Man Trouble: Josh Hawley, Manly Virtue, and The Power of the Dog
“Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.”
LAST OCTOBER, JOSH HAWLEY, junior United States Senator from Missouri, gave one of the principal speeches at the National Conservatism Conference — NatCon for short — in Orlando, Florida. It was a big moment for Hawley. NatCon has become the principal ideological showcase for the contemporary right, and most of the thought leaders and aspiring stars of Trumpian conservatism were there. In the long march toward the presidential contest in 2024, it was a chance for Hawley to distinguish himself before a particularly influential group of conservatives.
It was surprising to some, then, that Hawley used the occasion to talk about men and masculinity. It wasn’t the first time that he had addressed the topic, but in this setting, before this audience, it was notable. And clearly calculated. Hawley was staking out a certain piece of ground in the culture wars that are once again rolling across the American political landscape, and he’s betting that the topic of masculinity will be fertile, not just for his own political ambitions, but for the new conservative paradigm that is taking shape in the time of Trump-after-Trump.
Time will tell if Hawley’s ideological gamble pays off, but it’s clear that he struck a nerve. His speech aroused the ire and derision of progressives, grudging acknowledgment from several academics who study men, and loud enthusiasm from the circles of Fox News. Manhood and masculinity are also popping up in places beyond the narrow ideological circle of NatCon. In Hollywood, for instance, the bogeyman of nearly every culture warrior in Orlando, where filmmakers are churning out stories about men and manliness. And on editorial pages. Writing in The Washington Post a few months after Hawley spoke in Orlando, Andrew Yang confided his own worries in an editorial titled “The Boys Are Not Alright” that echoes some of Hawley’s themes from a moderate Democrat’s perspective. Meanwhile, around the world, nervous attention is being paid to autocratic regimes and leaders modeling virile forms of political power. Man trouble is decidedly in the air, a potent ingredient in the volatile atmosphere of our local and global politics.
FOR HAWLEY, THE LOCAL PROBLEM begins with the fact that men are failing — as husbands, as fathers, as workers. “American men are working less, getting married in fewer numbers; they’re fathering fewer children. They are suffering more anxiety and depression. They are engaging in more substance abuse. Many men in this country are in crisis, and their ranks are swelling.”
In his recitation of masculine failures, Hawley was calling on a body of social science research that has been growing in recent years. Just a bit more than a month before Hawley spoke in Orlando, Thomas Edsall summarized that research in his column in The New York Times. The research has many facets and varying, sometimes discordant conclusions. But a common feature is the concern over the differences in educational attainment among boys and girls, especially in single-parent, lower-income households. These differences have cumulative effects over time and show up, importantly, in disparities in college matriculation and graduation rates, where young women are doing much better than young men. In an economy where college degrees are increasingly important to work, young men are clearly at a disadvantage.
Edsall and the writers he discusses are careful to point out that social, cultural, and economic elites and elite institutions remain dominated by men. In the corporate sector, for example, and at elite institutions of higher education, men continue to have more opportunities and occupy more positions of leadership and influence. The glass ceiling remains firmly in place. But at the other end of the social and economic spectrum, girls and young women are outperforming boys and young men by every meaningful measure. And they are less likely to be imprisoned, drug-dependent, and unemployed.
In Hawley’s view, the decline of American men is the result of the “deconstructive” cultural and economic program of “the Left.” For decades, he argues, liberals and progressives have been attacking men and male values in the interest of establishing universal gender equity. At the same time, the Left has pursued an economic policy of globalization, gutting the manufacturing sector that once provided economic opportunities for working-class men and their families. The results of all this “deconstruction” have been especially devastating for men and boys. Men have come to feel guilty about being men at the same time they have been denied the economic means to demonstrate their worth. “Can we be surprised,” Hawley asked his audience, “that after years of being told that they are the problem, more and more men are withdrawing into the enclave of idleness, and pornography, and video games?”
The assault on the traditional notions and values of manhood and the forms of production that sustain it is not just an attack on men, Hawley’s contends, but on democracy itself. That’s because democratic institutions and practices are sustained by a body of closely connected and chiefly masculine virtues. Hawley is here recalling his reading of both the Romans and the American founders, to whom he explicitly refers. Democracies, or more precisely republics, require citizens who are fiercely independent, industrious, disciplined, and assertive. The virtues of free peoples are masculine virtues. And it is precisely these virtues that the Left has put in jeopardy by questioning manhood. In their place, the Left counsels guilt, regret, shame, and consumption. And that is why “the crisis for American men is a crisis for the Republic. It’s not just that millions of men out of work slows our innovation and growth. It’s not just the billions of dollars in welfare payments to these idle men that cost the federal government year on year. It’s not only the depression and darkness that now shadow so many. It’s that liberty requires virtue. And in particular, it requires the manly virtues.”
As Hawley seeks to restore the manly virtues and virtuous men, he wants to restore the institutions in which they thrive. First on the list, the epicenter of the democratic political landscape is the family. This is certainly not a new conservative aspiration, but it’s important that Hawley reclaim it in the context of the reclamation of manliness. Real men — good men, free men — are family men. They’re married. They provide for their wives and children. They are loyal. They protect. The rogue and the warrior are not real men. Or rather, the rogue and the warrior become true men only insofar as they can discipline and focus their passions. Hawley does not mention Freud, but he’s nearby. Psychologists and philosophers, Hawley notes, have long observed the power and negative effects of undisciplined male aggression, competitiveness, and independence. But these potentially destructive passions and impulses have a “bright” and useful side, so long as they can be channeled into the service of family and community. “Assertiveness and independence are strengths when used to protect and empower others.”
The other bit of institution-building that Hawley advocates is the reconstruction of the manufacturing base of the American economy. Men (and thus their families) cannot flourish without the economic conditions that enable positive male independence and financial security. And so, we must stop being a nation of soft consumers and return to being one of disciplined producers. “We must rebuild an economy in this country in which men can thrive. And that means rebuilding those manufacturing and production sectors that so much of the chattering class has written off as relics of the past.” We must stop relying on the slave labor of Mexico and China, in other words, and get back to relying on the labor of free men. American men.
Institution-building requires a political movement and political power. But political power cannot be achieved if the “deconstructive” cultural agenda of the Left is not defined, resisted, and finally defeated, making way for the restoration of republican (that is, masculine) virtue through the family and work. What Hawley is calling for, then, is a cultural fight, a struggle for cultural supremacy. The fight is at once ideological and institutional. Without irony (Hawley is the product of both Stanford University and Yale Law School), Hawley commits the requisite space and time to the criticism of American higher education, and especially elite higher education, where the deconstructive agenda was born. Hawley has especially harsh things to say about the enduring influence of Karl Marx, Jacques Derrida, the Frankfurt School, and Herbert Marcuse. He also notes the malign influence of Hollywood and television, co-conspirators in the advancement of the anti-patriarchal, deconstructive agenda of the Left. Taking back control of these engines of cultural production would appear to be somewhere on Hawley’s long-term agenda.
But in the near term, the battle is ideological; it’s necessary to start making men feel better about being men. And that will be achieved only by offering men an alternative cultural narrative, a different story about manhood that reestablishes its positive face and energy. “The Left is telling America and its men, you’re evil. You’re terrible. You must apologize and submit to your government and masters to be reformed. I suggest we offer a different theme, one that goes like this….America is yet that city on a hill, and the eyes of the world are yet upon us, looking to us for hope. American men are and can be an unrivaled force for good in the world — if we can unleash them to be who they are made to be.”
IT IS CHRISTMAS MORNING in the medieval kingdom. After a night of carousing in a brothel with his lover, Essel, young Gawain has been summoned to court by his uncle, King Arthur. As he searches for his boots, a woman asks him, mockingly, “Are you a knight yet?” “Not yet,” Gawain replies. “Better hurry up,” she replies. “I’m not ready yet,” Gawain says to no one, “I’m not ready.”
The story will not wait for Gawain. As he arrives in the great hall of the castle, King Arthur invites him to sit with him and his queen, Guinevere. “I do not know thee,” Arthur says to Gawain. “So make for me a gift. You tell me a tale of yourself so that I might know thee. “ Looking stricken, the young man pauses, searching, and then replies, “But I have none to tell thee.” “Yet,” the Queen corrects him, “you have none to tell yet.”
And so begins The Green Knight, David Lowery’s rendering of the chivalric romance of how Gawain gets his story and becomes a knight and a man. The plot follows the prescribed form. A young, rudderless, storyless man must go on a journey that tests and demonstrates his virtues and manhood. In this case, the test arrives on Christmas morning in the form of the Green Knight, who challenges anyone in the court brave enough to cut him. Of course, there is a hitch. Any cut delivered will be returned in kind at Christmas one year hence. In a reckless, impulsive moment, Gawain, driven by his own self-doubt and desire to become a man, takes the King’s sword and severs the visitor’s head, which the immortal Green Knight immediately retrieves, laughing as he does so. He leaves with his head but not his ax, which now belongs to Gawain. The game begins.
In the intervening year, Gawain becomes a legend, the man who slew the Green Knight. But it’s all on the come. Gawain is still carousing, still aimless, still without a real story. Eventually, the clock runs out and he is forced to leave home and begin the long and punishing journey to the Green Chapel, where the Green Knight awaits. Before he leaves, his mother, Morgan Le Fay, gives him a magic green sash that will protect him from harm.
Gawain is tested four times: in an encounter with scavengers on a wasted, muddy, and deserted battlefield; by the ghost of Saint Winifred in a house in the forest; by a mysterious Lord and Lady, and, finally, by the Green Knight himself. He doesn’t do especially well in any of these tests. His insufficient expression of gratitude earns him the punishing wrath of the scavengers. His aid to Winifred (she’s lost her head!) is reluctant and tinged with self-interest (“what do I get in return,” he asks her in a not-so-knightly way. She admonishes him; “Why would you ask such a thing?”). He violates the principles of hospitality and courtly restraint during his stay with the Lord and Lady. And he repeatedly demonstrates a lack of conviction and courage in his final encounter with the Green Knight.
Each of these episodes contains subtle bits of commentary on character, virtue, and manliness. But in the larger thread of the story, Lowery’s overarching interest seems to lie in exposing the contradictions in the romantic quest itself. As Gawain prepares to leave on his journey to the Green Chapel, Essel asks him, “Are you really going to go? I like your head where it is.” Gawain objects. “I gave my word; I made a covenant.” “This is how silly men perish,” she replies. “Or how brave men become great,” he counters. She returns with the truly important question. “Why greatness? Why is goodness not enough?”
The Green Knight never answers that question definitively. The virtues are real, and it’s good to be virtuous. But the old and still alluring narrative of men going out on journeys to prove themselves brave and virtuous is inherently fraught. In his first test after leaving home, Gawain traverses a muddy, barren battlefield strewn with bodies, the dreadful remains of another kind of knightly work. It’s a bloody, inglorious business. Later, in Gawain’s encounter with the ghost of Winifred, we learn that her headless state is owing to a previous encounter with a knight who raped and then beheaded her. “Perhaps it was you,” she says to Gawain. It wasn’t, but how does one tell one knight from another? Waste, barrenness, and violence reemerge as central worries in the next chapter, “The Exchange,” where Gawain is taken in by a Lord and Lady living in a dark and mysterious castle. Over dinner, the hosts interrogate Gawain regarding the logic and purpose of his journey to slay the Green Knight. “Why is he green, do you think?” asks the Lady, “why not blue or red?” “Because he is not of this earth,” Gawain replies. “But green is the color of the earth,” the Lady shoots back. Green “does not dally, nor does it wait to plot or conspire. Pull it out by the roots one day and then the next, there it is, creeping in around the edges. Whilst we’re off looking for red, in comes green. Red is the color of lust, but green is what lust leaves behind, in heart, in womb. Green is what is left when ardor fades, when passion dies, when we die, too. When you go, your footprints will fill with grass. Moss shall cover your tombstone, and as the sun rises, green shall spread over all, in all its shades and hues. This verdigris will overtake your swords and your coins and your battlements and, try as you might, all you hold dear will succumb to it. Your skin, your bones. Your virtue.”
Riffing on things green, the Lord piles on with less philosophical but no less biting skepticism. “And what do you hope to gain from facing all of this… this hue.” “Honor,” Gawain replies, “that is why a knight does what he does.” “And this is what you want most in life?” “It is part of the life I want.” “And this is all it takes for that part to be had. You do this one thing, you return home a changed man, and an honorable man, just like that.” “Yes.” “Oh, I wish how I could see the new you.”
We never get to know the new Gawain, but the one we do finally arrives at the Green Chapel for the last and greatest test. On Christmas morning, the Green Knight, asleep in a tangle of green branches, awakens to find Gawain kneeling meekly before him. He approaches and picks up the ax that Gawain has carried throughout his journey. “Do you recall where you cut me?” he asks. “I do,” replies Gawain. The Green Knight lifts the ax high to deliver his deadly blow. At the last instant, Gawain lifts his head. “Sir, you flinch.” “Give me a moment to find my courage,” Gawain replies, and he bows again. The ax is lifted again. “Wait,” Gawain implores him a second time. Then, looking up plaintively, he asks: “Is this all there is?”, as if perhaps the entire thing has been a joke or a game. “What else ought there be,” the Green Knight asks coldly. The pretender again exposes his neck and the ax is raised. But for a third time, he flinches. “I am sorry, I cannot.” And he runs away.
The journey home is grim and dispiriting. When he finally arrives, everyone looks at him askance. They know. The story accelerates. Gawain is made king. He marries, but not Essel. He and his queen have a child. The kingdom becomes mired in war and destruction. The aging king sits on his throne, alone and defeated, surrounded by the sounds and images of war. His head tumbles to the ground, cut off, it seems, by the lie he has chosen to live.
And then suddenly, we are back in the Green Chapel. Gawain has not run away after all. He is still there, kneeling submissively before the Green Knight. He has dreamed the consequences of failure, of cowardice, of returning home. One last time he bows his head. “Wait,” he says. He reaches to his waist for the green sash that his mother gave him when he left, and that the Lady in the castle restored to him, with the promise of its protective powers. He removes the sash and places it on the ground. “There, now I’m ready,” he says, rephrasing lines from the movie’s opening scene. “I’m ready now.” The Green Knight smiles faintly. “Well done, my brave knight,” acknowledging Gawain’s courage and understanding. He touches his cheek. “Now, off with your head.” Fade to black.
It’s a wonderful, thoroughly ambiguous conclusion. In the clarity brought on by the nearness of death, Gawain understands that avoiding his fate at the hands of the Green Knight will save his life but subject him to a lifetime of humiliation and suffering. But he also knows that finding his courage will cost him his life. Perhaps Essel was right all along. “This is how silly men perish.”
PLENTY OF MEN PERISH in Ridley Scott’s medieval tale The Last Duel, but their demise is hardly romantic. At the outset, we’re put on notice that the film is “based on true events.” And indeed, from its opening frames to its mauling, bloody conclusion, The Last Duel is all business, mostly shorn of the decorative trappings of knight-errantry.
The “true events” that Scott retells are those concerning the last officially sanctioned judicial duel in French history. In 1386, two French squires, Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris, met in mortal combat in Paris before King Charles VI to determine the truth of Carrouge’s accusation that Le Gris had raped his wife. Carrouges was victorious, and so, according to the logic of judicial duels, was his accusation. Scott’s rendering is based on the book by UCLA professor Eric Jager, a scholar of medieval literature, and on the screenplay by Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Nicole Holofcener.
The important innovation in the film’s treatment of Jager’s book is the telling of the basic story three times: the truth according to Carrouges, to Le Gris, and — most important and revealing — to Marguerite, the victim and heroine of the tale. This Rashomon-like device turns The Last Duel into a parable of gender difference and inequality, less faithful, perhaps, to the sensibilities of 1386, but more relevant to contemporary conversations about masculinity, including those that have haunted the movie-making business.
Carrouges is a warrior; fierce, brave, loyal. He is also intemperate and monumentally insensitive to anything not drawn from the warrior’s code. His story begins with a piece of bad judgment at the Siege of Limoges, where Carrouges and Le Gris are part of a force holding a strategic bridge. The English invaders goad the French into abandoning the bridge by beheading innocent civilians in full view of its defenders. Incensed, Carrouges leads a charge that punishes the miscreants at the expense of the broader mission. The English take Limoges, earning Carrouges the enmity of the King’s local heavy, Count Pierre d’Alençon.
The world according to Carrouges is one of honor and respect denied. On the battlefield and off, he is too quick to anger and offense at any slight that comes his way. Opportunities abound. Economic times are tough, and Carrouges is forced to go off to war to earn the taxes he owes the Count. His financial troubles persist, and so he marries the beautiful Marguerite de Thibouville, the daughter of a wealthy landowner, for her dowery. When Carrouges’s father dies, the Count gives his captaincy to Le Gris, along with land that was to be part of Marguerite’s dowery. More insult. The final and supreme blow to Carrouges’s sense of honor arrives when he is away in Paris collecting fees for his mercenary work. Le Gris, smitten by Marguerite’s elegance and beauty, finds his way into the Carrouges estate where he assaults and rapes her. Upon his return, Marguerite tells her husband what has happened. Carrouges presses his grievance to the King, who eventually authorizes the duel.
Le Gris, by contrast, embodies a more complex and refined suite of manly virtues. Trained for the ministry as well as war, he joins a taste for fighting with an appreciation for the life of the mind. He is dashing and handsome — a ladies’ man. He reads, writes, and speaks Latin. When the Count becomes aware of Le Gris’s way with words and numbers, he puts him in charge of his finances and estates, including the collection of taxes. The educated knight becomes an enforcer and organization man, an administrator with a rogue’s desires.
The world according to Le Gris is one of power and opportunity — martial, political, and sexual. He first sees Marguerite at a local celebration, which Carrouges has agreed to attend at Marguerite’s insistence. Attempting to patch up his strained relations with Le Gris, Carrouges greets his former friend warmly and instructs Marguerite to kiss him. She does what she’s told, and Le Gris construes the formality as an expression of her interest. Later, he approaches her at a table and turns on his flirtatious charm. “I had no idea Carrouges had such a beautiful wife,” he tells her. “You are quite talented when it comes to flattery,” she replies, with a vague smile that may be flirtatious. “I hear we have much in common” he continues. “You are a reader, such as myself. Romance of the Rose?” “I judge it rather dull,” she says. “The book is wretched,” he agrees, delighted. Marguerite picks up the thread. “I much prefer Perceval’s courtesy. It’s much more challenging and interesting.” “Smart woman,” Le Gris responds. “Tell me.” “He is naïve and foolish. Yet he is pure of heart in his search for the grail. I admire that.” “I understand him,” Le Gris responds. “He knows what he desires, and he doesn’t give up until he attains it. Good minds belong together.” She smiles: “Don’t get ahead of yourself.”
The exchange is brief but significant. Le Gris’s enchantment deepens with his discovery of Marguerite’s intelligence; he fancies that his attraction transcends the merely physical. More important, Marguerite’s mention of “Perceval’s courtesy” instantly engages the entire cultural tradition of Arthurian romance and courtly love. Le Gris clearly feels encouraged to understand his feelings in that framework. He may — no, as a man, he ought — to love this married woman and seek to demonstrate his love through acts of heroism and self-abnegation. Later, Le Gris catches Marguerite’s eye as she dances with her husband. They exchange knowing smiles. His servant observes the moment. “To even think is to covet, my Lord.” “No less than for her coveting me,” Le Gris responds.
That night, Le Gris dreams that Marguerite visits him and that he seduces her. Weeks later, he sees her from a distance in the village, as she shops with a friend. He cannot stop looking. “I’ve never seen you like this,” his servant observes. “Nor have I, my friend.” His obsession festers. Finally, an opportunity presents itself. Le Gris learns that Carrouges will be absent from his estate for several days, seeking compensation in Paris. Marguerite will be alone. Le Gris’s servant tricks her into opening the door and Le Gris suddenly appears. In his best gesture of courtly love, he kneels before Marguerite and begs her forgiveness. “I love you more than any other and would do anything for you. Everything I have is yours.” “How dare you speak to me like this,” she responds. Continuing in the vein of courtly love, he replies: “How else could I speak to you. My lady, you must know that it cannot be helped. My love for you consumes me.” Marguerite begins to back away, protesting. More professions of love follow. Le Gris follows her to the stairway, where he sees her leave her shoes. He follows her to the bedroom. She cries out, a bit meekly, it seems to him. “If you run, I will only chase you.” She runs. He catches her and she laughs. He throws her on the bed. “No, no, please,” she says, a little faintly. But he persists, thinking her protest is perfunctory and predictable. The rape ensues.
When it’s over, Le Gris attempts to reassure her, still in the language of courtly love. “You feel yourself guilty, but my love, I beseech you, tell no one. For your own safety. If your husband hears of it, he may kill you. Say nothing. I will keep quiet, too. Do not feel badly my love. We could not help ourselves.”
On learning of Marguerite’s accusation, the Count summons Le Gris to his castle and confronts him with the news. Le Gris at first denies any relationship. But then he confesses to his love. “Of course,” he tells the Count, “she made the customary protests; she is a lady. But it was not against her will.” And it was love, not lust, that compelled him. “It is true I confess; it is a feeling I have never had before. A love that I have never known. It has taken all my strength not to return to her. We knew it was wrong, I confessed my adultery, and performed my penance. But I swear to you this charge of rape is false.”
The world according to Marguerite is one in which women are systematically misread and misunderstood by men. And constrained by male dominion, which is pretty much everywhere and all the time. Marguerite is beautiful, educated, sensitive. She is also capable. When Carrouges goes off on his disastrous knightly errand to Scotland, she runs the estate. Her management is firm but sensitive, and the workers notice. But it would never occur to Carrouges to let her help with the family business. Her work is to manage the house and conceive an heir. Five years later, there is no heir.
There is a good deal of talk about sexual pleasure in The Last Duel, almost all of it by men and almost all of it about the pleasure that women should and shouldn’t have. On her wedding night, Marguerite endures a rough, remote, and terrifying introduction to sex life with her husband. “I hope this was pleasurable for you,” Carrouges says to her following his climax. Looking stricken, she produces the scripted response: “Yes, my lord, very.” Following a subsequent and equally rough occasion, he inquires about Marguerite’s orgasm. “I assume your little death was satisfying,” he says. “Like none other,” she replies coldly. He can’t hear her sarcasm. Worried about her incapacity to conceive, Carrouges instructs Marguerite to see a physician, who diagnoses an imbalance of black bile, making her body cold and dry. “It is imperative to have a pleasurable conclusion, similar to your husband’s, to conceive a child,” the physician informs her. “Do you find intercourse with your husband pleasurable?” “Yes, of course, doctor,” Marguerite replies dutifully. Finally, in the judicial hearing before the King, Le Gris’s lawyer presses her on whether she experienced pleasure during the alleged rape. Under the French law of the time, there could have been no rape if the woman experienced pleasure. Marguerite is emphatic: “I experienced no pleasure.” But no one, including her husband, really believes her.
The distance between Marguerite’s experience and the men surrounding her is nowhere more evident than in the rape scene itself, which Scott tells a second time from start to finish, but now from Marguerite’s point of view. It is an entirely different experience, though filmed in much the same sequence and with nearly the same script. At the doorway to the estate, Marguerite is more obviously surprised and alarmed by Le Gris’s sudden appearance. When he confesses his love, her reaction — “How can you speak to me this way“ How dare you! I am married!”: — is more vehement, emphatic. As he follows her down the hall, her growing alarm and fear are clear. Le Gris tries again to flatter her, but she does not soften. She runs to the stairs, losing her shoes in her panic. At the bedroom door, she attempts to prevent Le Gris from entering, but too late. Le Gris stalks her. She tries to escape but cannot. As he drags her to the bed, her screams and her protestations are loud and clear. Resisting his kisses, he turns her over on the bed. She sobs and screams. When it’s done, the camera closes on her face — stunned, stupefied, terrified.
When Carrouges returns from Paris, we see what Marguerite sees, not what he sees, when she tells him what has happened. He grabs her by the neck and interrogates her. “Could you not run?” he shouts. When he finally accepts her account, he commits a different kind of assault. “Come,” he says, standing by the bed. “I will not allow him to be the last man to have known you.” As the judicial process grinds forward, Marguerite learns she is pregnant, presumably by Le Gris. In the hearing before the King, she is humiliated by the cleric representing Le Gris. Since conception without pleasure is not possible, she must have enjoyed the rape. Deepening the gloom, one of her friends testifies that she found Le Gris handsome. Afterward, Carrouges is furious over the testimony and berates her. Equally furious, Marguerite reminds him that he failed to tell her that she and her unborn child will be burned at the stake if he loses the duel.
He does not lose. And in one important sense, neither does Marguerite. But she has already lost so much. In the film’s final scene, Carrouges rides triumphantly through Paris, cheered on by the throngs of observers. Marguerite follows behind. Carrouges’s triumph over Le Gris is his vindication, the redemption of his honor. Marguerite’s grievance and courage are buried in the noise. The entire cultural apparatus is arrayed around male power and prerogatives. Women are caught up in this vast web of power, their stories and experiences all but invisible.
In telling the story three times, The Last Duel contends with how gender identities shape perception. It’s not a novel concern, certainly, but Scott exploits it well. Carrouges does not see the anguish on Marguerite’s face as she tells him about the rape. He sees his wounded male vanity and sense of honor. Le Gris does not hear Marguerite’s protestations and expressions of pain as he pins her down. He hears the echoes of his desire and Perceval’s courtesy. “Of course, she made the customary protests. She is a lady.” In recreating and reframing the critical sequences of the story, Scott shows us, frame by frame and gesture by gesture, how the different accounts of experience emerge from gender differences.
If this sounds a bit too relativistic and free of blame, it’s important to note that the final chapter in the film is Marguerite’s. And it’s titled, simply, “The Truth.” To say that gender identities inform how we perceive the world is not to say that one form of seeing, or perceiving, is as good or as true as the next. It’s to acknowledge that how we inhabit and model gender is formative of how we experience the world. The film industry’s reckoning with this truth was clearly on the director’s and the writers’ minds.
Marguerite’s courage and persistence are intact following the last duel, but the male virtues and manhood are not. Physical prowess and bravery in combat seem shallow and mercenary. Male pride and honor are vain and empty. Courtly love is a sham. Knight-errantry, a hoax. The epilogue of the film informs us that Carrouges perishes in the Crusades. More errant knight-errantry. Marguerite raises her child and inherits the Carrouges estate, running it well and happily to the end of her long life. She never remarries.
JANE CAMPION’S The Power of the Dog begins with a question. It’s posed by Peter Gordon, the young man who disrupts the masculine routines of the Burbank ranch in Montana in 1925. “When father passed, I wanted nothing more than my mother’s happiness. For what kind of a man would I be if I did not help my mother? If I did not save her?”
It’s not the way we expect stories about manhood to begin, and judging from its opening frames, it’s not the way we expect this one to begin, either: dust and mountains, cowboys and cattle, the nearly infinite expanses of the American West. But the power of The Power of the Dog is the unexpected and the hidden. The world of the Burbank ranch is not as it seems.
We first catch sight of Peter making paper flowers. He and his mother, Rose, are the new owners of the boarding house and restaurant at the railroad depot in Beech, where brothers Phil and George Burbank, owners of the ranch, have been bringing their cattle for 25 years. Beech is a tiny and desolate place — a loading platform, a bar and brothel, the boarding house, scattered houses. The surrounding prairie and mountains are vast, empty, and beautiful. It’s every inch a man’s world.
But Peter is not a man’s man. He is tall and thin. His dark hair is carefully parted and combed to the side. He dresses in a white shirt, buttoned at the neck, dark pants, and city shoes, or sometimes white leather tennis shoes. His fingers are long and delicate. He walks without a swagger, stiff and upright. He speaks softly and carefully. He likes to read and study and make picture albums.
As soon as Phil Burbank spots Peter waiting tables in the boarding house dining room, he is on him. He picks up the paper flowers on the table and holds them up admiringly. “Ain’t them purdy.” He looks over at Peter. “Oh yeah. Well, I wonder what little lady made these?” he asks. “I did,” Peter responds fearlessly and naively. “My mother was a florist, and so I made them to look like the ones in our garden.” “Oh, pardon me,” Phil continues. “They’re just as real as possible.” He sticks the bouquet in a candle’s flame and lights his cigarette before drowning the burning bunch in a pitcher of water.
It’s the first of many hateful and homophobic barbs that Phil sends Peter’s way. He is cruel to others, too. Indeed, it’s hard to think of anyone who does not suffer his cruelty. He calls his brother, George, “fatso” and regularly berates him for his reserve. George is sensitive and quiet. He wears a suit and tie, even while driving cattle. He is the business mind of the ranch, and Phil hates him for that, too. It’s hard to think of them as brothers. “Romulus and Remus,” as Phil notes early on, sleeping in adjacent twin beds in the huge and cold house.
After Phil’s attack on Peter, George stays in the dining room and comforts Rose. He likes her. Other visits follow. After one such visit, George returns to the ranch to inform Phil that he has married Rose and that she will be moving in. It’s the worst possible news for Phil, who loves the solitary and womanless world of the ranch.
On moving day, George and Rose stop in the mountains to share a picnic. Standing in the magnificent wild surroundings, they sip tea from porcelain cups. Rose then motions for George to stand by her, and she begins to teach him to dance. George is overcome with emotion and steps away, in tears. “What is it, George?” she asks. Searching for words, he responds. “I just want to say how nice it is not to be alone.”
Loneliness is everywhere at the Burbank ranch, elemental to the place and its way of life. For Rose, there will be more, despite George’s love and good nature. Peter goes off to college, leaving her alone with George, Phil, and the two women who make food and keep house. Phil is bitter and enraged by Rose’s presence, and his anger stalks her at every moment of every day. It wears her down. The Burbank seniors come to meet Rose, along with the Governor and his wife. She’s asked to play the piano. She’s been practicing for this, but she is so terrorized by Phil that she cannot remember the chords. She starts to drink, more each day. By the time Peter comes to visit in the summer, she is alcoholic and sick. Like Paula in Hitchcock’s Gaslight, she has been driven to the verge of madness.
For Phil, the answer to the film’s opening question — what does it mean to be a man? — seems obvious. He is the epitome of the quintessentially western American male. Solitary, independent, tough, assertive. Phil loves the vast empty spaces of Montana and the rough work that it requires and sustains. He is not given to talking, especially about his inner life or feelings. He is happier in the barn than in the house. In his spare time, he transforms cattle hides into beautiful, painstakingly braided leather ropes. He’s almost never seen without his chaps and boots, and he doesn’t bathe. When he cuts his hand castrating cattle with a knife, he brushes it off with a laugh. Women annoy him. He is happiest on his horse and working with the young ranch hands who follow him adoringly, hanging on his every word. His dearest memories are of days spent camping with his uncle Bronco Henry in the mountains above the ranch, cooking fresh Elk liver on a fire.
But beneath the surface, there is more, much, much more. At Rose’s introductory dinner, we learn that Phil went to Yale and graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a major in classics. Beneath all the roughness, he is a Yale man. And a man with secrets. After Peter arrives at the ranch for the summer, we find Phil alone on the banks of a river preparing to bathe. He undresses in the tall grass along the bank, pulling a white handkerchief from his pants. It’s embroidered with the initials “BH.” Shirtless, Phil caresses his face and torso with the delicate cloth. He lies down in the grass and places the handkerchief over his face in ecstatic reverie.
Down the bank and out of sight, Peter arrives at the river, carrying a sack for the rabbits he is hunting. He stumbles on what looks like a boys’ fort, its entrance obscured by branches. He pulls them aside and crawls in. Once inside, he discovers a box and opens it. It’s a collection of magazines. One of them, the November 1900 edition of Physical Culture, has Bronco Henry’s name written at the top. He opens the magazine and scans the pictures of nude men in athletic poses. His looking is interrupted by a loud splash, and he hastily closes the box. Out on the bank, he sees Phil wading in the stream, his back to the bank, and Bronco Henry’s embroidered handkerchief wrapped loosely around his neck. He watches. Phil senses his presence, turns, then yells; “Get out of her, you little fairy, Get out of here!”
It starts to make sense now, to Peter and to the viewer — Yale, the classics, Bronco Henry, camping in the wilderness. The bitterness, disappointment, regret, longing, anger. His homophobia, misogyny, and cruelty to George, Rose, Peter, the world. Solitude, roughness, manliness unmasked.
But Peter is not the person we thought, either. One afternoon, the young kitchen maid, Lola, discovers him dissecting a rabbit in his bedroom. The rabbits he has been catching are not pets, but objects of scientific study. He kills and dissects them, sketching the body parts and making notes. Learning of this practice, Rose asks him to stop. He gives her a dismissive look. “Where would a man be if he always did what his mother told him,” he says to her. Soon after, Peter goes off riding one afternoon in the hills above the ranch. Along the way, he comes across a dead steer. He examines it and then removes its hide, taking it back to the ranch and cutting it into strips, the way he’s seen Phil do. He seems more confident around Phil, too. In guarded moments, the camera captures him looking at Phil with something approaching hostility. He is certainly less afraid, less wary.
The final scenes of the film focus on the evolution of the sometimes tense and sometimes tender relationship between Peter and Phil. Phil becomes solicitous, even friendly. He seems interested in Peter. He tells him that he wants to teach him to ride and braid leather rope, becoming, in effect, his mentor, his Bronco Henry. “What say just you and me go out for a couple of days, find those trails and follow them to the end. Wouldn’t be surprised if there were gold or precious minerals in them thar rocks.” And they do head out one afternoon, to Rose’s dismay. On a break from digging post holes, Peter notices the wound on Phil’s hand. “Oh, what the hell,” Phil says. It’s just a splinter.” It’s a perfect segue into a conversation about manhood. Resting in the shade, Phil tells Peter, “Bronco Henry told me that a man was made by patience and the odds against him.” Peter reflects. “My father said, ‘Obstacles, and you had to try to remove them. He used to worry that I wasn’t kind enough, that I was too strong.” “Got that wrong,” says Phil.
But it’s Phil who’s got it wrong. In their final, dramatic encounter, Phil and Peter meet in the barn to finish braiding the leather rope that Phil has promised to finish before Peter goes off to school again. Peter offers Phil the leather strips he has made from the steer he discovered dead on the trail. As they smoke and drink together, circling one another in erotic tension, Phil finishes the rope, softening the strips in a bucket of water as he works. The bucket is cloudy with blood from his wounded hand and anthrax from the animal’s body. Peter has that steely look again, watching as Phil absorbs the deadly bacteria in his hand. His greatest obstacle, and his mother’s, too, is about to be removed.
Before it’s laid in the coffin that George has purchased, Phil’s body is bathed and shaved, clean at last. The skin is soft and white, like Carrera marble. The mortician dresses the body in a suit and tie, more like a Yale graduate than a cowboy. Back at the ranch, Peter finds the braided rope that Phil has left him. Gloves on, he places it carefully under the bed.
ON THE MORNING OF JANUARY 6, 2021, Senator Josh Hawley was on his way to the Senate chambers to vote against the certification of the election of Joe Biden when he crossed in front of a large group of angry demonstrators gathered on the west side of the Capitol. Striding across the pavement in a fitted blue suit and bright red tie, Hawley greeted the crowd with a raised fist and an angry, defiant look. An hour or so later, many of those same demonstrators stormed the Capitol, forcing Hawley and his Senate colleagues to flee to safety.
One wonders which one of the republican political virtues Hawley thought he was embodying in gesturing as he did to the crowd. For its part, the crowd seems to have been interested in things other than virtue. In the hours following Hawley’s gesture, the demonstrators turned rioters interrupted a central function of Congress, caused $30 million in damage to the Capitol building, and injured 150 police officers. Eight deaths were ultimately attributed to the riot, including four protestors and four police officers who died in the aftermath of the event. To date, more than 750 rioters have been arrested and charged with crimes, up to and including insurrection and conspiracy. Of that total, the vast majority — roughly 86 percent — are men.
Those who watched the events of January 6 unfold, or who reviewed the endless video and still images after, know that male anger and aggression were present in abundance that day. Indeed, they were the day’s principal motif, embodied in the rioters’ body language, gestures, dress, banners and flags, and, above all, in their violent actions. The shock forces of the rioters — Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and the 1st Amendment Praetorian — wore para-military gear and carried various kinds of weapons, including, we now know, guns. Notwithstanding the NatCon contempt for the filmmaking industry, iconic images from Hollywood were also on display. One rioter’s T-shirt sported an image of Clint Eastwood from The Good, Bad, and the Ugly emblazoned with the words, “I love Trump because He Pisses Off Everyone I Can’t Stand.” Other rioters carried banners derived from the Rambo movie series, with Sylvester Stallone’s buff, machine-gun-toting torso crowned by the head of Donald Trump. The Rambo-as-Trump banners had appeared earlier in the presidential campaign, and it was possible for a time to read in them a sense of humor. But in the context of the rampage of January 6, their more straightforward symbolic logic — Trump as virile and violent avenger — seems a more accurate reading.
For those who have forgotten or never saw the original Rambo films or their recent third act, the story features the misfortunes and righteous anger of Sergeant John Rambo, a Special Forces Vietnam veteran. In the first film, Rambo: First Blood, the hero shows up in a nameless western American town at the close of the war and gets treated badly by the local police. Channeling terrible memories from Vietnam, Rambo escapes his tormentors and then exacts his violent revenge, using the formidable martial skills he learned in Vietnam. In the second film, Rambo returns to Vietnam to liberate America’s forgotten POWs (and symbolically, at least, Vietnam veterans and the legacy of the war), once again getting crosswise with the authorities and once again singlehandedly bringing them to violent justice. Like Jean de Carrouges in The Last Duel, Rambo is a dishonored warrior who is compelled to reclaim his honor through violence. Both original Rambo films take full advantage of the mythology of the Vietnam veteran as antihero, the victim of the country’s forgetfulness and ingratitude. The films also invoke the conservative narrative of the lost cause; we failed in Vietnam because the country lost its will and nerve, its political virtu.
Much has been written about the role that white male resentment played in the 2016 and 2020 elections and in the rise of Trumpism generally. The election data show that 62 percent of all white males who voted in 2016 voted for Donald Trump, while only 32 percent voted for Hilary Clinton. This enormous 30-point margin was narrower in the 2020 Trump matchup with Joe Biden (17 points), but still hugely in Trump’s favor. If one takes college-educated white males out of the data, Trump’s support among white males was even greater. Most explanatory analyses of these data point to resentment bubbling up in three overlapping dimensions of American life: the economy, gender roles, and race relations. White men, these analyses suggest, resent the decline of job opportunities in the manufacturing sector, resent the perceived growth in the social and political power of people of color, and resent perceived advances in the cause of gender equity at the expense of men.
Donald Trump demonstrated remarkable talent in speaking to white male resentment in all its forms, but he was especially determined and successful in his efforts to embody and advance a certain construction of masculinity. Those efforts could be disarmingly direct and ostentatiously mean-spirited, much like Phil Burbank’s misogynistic and homophobic behavior in The Power of the Dog. Who can forget candidate Trump stalking Hilary Clinton during their televised debates, the insults directed toward Carly Fiorina, Megan Kelly, and Arianna Huffington, among other women, or his overt appeals to the Proud Boys and other militant rightwing groups? Other efforts were subtler but no less clear in intent and meaning. The central place of honor given to the portrait of Andrew Jackson in the Oval Office, Trump’s steady appeal to the military and to martial virtues, his constant references to strength as the sine qua non of political leadership, his derision of weak leaders and weakness, and his contempt for mask-wearing and mask-wearers during the pandemic all come to mind. Blatant or subdued, the political intent of these appeals to masculinity was always clear. Like Josh Hawley, though with much less sophistication, Trump was constantly trying to make certain men feel alright about being a certain kind of man. The election data in both 2016 and 2020 speak to the political impact of this strategy.
On the global stage, Trump had plenty of company in his efforts to model power as strength, toughness, and virility. Among democracies, the list of fellow travelers includes Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Andrzej Duda in Poland, and Narendra Modi in India. Trump expressed admiration for all these leaders at one time or another. But his strongest and most consistent admiration was reserved for Vladimir Putin.
And Putin certainly stands apart. Until recently, it was hard to take seriously his strange and sometimes outlandish demonstrations of virility. His bare-chested hunting and fishing and riding photos, cozying up to feral cats, weightlifting and judo seemed more like publicity stunts than serious forms of political expression. But in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the connection between Putin’s vision of Russia’s imperial destiny and the definition he has given to his own exercise of power seem deeply and intimately connected. Putin is driven by the ambition to restore a territorial and cultural conception of Russian greatness. That ambition is intertwined with conceptions of politics and leadership that are equally imperious and autocratic, and riven by political resentments and grievances. For Putin, Russia’s decline from empire is a personal as well as political afront.
Donald Trump, too, is inspired by a vision of past American greatness and the ambition to restore the country to that greatness. But in Trump’s case, greatness has more to do with a particular set of cultural and economic conditions than it does with territorial influence. The great time in American life was the time before the globalization of manufacturing when American economic might was uncontested. It was also the time before immigration and the movements for racial and gender equality altered the social landscape, threatening the hegemony of white men. The work of restoration requires a political movement mobilized and led by a charismatic leader who above all else embodies strength, in all the recognizably masculine ways that Trump understands that term.
The gendered conceptualization of power is of course not new. The great Italian theorist of power, Niccolò Machiavelli, wrote about it over 500 years ago. In his great manifesto, The Prince, Machiavelli described the relationship of fortune to the form of political mastery that Trump and Putin have worked so hard to demonstrate. “For my part,” Machiavelli wrote, “I consider that it is better to be adventurous than cautious, because fortune is a woman, and if you wish to keep her under it is necessary to beat and ill-use her; and it is seen that she allows herself to be mastered by the adventurous rather than by those who go to work more coldly. She is, therefore, always, woman-like, a lover of young men, because they are less cautious, more violent, and with more audacity command her.” Trump and Putin are certainly not young, but in most other respects, they are practitioners of Machiavelli’s advice.
Trump has temporarily left the scene, but the male grievance he focused and encouraged rolls on, and perhaps nowhere more clearly or tellingly than in the educational landscape. Since Trump left office, legislatures in 33 states across the country have introduced laws designed to restrict the teaching of certain subjects, including those related to gender identity and equality. Some of these bills have become law (in Florida, most recently and visibly), some have been pushed back, and some are still in process. But most of these legislative efforts share a unified aim: to reset the American cultural landscape, returning it to a time before all the recent troubles in gender and race relations. This debate about how we teach young people about the American past and our current social and cultural conflicts is inconceivable without Trumpism and the male anxiety and grievance that lies at its core.
THE SEPTEMBER 6, 2021 issue of The Wall Street Journal carried a story about the declining number of men enrolling and succeeding in college. It seems very likely that Josh Hawley read the piece before writing his own speech for the NatCon gathering. The article included an interview with Jay Wells, a 23-year-old student who dropped out of Defiance College in Ohio after his first semester. “I would say I feel hazy,” Wells reported. “I’m sort of waiting for a light to come on so I figure out what to do next.” Like Gawain in The Green Knight, Wells doesn’t have a story to tell.
There appear to be many young American men without stories these days. The question is what can or should be done about it. Josh Hawley’s brand of Trumpian conservatism contends that young men must be reacquainted with the traditional narratives of masculinity and then “unleashed” to become good workers, fathers, citizens. Along the way, they must be given the cultural and economic resources needed to succeed. And the counter-narratives that have been offered up by the critics of the traditional forms and stories of manly virtue must be called out and banished from the kingdom.
But the traditional stories are fraught. And not because they have been “deconstructed” by leftists, but because they have imploded from within. The cultural framework that Hawley and other conservative culture warriors dream of restoring is in tatters, riven by contradictions in its own history. The stories told in The Green Knight, The Last Duel, and The Power of the Dog and the mythologies they examine — knight-errantry, courtly love, the honor code, the warrior code, frontier life and independence — are significant because they open and examine those contradictions. But they would not be so interesting or timely if we did not encounter problems with the manly virtues in everyday experience. Male assertiveness, independence, toughness, and strength, to name a few, have a way of going off the rails.
There are those who argue that we need new narratives of male virtue and masculinity that avoid the destructive energy of past iterations, new models for what it means to be a man. Healthy manhood. It’s tempting to think this way. But the more interesting question is why we need narratives about the manly virtues — healthy or not — in the first place. Cultural narratives matter, and stories about masculinity and male virtue have been powerful components of many cultures, including our own. But as we consider the production of new narratives about men and their virtues, we should ask why gendered conceptions of identity are useful, in politics or elsewhere. Why must virtue have gender? Why must political virtue have gender? What’s wrong with talking about the virtues of community, democracy, equality, participation, justice in ways that are non-gendered? It’s to ask in a different register the question that Essel asks of Gawain in The Green Knight; “Why is goodness not enough?”
The same might be asked of Josh Hawley’s proposal regarding economic reconstruction. The notion that the current problems of young men are connected to the absence of economic opportunity in its traditional forms is an important one. But again, why must the issue and response be configured by way of gender? Men and women need good work; men and women and children need to have economic security. If the United States is to embark on a project of rebuilding the manufacturing sector, bringing back or replacing jobs in places where they have vanished, we should do it for all the people who need work and the self-esteem and sense of purpose that go with it.
That’s what “the Left” wants, one can hear Hawley and like-minded conservatives saying, a world where there are no men and women, just people. But that’s not the point. What the country should want, what Josh Hawley and other political actors should want, is an understanding of political virtue that is not limited to one group or another — one gender, one race, one class or another — but that inspires and sustains the universal engagement of democratic citizens in the pursuit of the common good. This is not “a world beyond community and culture,” as Hawley claims about “the Left.” It’s a vision of community and culture that is serious about inclusivity and democracy. Until such a vision finds broader endorsement in the political sphere, the attractions and delusions of manly virtue will continue to stalk us, in both our real and imagined lives.
Psalm 22. The New Oxford Annotated Bible.
David Brooks, “The Terrifying Future of the American Right: What I Saw at the National Conservatism Conference,” The Atlantic, November 18, 2021.
Andrew Yang, “The Data Are Clear: The Boys Are Not Alright,” The Washington Post, February 8, 2022.
Josh Hawley, Address to the National Conservatism Conference, Orlando, Florida, October 31, 2021.
Thomas Edsall, “It’s Become Increasingly Difficult for Them to Feel Good About Themselves,” The New York Times, September 22, 2021.
The Green Knight, Directed by David Lowery, performances by Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, and Joel Edgerton, A24, 2021.
The Last Duel, Directed by Ridley Scott, performances by Jodie Comer, Matt Damon, Adam Driver, and Ben Affleck, Scott Free Productions, 2021.
Eric Jager, The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France (New York: Broadway Books, 2004).
The Power of the Dog, Directed by Jane Campion, performances by Benedict Cumberbatch, Kodi-Smit McPhee, Jesse Plemons, and Kirsten Dunst, Netflix, 2021.
Bennett Clifford and Jon Lewis, “This is the Aftermath: Assessing Domestic Violent Extremism One Year After the Capitol Siege”, Program on Extremism, George Washington University, January 2022.
Jackson Katz, “White Masculinity and the January 6 Insurrection,” Ms., January 5, 2022.
Ruth Igielnik, Scott Keeler, and Hannah Hartig, “Behind Biden’s Victory: An Examination of the 2020 Electorate, Based on Validated Voters,” Pew Research Center, June 30, 2021.
Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, Harvey C. Mansfield, trans. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1985).
Jeffrey Sachs, “Steep Rise in Gag Orders, Many of Them Sloppily Drafted,” Pen America, January 24, 2022.
Douglas Belkin, “A Generation of Men Just Give Up on College,” The Wall Street Journal, January 6, 2021