Achilleus, Hector, and American Masculinity

Achilles Slays Hector

Over at Vox, Anna North wrote, What Trump’s Refusal to Wear a Mask Says About Masculinity in America. It discusses how some men don’t wear masks because they see it as unmanly. This goes along with my experience.

The basic idea here is that a real man ain’t afraid of no germs. There are many aspects to this. For one, it’s anti-intellectual. No one would say welding with a helmet was unmanly because the potential harm is obvious. But a virus is invisible so wearing a mask is for sissies.

More important, wearing a mask shows care for others. And this is at the core of this toxic idea of masculinity. It is part of the “live free or die” ethos of American males that sees only rights and no responsibilities on the part of society’s supposed leaders. This kind of thinking is understandable among the young who are, by and large, selfish and stupid. But from our president who is in his mid-70s, it’s outrageous.

Greek Heroes

Roughly speaking, the Greeks presented us with two ideals of masculinity.


The first was Achilleus (more commonly, Achilles). He was a bachelor warrior. A man who cared only for himself and his glory.

When he doesn’t get his way during the war, he runs home to mother and refuses to fight. If it weren’t that he was definitionally a Hero, everyone would see him for the petulant child he is.

Remember: Achilleus chose to die young but to be forever remembered as a glorious hero. Yet what did he do? He didn’t defeat the Trojans. Mostly, he defeated Hector and then desecrated his body like an immoral fiend. (Admittedly, Homer seems to see the defeat of Hector as the defeat of the Trojans.)

I’ve never liked the character. From the first time I read The Iliad, I thought he was a total dick. It didn’t help that I saw way too many Achilleuses all around me — men who thought caring for their own desires was the alpha and omega of masculinity.


When Hector is killed in The Iliad, I was crushed. He represents a decidedly different view of masculinity. Whereas Achilleus choose a short and glorious life, Hector would have chosen the long and uneventful one. He was a reluctant warrior and a family man.

Hector is also a regular guy in that events affect him. Achilleus got to choose his destiny. Hector gets stuck with a brother who can’t keep it in his pants. And this results in his own death and the enslavement of his family.

Real Men

To me, Achilleus is a child’s idea of what a man should be. Hector is the hero we should admire.

And if you read more serious conservative writers (or at least conservative writers when they are trying to sound serious), you will see that they talk about how men should act as protectors of the weak in society.

But for most Americans, entitlement is the essence of masculinity. What makes a man is his disinterest in those around him.

We see this with face masks today. I wear a face mask to protect others. I’m not concerned about myself. First, I’m in good health and would doubtless weather the virus well. Second, I’m not afraid to die.

At the same time, I hate wearing a mask. But doing so is a small thing compared to protecting others — especially the weak and otherwise vulnerable.

A Choice of Men

The American idea of masculinity is like the American idea of a lot of things: it’s a children’s complaint, “You can’t tell me what to do!” But we aren’t talking about enslaving ourselves for the purpose of helping others. In this case and many others, we are talking about the most minor inconveniences. Yet this is portrayed as tyranny.

I’m not saying that Achilleus and Hector are the only ways for men to be. But they are the traditional ideals. And they are the ones that conservatives appeal to when it suits them. But when it comes to it, they thoughtlessly choose Achilleus. Mostly, they seem unaware that Hector is an alternative.

It’s time for us to give up our obsession with Achilleus. No good society can be based on that kind of narcissistic personality. We elected a president who personifies this. And if we can’t get past this, we are doomed.

Image cropped from Achilles Kills Hector by Peter Paul Rubens via Wikipedia in the public domain.

8 thoughts on “Achilleus, Hector, and American Masculinity

  1. That line about wearing helmets reminds me of one time I was wearing a construction-site reflective yellow vest (long story). I’d gotten off work, and was transferring buses downtown, and in doing so I walked past a construction site. The site foreman yelled bloody murder at me, “WHERE’S YOUR HARD HAT?”

    You’ll see small independent construction crews sometimes not wearing hats, which for a roofing job is fine (although I have seen them in close quarters on a roofing job not wearing masks recently). But any big construction job? You’d best believe the foreman won’t tolerate that nonsense.

    Fake hyper-masculinity has been a staple core of the American diet since forever. I don’t know why this is. Maybe it’s because aggression, in one form or another, has been part and parcel of the gig from Day One. Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill the Indians, kill the slaves, kill the poor, kill the foreigners who don’t like our companies arranging coups for the benefit of United Fruit or Exxon or whatever. It’s rather grim. Hard to write about, all credits for doing so fantastically in your own way, I’m currently broken on that shit.

    • After I wrote this, I was thinking of that line from Mississippi Buring, “If you ain’t better than a n—–, son, who are you better than?” The people who really benefit from this don’t do the dirty work themselves. They just set up a structure where people like this see the only meaning in their lives being to attack others so they can feel better about themselves.

      What I find fascinating is that I’m mostly just a collection of neuroses. Yet I know who I am and accept who I am in ways that men who are addicted to this performative masculinity don’t seem capable of. After Gene Hackman delivers that line about what his father told him, Willem Dafoe asks, “Where’s that leave you?” Hackman replies, “With an old man who was so full of hate that he didn’t know that being poor was what was killing him.”

      I find it sad but also frustrating. I often want to say, “Can’t you cut the bullshit and just be authentic?” But what would be the point? They wouldn’t have a clue what I was talking about.

      • Yeah. There was this false dichotomy set up after Trump won the EC, where people on the left had to take a side of “Trump won because he nakedly appeals to racists” vs. Trump won because he appeals to people who want to say “take this job and shove it” but cant. So many writers on the left fell into Camp Racism or Camp “economic insecurity” (a phrase used mockingly by Camp Racism). Isn’t it completely both?

        When you look at these wannabe dictators around the world, Trump, Bolsanaro, Putin, Modi, etc., they’re all appealing to people who are in economically dicey situations (and the super-rich; they wouldn’t get far without appealing to the super-rich) with some half-assed pretense of mega masculinity. It’s a complete fraud, and you want to scream to their supporters, “how can you buy this act?” But the strongman is a comforting notion, I guess.

        Say what you like about Obama, and there were policy areas where I strongly disagreed with him, isn’t he just about the masculine ideal? His public persona, I mean, I don’t know the guy. Maybe in real life he yells like an idiot at backyard rabbits eating his plants, as I do. But it’s something I aspire to. Just as I want to be Liam Neeson in “Schindler’s List,” not Liam Neeson in “Revenge Asskicking Movie 37.”

        • I think the Obama example is correct. He is the masculine ideal. But apparently, humans are too clueless to appreciate masculinity in form and deed; they need to be constantly told, “This is masculinity!” That’s why we get Trump.

  2. Like I’ve said elsewhere:

    If your manhood is threatened by social distancing and wearing a mask, then maybe your manhood isn’t as strong as you think it is

    • It’s pretty terrible. I hate going to the grocery store, not because I wear a mask (they do fog up my glasses, but I’m not driving at that point, so worst comes to worst I have to hold my breath for a few seconds to see the shelf item). No — I hate going to grocery stores because of the savage asshole who makes a point of not wearing a mask, and always cuts into the social-distancing cart line. (Always middle-aged men, in my small sample size.)

      How is this “tough guy” behavior? It’s just rude. If I’m stopping off for a beer in rural America, I don’t start picking arguments with the bar regulars over their watching Fox News, or make fun of their favorite local sports team. You make polite conversation with the regulars, don’t be obnoxious, tip the bartender well. It’s simply common courtesy, anybody not raised in a barn by feral wolves knows how to do this.

      • There appear to be people who think that in order to be a “real man” you have to be rude. The days of the “strong silent type” are apparently over. Those guys were sissies!

    • Absolutely. If self-assuredness isn’t masculine, what is? No one thinks the guy with the biggest dick is the guy who shouts the most about how big his dick is. (Actually, about 42% of Americans think that.)

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