Have you ever found yourself reading or watching the news and wondering 'is there any good news?' Well that about sums up how I feel about masculinity right now. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time studying a variety of literature on men and masculinity, and I am beginning to wonder is there anything actually good about masculinity?
Since the early 1990's there has been increased discussion about 'men in crisis' and more broadly the 'crisis of masculinity'. Much of this ‘crisis’ is attributed to the diminished patriarchal dividend, the changing nature of gender roles, weakened role of men as fathers, and the emergence of ‘new’ masculinities. Indeed even the very concept of ‘multiple masculinities’ or ‘new’ masculinities may be difficult for some men to digest, providing divisiveness, confusion and further crisis by challenging what it means to be a man. Numerous works have emerged exploring this ‘crisis’. Authors such as Rosalind Miles, Anthony Clare, Andrew Kimbrell and Robert Bly have all addressed how men's role in society has changed and become precariously fragile. Other writers such as Raewyn Connell and Michael Kimmel have revealed how hegemonic masculinity contributes to social inequities and can negatively impact on the lives of others.
In her book 'The Rites of Man', Rosalind Miles carefully and expertly teases out the roots of 'man's aggression' and explores his preoccupation with his sexual self. Anthony Clare astutely demonstrates how men's role in society has become increasingly unclear and how the role of men as fathers is greatly diminished. Kimbrell and Bly both explored masculine myths and attempted to provide solutions to the crisis of masculinity. Kimbrell provides solutions through his political manifesto challenging the masculine mystique and Bly through the Mytho-poetic Men’s Movement. Raewyn Connell has established herself as the foremost theorist on masculinity; providing influential analysis of men and the tensions they experience, the minutiae of masculine hierarchies and the cultural ideals of hegemonic masculinity. Michael Kimmel's hugely influential and comprehensive ‘relational’ work has uncovered and highlighted some of the destructive and detrimental aspects of modern masculinity.
Indeed men have found themselves under the spotlight, and rightly so. Some men have a lot to answer for. Over recent decades sociologists have accumulated vast knowledge about the lives of men. Revealing men have shorter life expectancies than women and poorer well being, as men tend not to care for their health as well as they should. It has been widely evidenced that men have difficulty expressing emotions, and subsequently do not seek help when in emotional distress. Suicide rates and use of illicit drugs are higher among men, particularly young men. Crime is predominantly a male enterprise, with men being the most common perpetrators and victims of violent crime. However, it is not the intention of this article to try and suggest men are disadvantaged; rather this information is highlighted to demonstrate that many men do experience crisis, and that their construct of masculinity may have a significant causation.
Other commentators have gone to great pains to highlight the 'problem' with masculinity. You will find a multitude of books, journals and blogs asserting the inherently violent, vehement and dominating nature of masculinity. You will also find copious analysis of the patriarchal dividend and masculine privilege. And yet much of these reductionist writings fail to acknowledge that masculinity is not a homogeneous grouping, and that not all men are made same. Don't get me wrong, I absolutely acknowledge that many men, have and do cause pain, suffering and anguish to others. I also acknowledge that many men have enjoyed the spoils of institutional and patriarchal power. I am familiar with the history of men, and their role in maintaining gender inequality, through their institutional and societal hold on social structures and social order. I also recognize and acknowledge that many men use their masculine status in negative ways, such as the subordination, domination and exploitation of others. I don't agree with such behaviours or actions, nor would I align myself with men who carry out such acts.
However, all of this commentary has got me thinking … what is good about masculinity? Has masculinity any positive aspects? Is there anything worthy or admirable intrinsic to masculinity?
In my day job, as a youth worker, I adhere to a strength-based model of youth work. This model does not begin by identifying what is wrong or missing with a young person; as this would not only limit the possibility of change; but it would also be inherently condescending and judgemental. When your starting point is focused on what is wrong with a person or what they lack; you create a vacuum of negativity, dependency and disempowerment. The danger in this situation is the young person might become reliant on the youth worker, not valuing their own strengths and abilities; and may constantly seek direction instead of learning to make informed decisions themselves. Dependency constrains and sets limitations. I also believe, that if all you ever see is the negative in others you will very quickly become disheartened, debilitated and dejected.
At this stage you may be asking yourself 'where is he going with this?' So bear with me. There is a plethora of websites and blogs highlighting what is wrong with masculinity; and how men and masculinity need to change. As many men have been accused of being misogynists, some might suggest many of these writings may well smack of misandry. Encouragingly there is evidence that men are changing, and new masculinities are emerging. This change is evident in new cultural norms and social practices, particularly within Western societies. There are now numerous men’s development groups, men against violence groups and men advocating real change.
However, through my own work and research I have noticed a tension between new emerging masculinities and traditional models. I believe that many men are confused by this counterpoint between emerging and traditional models of masculinity. Many of the men I have spoken to, struggled to articulate the positive aspects of masculinity. Indeed I struggled with this question myself. Many of the men I have posed this question to, iterated how men have brought ‘progress’, ‘provided’ and ‘protected’. Surely the three P’s that these men mentioned are indeed positive but they are not necessarily exclusively masculine. This adds to the confusion and is compounded by the many criticisms of masculinity that do not provide any positive affirmation. I believe it is necessary when pointing out the ‘problem’ with masculinity, that a balance is achieved by providing clear indication on what is positive also. This is where I feel there is a fundamental error in the critical study of masculinity.
Brow beating masculinity surely doesn’t get us anywhere. I believe that any work addressing the problematic nature of masculinity; must be balanced by the positive nature also. Crisis is inevitable unless men can identify what is inherently good about their masculinity and build upon that in the shaping and reshaping of their male identities. The growing uncertainty many men experience may be due to uncertainty regarding what aspects of masculinity are positive. Masculinity is not static, it is continuously produced and reproduced; therefore this provides an opportunity to inform the repositioning of future men by identifying and promoting the essentially positive aspects of masculinity, which can then be integrated into this on-going reproduction.
So to revisit my original question … what is actually good about masculinity? Within the hierarchy of masculinities there are surely positive characteristics and virtues. Traditional attributes of masculinity although historically problematic, may still have benefits. Surely the desire to protect others, to provide, to be strong are beneficial if tempered correctly. Surely men’s roles as fathers, husbands and sons are valuable, meaningful and significant; and offer insight into the positive nature of masculinity. Masculinity as a state of being does not need be viewed as negative, for it is not. Masculinity is shaped by culture and social practice; the intricacies of masculinity reflect the intricacies of its multiple influences. Although it may not be an easy task to identify the inherently positive aspects of masculinity, the clues are in the many men who provide inspiration, comfort and compassion. The qualities of such men as leaders, husbands, fathers and sons are what should influence and reshape cultural ideals of hegemonic masculinity and help reposition the role of future men.
© Clay Darcy, 2014.