, competition, and continuous strife. As a result of these, its as if congested cities began to emulate many American values as if to defend themselves from the crisis the city created.
- Sports. This includes playing and watching. In general, the emphasis is primarily only in winning or who wins. In some cases, this could almost be religious.
- The ‘can do’ attitude. This emphasizes values like accomplishment, achievement, work ethics, and optimism.
Many ‘tough guy’ traits have origin with these practiced values. No doubt, their practicing made people it easy for people to identify with the ‘tough guy’ image and what it meant.
Naturally, historical situation was influential in the creation of the ‘tough guy’ image. In many cases, a historical era created a unique ‘tough guy’ image. In other cases, one era built upon previous era’s. This is one reason why there are many variations of the ‘tough guy’ image.
Though it may not seem immediately apparent but it appears that the ‘tough guy’ image has some origin in the bourgeoisie. These are city people who tended to emulate noble ideals, often to the point of imitation. I often speak of this tendency as the ‘pseudo-nobility’. They particularly appeared in the 1700’s with the rise of the city merchant class who could afford to ‘imitate’ the nobility. Pretty soon, it became a mark of prestige to act like that. Accordingly, they tried to develop traits and qualities of the nobility. A particularly significant image of the ‘pseudo-nobility’ is the ‘knight’. As time went on, America would take this image and change it somewhat. In fact, in many ways, the ‘tough guy’ is nothing but an American version of a knight. Some of the qualities of the knight the U.S. took include:
- The image of a fighter.
- The idea of accomplishment and achievement
- The glorification of the individual.
- The practice of values (the knight was supposed to practice Christian values).
Though this image does not look like the ‘tough guy’ it ‘set the stage’ for the development of the ‘tough guy’ image in America. More was still needed . . .
The Northeast and the Old West
The realities of the northeast, with its high civilization and crowding, was very different compared with the Old West. Many people of the northeast were very curious and even idolized the Old West as they began to hear stories of it and how different it was. In fact, interest was so popular that Old West fiction became very popular (see below). This eventually had great impact on the ‘tough guy’ image.
It appears to me that people in the northeast were frustrated with the problems of the city life. The congestion, competition, conflicts, etc. made it hard for these ideals to materialize. As a result, the image of the Old West gave an outlet for that frustration. In fact, the frustration of fulfilling the ideals in the city made the Old West an ‘ideal place’ to imagine it. In this way, the frustration created a need for an ‘image’. It made it so that people were ‘ripe’ for something. If this is the case, then it means that the ‘tough guy’ image is rooted not in the manifestation of the ideals but in their failure and subsequent frustration!
WWII and its aftermath
When WWII came it caused a great wave of nationalism. During, and after, WWII the Old West fictional stories became increasingly in vogue as representations of American ideals. The effect of this is that it created a “resurgence” of the themes and reinvigorated the ‘tough guy’ image and its general proliferation in general society. Not only that, it appeared in many ways: fiction, movies, television, and commercial products. The ‘cowboy and Indian’ became commonplace name. Even many boys would play cowboy and Indian in the backyard.
This era seemed to create the ‘lone just-cause tough guy’ image, typically. Though there were many versions of this, the image of the cowboy was common and seemed prevalent in the 1950’s.
The cold war
With the cold war the image of a ‘tough guy’ to promote American values seemed to be strong. We began to see it a lot in the movies especially. It seems that once the cowboy ‘just-cause tough guy’ faded in the late 1950’s, especially, we see more and more images of ‘just-cause any man’ images appearing. This would change in the late 1960’s.
From the late 1960’s, and into the 1970’s, there seem to be emphasis on the ‘lone rebel tough guy’ image. This seemed particularly apparent as a result of the hippi movement and attacks on the Vietnam War and the new ‘rebelling against the establishment’ mentality. As a result, into the 1970’s we start to see the ‘rebel against the system tough guy’ and the appearance of the ‘action man tough guy’ which became common in the 1980’s’.
The post cold war
With the fall of the cold war, the ‘tough guy’ image took a blow. The nationalistic ideals were simply not there anymore. This, in a way, made the ‘tough guy’ irrelevant. As a result, what began to appear, in the 1990’s, is the ‘mindless violence tough guy’ image. This, though, seemed to wear out after awhile.
Many images of the ‘tough guy’ in this era seems to be nothing but a remnant of the eras before us that is now carrying over to this era. In other words, the post cold war era doesn’t seem to of created any new ‘tough guy’ image that I can see.
For an image to be created it needs to have a form of representation. One of the ways this happened is by the use of various forms of media. That is to say, the various forms of media created a great power that, in actuality, made the image grow and develop. Most certainly, without the media the ‘tough guy’ image probably would never of been created. It did this in ways such as these:
- It instilled the image in peoples minds
- It exposed the image to many people
- It popularized the image
Some influential forms of media that this include:
- Old west fictions
- The early movies
- Big budget movies
With media, such as these, a ‘medium of representation’ was created that basically created the ‘tough guy’ image. Over time, this would create the representation of the ‘tough guy’ image as if it were a real and living person.
Old West fictions
The evolution of the ‘tough guy’ image seems to be begin when American values became more than values. That is to say, they needed a representation to take them out of the mundane existence of everyday life, to put them as if on an altar to glorify. In other words, something was needed to put them in symbolic form. It appears that one of the first ways in which this began is in the fiction of the Old West which began in the early-mid 1800’s.
For many people in the northeast these fictions were not only fascinating and exotic but struck a cord with nationalistic feeling by its representation of a ‘growing nation’, freedom, individualism, and such. Accordingly, it is only natural that these nationalistic feelings would begin to be seen in Old West fiction.
They became very popular and, we must remember, they were directed toward the ‘city people’ of the northeast. As a result of this, they were not very accurate depictions of life in the Old West but more like a fantasized image. In this way, they actually became depictions of the ideals of the northeast demonstrated through the fictional stories of the Old West. In this way, the ideals were seen as if a reality. Like I said above, this need was probably because people were frustrated as a result of the city life and inability to fulfill ideals in the northeast.
A number of themes appeared in these stories that, at times, conflicted and contradicted with each other. Two common ones are:
- The ‘forger of progress and civilization’ image.
- The ‘self-sufficient man’ image.
Often, these two were at odds with each other, and contradicted each other, creating a great irony in Old West fiction. Generally, the ‘forger of progress and civilization’ image tended to destroy the ideals of the ‘self-sufficient man’ image who generally despised progress and civilization. But both, in their own way, described aspects of American values. In this way, we see two different aspects of the ‘tough guy’ image appearing. In the former, the man is the one who, with his own hands oftentimes, creates progress and civilization out of a wasteland, a great achiever. In the later, the man is the one who can live on his own without progress and civilization, in a wasteland, another type of achiever. They are the same, in a way, but different. In either case, the image of a man who achieves is made . . . catering to an ideal. Not only that, each caters to specific American ideals. As a result, both reflect American ideals but in different ways. This is a good example of how many images of the ‘tough guy’ image appeared.
With the Old West fiction, it created many ‘larger than life’ characters and hero’s who displayed American ideals in a ‘pure’ and ‘outright’ way. In this way, they sort of exaggerated the ideals and, at the same time, made them more ‘extreme’ creating these guys who could ‘do anything’.
Old West fiction shows the importance of media in the creation and development of the ‘tough guy’ image. In fact, the media would play an instrumental, and critical element, in the creation of the ‘tough guy’ image. Without it, no doubt, the ‘tough guy’ image would probably never of appeared at all, nor gained the force it did. It appears that fiction started it all.
The early movies
When the movies began to appear, particularly in the 1920’s, it brought on an even greater media form of expression that surpassed the fiction of the 1800’s. Moving pictures brought a new reality and form.
Interestingly, though, the Old West did not figure prominently. It seems that the first real creation of the ‘tough guy’ image in the movies were the gangster movies. The popularity of the gangsters in the movies, particularly in the 1930’s, appears to of contributed to the image of the ‘tough guy’. There are times when I see a male ‘act out’ the ‘tough guy’ that it seems like I can see the gangster in it. The gangster also seemed to create the first ‘rebel tough guy’.
When the television appeared it brought in a whole new medium and audience to the ‘tough guy’ image. Not only that, it brought it into the home. It also made it so that the image was seen regularly and consistently, such as in TV series, advertisements, etc. Through this medium much of these ideals were to spread to the general population. Soon, practically everyone was exposed to it.
Big budget movies
With the 1960’s and 1970’s we see the coming of big budget movies, with famous actors, appear. This touching a broader audience and in a bigger way than television. Now, the ‘tough guy’ was dramatically seen in a big screen. In addition, it extended the ‘tough guy’ image to many more genre’s such as science fiction, action, drama, etc. than had before been seen. This made it even more prevalent.
With the success of these movies it became clear that the population wanted or, rather, needed a ‘tough guy’ image. As a result, this image was repetitively produced by Hollywood for the masses and many ‘tough guy’ movies were to be created that goes on down to today.
Because of the time period these were created they tended to emphasize a more cold war ‘tough guy’, often entailing the idea of a ‘rebel’, man-versus-the-system, and other qualities following the hippi movement and the Vietnam war.
The superhero Comic Books exposed a lot of children to a form of the ‘tough guy’ image. Initially these were only found in comic books but soon movies, and serials, would appear almost regularly. With television series would appear, such as Batman. These created a whole new idea of ‘tough guy’ which was primarily directed to little boys. Much of these seem to be based on earlier images of ‘tough guys’ and conditions:
- Some superheroes apparently have origins in the image of the Old West hero, a descendent of the Old West fiction. A good example is Flash Gordon in the 1930’s.
- The original Batman comic books appears to be influenced by the gangster era, a continuation of the gangster ‘tough guy’ movies from the 1930’s. Being directed toward boys, Batman became the ‘tough guy’ who defeated gangster-like people in the early years.
- Superman shows a strong big city influence, referring to the congested cities of the northeast.
With the wearing out of the ‘tough guy’ image after the cold war the superhero would be revived again to start a whole new genre of movies and comic books from the 1980’s on. Interestingly, this era of superhero is known for being directed toward adults, creating an ‘adult super hero’.
THE IMAGE OF THE ‘TOUGH GUY’ AND NATIONALISM
Overall, though, what we see is that the image of the ‘tough guy’ would be a medium for nationalism and American values. Keep in mind that this was not the only medium or form of this expression. It became one of many. Because of this many males would want to emulate and become a ‘tough guy’. This would greatly influence the American male (see below).
ASPECTS OF THE MYTH IN THE TEACHING OF A NEW MALE IMAGE – AN AMERICAN FAILURE
In America, the ‘tough guy’ would play a very large role in the life of the American male. Being that the ‘tough guy’ image reflected national ideals they were often taken seriously and as an ideal. As a result, it became common for males to try to emulate it the best way possible. Many would try to emulate ‘tough guy’ traits such as:
- Being assertive
- Being aggressive
- Being in-control
- Being able to handle anything
These created a condition that, in reality, became a burden upon most males and created great pressure to conform. In the end, it actually became ‘too much’ for many males causing a general deterioration in the American male through the years.
The failed new male image
Though the ‘tough guy’ image reflected American ideals it actually created a distorted and unrealistic view of the male when taken ‘seriously’, which it often was. We must remember that the ‘tough male’ image is primarily a media creation based on nationalistic ideals, not a human creation reflecting naturally appearing human traits and qualities. In that way, the image is an ‘idealism’ not a ‘reality’. This fact would soon become apparent as many males tried to reflect the traits of the ‘tough guy’. Because of this, it becomes clear that the ‘tough guy’ image is not a representation of how males really are. In fact, it seldom, if ever, really reflected the “actually existing” American male character at all. In many cases, this image was ‘forced’ upon the male, often strictly, which shows that it is not reflective of the male or male traits. In that way, it created a ‘false male image’, one which would slowly undermine the American male over time.
As mentioned above, this image became so prevalent that it created a pressure to conform to the image for many American males. The reactions to this pressure appeared in a number of ways:
- Being able to conform.
- A continuous struggle to try and conform.
- An inability to conform.
So we see that there are times when how well a male could conform to the ‘tough guy’ image would have great impact on his social relations and, eventually, his feelings about himself. Because of this, the ‘tough guy’ image would have great impact on the American male.
Because of the pressure to conform many males tried to practice the traits of the ‘tough guy’, at least as they understood it. Typically, though, it failed or backfired. My own experience is that guys who tried to be a ‘tough guy’ tended to have qualities such as:
- They often were viewed as an “idiot” or an “ass”.
- They were difficult to associate with.
- They think they must control everything.
- They think they are above, and even better, than everyone else.
- They are intimidating.
- They became obnoxious and annoying.
- They became overbearing.
- They became arrogant.
- They tended to have a large ego along with all the problems it creates.
- They became ‘stressed out’ by the pressure of it all (I wrote an article on a similar theme called “Thoughts on the ‘uptight American’ – the price of individualism“).
- They began to cater to the ‘success-cult’ and worshipped success, especially theirs (I wrote an article on this called “Thoughts on the ‘success cult’“).
- They became phony or superficial.
These all created a male that was, at least in my experience, difficult to associate with. Their general tendency is to glorify ‘toughness’ and to ‘act it out’. As a result, you’d see guys ‘acting it out’ with, what seemed to me, as artificial gestures and mannerisms. They had a quality of ‘acting out what they’d like to be, not what they are’. Some of their traits include:
- They talk with a ‘forced’ low voice.
- They seemed to stick their chest out.
- They act tense with a tense face.
- They are serious about it all.
- They have a look as if they are going to kill you or something.
- They act in an intimidating way and can be very ‘in-your-face’.
- They could even use threats.
- They are controlling.
- They can become bullies.
To this day, many of these gestures still make me chuckle. Watching these guys could be almost comical, like a big game of ‘who’s the more macho’.
But many males had difficulty fitting into this image (probably most). Some reactions include:
- Its made many males ‘in limbo’, so to speak, as they did not know where they stand in things. It made many males turn away from society or not have much to do with it. In other words, a males failure at the ‘tough guy’ image made many males go in other directions and began a general tendency of the male to turn away from society. This tendency goes on even down to today, but often for other reasons as well (I wrote an article about something similar to this called “Thoughts on “failing” boys and males “dropping out”: “the male exodus” . . . another account of the fight against dehumanization???” if you’re interested).
- It has caused many males to take a ‘back seat’ perspective in life. They sort of ‘go with the flow’ and avoid attracting attention to themselves. They don’t do anything dramatic either. In effect, its caused many males to become ‘passive’ and without any ambition. In some ways, the American male as if ‘faded away’.
- Its made it so that many males have no desire to emulate American values. In this way, the ‘tough guy’ actually backfired. In causing this, it actually had destroyed the values it was supposed to emulate.
Stuff like this, in my opinion, has helped to bring a slow detioration in the male. It did this by creating a number of conditions such as:
- It forced a person to develop false traits.
- No genuine traits were developed.
- It created problems for the males who could not conform.
- It affected many males social relations.
- It affected many males feelings about themselves.
- It created unrealistic expectations.
- It made it so that participation with society was no longer appealing.
I tend to feel that the ‘myth of the tough male’ is one of the things that has brought down the male in America.
The degradation of boys
It seems, to me, that the ‘tough guy’ image tended to cause a general degradation of the boy over the years. It did this a number of ways:
- They tended to be looked down upon because they are not ‘tough guys’.
- The boys were required to try to be a ‘tough guy’. Often, they had to do things they did not want to do or were not good at.
- Some boys were forced to be ‘tough guy’. Often, this could get to the point of being abusive.
- If they did not emulate ‘tough guy’ attitudes, nor develop them, they were often ridiculed. I know this from personal experience.
The amount of pressure upon boys to fit the ‘tough guy’ image, I think, has not been fully acknowledged, in my opinion.
The Munchausen effect and battle trauma
The ‘tough guy’ image was used extensively in the training and ‘indoctrination’ of soldiers, especially since WWII. No doubt, this is as a result of the nationalistic orientation of the military. The soldier was taught to be ‘tough’ and invincible with a ‘do or die’ attitude and such. A great many of these emulate the ‘tough guy’ image.
Unfortunately, this has created a problem for many males in the military: a predisposition to battle trauma. To put it simply, the ‘forcing’ of the ‘tough guy’ image on the American soldier has created a specific condition which I call the ‘Munchausen Effect’. This is a condition where:
- Soldiers are taught to be something that they are not.
- This makes them develop a ‘false persona’ that the military teaches them (which has many ‘tough guy’ qualities).
- They are put under the stress of military crisis.
- The ‘false persona’ fails.
- They suffer from battle trauma.
In short, they appear to be OK until they are put in crisis, then the ‘false persona’ (‘tough guy’ image) comes crashing down with battle trauma as the result (I wrote an article on this called “Thoughts on the ‘Munchausen Effect’ and the military – the power and dilemma of illusion“).
In many ways, the failure of the soldiers ‘false persona’ display the basic failure of the ‘tough guy’ image in general. It shows a number of points with the ‘tough guy’ image:
- It shows that it is just an image.
- It shows that it works while not under or stress or crisis.
- When it works it appears to be OK and the male seems to emulate the countries values.
- In actuality, it actually alienates the male deep down. This becomes apparent after a crisis happens.
What this shows is the ‘tough guy’ image is just that . . . an image, an illusion. It does not reflect the male at all. In this way, it is much like the clothing a person wears, a superficial front. This is one of the biggest failure of the ‘tough guy’ image.
The ‘pushing away’ of females
Since the ‘tough guy’ image is a male thing it tended to ‘push away’ girls from the males in general, often in an intimidating way. In some cases, this was done in an aggressive and degrading way as I, myself, have observed. Because the ‘tough guy’ tended to develop an ego, in many cases, anyone who did not have the ‘tough guy’ image (which includes females) were often belittled and ridiculed. In this way, the ‘tough guy’ image actually created something like a rift or wall between the male and female. It often created a male-as-opposed-to-female perspective that could be quite severe and strict. In general, the ‘tough guy’ did not, in any way, act like a non-‘tough guy’, which includes females and even boys. This often included a tendency to frown on emotions or any other perceived ‘weakness’. In this way, one could say that a ‘tough guy snobbishness’ was created.
The new female ‘tough guy’
Recently, with the growing failure of the female hood in America, many females are trying to emulate the male ‘tough guy’ image almost as if its going to save them. I was initially surprised at this as they, in general, were ‘pushed away’ by the ‘tough guy’ . . . now they want to be like them? But many females are trying to develop it and act it out. Because of this, we are now seeing the female follow in the failure of the male: they are being destroyed by an image they think is good. The question is how long will it take them before they find out the image is bad?
A ‘POPULAR IMAGE’
What all this shows is that the ‘tough guy image is an image, not a reality, and does not describe actual male traits. Because of this, it is an illusion. Anyone practicing it is, therefore, living a false image. It is, after all, a manifestation of idealism and nothing but a representation. In short, it is a ‘popular image’, something developed to satisfy a need for a popular image for the masses. The failure of the ‘myth of the tough guy’ is really that people took it too seriously.
From what I have seen very few farmers, or people in the back country, or even the Old West, naturally took to the ‘tough guy’ image or emulated it. In other words, the ‘tough guy’ image is not rooted in any real character or person. Because of this, it is not rooted in anything ‘real’. As I said, it is based in a representation of values and idealism.
Copyright by Mike Michelsen