In his 2011 essay, “The Problem With Memoirs,” New York Times critic Neil Genzlinger called for a moment of silence for “the lost art of shutting up.” “There was a time when you had to earn the right to draft a memoir,” he argued, “by accomplishing something noteworthy or having an extremely unusual experience,” and “anyone who didn’t fit one of those categories was obliged to keep quiet.” “Unremarkable lives went unremarked upon,” Genzlinger said, “the way God intended.” Well, he’s right—mostly. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. As J. Nicole Jones has pointed out in the LA Review of Books, the likes of Frank Conroy and Isak Dinesen were literary nobodies before Stop-Time and Out of Africa. She also points to the “unremarkable lives led by unremarkable people” who populate the canons of literature. Anna Karenina is a case in point. Moral of the story—either tell a remarkable tale or tell a tale remarkably.
Regrettably, Paddle Your Own Canoe, the memoir/manifesto hybrid from Parks & Recreation star Nick Offerman, who plays the bacon-eating libertarian whiskey-enthusiast, Ron Swanson, does neither. If you were hoping for an ironic “how-to” on manhood written in the spirit of Swanson, or a field-guide for all things woodworking and the great outdoors, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Instead, he drags us through over 300 pages of biographical triviality, detailing the fairly ordinary exploits of a childhood in rural Illinois and an equally uninspiring college career. His advice after being caught on CCTV for shoplifting, for example, is “if you are going to burglarize a retail establishment, at least case the joint ahead of time.” But even worse are the “rants” about everything from politics to religion that he inserts at the end of each chapter. He offers a philosophy of half-baked opinions that are as crude as they are ill informed. He is particularly scathing of Christianity: the Bible is a “book of fairy tales,” he says, and Christians are “ignorant fools” who espouse an “eldritch, tired dogma.” The only place “less fun than church,” he says, is the “galley of a slave ship.”
His vitriol knows no bounds. If you are clean-shaven; rely on a GPS; can’t change a tire; work in a cubicle; spend too much time looking at screens instead of being outside building your own canoe, then according to Offerman, you’re “soft.” He goes to great lengths to resist the “Ron Swanson” persona (he eats kale and once took two semesters of ballet) yet ultimately ends up reinforcing it. He’s a bully, but his own self-absorption prevents him from realizing it. He fights tooth-and-nail for the right to believe and behave as you wish, but he’ll be quick to insult you in his book. “Let your freak flag fly,” “be yourself,” he exclaims—unless of course you’re a Christian, in which case you’re a “silly [profanity].” His golden rule: “Don’t be an asshole.” The problem is, he is one.
But this book will fly off the shelves. Why? Well, for one, as Jones points out, despite our increasing cultural weariness with frivolity, we still tolerate the barrage of extra-insipid first-person narratives like this one. But more importantly, this book capitalizes on Offerman’s cult status as a symbol of pure manhood. He has become, as Margaret Lyons from Vulture claims, the “poster child for ultrafetishized woodsy Americana masculinity.” He has neatly packaged his own brand of manliness—and people are buying.
We’ve become increasingly confused about masculinity. As women continue to move ahead in an advanced economy, and more traditional roles begin to erode, men are struggling to find an acceptable adult identity. The byproducts of this cultural uncertainty are the “child-man” (unengaged and unmotivated twenty-somethings who dwell in an extended adolescence—shirking familial responsibilities and commitment) and the “metrosexual” (culturally savvy urbanites who are meticulous about grooming and appearance—shirking traditional masculine norms). So, it’s not surprising that in our confusion we have come to cling to, and ultimately cherish, the more traditional male archetype—the burly, beefy bravado of the man’s man.But in the fight to reclaim some semblance of maleness, we’ve rebounded to people like Nick Offerman, and it’s only a matter of time before we wake up and realize he’s actually just a different— slightly hairier—kind of jerk. More hopeful expressions of masculinity are beginning to emerge that reimagine the tension between modernization and tradition. AskMenrecently conducted the “Great Male Survey” and found that although men are adapting to modern trends in their relationships, there continues to exist a “deep attachment to a more traditional understanding of what it means to be a man.” Their results suggest that this “new masculinity” combines “old-school” values (honor, loyalty, and hard work) with a more contemporary understanding of gender roles in a time when they are rapidly changing.
We’re still ironing out the kinks of this tension. In New York Magazine, Ann Friedman writes, “masculinity is increasingly defined by both playing to and against type. It’s growing a really impressive beard and ordering a kale salad for lunch. It’s knowing Super Bowl trivia and being an emotionally supportive partner.” Friedman tells us that men continue to “seek the perceived trappings of manly men of the past to reinforce their masculinity while they pursue the other, more traditionally feminized lifestyle choices they also desire.” Facial hair, for instance, “has come back in vogue because there seems to be an almost primal urge to reclaim our right to be men and to look like men.”
But appropriating these traditional displays of manliness for their own sake is just window-dressing. Offerman would agree, because, if nothing else, he’s authentic—a far cry from what Sam Grobart in BusinessWeek calls the “city dwelling ‘urban woodsman,’ who seeks macho authenticity by buying overpriced handmade axes and making their own salmon jerky.” Offerman’s moustache is most definitely the real deal, not a hipster accessory—same goes for his trucker caps, Carhartts, and work boots. But in both Offerman and the “urban woodsmen,” these trappings distract from more important qualities. What’s great about the traditional man is not the whiskers on his face or the steel in his boots—it’s his honor and his loyalty. That’s why we ought to glean the good from Offerman (i.e., his work ethic), but dispense with the rest (i.e., his coarseness).
As Friedman says, “ultimately, confusion about modern masculinity is a good thing: it means we’re working past the outmoded definition.” Men continue to feel comfortable breaking stereotypes, and the way in which our culture shapes and legitimizes gendered behavior is changing. More and more men are embracing the tension between the uncertainty of their role in an increasingly post-gender world, and their desire to recapture the value of traditional masculinity without returning to the rigid roles of the past. For those still uneasy, well, Friedman has some advice: “Welcome to where women have been since second-wave feminism!”
In navigating this tension, looking to Offerman as a symbol of manhood is a waste of time. But the good news is that we have better options. From a Christian perspective, it is Jesus who holds the competing forces of both power and vulnerability in perfect tension. He is the ultimate picture of pure, authentic manhood: sufficiently confident, but perfectly humble; justly indignant, yet unendingly patient; ferociously gritty, yet exceptionally kind; abundantly expressive, but decently restrained. He endured pain with joy, suffered humiliation with purpose, and gave sacrificially for those he loved. This is manhood’s true north.