David Deida’s 1997 book, The Way of the Superior Man, with its golden cover featuring Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man, is habitually at the top of Amazon’s bestseller list in the dubious category of “men’s gender studies.” The book offers advice around “superior” manhood, such as living “as if your father were dead” and penetrating the world “the same way [a man] penetrates his woman.” It opines on the erotics of “whole body, brain, and heart orgasms,” and a man ejaculating “up his spine and into his brain.” Fundamentally, though, the book is premised on the concept of “sexual polarity,” which Deida defines as “the force of passion that arcs between masculine and feminine poles.” Men and women have become too similar, Deida argues, which means we have lost all-important polarity.
His argument is nearly 15 years old—and yet it has found whole new life in modern men’s self-help.
The book’s message is omnipresent in the realm of “men’s work,” which sees men gather in initiation rituals and “warrior trainings” in an attempt to locate a stable sense of masculinity. Superior Man is a key piece of the syllabus: ManKind Project, a popular “global brotherhood” that aims to revolutionize men’s “experience of manhood,” officially recommends the book. Leading social-media-savvy masculinity gurus wax poetic about “polarity” during Instagram lives, giving a nod to Deida’s influence.
This little-known book is powerfully, and distressingly, influential on contemporary notions of what it means to be a man.
Of course, Deida’s argument sounds a whole lot like New Age feminist backlash, a woo-woo way of saying that women today are acting too much like men, and vice versa. Granted, Deida says it’s positive that we have reached this “50/50 stage” in balancing our “inner energies,” which has seen men embracing “long hair, colorful clothes, nature, music, and a more carefree and sensual lifestyle,” and women gaining “financial and political independence.” But, he argues, this is “only a second and intermediate stage of growth,” and we’re now stuck in “sexual neutrality.” In other words: Equality is good and similarity is bad, especially when it comes to romantic relationships.
Deida is careful to ever-so-briefly, and in the spirit of a disclaimer, detach his argument from gender. He notes that some men have a true “feminine sexual essence,” some women have a “masculine sexual essence,” and some people are more evenly balanced in their essences. According to Deida, polarity doesn’t just happen in heterosexual relationships; other examples include “top and bottom, butch and femme.” (There are valuable things to be said about the potential value of difference in sexual relationships, as well as the paradox of eroticism and domesticity, but Deida’s vision goes well beyond the bedroom walls.) His book’s imagined reader embodies “the most common case of a masculine sexual essence: a heterosexual man with a masculine sexual essence.”
Deida’s argument is fundamentally generalizing and essentialist. His portrayal of masculine and feminine essences falls along expected gendered lines. Most notable are the book’s pronouncements about “the feminine,” a vaguely defined “energy” that is chaotic, emotional, “bitchy,” unreliable, and crazy-making, according to Deida. It turns out that the “superior” man’s path involves recognizing women as irrational creatures in need of the “masculine gift,” which is rationality, says the man preoccupied with spinal jizz.
Deida writes to an imagined reader who finds women to be nuts and casts said nuttiness in spiritual terms. “If you are like most men, you probably aren’t too fond of feminine bad moods and hysterical emotions,” he writes. Men may perceive some women as “a bit ‘bonkers’ or crazy, saying one thing one moment and another the next,” and see them as “wild, untrustable, or even irresponsible.” But “such women are simply free of the masculine need to live in a world governed by reason and control.”
Here is what he wants readers to understand: “Women are not liars, although they often seem that way to men.” It’s just that women follow their feelings over facts, because “the masculine grid of words”—THE MASCULINE GRID OF WORDS—“is less relevant than the fluidity of relationship and feeling.” Keeping one’s word is a “masculine trait.” The feminine, on the other hand, will lash out with emotion (perhaps by telling you she hates you) in a “transient feeling-wave” that the masculine shouldn’t misinterpret as a “well-considered stance with respect to events and experience.”
Of course, books targeting alienated white men not only traffic in sexism, but also racism. Deida argues that women not only have essences, but also temperatures. “Some women are hotter. Some are cooler,” he writes. “In general, blonde, light-skinned, Japanese, and Chinese women are cooler. Dark skinned, brunette, red-headed, Korean, and Polynesian women are hotter.” Being around a cool woman “feels like a cool drink of ice tea on a hot sunny day,” but hot women are “fiery, tempestuous, and quick of temper.” And then he went ahead and wrote this sentence: “You might have spoken of a ‘fiery red-head’ or a ‘hot-blooded Latina.’” He doesn’t mention these stereotypes to critique them, but rather to appeal to the prejudice of his readers in the interest of supporting his argument that women have temperatures associated with the color of their hair and skin.
The upshot of casting women as driven by emotion and “temperature” is that men shouldn’t take what they say seriously. “When you listen to your woman, listen to her as you would the ocean, or the wind in the leaves,” he writes. “The sounds you hear from her are sounds of the motion of her feeling-energy.” Her words are “like a cloud passing in the sky: well-formed, coherent, and unrecognizable moments later.” Women “flow with great power and no single direction,” unlike the masculine, which “builds canals, dams, and boats to unite with the power of the feminine ocean and go from point A to point B.” The feminine “moves in many directions at once.” What she says “is the sound of her feelings.” Her “moods and opinions are like weather patterns.”
Deida takes the old, sexist concept of equating women with nature and men with civilization and re-packages it as enlightened spirituality. Women are clouds, ocean, and wind, while men are rational actors. Given this, a man must “penetrate her moods,” which has uncomfortable resonances with men ignoring a woman’s “no,” and gets only worse as the book continues. Deida, writing of a man who is “too afraid, weak, or unskilled” to confront “his woman’s” moods, says it’s “not entirely her fault that she is bitchy and complaining,” it is partly “her lack of being penetrated by love.” In a chapter titled, “What She Wants Is Not What She Says,” Deida writes, “Sometimes a woman will make a request of her man in plain English, not to get him to do something, but to see if he is so weak that he will do it,” he says. The masculine essence resists the feminine’s tests and sees, as one chapter title puts it, “Her Complaint Is Content-Free.”
Given that women’s words are just clouds and wind, it comes as no surprise that Deida dedicates a chapter to grown men’s boners for teenage girls, titled, “Young Women Offer You a Special Energy.” It opens with a thought exercise in which readers are asked to imagine driving home an 18-year-old babysitter who is “so fresh,” “so innocent,” and “so alive.” He assures readers that it’s “quite natural” to turn one’s head when passing a 20-year-old woman, more so than a 60-year-old woman (although he later goes on at length about the inner “radiance” of older women). He offers this helpful explanation: “As a woman ages, her skin begins to lose its youthful capacity to conduct life force.”
Part of the appeal of younger women is that they have not yet been toughened by life. “As women get older, they typically take on more and more masculine tasks and responsibilities in our culture, so their radiance begins to decrease,” he writes. Another way of saying this: as women age, they gain independence. Their words—no matter how intently a man tries to see them as passing clouds—are more likely to carry real-world weight. Older women are less apt to believe that rationality, decision making, and the “grid of words” is the domain of “the masculine.” It isn’t that young women offer men a “special energy” so much as the illusion of uniquely carrying the “masculine gift” of insight and knowledge.
Of course, that is not unlike what The Way of the Superior Man does for readers. It spiritualizes men’s authority, power, and dominance as an inner truth and birthright. By the book’s underlying logic, men are entitled to the realm of facts and decision-making. Deida claims he believes in equality, but the book’s framework is easily used to justify men as the rightful patriarchs of the world. It is the expression of their rational, directed essence, their propensity to build “canals, dams, and boats.” In Deida’s analysis, what ails men and women, particularly in heterosexual relationships, isn’t the persistence of patriarchy, but rather a failure to embrace our true masculine and feminine natures. He can cast them as energies or essences, but they are the same sexist beliefs that have been, and continue to be, key to women’s oppression.
This book, and its enduring popularity, is representative of the current state of mainstream men’s self-help. Instead of abandoning outmoded models, it revisits them, searching for essential truth, while turning masculinity into a spiritual path.