Iron John 16 Years Later
Bill Long 10/16/06
Reflecting on Bly; Reflecting on Life
The appeal of a good writer for me is not that s/he puts together a full and coherent story which flows seemingly effortlessly from p. 1 until the end, but that s/he suggests some ideas which enable me to refract my own life's journey through the ideas. With that criterion in mind, Iron John, though far from being a literary masterpice, it is a very good book. The purpose of this and the next essay is to describe what Bly was doing in his 1990 international best seller and to integrate into my essays a few comments on my own life, with special attention to a dream I had last night. This review of Bly is in preparation for his visit to Eugene, OR tomorrow night.
Bly and the "Men's Movement"
There was something "in the air" in 1990 that helps to explain the rise of the modern men's movement, of which Iron John is the unofficial charter document. Ever since the 1970s men (and women) had been made aware, sometimes painfully so, of the inequities between the sexes in employment opportunities, promotion, pay and respect. The feminist movement of the 1970s arose to get more equal treatment of women, primarily in the workforce, and it reverberated in every corner of our society, even though several institutions a generation later look as if they haven't been significantly affected by it. Nevertheless, from Bly's perspective, one of the significant effects of this movement was in the psychology of the male in the 1970s and 1980s. Such a male was one whom Bly calls the "soft male." Bly doesn't identify the feminist movement as the only producer of this kind of male; indeed, he leaves open the possibility that long estrangement of boys from their fathers brought on by the "office" culture of the 20th century, also led boys to have little sense of what it meant to be a man in America. In any case, the modern men's movement emerged around 1990 as a sort of countervailing, but complementary, force to the feminists of the previous two decades.
While Bly might be called the founder of the "mainstream" or "liberal" men's movement, 1990 also saw, quite interestingly, the formation of the "conservative" men's movement in the founding of Promise Keepers by Bill McCartney, former head football coach at the University of Colorado. While both of them wanted to recover the strength and vulnerability of maleness, Bly sought to do it through the understanding of myths and of one's connection to one's own father, while Promise Keepers wanted to develop a Christian-based understanding of a male's role as "head" of a Christian household. That men and women weren't fully on the same page in 1990 might also be inferred from the publication that year of one of Deborah Tannen's books which you only had to read the title of to understand: You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. I believe that when cultural historians finally "add up" the 20th century, they will point to the time around 1990 as crucially important for both the women's and men's movement. The men's movement took wing, and the women's movement became more diversified.
I wouldn't be surprised, for example, if such statements as "It's a guy thing," came out of the 1990s as a sort of attentuated expression of the sense that it was OK just to be male and to do things that came "natural" to males without worrying at all if women would approve, disapprove, allege you were being sexist or patriarchal or anything of the kind. Feminists, on the other hand, were no longer simply obsessed with female achievement in a male-dominated world but also in deep discovery of femininity, sensuality and other expressions of the female spirit.
One could take an example from the the field of law to show the difference between the earlier (1st) and later (2nd generation) of the women's movement. During the 1970s and 1980s the theory of sexual harassment in the workplace developed--which consisted either of quid pro quo harassment or hostile work environment harassment. This was definitely a response to "first generation feminism"--as a way to "equalize" the "playing field" at work, which is where every first generation feminist thought the real battles ought to be fought. However, in 1993 we saw another piece of legislation called the Family and Medical Leave Act, which allowed time off for both males and females (even though it was not really kosher for guys to make use of it at the birth of a child until about 2000 because guys were afraid of being considered sort of sissies) when a child was born or there was a significant family medical emergency. Though one would not be assured of receiving one's salary during the time of one's absence, at least one could be sure that one's job would be waiting when you could return (after as many as 12 weeks). Now it was feminist to take time off of work.
Thus, when Bly, who was already internationally known as a poet before this time, penned Iron John in 1990 he was harbingering (why isn't that a good word?) a trend that is still with us. In his book Bly mentions that he had been leading retreats of men on this subject for several years, but 1990 is a good date to fix in our minds for the beginning of the men's movement. When Sam Keen then wrote Fire in the Belly: On Becoming a Man in 1991, the "movement" was fully launched or birthed, depending on your gender...I think we still are trying to understand its contours.
The next essay reviews Bly's approach in Iron John and tries to connect some aspects of my own autobiography with what he says.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long