Every man in my extended family owns a machete. Not only do they own a machete, but they keep it handy in their trunks, along with various other survival gear, inspired by the irresistible manliness of Rick Grimes.
I know what you’re thinking. No, they’re not serial killers. They’re law-abiding domesticated men who get up in the mornings, don their business attire, and drive their economy-sized cars to the white-collar jobs higher education has afforded them. They believe in responsibility, hard work, putting family first, and preparing for the zombie apocalypse.
So they’re not exactly expecting the dead to reanimate and make appetizers out of us all, but there’s something driving that level of preparedness. A machete isn’t exactly the same thing as jumper cables or flares. It’s evidence of a more profound survival instinct our culture would have men suppress.
Sure, society may support survival skills in theory, but let’s face it: society would probably have a coronary at the idea of ordinary citizens armed with machetes. At least the self-proclaimed experts monopolizing the press with political correctness would. Yet consider this: “The Walking Dead” season six closed as the number-one show on television with more than 18 million viewers. So what is it about slaying zombies and end-of-the-world scenarios that fascinates audiences and encourages men to tap into their most primal instincts?
None of us are strangers to the fact that men weren’t always enslaved in cubicles. They were both literal and proverbial hunters and gatherers, born with undeniable aggression and motivated by competition. But none of that really has a place in line at Starbucks. Our modern culture frowns on what used to be considered desirable masculine traits.
Sure, like most fights for equality, the cause started with altruistic goals. Women experience real inequalities that demand real resolutions. However, the pursuit of unity often morphs into pursuit of conformity. So instead of just addressing the very real gender inequalities in a male-dominated society, we demonized the males. Men and their domineering nature, their oafishness, were the problem. So what did we do? We took the hunters and gatherers and sent them to sensitivity training. What emerged was a brand new sort of problem: The enlightened male.
The Birth of the Enlightened Male
The first time I ever heard the phrase “enlightened male,” I was slouched down in the back of a college English class full of poets and journalistic hopefuls. The professor threw out the phrase so casually, she probably had no idea the ripples it caused in my thinking. She was able to have it all, she boasted—the education, the career, the big house with a dog and 2.5 kids—because she had the foresight to marry an “enlightened male.” He didn’t question any of her aspirations or demand any archaic standards of femininity from her. They were as equal as two members of the opposite sex could be, except when he was being a moron and she had to put him in his place.
The rest of the class showed their approval by laughing good-naturedly as she continued with anecdotal evidence of his flaws, most of which could be attributed to his unfortunate sex. Me? I was horrified. I sunk deeper and deeper in my seat with one unapologetically judgmental word vibrating in my skull: Pussy.
Was it fair for her to throw him under the bus to a classroom full of impressionable undergraduates? No. Was I right to instinctively consider him weak for marrying a self-proclaimed strong woman? No. I had no right to weigh in on their marriage. Maybe they were loving each other to the best of their abilities. Maybe he had other strengths that didn’t involve bending to her every whim. My dilemma wasn’t so much with their specific relationship as it was with the cultural ideal she was enforcing: Men were to be the new “seen and not heard.”
When Culture Claims to Know Better than Nature
Ask any man what he’s thinking. You’ll get a heavy sigh or blank stare. But ask a man how he feels about his place in our society, and you might be surprised at his willingness to share. The men I talk to feel stifled by dueling expectations. Men are to be strong and direct. But not too direct, or they could hurt someone’s feelings. They feel the necessity to choose their words carefully, so nobody feels like a victim.
They’re expected to be sensitive and understanding. But not too sensitive, or they’ll be considered a pussy by their peers or judgmental nontraditional students sitting quietly in the back of college English classes. A man is considered an asshole if he doesn’t open a door for a woman, condescending if he does. Culture has claimed to know better than nature. In our fight for equality, we’ve condemned our differences. Instead of unity, we’ve encouraged conformity. The result? Men are stuck trying to reconcile a cultural dichotomy.
But suppressing the behavior doesn’t change biology. Scientists have found that even something as simple as watching sporting events can affect a man’s chemistry. Put two males together, and you can see the competitive drive manifesting in their testosterone levels. The man rooting for the winning team maintains his testosterone levels, while the one siding with the losing team experiences a dip in his testosterone levels.
Imagine what’s happening emotionally and chemically when they see a scene of a weaponless Rick Grimes viewing his son in mortal danger and instinctively biting his assailant in the throat, effectively killing him. It’s an extreme example, but it taps into the primal instincts that most men inherently connect with: Conquering. Surviving. Protecting.
Obviously, unless you’re military, using your teeth to eliminate a threat isn’t a scenario you’d confront. The dilemma now is how men re-appropriate these basic instincts they’ve been taught to repress into their everyday modern lives. It may not require machete-wielding, but our culture still needs these skills. Conquering. Surviving. Protecting. It’s a sentiment people are identifying with. It’s not the zombie apocalypse, but men are fighting for a different kind of survival.