The Resurgent Defense of Masculinity is Awful

By Graham Peterson

I’ve taken an interest in men’s issues since I read Iron John by Robert Bly as a teenager, and presented it for my Men’s Studies class.  Yep, men’s studies.  I’ve taken an even greater interest in the last couple of years, since a surge of what’s being called Men’s Rights Activism has splashed the internet like the side of a toilet bowl.

A lot of the new public and academic debate over men’s issues focuses on women.  But it’s mostly packaged, or at least titled, as an argument in support of men.  I can’t think of a stranger way to define men’s issues and rights than by the progress (or not) of women.  And in fact, that logic is precisely the tack that Catharine MacKinnon, a very smart and very deservedly-famous Marxian feminist used to outline female sexuality and identity in the 1980s.  In her view, which at different dilutions became a lot of people’s views, femininity was defined by a reflection of men’s desires because they had all the power.  I think that idea was totally overblown, and I think it’s a huge mistake to revive that kind of logic and just reverse the roles: “boo hoo look at how the feminists are oppressing us.”

The fact of the matter is that us men, if we do need and want public advocates, can do a lot better than letting internet-warrior Men’s Rights Activists, and conservative women, do our talking for us.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’ve got love for pissed off ex husbands who deal with divorce laws that were written with Leave it To Beaver in mind.  And I’ve got love for conservative women.  I’ve even got some love for identity insecure, sexless guys who turn to Pick Up Artistry guides and evolutionary psychology — keep tryin’ guys; you’ll get it.

But these people’s definition of masculinity is a joke.  One of the more brilliant arguments to come out of feminist thought was that femininity had been rather transparently socially constructed, and at that, very recently (most of what we believe to be “naturally feminine” was as I understand it a product of a radical change in mores during say the Victorian era).  These brilliant women in the 1970s started to and continue to argue that the definition of what it is to be women, is theirs to make.  Just so.  And remade it has been, and continues to be.

But where are we at on outlining what a guy is, guys?  I’m not sure what’s more emasculating — the radical entrails of feminist thought that typified masculinity as a social wrecking ball — or having conservative women and frustrated internet warriors on body building forums do our talking for us.  One thing is for sure: this whole “let’s get back to the Marlboro man” tack isn’t going to work (the Marlboro Man is himself a sheer fabrication — Marlboro cigarettes were a struggling brand of women’s cigarette before they came up with the cowboy imagery).

Since the definition of western femininity was shaped recently, it stands to reason that the 1950s version of masculinity was as well.  And frankly, the idea of The Masculine Man as a manual laborer, farmer, warrior, and so forth is just stupid.  Do you know where those ideal types come from, guys?  About 9,700 years of human history where there were farmers, there were slaves, there were kings, and there were wars.  And that was life.  And everyone died early and lived forever next to their small town neighbors they hated.  And where just about everyone was abysmally poor.

My guess is that late 19th and early 20th century men latched on to these kinds of aristocratic ideal types precisely because the material significance of those roles were abating.  Ok, we had a couple really big wars, but you get the picture.  Farming as a share of national product was in decline as its technological efficiency improved.  People flocked to urban centers.  And technological progress opened up a myriad of new occupations that nobody had any heat-and-serve gendered identities to attach to.

So people seem to have generally made up and clung to whatever romantic story about a long-forgotten past they could come up with in order to form the archetypes of 20th century masculinity and femininity.

The idea of man-as-provider, for instance, seems to be a product of the very unique material circumstances of the early and middle 20th century where economic growth benefitted the poor and middle classes to the degree that a man could support his family on a single salary.  Such was not the case for most of human history — everybody worked and provided — including the chilluns (which is why I find the opposition to child labor among the poor to be strange).  And this is how social narratives get written: we take present circumstances and project them backwards in order to justify and explain them — “aha!  you see this was inevitable!”  Strangely then, the materially unsupportable proposition that the men have always gone off hunting, and the women have always stayed home to vacuum the long house, took hold.

This approach to defining masculinity and femininity is scientifically bankrupt, and culturally misguided.

And it’s only for a severe lack of imagination that concerned thinkers and bloggers today have resorted to calls for us men to get back in the military, and subsidize factory and construction work.  These calls serve only the daydream about masculinity that a lot of business-doing and technology-wielding guys in the 20th century cooked up in order to remake their daily activities — cooperating, chatting, team-working, thinking, and doing deals with one another — with aristocratic and agrarian window dressings.

Aristocratic and agrarian tropes may have been all they had to work with, but it’s not all we have to work with, and it’s time to get creative.

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