The idea that masculinity is now in crisis ignores the fact that masculinity has always been in crisis. Masculinity has through the ages been defined primarily through external makers: the animals you hunt, the money you earn, the chicks you bang. When those markers wane due to famine, economic crisis, or women no longer feeling obligated to touch your dick, the masculine self crumbles and re-erects itself around some new external thing.
Or at least it’s supposed to try. While femininity is thought of as an embodied state of being, men prove their manliness by doing, destroying, and attaining. So in this latest age of scarcity, what is it, exactly, that men are meant to do?
The cuck-haters want to break masculinity into a more perfect pecking order.
The Silicon Valley bros have piled up all of the money, and the mass-murdering lone gunmen, themselves barely out of puberty, have a lock on annihilation, if you don’t count the drones. Yet neither of these figures can say he is the standard-bearer of masculinity in our times. Instead, we are led by the “cuck”-loathing crowd. As Breitbartism celebrates its merger with the Republican Party, our most influential definitions of American manliness have been bubbling up from the online redoubts of 4chan and reddit, where men gather to soothe their sense of exclusion by indulging in exclusionary fantasies of their own.
And their fantasies are elaborate, to put it mildly. In the mythology of 4chan, there are many different kinds of men: the snobby alpha males and the wronged beta males, for starters, and then a thousand variations from there. Cucks are considered the worst of the lot: soft, overripe men who have lost their power and control, like failed presidential candidate Jeb Bush or any man who shows an interest in feminism.
That the word “cuckold,” fusty and ringing of Shakespeare, was first brought back into popular discourse via a category of pornographic fetish videos is less important than you would think. Those videos won’t teach us anything we don’t already know. Instead, we can turn to The Hierarchies of Cuckoldry and Bankruptcy—an obscure nineteenth-century satirical work by philosopher Charles Fourier, who also coined the term “feminism”—to illuminate the modern re-emergence.
Fourier, deadpanning, assumes the persona of a taxonomist to document the degrees of cuckoldry one might find in the wild. There are fully seventy-two species of cuckold, including the Jeering Cuckold and the Propagandist Cuckold and the Sympathetic Cuckold, who “grows fond of his wife’s lovers and makes them his close friends.”
If the target of Fourier’s satire is not clear at first, flip to the companion work, which employs the same taxonomic methods to discover how many species of bankrupted men walk the earth. These men, too, come in a number of wild varieties: “A bankrupt man is a true citizen of the world when, after having exploited one kingdom, he then goes on to create bankruptcies in several others.”
Overall, there are fewer types of bankrupted men than cuckolds—but the effect of this discrepancy is not to minimize the ruthlessness of the market but to underline a misdirected obsession. Even as men “let the merchants do as they will,” passively allowing them “full liberty in their sublime conceptions of treachery and pillage,” they fixate, as if by way of compensation, on the tiniest fluctuations in their sexual prowess. Instead of admitting that they are getting screwed by business and the economy, men prefer to pretend they are getting screwed by women.
Never mind that women are more often cuckolded than men. (As Fourier puts it, “If the man has horns as tall as stag’s antlers, the wife’s may be said to be as high as the branches of a tree.”) While sexual betrayal is considered no real threat to a woman’s femininity—suffering such indignities might actually be seen as a uniquely feminizing experience—the male cuckold loses manliness. The best he can hope for is that another, weaker man will fall lower in the hierarchy than himself.
Strip The Hierarchies of Cuckoldry and Bankruptcy of its satirical critique, and you’re left with a logic that is dismally familiar. The categories of embattled manhood now trafficked by the cuck-trashing, immigrant-bashing men of Breitbart or 4chan are shifting but ultimately exacting; like Fourier’s taxonomist, they obsess over finer and finer distinctions. Their aim is not to elevate one idealized version of masculinity, but to break masculinity into a more perfect pecking order, so almost everyone can look down a level at the scum below. This new order relies on the traditional markers of manly achievement—a girlfriend, sexual partners, money, power, and, most importantly, control—but none of those matter as much as the act of division itself. It’s a coping strategy. Yes, the 4chan men like to make jokes about living in their parents’ basements, but those jokes are only funny if they can point to someone even lower than themselves.
Here, then, is the task of the twenty-first-century American man: making hierarchies that don’t put him at the bottom. The bottom is where the cucks are—because “cuck,” in its current incarnation, is an insult aimed not at men who are betrayed by women (or even men who are betrayed by women and really, really like it), but at men who don’t have anyone to control.
“Understood independently of either sexual orientation or sexual object of choice,” Martha Feldman writes in her opera and gender history book The Castrato, “maleness is fundamentally a political category more than a social/sexual or biosocial one.” Indeed.
Castrati, too, have something to tell us about where masculinity bottoms out—or, more to the point, why it never really does. At one time, it was progeny and patrimony that proved masculinity; you inherited wealth from your father, you increased that wealth, and you passed it down to your own children. But after an economic crisis in seventeenth-century Italy, instead of sons being blessings, they became burdens. There was little wealth and property to pass down, and so rather than split it up among all of the sons, the first son was designated the heir and all of the others were just extra. Secondary and tertiary sons were sent off into the military or the priesthood to keep them from marrying and breeding.
There was one way out, though—one way for a son lower in the hierarchy to regain financial masculinity by sacrificing biological masculinity. If you could sing as a boy, you could be castrated, and enter the church or the stage and not only find your wealth, but surpass your family’s situation entirely. Young boys who were castrated just before adolescence could retain their silvery, high voices, their hormone-deprived bodies transformed into operatic machines with cavernous chests and lantern jaws, creating resonant voices that were by all reports unearthly. They were in high demand all over Europe to play the manliest of roles from Nero to Zeus, and every royal wanted his own castrato at court. Many were able to perform sexually, and they were irresistible to both men and women. It was a paradoxical masculinity, but it was a masculinity that was celebrated.
While there were always fears that castrati were unnatural—Fourier himself referred to the Italian fathers castrating their sons for the sake of the voice as “abominations that give rise to horror in any other civilized nation”—their disappearance from the earth was not because of any new ethical standard, but because gender and sexual roles hardened. “Europe,” Feldman writes, “learned . . . how to align gender with sex in strict polarities—to make men like men and women like women.” Castrati waned in popularity through the nineteenth century, and the last died in the 1920s. This coincided with a time when there were fewer deviations available to men, fewer ways to maneuver around strict notions of manliness.
It’s those strict notions that are trying to break apart now, leading to all kinds of chaos and hardship.
Fourier writes, “Often, when we think we are merely enjoying ourselves, we are involved in political processes of the highest importance.” That seems equally true for the adoring audiences of the castrati as the male-only online spaces. How this will work to redefine man, and whether the external will move to the internal, we can only wait and see.
For his part, Fourier, no fan of monogamy or marriage, believed the only hope for civilization was for women to liberate themselves. That would make him a cuck by many standards—in which case, let’s look to the cucks. They might just be the future of manliness.