Friday, April 30, 2010

Defining Masculinity

All societies have cultural account of gender, but not all have the concept ‘masculinity’. In its modern usage the type of person on is. That is to say, an unmasculine person would behave differently: being peaceable rather than violent, conciliatory rather than violent, conciliatory rather than dominating, hardly able to kick a football, uninterested in sexual conquest, and so forth.
This conception presupposes a belief in individual difference and personal agency. In that sense it is built on the conception of individuality that developed in early-modern Europe with the growth of colonial empires and capitalist economic relations.
But the concept is also inherently relational. ‘Masculinity’ does not exist except in contract with ‘femininity’. A culture which does not treat women and men as bearers of polarized character types, at least in principle, does not have a concept of masculinity in the sense of modern European/American culture.
Historical research suggests that this was true of European culture itself before the eighteenth century. Women were certainly regarded as different from men, but different in the sense of being incomplete or inferior examples of the same character (for instance, having less of the faculty of reason). Women and men were not seen as bearers of qualitatively different characters; this conception accompanied the bourgeois ideology of ‘separate spheres’ in the nineteenth century.
In both the respects our concept of masculinity seems to be a fairly recent historical product, a few hundreds years old at most. In speaking of masculinity at all, then, we are ‘doing gender’ in a culturally specific way. This should be borne in mind with any claim to have discovered trans-historical truths about manhood and the masculine.
Definations of masculinity have mostly taken our cultural standpoint for granted, but have followed different stratergies to characterize the type of person who is masculine. Four main stratergies have been followed;they are easily distinguished in terms of their logic, though often combined in practice.
Essentialist definations usually pick a feature that defines the core of the masculine, and hang an account of men’s lives on that. Freud flirted with an essentialist definition when he equated masculinity with activity in contract to feminism passivity – though he came to see that equation as oversimplified. Later authors’ attempts to capture an essence opf masculinity have been colourfully varied: risk-taking, responsibility, irresponsibility, aggression, Zeus energy ….Perhaps the finest is the sociobiologist Lionel Tiger’s idea that true maleness, underlying male bonding and was is elicited by ‘hard and heavy phenomena’. Many heavy-metal rock fans would agree.
The weakness in the essentialist approach is obvious: the choice of the essence is quite arbitrary. Nothing obliges different essentialists to agree, and in fact they often do not. Claims about a universal basis of masculinity tell us more about the ethos of the claimant than about anything else.
Positivist social science, whose ethos emphasizes finding the facts, yields a simple definition of masculinity: what men actually are. This definition is the logical basis of masculinity: what men actually are. This definition is the logical basis of masculinity/feministy (M/F) scales in psychology, whose items are validated by showing that they discriminate statistically between groups of men and women. It is also the basis of those ethnographic discussions of masculinity which describe the pattern masculinity.
There are three difficulties here. First, as modern epistemology recognizes, there is no descriptions without a standpoint. The apparently natural descriptions on which these definitions rest are themselves underpinned by assumptions about gender. Obviously enough, to start compiling an M/F scale one must have some idea of what to count or list when making up this items.
Second, to list what men and women do require that people be already sorted into the categories ‘men’ and ‘women’. This, as Suzanne Kessler and Wenfy McKenna showes in their classic ethno-methodological study of gender research, is unavoidably a process of social attribution using common-sense typologies of gender. Positivist procedure thus rests on the very typifications that are supposedly under investigation in gender research.
Third, to define masculinity as what-men-empirically-are is to rule out the usage in which we call some women ‘masculine’ and some men ‘feminism’, or some actions or attitudes ‘masculine’ or ‘feminism’ regardless of who displays them. This is not a trival use of the terms. It is crucial, for instance, to psychoanalytic thinking about contraditions within personality.
Indeed, this usage is fundamental to gender analysis. If we spoke only of differences between men as a bloc and men as a bloc, we would not need the terms ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ at all. We could just speak of men’s’ and ‘women’s’, or ‘male’ and ‘female’. The terms ‘masculine’ and ‘feminism’ point beyond categorical sex difference to the ways men differ among themselves, and women difer among themselves, in matters of gender.
Normative definations recognize these differences and offer a standard: masculinity is what men ought to be. This definition is often found in media studies, in discussions of exemplars such as John Wayne or of genres such as a social norm for the behaviour of men. In practice, male sex role texts often blend normative with essentialist definations, as in Robert Brannon’s widely quoted account of ‘our culture’s blueprint of manhood’ : No Sissy Stuff, The big Wheel, The Sturdy Oak and Give ’em Hell.
Normative definitions allow that different men approach the standards to different degrees. But this soon produces paradoxes, some of which were recognized in the early Men’s Liberation writings. Few men actually match the ‘blueprint’ or display the toughness and independence acted by Wayne, Bogart or Eastwood. (This point is picked up by film itself, in spoofs such as Blazing Saddles and Play it Again, sam.) What is ‘normative’ about a norm hardly anyone meets? Are we to say the majority of men are unmasculine? How do we assay the toughness needed to resist the noem o toughness, or the heroism needed to some out as gay?
A more subtle difficulty is that a purely normative definition gives no grip on masculinity at the level of personality, Joseph Pleck correctly identified the unwarranted assumption that role and identify correspond. This assumption is, I think, why sex role theorists often drift towards essentialism.
Semiptic approaches abandon the level of personality and define masculinity through a system of symbolic difference in which masculine and feminism places are contrasted. Masculinity is, in effect, defined as not – femininity.
This follows the formulae of structural linguistics, where elements of speech are defined by their differences from each other. The approach has been widely used in feminist and post-structuralist cultural analyses of gender and in Lacanism psychoanalysis and studies of symbolism. It yields more than an abstract contract of masculinity and femininity, of the kind found in M/F scales. In the semiotic opposition of masculinity and femininity, scales. In the semiotic opposition of masculinity and femininity, masculinity is the unmarked term, the place of symbolic authority. The phallus is master-signifier, and femininity is symbolically defined by lack.
The definition of masculinity has been very effective in cultural analysis. It escapes the arbitrariness of essentialism and the paradoxes of positivist and normative definations. It is, however, limited in its scope – unless one assumes, as some postmodern theorists do, that discourse is all we can talk about in social analysis. To grapple with the full range of issues about masculinity we need ways of talking about relationships of other kinds too: about gendered places in production and consumption, places in institution and in natural environments, places in social and military struggles.
What can be generalized is the principle of connection. The idea that one symbol can only be understood within a connected system of symbol applies equally well in other spheres. No masculinity arises except in a system


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