Tag Archives: masculinity

Masculinities, pluralities and protest

I believe the construct of U.S. masculinity is unsustainable and violent. It demands capitalist consumption and ownership for validation, holds with it entitlement to its own existence and ultimately asserts its own necessity with increased violence when threatened. Capitalism necessitates the overvaluing of one over the other. It creates a class from which capital is created and stolen and a class where this stolen capital is accumulated. In this way US masculinity is a gendered mirror of capitalist dominance.

So says Davi Zielinski Koszka in a post titled Masculinities? An essential question for freedom (reproductive and otherwise).

This is a curious post because the title suggests that the author understands that there are lots of different forms of masculinity but the quote above suggests that the US has one form masculinity alone. I may be mistaking the meaning of masculinity though, perhaps Davi means that US masculinities have a similar hierarchy that exists in capitalist economies.

In any case capitalist and masculine ideals quite often diverge. In The Wealth of Nations Adam Smith points out that:

What a common soldier may lose is obvious enough. Without regarding the danger, however, young volunteers never enlist so readily as at the beginning of a new war; and though they have scarce any chance of preferment, they figure to themselves, in their youthful fancies, a thousand occasions of acquiring honour and distinction that never occur. These romantic hopes make the whole price of their blood. Their pay is less than that of common labourers and in actual service their fatigues are much greater.

So within a classic treatise on capitalism there’s the idea that youths have romantic ideals that go against rational, capitalist motivation. I think it’s reasonable to say that Smith’s “honour and distinction” are the ideals of a certain kind of masculinity. So what are the different kinds of masculinity?

One of the problems with masculinity, especially with feminism, is that it has a dominant role in society and that it gets equated with the domination of society by men. I think this is where Davi is coming from when comparing masculinity to capitalism, as capitalists have a dominant role in a capitalist society, masculine people have a dominant role in a masculine society. However the kind of masculinity that Davi is talking about is I guess hegemonic masculinity. Talking within that theoretical framework we can talk about other kinds of masculinity that aren’t built around maintaining hierarchies. This has the complication of protest masculinities, that perform a kind of hypermasculinity, which you can expect to maintain a hierarchy of masculinity, while coming from a position social weakness. This is contrasted with the observation that many men who sit atop the social pyramid being far less recognisably masculine.

When it comes to masculinity and society, particularly the hierarchy of society that many feminists try to fight against, it’s important to recognise that masculine ideals are often in protest to this hierarchy. At the same time this protest masculinity is manipulated to serve the aims of the powerful. This confusion between a masculinity serving both a domineering and subservient role in society trips up many people when talking about the role of men when it comes to social change. Moreover it is difficult for men to approach a movement for social change without exhibiting these traits. So the take home message is that the performance of some kinds of masculinity can reinforce gender roles and social positions while opposing the overarching social hierarchy.

No, not Conan O’Brien

Conan the Barbarian.

Yes, I’m going write a serious post about Conan the Barbarian.

Robert Ervin Howard shot himself dead in 1936. In his thirty years of life he had written over a hundred short stories for pulp fiction magazines in the boxing, historical fiction, fantasy and western genres. He is remembered mainly for stories based around Conan, which formed the genesis of sword-and-sorcery fantasy. Like JRR Tolkien, he fused action, legend and history to create a modern fantasy form. However Tolkien created a world that was like a great mountain to be climbed, an ascent made by his protagonists into heroism. Howard’s world was more like a sea, with the protagonists conquering one wave, only to be thrown to the foot of another.

Fundamental to Howard’s writing was his attitude towards civilisation. The rhythmic rise and fall of civilisations in his fantasy world flowed from the oil booms he saw growing up in Texas. The booms drew out the worst in people, and he viewed the rise of civilisation as leading to the degeneration of its people and its inevitable decline. Conan the Barbarian is a foil to the civilisations he travels through. Where civilisations are in crisis, Conan is unperturbed. He is a typical noble savage character, despite being obviously White.

Conan is appealing first for his hyper-masculinity; his body ripples with great muscles, he is fast and strong and dangerous, his senses are keener than any civilised man’s senses can be, he is shamelessly ambitious and blunt in his desires. The last part is what gives him some enduring appeal, because Conan is kind of existential character. He is true to himself and honest in his dealings with others. However he isn’t a good person. In the Rogues in the House (1934) Conan is described by a corrupt nobleman as, “… the most honest man of the three of us, because he steals and murders openly.” In Red Nails (1936) he and a love interest slash side kick Valeria are asked to help exterminate the last members of a tribe, to which he replies, “We’re both penniless vagabonds, I’d as soon kill Xotalancas as anybody.” Yet Conan doesn’t suffer existential angst to any great degree, he accepts his own death and that others wish to kill him with equanimity since he often wishes to kill them too. He revels in his freedom from what “one should” do without any anxiety since his desires are so primal. After killing the rest of the Xotalancas he says, “Well, this cleans up the feud. It’s been a hell of a night! Where did these people keep their food? I’m hungry.”

Conan is a masculine ideal. It’s an unobtainable ideal, of course, but he is built from typically masculine traits such as strength, power, ambition, honesty and courage. He is a particular type of masculine ideal though: the outsider. He’s a barbarian in civilised lands, or at least foreign lands. His outsider status seems to be what allows him to steal and murder openly, he is not attached to the societies he comes across and perceives them only in terms of what he can get out of them. He carries some code of honour of his own though, he is confused at the thought of fighting Valeria since she is a woman, and believes in the diety Crom. Yet mostly he is a self-defined individualist, and an incredibly successful one at that. Perhaps the greatest appeal of Conan is the triumph of the individual over society.

Hunting with the Bow and Arrow by Saxton Pope (1875-1926) describes hunting bears, cougars, deer and other American game with bows. This was done partly to collect museum pieces and also as an anthropological study of the effectiveness of bows as hunting weapons. The first chapter deals the subject of another anthropological study, the last Yani Indian. Pope learned to hunt from Ishi, the last surviving member of his stone age hunter-gatherer tribe. His description in some ways matches that of Conan, “His apparent age was about forty years, yet he undoubtedly was nearer sixty. Because of his simple life he was in physical prime, mentally alert, and strong in body.” Ishi is of course an outsider in western society, yet he knows it by its effect on his people. The Yani not only had their land taken, but they were massacred, and the few remaining elderly relatives eventually die, leaving him alone. He ends up walking into civilisation starved and terrified. He is coaxed into eating and drinking by an anthropologist and ends up being given a job as a janitor.

The contrast with Conan is obvious. The true “noble savage” is bewildered and terrified in the face of civilisation, and the civilised are brutally superior when it comes to violence. Digging deeper, Ishi is quickly assimilated into civilisation; studied by scientists, cared for by doctors and given a job. He also remains bound to his people who he believes exist within a spirit world. Unlike Conan he doesn’t break free of social bonds by becoming an outsider, instead he is placed near the bottom of society. Conan only manages to rise from the depths of society by his own superhuman abilities, abilities that don’t exist in reality. True outsiders are shunted to the bottom, while the insiders rise to the top. The outsider fantasy might be appealing to our sense of individualism, our sense of self or base selfishness, but it’s an escape from a reality that rewards conformity.

Yet Ishi is a good person, unlike Conan. He spends most of his life caring for the few members of his tribe left on the small amount of land left. While terrified of White people on contact, once he trusts them he is kind, teaching them of his dead people and their culture. He remains proud of his culture and his philosophy of life, so he is also a kind of existential character, true to himself and others, he’s just a much nicer person to be true to.

Double standards

The Madonna-Whore Complex is a Freudian concept in which a man seeks out a mother figure romantically, and is subsequently unable to view his partner sexually. He develops a dichotomous view of women, where they fulfill either an intimate role or a sexual role, but never the two together. The term has been used by feminists to describe a double standard that applies to women, but rather than by individual men, it is by a male-dominated society. Women are placed into one category or the other, and are castigated for transgressing the boundaries of that category. Cyndi Lauper even wrote a song about it called, unsurprisingly, Madonna Whore. The chorus goes like this:

Every woman’s a Madonna, every woman’s a whore
You can try to reduce me but I’m so much more
I don’t want to be your mother, won’t be shoved in a drawer
Cause every woman’s a Madonna, every woman’s a whore, that’s right

Now an interesting characteristic of social theories is that the subject of analysis is able to respond to the analysis, as Cyndi Lauper showed. However at the same time that Lauper calls herself a whore in a defiantly feminist song there are anti-prostitution feminist groups. And as women have apparently become more overtly sexual the concept of raunch culture emerged, which criticised women for turning themselves into the sexual objects that men had been turning women into through history. This argument hinges on women actually objectifying themselves, turning themselves into a one half of the Madonna-Whore dichotomy. I think most women are like Lauper, they aren’t objectifying themselves by being overtly sexual, but rather trying to be something more than how they have been perceived.

While feminists usually see the Madonna-Whore double standard as something that applies particularly to women, restricting their sexual behaviour in ways that men’s behaviour isn’t, there is a similar dichotomy that applies to men. This is the Nice Guy-Bad Boy dichotomy, where men who are caring and empathetic aren’t seen as sexual, while overtly sexual men are seen as predatory and emotionally distant. The Nice Guy-Bad Boy dichotomy reflects the differences between how men and women are seen in society, a whore is often seen as used and degraded where a bad boy is seen as aggressive and creepy.

The obvious question to ask is, how do men respond to this analysis? I think men still tend to fit themselves into one or the other side of the dichotomy. This shouldn’t be all that surprising since the concept hasn’t been challenged to the extent that the Madonna-Whore concept has, as part of an organised civil rights movement. It’s common to see the “nice guys finish last” sentiment used in resignation, such as in the seduction community. While this can come with the ideal of creating a person who is more than the person they were, it often falls into the trap of the insincere, creepy and even predatory bad boy role.

A less obvious question to ask is, what if a man wants a mother figure? Or if a woman wants a father figure? Clearly Cyndi Lauper doesn’t want to be a mother figure, despite saying she is a Madonna. Yet the desire to have a nurturing relationship with a sexual partner that, at least in times of vulnerability, mimics that of parent and child seems quite widespread. It’s fascinating in this context that lovers often revert to a babytalk when talking to each other as way of building intimacy. In BDSM these desires are dealt with through daddy/mommy play, where power dynamic between parents and their children are recreated between adults through role play. The sexual nature of the play is of course very interesting because it breaks the barrier that creates the Madonna-Whore Complex. But is this a good thing? Or is it depraved? Or is that just another double standard given the babytalking that many couples do?