Scholars like Donna Haraway, Genevieve Lloyd, Eve Sedgwick, Rosemary Hennessy, Hazel Carby, Judith K. Gardiner, Lauren Berlant, Judith/Jack Halberstam, Roswitha Scholz, Norbert Trenkle, Fred Pfeil, and many others (consult our “Academic Resources” section for more information) have traced the ways in which gender relations, norms, conventions, and narratives have emerged under specific historical conditions and served specific historical purposes. They show, for instance, that the rise of modernity—of modern capitalism, of the modern Western nation state, and so on—was bound up with the rise of particular conceptions of femininity and masculinity that subsequently deeply embedded themselves in thought, culture, and sociopolitical practice.
Our moment, scholars have argued, is a moment of transition defined by a historical change that unsettles previous constellations of gender and sexuality. This process of unsettling creates cracks in established, limiting (and limited) ideas of gender and sexuality. These cracks can be regarded as a good thing, as signs of possibility, as openings, as ways to tear down existing walls and work toward liberation. And yet, whenever historical eras and their corresponding conceptions of gender and sexuality come to an end, we also witness moments of backlash against change. For all the possibility inherent in our moment, we also witness the rise of reactionary attachments to traditional notions of masculinity. Masculinity, we hear, is in crisis, and it must be defended against those who seek to un-do it. But, as we seek to show through our project, to critique masculinity, its history, and its worst manifestations is not a simple matter of discarding the category completely. Rather, it means to study masculinity as a historically, culturally, and socio-politically complex category and, but doing so, to explore healthier, more peaceful, and more socially aware understandings of it.
Scholars like Scholz and Trenkle illustrate, for example, that what is often defended as “natural” or “traditional” masculinity (in our time for instance by right-wing provocateurs like Jordan Peterson) in fact has a very specific history, one that is coming to an end. The rise of modern masculinity, they show, must be understood in the context of the rise of modernity. Far from natural, the notion of masculinity that was created in this context carried out specific functions in the context of colonialism, imperialism, the rise of Western capitalism, the rise and establishment of nation states, and so on. But, as Haraway already indicated in the mid-1980s, the world and capitalism itself is changing, and while a certain notion of masculinity may have served capitalism well at a certain point in time, our present material system increasingly leaves behind a world that men loved to imagine as having been built by and carried on “broad, masculine shoulders.” The new world of immaterial, affective, or cognitive capitalism does not allow for the simplistic centrality of the male labouring body to which modern society had become accustomed.
Those who seek to reduce current debates about masculinity to a momentary fad like to argue that masculinity may be experiencing a crisis but that it will ultimately return to its traditional form. Such arguments misconstrue the history of the idea of masculinity, however, bestowing upon it a simplicity and stability that it rarely possessed and hiding the fact that masculinity frequently experienced crises over the course of history. In fact, as cultural history readily bears out, over the centuries, crises of masculinity may be more centrally involved in the struggle about the definition of the category than the supposedly stable ideas and characteristics that current conservative and right-wing debate likes to associate with masculinity. The mid-twentieth century, for example, saw a crisis of masculinity as young men struggled to define what it means to be a man as those narratives of masculine modernity that were directly connected to the idea of the male labouring body became troubled. Rosie the Riveter symbolizes the productive unmasking of this particular idea of masculinity. The post-WWII culture that gave rise to characters like that of Marlon Brando in The Wild One and James Dean’s in Rebel Without a Cause was one symptom of the crisis of this notion of masculinity, as was the rise of a new form of conservatism that mourned the loss of “traditional” forms of masculinity. In other words, the historical period that commentators like Peterson hold out as a stable time for traditional masculinity was in fact a period that witnessed its own moments of crisis—and a reactionary cultural and sociopolitical backlash against attempt to open up and reformulate our understanding of masculinity, gender, and sexuality. What we see when we look back at this moment in time, then, is not a simple, stable idea of masculinity. What we see, however, is that each moment of transformation is accompanied by those who wish to construe it as a crisis and who mourn the loss of a simple, stable past that as such never existed.
And yet, we are told by right-wing commentators that masculinity today is under attack and, as Donald Trump recently suggested, that young men have to be afraid of the new world in which we live. In fact, as The New York Times reports, Trump suggested that he is more worried about his sons than about his daughters, a poignant, cynical sign of the times indeed. The by now well-worn suggestion on part of the Right that manhood is currently under siege fans the flames of dangerous discontent and violent resentment. Already in 1994, scholar Fred Pfeil noted with some amusement that it seems baffling that white men today are managing to assume the role of historical victim. “Excitable white guys,” he notes, see themselves as having become “the new subaltern subject of postmodernity.” But while Pfeil was still able to chuckle at the illogic and historical irony of this development, in recent years we have been confronted with the profound danger that this development produces. Scholars like Michael Kimmel foreground the danger that the phenomenon of “angry white men” poses to our society. Men who see themselves as the victims and as the endangered species of our historical moment launch a profoundly wrong-headed and historically and conceptually uninformed yet no less dangerous counterattack on a historical development that, in their mind, takes us into the wrong direction. Right-wing demagogues like Jordan Peterson bill themselves as protective father figures of a generation of young men and seek to maintain the validity of traditional forms of masculinity, of paternalistic authority, and of simplified accounts of gender and sexuality, holding out a cynically de-historicized picture of the 1950s as the symbol of the lost good old days of good old masculinity. And while Peterson, Jordan Paul, and PewdiePie seize the opportunity to enrich themselves by selling the idea of traditional masculinity to an audience of anxious, angry young men, our society witnesses the emergence of all too familiar forms of hostility and violence connected to the reactionary turn into the direction of “lost” ideas of masculinity.
But what if all of us managed to look at the current historical transition not as a moment marked by loss and crisis but instead as a time of opportunity? Instead of lamenting the departure from old understandings of masculinity, gender, and sexuality, what if we took the present crisis as an opportunity to ask: what might masculinity mean today? What better versions of masculinity are there, and how might these be part of a better future? If history is moving beyond old forms of masculinity, should we not seize this historical opening as an opportunity that makes possible the development of healthier notions of masculinity?
Instead of replicating the reactionary fears and violent backlashes that attend every large-scale historical change, what if we looked forward and asked how we might develop an understanding of masculinity that is formulated for our time and in relation to the broader re-articulation of our understanding of gender and sexuality? Rather than digging in our feet and pig-headedly trying to move back in time to restore to power nostalgically idealized simulacra of masculinity (More beards! More lumberjacks!), much is to be gained from collectively engaging in a discussion about the concepts, categories, and understandings of gender that allow us to move toward a better future.
Men have much to learn from feminist and queer studies, which have modelled a more plural understanding of gender and sexuality. How, then, might we understand masculinity plural? What are the forms that masculinity can and should take today? What forms of masculinity remain silenced and excluded by mainstream culture and sociopolitical structures? How, we wonder, might we be able to join together and avoid looking toward a lost past and instead fix our gaze on a better, a healthier, a more peaceful future? For doing so, we claim, allows us to address the resentment, the anger, and the violence that surrounds our discussions of gender and sexuality today, and by doing so we may be able to address one of the root causes of sexual violence today and together develop a better culture, a culture of support, a culture of love and tolerance, and a culture whose principal aim is to lead the way to a future without violence and with more understanding.
We wish to do our part in contributing to this discussion and show that out current moment of social change is not a time of loss but a time of great possibility. Instead of mournfully looking backward, we wish to excitedly look ahead. Together.