Masculinity and male roles

I got asked by a reader of this blog (CasaB) about how masculinity and male roles related to each other. I think of masculinity primarily as being a set of ideas/ ideology/discourse that says what men ought to be like and how they ought to behave. In that sense, it covers a lot more territory than simply male roles, including such areas as appearance (e.g. ‘long hair is effeminate’), consumption patterns (‘real men don’t eat quiche’) and emotion (‘real men don’t cry’).

What historians of masculinity, like myself, are interested in is how these ideas of masculinity change over time and are culture-specific. We’re also interested in how different ideas of masculinity interact in particular societies (there’s never just one idea of what men should be like, although there may often be a dominant idea) and how these ideas are masculinity are used politically/polemically: to demonstrate that one idea of masculinity (and femininity) is the right one and that men who don’t conform to it are inferior/woman-like.

The current Anglo-American right wing commentators on male roles, in contrast, normally seem to be arguing that there is one eternally correct form of masculinity/femininity (which normally seems to be located in the 1950s middle-class West), that any changes in this lead to problems/chaos and that the superiority of this model is shown by the fact that it is ‘natural’ or confirmed by ‘science’. Just a couple of examples of why this is complete rubbish. For example, it sometimes gets stated that men have to be the breadwinners in order to be fulfilled/marriages to be stable etc. Here is an extract from that unlikely subversive source, the Old Testament:

10 Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price [is] far above rubies.
11 The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil.
12 She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life.
13 She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands.
14 She is like the merchants’ ships; she bringeth her food from afar.
15 She riseth also while it is yet night, and giveth meat to her household, and a portion to her maidens.
16 She considereth a field, and buyeth it: with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard.
17 She girdeth her loins with strength, and strengtheneth her arms.
18 She perceiveth that her merchandise [is] good: her candle goeth not out by night.
19 She layeth her hands to the spindle, and her hands hold the distaff.
20 She stretcheth out her hand to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy.
21 She is not afraid of the snow for her household: for all her household [are] clothed with scarlet.
22 She maketh herself coverings of tapestry; her clothing [is] silk and purple.
23 Her husband is known in the gates, when he sitteth among the elders of the land.
24 She maketh fine linen, and selleth [it]; and delivereth girdles unto the merchant.
25 Strength and honour [are] her clothing; and she shall rejoice in time to come.
26 She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue [is] the law of kindness.
27 She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness.
28 Her children arise up, and call her blessed; her husband [also], and he praiseth her.
29 Many daughters have done virtuously, but thou excellest them all.
30 Favour [is] deceitful, and beauty [is] vain: [but] a woman [that] feareth the LORD, she shall be praised.
31 Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates.

(Proverbs 31:10-31, the King James Version (which is handily available on the net)).

Here, male identity (and superiority) is based not on economic activity, but scholarship; an ideal that I believe is still potent on Orthodox Judaism. (Incidentally, this kind of female behaviour would have been strongly disapproved of in a society almost contemporary to it: classical Greece, where women were very much confined to the purely domestic sphere and it would have been the husband’s role to deal with agricultural purchases etc).

As for the idea that ‘science’ supports the 1950s model, there are studies in the history of science showing the extent to which prevailing social/cultural influences heavily influence what is scientifically believed about sexual difference. As one basic example, for about 2000 years (from Classical Greece to 17th/18th century, it was ‘known’ (scientifically and theologically) that women’s sexual desire/lust was stronger than that of men. Then there was suddenly a complete reversal to the belief that women ‘naturally’ didn’t have strong (or any) sexual feelings. One interesting book on such changes in scientific belief/knowledge is Thomas Laqueur, Making sex: body and gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge, MA, 1990).


4 thoughts on “Masculinity and male roles

  1. Speaking from personal experience, being long-term unemployed I am made to feel emasculated because I’m not capable of financially providing for a family. In western society a man is a breadwinner, and nothing else. All this talk about ‘new men’ who can talk to, and empathise with women….well, that’s all it is, talk. It doesn’t matter how much of a bastard you are, how often you beat your wife, how many affairs you have…so long as you’ve got a job and can put money on the’re a man and have status and respect in society.


  2. Not a new idea. Augustine of Hippo back in the early 5th century wanted to take the mickey out of the pretentions of ascetics, who claimed authority due to their own extreme self-control. In City of God 14.24 he says:

    “Some can swallow an incredible number of various articles and then with a slight contraction of the diaphragm, can produce, as if out of a bag, any article they please in perfect condition…A number of people produce at will such musical sounds from their behind (without any stink) that they seem to be singing in that region.


  3. The comment you made re American males being the 1950’s style of role model is fascinating. This means that Rick Blain fits into that concept quite nicely! But another question that arise from this. Is this the face of American social structure as opposed to the real life pattern of American men. I don’t know if I am making myself clear, but all this posing when standing to attention with the flag.. Is it similar to that.. a social pose.. rather than reality?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s