“‘Cause you gotta be hangin’ tough
Hangin’ tough, hangin’ tough,
We’re rough.” — New Kids on the Block
My usual course is to attribute song lyrics to the individual or individuals that wrote the song and not the group. In the case of this song, it isn’t even the group that wrote it, but it’s just too embarrassing to saddle this on the person that actually wrote it. There’s nothing quite as ridiculous as watching five suburban white teens dancing in unison and telling us how tough they are.
These songs sold millions of records (I’m dating myself with that term) so I guess it fooled someone. It’s just hard to say if it was anyone over the age of fourteen. They certainly weren’t fooling any teenage boys or any adults. It’s one of those songs that inspires laughter today. It almost makes you feel sorry for those five boys. Almost.
The problem comes with the illusion of masculinity. We saw that again when Lindsay Graham tried to defend gun rights in the only way he can. He asserted that he owns an AR-15 and he would use it to hunt down gangs. Yup, I can see him now just mowing down street hard gangsters. Sure, and the New Kids were rough.
The trouble with a topic like this is that it exists in layers. The first layer is that we know Graham isn’t exactly the pretty picture of stereotypical masculinity. There have been nasty rumors about his sexuality since he’s not married and seems effeminate to some. So, the picture of Graham with his big gun is laughable at best.
Of course, then there is the immediate second layer. What exactly is the definition of a man? I certainly am not handy around the house. I don’t lift heavy things, shoot wild animals bent on attacking us, and I certainly don’t think the average masculine male writes his own blog about his feelings. I’m one of two males in an all female English department. If we are going by strict appearances then I’m not the picture of a stereotypical masculine man either.
Then, we get the question of whether any of this really matters. What if Lindsay Graham is gay? What if he doesn’t really participate in stereotypical alpha male activities. Should any of that really matter? Certainly, it is a little rich for progressives to trumpet the rights of LGTBQ+ individuals and then turn around and whisper about Graham. If you are going to support some people on that journey you need to support all people on that journey.
Of course, this doesn’t mean anything about Graham. I’m not speculating one way or the other. I honestly don’t care. What I care about is how people portray themselves and portray masculinity as a whole. The insinuation is that men own guns and bigger men own bigger guns. In my younger days, I remember seeing a bumper sticker that said, “If you own a gun you are a citizen. If you don’t you are a subject.” I certainly didn’t realize that the right to own a gun had turned into the duty to own a gun.
I don’t own a gun and I’m pretty confident in saying that I never will. I guess when you add that up to my inability to fix things, lack of physical strength, and increased sensitivity then you would surmise that I’m not really a man. Would I become more of a man if I somehow lied about any of those things? Maybe I could say I own a gun. Maybe I could say that I can lift 200 pounds. Maybe I could brag about a would be enormous porn collection. Maybe then I would be a man.
All of this goes back to marketing. The NKOTB were mass marketed as a group of tough teens that could also sing and dance. Graham is mass marketing himself as the man’s man there to protect us from the big bad government. Meanwhile, we can’t help but wonder what this is all saying about manhood and what it means to be a man. Obviously, these notions inspire more laughter than anything else and yet we can’t be blind to the overall effect that it has on us as men and on culture in general.
Men as a whole are struggling. Some of us are struggling since we aren’t going as far in our careers as we thought we should. Not being the breadwinner in a family can be a blow to the male ego. Some men are struggling with the “Me Too” movement and how to navigate the workplace and society at large with women. Some men struggle with the concept of male identity as it pertains to their own sexuality and how they are perceived in the world. All of these things get jumbled up when we are bombarded by the images of false bravado.
Self-awareness is a freeing thing. I don’t have to worry about how manly anyone thinks I am. I don’t have to worry whether I have advanced far enough in my career. I don’t have to worry about whether I can fix stuff or how society thinks I should act around the opposite sex. I get to do what I think is right and live with my own perceptions of what I should be. So, it isn’t so much to poke fun at NKOTB or Lindsay Graham for what they are. It is about poking fun at who they were trying to convince us they were.