Changing Masculinity in America

​Generations of Americans have understood masculinity as “threatened” or “ in crisis”.  Definitions of, and responses to, perceived threats to American masculinity have both changed and remained constant over time.  Connell refers to the changing context within which masculinity is understood, “Any one masculinity, as a configuration of practice, is simultaneously positioned in a number of structures of relationship, which may be following different historical trajectories”. Perceptions of “crises of masculinity” have generally influenced the course of U.S. history and politics.

​American history has favored the story of hegemonic white masculinity.  Due to that, masculinity has been understood as something always in jeopardy that needed to be maintained during times of social, political, and historical change.  Black men have never occupied a definition of dominant masculinity.  Therefore, black subordinate masculinity has not been in crisis the way white masculinity has; the former has tried to gain power and the latter has worked to maintain their power.  Men of other nonwhite ethnicities have had similar experiences in this regard.  By challenging white hegemonic masculinity, nonwhite men have been an important perceived threat, alternate masculinities responded to with much resistance.

​One could assert that the very origin of the United States through its separation from England involved a sort of masculinity crisis—symbolized by the Revolutionary War and the writing of the Declaration of Independence—, which continue to evoke nostalgia for the masculine ideal of that time.  Nostalgic yearning, according to David Lowenthal, “is the search for a simple and stable past as a refuge from the turbulent and chaotic present”.  Regarding masculinity, it appears that during times of doubt, men search for an essential, timeless model of manhood.  Nostalgia has been a form of cultural transmission of such ideologies as conceptions of “normative” masculinity (Connell), religious beliefs, and national identity.  Throughout American history, nostalgia for an idealized, distinguishable masculinity gives the impression of insecurity in terms of what it means to be male.  Nostalgia for a more “appropriate” enactment of masculinity has moved parents, communities, and societies to foster its manifestation.

Kimmel articulates this sense of having a simple, genuine masculinity, which must, nevertheless, be proven to the world, “We think of manhood as eternal, a timeless essence that resides deep in the heart of every man… a quality that one either has or doesn’t have… as innate… a transcendent tangible property that each man must manifest in the world, the reward presented with great ceremony…” Manhood is then supposed to be in all males, but only through validation can it be unmistakable. Masculinity has consistently seemed to be in question throughout American history, and as a result, men have been compelled to demonstrate the authenticity of their manhood through a blend of many complicated behaviors.

Many masculine ideals have been idolized throughout American history, embodied mainly by white men in power, or white hegemonic masculinity.  Although the focus in American historical education and books has been on patriarchal figures such as George Washington, legendary heroes like Paul Revere, and the quick-witted soldiers that were the minutemen, white adult men exclusively did not engage in the American Revolution, or any part of history since then.  White masculine nostalgia for this time period, as well as for most others in American history, is misinformed.

​The American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), which was only part of the American Revolution, resulted in the United States of America as a sovereign nation through its separation from Great Britain.  The revolutionaries who fought this war did not initially have a well-trained cohesive army, but rather operated within locally situated militia, made up of men who served part time.  Some were called “minutemen” because they could be ready to fight with only a minute’s notice.  They represented an agile dedicated man who would leap into action at any time out of loyalty to their people and their homeland.  The Continental Army was then created out of necessity, with George Washington as commander-in-chief, leading thousands of revolutionaries, all men.  Not all of these men were white, as traditionally portrayed, but included blacks in the North, who fought on both sides of the war.  Slaveholders in the South were opposed to arming blacks.  Black men were considered by slaveholders to be of a subordinating masculinity and race, and to be undeserving and unfit for such an important duty typically relegated to white men in order to defend and protect their property, people, and livelihood.    Native American men also joined the war, but as one might expect, many fought against the revolutionaries, or Patriots, in support of the Loyalists.

​George Washington’s role in the American Revolution reached icon status, memorialized in Emanuel Leutze’s painting, “Washington Crossing the Delaware”.  He is also one of the Founding Fathers and the first President of the United States.  In the Declaration of Independence, which formalized the separation of the United States from Great Britain in 1776, signed by fifty-five white men who represented the new thirteen states, the reigning King of England, George III, was indicted as an unfit ruler.  George III was perhaps a perceived threat to American masculinity because he did not possess valued American qualities, such as independence, ruggedness, stoicism and bravery.  While Washington was camping with his army through a formidable winter at Valley Forge, George III was probably enjoying the luxuries of his life in the monarchy.  Washington was a hands-on leader, but George III was far-removed from his constituents.  The rather effete and tyrannical George III perhaps made him seem to the revolutionaries to be morally defective and incompetent.  An incongruence or polarization of masculine values can be understood as threatening, for example the values of the revolutionaries versus the British.  The response to this potentially perceived threat was the Revolutionary period.  The competing masculine figures were George Washington and King George III.  George Washington inevitably replaced King George III as the patriarchal figure of the newly formed United States of America, and became the epitome of the Genteel Patriarch (Kimmel).  The American men in power were the counter-masculinity who challenged and successfully displaced the power of the imperialistic men of the British monarchy in this country.

The United States, now rid of its “unfit” patriarch, became a welcoming mother figure under the care taking of its democratic husband.  Walt Whitman describes the beauty and warmth exuded by New York City inMannahatta from Leaves of Grass, “Immigrants arriving, fifteen or twenty thousand in a week… The summer air, the bright sun shining, and the sailing clouds aloft… The mechanics of the city, the masters, well-form’d, beautiful-faced, looking you straight in the eyes… City of hurried and sparkling waters!… City nested in bays! my city!”  Aside from this new image projected to the world, domestic battles continued between different types of masculinities.

By the 1830s, the Genteel Patriarch, along with theHeroic Artisan, would be anachronous due to the emergence of the “Marketplace Man” (Kimmel).  The “Marketplace Man” has occupied a public space very different from that of the Genteel Patriarch and the Heroic Artisan, and according to Kimmel, “American history has been an effort to restore, retrieve, or reconstitute the virtues of Genteel Patriarchy and Heroic Artisanate as they were being transformed in the capitalist marketplace.  Marketplace Manhood… reconstituted itself by the exclusion of “others”—women, nonwhite men, nonnative- born men, homosexual men”.  Since the arrival of the Marketplace Man, men have romanticized and have been nostalgic for earlier times in American history when men seemed to be in control of their own destinies, had a relationship with nature, enjoyed through such activities as horseback riding, and were allowed more time with their families.  The Marketplace Man has perhaps felt emasculated in many ways.  He is out of touch with nature and his body while he carries out his work in an unnatural environment, such as an office; he is out of touch with other men since he often operates either in isolation of, or in competition with, other men; he is out of touch with his sexuality because he treats women as pawns to endorse his masculinity.  He is a conflicted man who attempts to confirm his masculinity by pure obstruction of all but the few like himself.

The exclusion of “others” by the Marketplace Man and overall hegemony has been responded to through many social movements, including women’s, civil rights, and GLBT movements, which have intensified during the mid-20th century.  All have threatened American normative masculinity through their dissention.  They question, and therefore, weaken the foundation on which this masculinity is formed.  Because “the reigning definition of masculinity is a defensive effort to prevent being emasculated” (Kimmel), the result is tension between men and women, men and homosexuals, and men and ethnic minorities, and a very defensive effort on the part of the men to maintain their social position.  Kimmel mentions the “other”, “Women and gay men become the ‘other’ against which heterosexual men project their identities, against whom they stack the decks so as to compete in a situation in which they will always win, so that by suppressing them, men can stake a claim for their own manhood.”  These “others” threaten the masculinity of the socially dominant male.  For this reason, some black women have shied away from feminism out of fear of losing approval of black men (“Black is, Black Ain’t”).  Women and gays are threatening for unique reasons, but the agitating effects are the same.  Men have responded by attempting to make the legitimacy of their masculinity known, sometimes by homophobia and the sexual objectification of women.  Psychiatrist, Fredric Wertham, made a seemingly homophobic claim in 1953, “the Batman stories are psychologically homosexual” (“Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality, Open Secrets in Cold War America” p. 379).  As an authority figure, he was likely taken seriously, causing panic.  Such reactions have slowed, but not stopped, the progress of social movements.

When pacifist civil rights activists seemed to be making insufficient progress, Robert F. Williams believed that it was necessary to let the world know how the United States was treating its black population, in order to further the civil rights movement, as he states in his book “Negroes With Guns”, “The racists in America are the most brutal people on the earth… We are the oppressed, it is only natural for us to air our grievances at home and abroad… Any struggle for freedom in the world today affects the stability of the whole society of man (p.33-34).”  This was effective because the United States was held accountable outside of its borders.  According to Kimmel, “We are under the constant careful scrutiny of other men.  Other men watch us, rank us, grant our acceptance into the realm of manhood.”  The men of the United States would be evaluated by the men of the rest of the world, who would reject their treatment of black people.  The “Kissing Case” caused a dramatic international reaction when London News Chronicle published the story (“Negroes With Guns” p. 23, 24).  American newspapers then addressed the absurd case.  The children were finally freed after the United States had received enough world pressure and the President became involved.

The most recent “crisis of masculinity” has come as a result of the attacks of September 11th and the Iraq war, and with it, a redefinition of masculinity ideals. Andrew Sullivan states, “War changes everything”.  Working classmen, for example firefighters, police, and emergency service workers, were generally overlooked before these events.  They were not, and still are not, considered to be a part of a hegemonic masculinity.  Rather, they are an alternate robust masculinity, but the value placed on their brand of masculinity has dramatically increased by way of this national security crisis.  Kimmel’s assertion helps to explain this change, “Our definitions of manhood are constantly changing… the search for a transcendent, timeless definition of manhood is itself a sociological phenomenon—we tend to search for the timeless and eternal during moments of crisis.”  The uncertainty and fear felt by Americans following the attacks of September 11th seemed to cause a mass regression in the American psyche.  Strong, protective men who seemed virtually invincible to destruction, the warriors who had been ignored, became an almost cartoonish hero in the media that Americans clung to for a sense of safety during a national security crisis.  They, and the men serving in the military, became father figures who would protect their fellow Americans.  The decision of the United States to start a preemptive war in Afghanistan and Iraq was a retaliatory action taken against “bullies” who attacked.  This sentiment has proved essential for supporting the motivation and continuance of the Iraq war.  Peggy Noonan, echoes the sentiments attached to this sense of renewal of masculine heroism, “It is not only that God is back, but that men are back”.

This exercise in “old-fashioned masculinity” has been viewed as benefiting not just Americans by keeping them safe from global terrorism, but the oppressed women and children of Afghanistan and Iraq.  The United States has become the “knight in shining armor” who has come to rescue the “damsels in distress” that are the unfortunate victims of Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical regime and Osama bin Laden’s terrorist organizations.  Rosalind P. Petchesky is critical of this kind of war propaganda, “Global capitalist masculinism is alive and well but concealed in its Eurocentric, racist guise of ‘rescuing’ downtrodden, voiceless Afghan women from the misogynist regime it helped bring to power”.  The Patriot Act is legislation that was passed following the attacks of September 11th in order to protect Americans from global terrorism, and is an example of evoking national nostalgia for the Revolutionary period, patriot being a word being closely identified with the Revolutionary War hero.

Masculinity has been perceived to be in crisis throughout American history as men have tried to uphold and further their positions in society.  The specific “threats” to masculinity have changed, beginning with British imperialism through feminism and civil rights, but their effects are the same (i.e. create insecurity).  The response is always defensive, but the tactics taken to protect the power of white men have depended on the context of the perceived threat.  What has not changed is the presence of a power struggle between white hegemonic masculinity and those that challenge it.


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