The invention of masculinity?

I am back thinking about masculinity, after a seminar paper on marriage and masculinity in crisis in the works of Orderic Vitalis (a twelfth century Anglo-Norman historian). But I’ve been deflected by a more theoretical book on modern masculinity: John MacInnes, The end of masculinity (OUP, 1998). He starts by claiming:

Most discussions of masculinity assume that it is an empirically existing form of identity, set out to analyse its oppressive or exploitative character, show how this results from or reproduces patriarchy, and either suggest alternative models of masculinity men might embrace or urge men to reject masculinity altogether. But this overlooks the fact that what we now think of as masculinity was originally used to legitimate patriarchy, by demonstrating how men were more capable of exercising public power than women. The core thesis of this book, however, is that masculinity does not exist as the property, character trait or aspect of individuals. This means that trying to define masculinity, or masculinities is a fruitless task, and also that explanations of how men came to have much greater power, resources and status than women in the modern world which rely upon the concept of masculinity used in this way are unlikely to be helpful. I argue that masculinity exists only as various ideologies or fantasies about what men should be like, which men and women develop to make sense of their lives. If this is the case, it can make no sense to argue that men should reform their masculinity to help in the struggle for sexual equality – for how are men to reform something which does not exist? I therefore make no attempt in this book to define different types of masculinity or trace the social and historical relations of different forms to one another.

If masculinity doesn’t exist, I’m in a rather unfortunate position as a historian of it. But while I’m quite happy to accept that masculinity is an ideology (in fact, that’s my basic position), I don’t see how that necessarily means that it doesn’t exist. Ideologies may not be tangible objects, but they definitely have tangible results, when someone accepting an idea acts on it. If you want to change men’s behaviour, it may be necessary to change their broader ideologies as well. If particular groups of men tend not to help with child-care, is that simply due to economic factors or individual choice? Or is there also a common mind-set that says ‘real men don’t change nappies?’

I also think that even if masculinity is purely an ideology then it can be seen as a characteristic of people (in two ways). One is that many individuals will subscribe to a particular ideology or identify with it. Christianity and socialism may simply be ideologies, but you can legitimately talk of ‘Tony Blair’s Christianity’ or ‘Tony Benn’s socialism’, to express both their adherence to an ideology and their individual takes on it. Secondly, an ideological label can be applied to someone else because they seem to have the attitudes or behaviour I think of as characteristic of that group. If I say someone shows a very Christian attitude, that doesn’t necessarily imply that they have specific theological views, but it does say something about how I perceive Christianity. In these senses I can talk about ‘Fred Astaire’s masculinity’ or say ‘in his films Fred Astaire is not particularly masculine.’

MacInnes sees the concept of masculinity and the whole idea of gender as a creation of social contract theory in the seventeenth and eighteenth century (although the actual terminology only comes in later). Gender (as the social construction of men and women from males and females) was a way of getting round a big theoretical problem for a social contract theorist for Thomas Hobbes, according to MacInnes. Hobbes started from the position that all humans were equal and that power relations between them were made solely on the basis of freely entered contracts. Kings were created because men chose to give up their freedom to them in exchange for protection. Hobbes was faced with the problem of why, if all humans were equal, women always ended up subordinate to men. He couldn’t say this was due to natural differences, because that undermined his theories about universal equality. (Some groups of men might also naturally be suitable only for inferior positions). So Hobbes had to fudge the issue by implying that there were characteristics of men and women that made it suitable that women were subordinate to men, but that these characteristics were not naturally but socially acquired. This created the concepts of masculinity and gender, but meant that they were incoherent from the start, since there was no solution to the problem of why normally only males became masculine and only females became feminine.

Hobbes does seem to have fudged discussions of marriage and relations between the sexes in his work, but I’m unconvinced that he and his like invented masculinity. The fact that the word only developed later is a serious blow to MacInnes’ theory and he also doesn’t provide convincing quotations to suggest that the concept is clearly there in Hobbes’ work. I see there being two main routes for the development of the concept of masculinity.

The first might be called the ‘statistical’ approach. This is the claim that there are some characteristics that more men have than women (or vice versa). These characteristics are then called masculine, and masculinity thus becomes the sum of these characteristics. This approach is in theory rooted in observation of natural difference, but in practice is often strongly influenced by pre-existing ideology. Aristotle, for example, says that true courage can be shown only on the battlefield, and therefore only free men (not slaves or women) can truly be brave. This approach to manliness is at least as old as classical Greece, but is still influencing views today.

The second is the ethnographic approach to masculinity. This starts from the observation that in all known societies men and women have different roles, but that these roles aren’t consistent across cultures. Such observations lead fairly directly to a view that gender and masculinity exist as common concepts, but are socially constructed. It’s this ethnographic approach that has been taken up by historians of masculinity and in that sense it makes perfect sense to study the masculinity of a particular era/location.

MacInnes is sceptical of the existence of any sex differences other than the purely anatomical, so it’s obvious why he rejects the concept of masculinity in the ‘statistical’ sense. I suspect the reason he’s not interested in masculinity in the ethnographic/historical sense is that his interests are in present politics. He wants to return ‘from the politics of identity and the misguided attempt to politicize the purely personal to a more vigorous pursuit of a classic material politics of equal rights.’ Whether a focus purely on equal rights would improve women’s social position sufficiently is unclear, but deciding to ignore the influence of gender ideology completely seems to me a pretty barren approach to studying societies.


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