The recent tragedy in Aurora, Colo., has given us examples of selfless bravery along with the senseless horror of mass murder. It’s also revived an old question that is always with us: Should heroism be valued as a special quality of manhood?
Among all of that day’s acts of courage, three in particular have stood out: the deaths of three young men — Jon Blunk, Alex Teves, and Matt McQuinn — who reportedly sacrificed themselves shielding their girlfriends during the shooting spree. These are moving and inspiring stories, especially when masculinity has been so often portrayed, at least in some quarters, as a source of violence and oppression rather than virtue. They also resonate with the public by tapping into familiar archetypes of the knight in shining armor, or even more ancient images of protective males from our evolutionary past — images whose very familiarity can be a comfort in troubled times.
But in the 21st century, we should be able to celebrate male heroism for what it is without undermining modern ideals of gender equality, or giving short shrift to female strength and bravery. Unfortunately, that’s not what has happened.
Conservatives with a larger agenda haven’t been shy about using Aurora to shore up traditional notions of masculinity and femininity. Commentators ranging from former US education secretary William Bennett to syndicated columnist Mona Charen to rank-and-file bloggers have hailed Blunk, Teves, and McQuinn as not just profiles in courage but profiles in manhood — modern-day champions of a timeless code of honor that requires men to protect women even at the cost of their lives. This code, Bennett argues, may seem old-fashioned but is as relevant as ever, particularly when so many boys lack good models of what it means to be a man.
There were similar tributes to “real men” over a decade ago when more than 300 firemen died in the World Trade Center rescues on 9/11, and when a group of passengers on United Flight 93 tackled the hijackers and crashed the plane, preventing it from being used as a weapon.
These acts of bravery should remind us of something feminists often ignore: Historically, male privilege usually went hand in hand with male self-sacrifice, the use of men’s physical strength not to oppress but to protect the weak. In our cynical age, the celebration of valor can never be a bad thing.
Feminists have other blind spots. Too often, they demand recognition for female heroics while downplaying female violence — and using male violence to indict an entire gender. A few have even invoked James Holmes, the Aurora suspect, as a sign of a broader problem with maleness. (Yes, the vast majority of such killers are male, but mass murder is an exceedingly rare phenomenon most closely correlated with serious mental illness; Holmes tells us no more about men in general than Andrea Yates, the Texas woman who killed her five children in 2001, tells us about women.)
But the conservative perspective is just as blinkered. Yes, women may be physically weaker, but to relegate them to helpless victims literally infantilizes them: Under old-fashioned chivalry, women are lumped with children as recipients of male protection. No less disturbing, this supposedly male-friendly view implies that male lives are more expendable than female ones.
Praise for brave men should not blind us to brave women. There were such women in that movie theater in Aurora. Nineteen-year-old Allie Young, who sat a few feet from Holmes when he started throwing gas canisters, got up to warn others and was shot in the neck. She survived because her friend, 21-year-old Stephanie Davies, shielded her with her body and applied pressure to her wound while bullets flew around them.
There were such women on 9/11, too. Flight attendant Sandra Bradshaw and lawyer Linda Gronlund, who had a brown belt in karate, were among the passengers on Flight 93 who rushed the cockpit.
So let us honor the male heroes; but let’s not insult the women by insinuating, as Bennett and others have, that heroism comes only in male form. And let’s not insult men by suggesting that they need the reward of exclusively masculine virtue to motivate them. Does this mean men cannot be brave and steadfast unless they are told these qualities make them superior to women?
Surely men are better than that.
Cathy Young is a columnist for RealClearPolitics.com.