Masculinity Studies: What Is It, and Why Would a Feminist Care?

Prof. Helena Gurfinkel‘s courses, whether they be focused on Victorian literature or critcial theory, always challenge assumptions of gender and sex.  In this blog post, she reminds us that feminism is not alone in considering the ways that gender is constructed. 

Editor’s note: Since this blog entry was published, several related entries have also posted. These include an anonymous SIUE student’s reflection on being granted the male privilege of sexual assault, several entries dealing with masculinity in our series on feminist songs including a Palestinian rap song by male artists deglorifying honor killings, and Prof. Alyson Spurgas’s reflections on the new pill to address female sexual desire.

In the 1960s and 70s, the Women’s Movement and feminist theory first called our attention to the fact that gender mattered. Moreover, a crucial relationship exists between gender and power. In a patriarchal society, men, as heads of family and state, have power. Such a society tolerates the kind of feminine behaviors that make it easy for men to uphold and amplify their socioeconomic advantage and discourages, even punishes, the kind of behaviors that do not.

Such was, and remains, the premise of feminist social inquiry. Of course, over time, feminism has turned into feminisms, paying attention to global women’s rights, as well as to the issues of race, class, and sexuality. By the time the 1990s had rolled around, Gender Studies had started to emerge as an offshoot of Women’s Studies. Relying on the feminist premise of patriarchal privilege and inextricable link between gender and power, gender-studies scholars discovered that patriarchy sought to construct and regulate all genders, not just women. To Gender Studies we owe a number of other important discoveries: that sex and gender are not the same; that, consequently, the gender binary (man/woman) is a frail social construct, and that the relationship between gender and sexuality is not nearly as simple as we used to think.

In the 1990s, Masculinity Studies, a relative newcomer to the field of gender inquiry, began to pose questions about men and their relationship with patriarchal power (something that had hitherto seemed obvious and gone unquestioned). Do all men have power? Do all men want power? Is masculinity the same in every culture and time period? Is masculinity a word that has a plural, as well as singular, form? Does the performance of masculinity depend on the categories of race, class, and sexuality? The answer to the first three questions is a resounding no, while the answer both to the fourth and to fifth one is a clear yes.

Masculinity Studies is an interdisciplinary field of cultural, social, historical, political, psychological, economic, and artistic analysis that interrogates the constructions of masculinity in communities across the world and at various times in history. It also looks at the tense and complex relationship between hegemonic masculinities (that is, the idea of a “real man” in a given time and place) and subordinate masculinities (masculinities that, in a given time and place, fall short of the “real man” ideal). For example, being involved in sports and being a provider are the examples of American hegemonic masculinity, while shunning sports and being a stay-at-home-dad are examples of subordinate masculinities. Usually, hegemonic masculinities have power and meet with social approval, while subordinate ones do not. Throughout history, men have paid a steep price for not adhering to, or consciously resisting, hegemonic models. Masculinity-studies scholars know, however, that times change, and that what was subordinate half a century ago, may be relatively mainstream, if not hegemonic, now.  Because masculinity-studies scholars realize that sex and gender are separate entities, they also study the lives of, and become advocates for, transgender individuals who are born biologically female but live as men.

Masculinity Studies (or, as it is also often called, Men’s Studies) is many things, but one thing it is not: a rejoinder to, or repudiation of feminism. It owes to feminism an enormous intellectual and political debt. In fact, it would not have existed without feminism and its courage to question patriarchal power and privilege. Men’s Studies scholars do not say, as many expect them to, “Enough of those feminists; let’s say only good things about men from now on!” Instead, they collaborate with feminists and scholars of race, class, and sexuality in asking complex questions about the ways in which society constructs and controls us as sexed and gendered individuals.

Those who are interested in Masculinity Studies have resources at SIUE. Here are some examples. Dr. Ralph Donald, Professor of Mass Communications, recently published a book called Reel Men at War: Masculinity and the American War Film (Scarecrow Press, 2011). He is an expert in Men’s Studies. As an English faculty, I regularly publish in the field of Men’s Studies and teach a Senior Seminar entitled “Boys Will Be Boys: Masculinity in Literature and Culture.” A large part of my Spring 2013 ENG 502: Modern Literary Theory will be dedicated to Masculinity Studies as well. Dr. Georgiann Davis, in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice, conducts fascinating research in gender and sexuality.

The following books are the foundational texts of Masculinity Studies and must-reads for current and future scholars:

Adams, Rachel and David Savran, eds. The Masculinity Studies Reader.   Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2002. Print.

Connell, Raewyn. Masculinities. London: Allen and Unwin, 1995. Print.

Kimmel, Michael. Manhood in America: A Cultural History. 3rd ed. Oxford, New York:  Oxford University Press, 2012. Print.

Sussman, Herbert. Masculine Identities: The History and Meanings of Manliness.  Santa Barbara, CA, Denver, CO, Oxford, England: Praeger,  2012. Print.

The American Men’s Studies Association has an excellent, informative web site and Facebook feed. This organization holds an annual interdisciplinary conference, at which  cutting-edge research on masculinities is presented.

13 thoughts on “Masculinity Studies: What Is It, and Why Would a Feminist Care?

  1. In our chinese,such as Machismo(big man,Pure man),Men do not cry easily,Good Men Never look back,Tall in the saddle etc.These ideas of gender psychology caused some damage;

    lawang(visited scholar)

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