Much of what determines our behavior as children has to do with the behavior modeled in our families, at least to the extent that we spent a lot of time with our families. Our parents or guardians have the unenviable task and high responsibility to teach us what is contained in normal human behavior, setting a baseline for our expectations for both the behavior we engage in and the behavior others demonstrate. Sometimes the behavior modeled for us by parents or guardians is not actually very healthy or moral, and as adults we have the difficult task of trying to figure out what constitutes healthy and moral behavior.
Because most of us are not systematically thinking through what is healthy or moral for a variety of reasons, much of what determines our future behavior is the behavior modeled by those we respect and admire, by people we see as having the good life. Even as adults, we are still primates who pattern our behaviors after others, and so it is critical that we make a good choice as to whom we pattern our behavior after. Our choice of heroes is often far more important than we think in shaping our future selves.
Will we do what Elliot Rodger of recent notoriety did in choosing heroes and find them in the men who are able to get women to have sex with them? Will we think that life is not worth living when women won’t have sex with us? Will we lionize the adulterers, the pick up artists, and the pimps who treat other people as if they were mere objects which they own and can dispose of on a whim? Will we pattern our behaviors after their to get the same results they do?
It seems that for many young men and many older men as well that their heroes are men who treat women poorly. Maybe their hero is a James Bond type, handsome and dashing through one night stands as fast as he can. Maybe their hero is the successful vocal artist or musician who enjoys relationship after relationship, trading in his current flame for a younger model once in a while. Maybe their hero is the reality TV game star who manages to sleep with several of the women on the show. Maybe their hero is just that guy in their high school or college who always has some pretty girlfriend, but never knows who it will be from one week to the next.
If we want to continue treating women as if they are disposable playthings, then we are exactly on the right track with our choices of those heroes. If we want an understanding of manhood that does not treat women as disposable playthings and provides us with a model for manhood that does not make our identities wholly dependent on the choices of others, then we need a different sort of hero.
Captain America is one of the few characters in popular culture to present a male hero who does not treat women as sex objects while still being the very picture of manliness. What makes the character work as a role model for men isn’t just the manly physique or the combat skills. As Chris Evans put it, “He’s good for the sake of good.” He pointed out that Captain America is everything he wishes he could be as a man. It’s the virtues of the character that really make him a manly role model.
He’s got an ethic of self-sacrifice, an urge to protect others while respecting their freedom, and a profound internal disposition toward honor and integrity. He likes women and wants a meaningful relationship with a woman, but he knows who he is and does not have to have a girlfriend just to feel like he’s a real man. He doesn’t try to use his fame to build a harem or get a trophy wife. He is a man who knows that he is a man and is perfectly content to be himself; his locus of identity is not external to himself.
The sort of authentic and healthy masculinity demonstrated in the character of Captain America is something we need to pattern our behaviors after as men unless we want to become slaves to a commercial culture that tells us we are worthless without a woman and that we deserve to have the use of one at our convenience. We need to be able to exist in our own right and to recognize that women exist in their own right as well. We need to choose a masculinity worth having.