The myth of the male role model
by Olga Silverstein

The myth of the male role model
by Olga Silverstein

ALARM BELLS ARE SOUNDING THROUGHOUT THE nation over the phenomenon of the absentee father. And with good reason – though not the reasons usually given by newspaper writers, their psychologist and sociologist sources, or “family values” preachers. The single most terrible thing about female-headed households is their poverty.

Does every child need a father? Increasingly, our society’s answer is “no,” or at least “not necessarily.” Few idea shifts in this century are as consequential as this one.

* David Blankenhorn, Fatherless America


More than half of all children in America won’t live with their biological father at some time in their youth. Meanwhile, “welfare reform” has become politicians’ preferred way to punish unhusbanded mothers. Fathers-rights activists are trumpeting the need for “male role models” – especially for sons – and blaming single mothers for everything from teen pregnancy to gang violence.

Angry divorcing dads are fighting for custody and impoverishing mothers. And fundamentalists are on a holy roll to reinsert a mini divine patriarch into the life of every woman and child.

In this special section, ON THE ISSUES reframes the terms of an ideological contest that is fast becoming a major front in the backlash against feminism. It’s time we take this one head on.

It used to be that the absence of fathers was an emotional one. Mom was responsible for the “expressive” role in family life, for conveying affection, comfort, nurturance, warmth, for maintaining interpersonal relationships; Dad had the “instrumental” role, concerned with problem solving, discipline, achievement. Now that men seem to be disappearing from the family unit in ever greater numbers, the mothers who are left behind are being told that their sons are in dire need of “male role models.”

There’s no question in my mind that for most heterosexual women and their children, life with a man is better than it is without (provided he isn’t alcoholic, drug addicted, violent, or abusive). The families of these absentee fathers need their paychecks, and certainly most of the women in these families long for male companionship, for love, for commitment, for practical help around the house and with the children. Women and children alike want men and need men for all sorts of benefits, material and emotional.

But that’s not the story that comes across in the popular press. “Who was going to show my son how to walk [like a man]?” a woman agonized in one article. “Fathers protect, they provide, they initiate into adulthood, they bring the standards of the outside world to bear on their children,” says the author of another (ignoring the fact that it is men who commit most of the crimes in the world, as well as in their own homes). Psychiatrist Frank Pittman, who scolds the “politically correct” for believing “that a mother [is] able to show a male child how to be a man,” tells us categorically that “in families where the father is absent, the mother faces an impossible task: she cannot raise a boy into a man. He must bond with a man as he grows up.”

So profoundly has this notion insinuated itself into our culture that just about every divorced, separated, widowed, or unmarried mother of sons now must anguish about how to get a male role model for her boy! Even the fact that her son is doing just fine without will not deter her, for any behavior that isn’t downright macho may seem to her to signal a full-blown crisis in her child’s gender identity.

What do we really mean by a male role model? The distant, closed-off, unknowable-to-himself-as-well-as-others male? The successful, driven, workaholic male? The macho, angry, abusive male? The womanizing, promiscuous, unable-to-commit male?

Is any male better than none? There certainly are many good men in this world who could be held up to any young child as exemplary. But the more fundamental issue is whether a young boy must have a male role model if he is to grow to maturity.

As a family therapist, I see the concept of the male role model as yet another misguided way to recentralize the marginalized father. In Freud’s day, Father had lost his position in the household because the recent Industrial Revolution meant that he simply wasn’t there much of the time. By making the father the central figure in both his son’s and daughter’s development, Freud’s Oedipus complex – an improbable theory that spoke eloquently to its time – gave psychic possession of the children back to him. Today, with fathers not just off in the workplace but out of the family unit altogether, along comes the theory of the male role model to warn mothers that their sons are doomed to mere humanity (as opposed to Manliness) without the guiding influence of a man.

The male role model theory gives fathers an even more active part to play in the developmental drama, at precisely that historical moment when they’re playing less of a role than ever. No longer is it sufficient for Father just to be a masculine presence whom the young boy, desiring his mother, fears (according to Freud), then learns to identify with because of that fear. Now Father is to actively teach his son, via example and instruction, what it is to be a Man. Or if he’s not teaching his son, he is to be a mentor or “male mother” (Robert Bly’s phrase) to someone else’s son.

NO SUCH TEACHER IS ON THE PREMISES FOR MILLIONS OF boys in families where fathers occupy little or no place in the lives of their children. Are all these boys really doomed to some deviant, neutered, sissified, or otherwise inadequate form of masculinity if their mothers cannot press a teacher, clergyman, coach, Boy Scout leader, stepfather, brother, uncle, or other family member into service as a male role model? Certainly many women, especially single mothers of sons, live in fear that’s what will happen.

In middle-class families, the amulet against this fear is the male therapist. “A male therapist,” as one of my neighbors says, “like the one in the movie Ordinary People, Someone strong but gentle, firm but caring.”

“In other words,” I translate for her, “someone male who has those female qualities you don’t value in yourself? Why go to a therapist?” I ask. “Why can’t you be the role model your son needs? Why can’t you be the one to show him that one parent, man or woman, can own all the qualities that it takes to be a human being in the world we live in?”

After all, what does it tell a boy about his mother, and about women in general, if a man has to be brought in to take charge? And what does that tell him about how he’s going to treat women later in life? Why not show him that women can nurture and lead, can be loving and competent, can be figures of authority and compassion? These are not mutually exclusive qualities, and they are precisely the qualities that women have already had to develop for use in the outside world.

If, instead of “dumbing out” when their sons reach a certain age, women would bring into their homes the same qualities they’ve had so much practice using in the workplace, or if they would simply deploy the complete range of competencies involved in full-time mothering today, they could be completely adequate role models.

The search for male role models is not only misguided; it can be destructive as well. For when we talk about fathers “bringing the standards of the outside world to bear on their children” or being “the arbiters of the child’s acceptability in the world they represent” (conventional descriptions of what fathers are expected to do), what we really mean is that we want men to reproduce the hero ethos – the kind of male who is physically strong and brave yet emotionally cut off and remote.

In his book A Choice of Heroes: The Changing Face of American Manhood, Mark Gerzon writes: “Men today consume certain images of manhood even though the world from which they are derived may have disappeared.” It’s probably because that world is in the process of disappearing that these hero images are consumed with such avidity, such a desperate desire to hold on to them. The remarkable success of the male action film genre, the proliferation of a veritable arsenal of weaponry in our toy stores, video arcades, and home video games, the bodybuilding mania of deskbound middle-class men – all these phenomena speak of a longing to recapture a heroic male past in an age when that kind of heroism is at best irrelevant.

Today our culture has a near-obsessive interest in reclaiming and rehabilitating the reputation of that missing person “the father.” Even if he is, as Robert Bly has written about his own father, alcoholic, unsupportive, and emotionally remote, he is to be embraced and forgiven (while Mother is left in the cold). Indeed, Jungian analyst James Hillman, one of the leading thinkers of the any-dad-is-better-than-none men’s movement, has gone Bly one better. In A Blue Fire Hillman pays something resembling tribute to the “destructive father,” because such a father “smashes the son’s idolatry” by virtue of his negative traits, “teaches [the son] that failing belongs to fathering,” and “awaken[s] moral resolve…by provoking moral outrage at [his] bad example.” Imagine a comparable tribute to mothers!

Many dads are now absent, not only emotionally but physically and financially as well. If Mom has also backed away, out of concern that a failure to do so may compromise her boy’s masculinity, he may be a very lonely – indeed “lost” – boy.