ALMOST all the soldiers in the world are men. So are most of the police, most of the prison warders and almost all of the generals, admirals, bureaucrats and politicians who control the apparatuses of coercion and collective violence.
Most murderers are men. Almost all bandits, armed robbers and muggers are men: all rapists, most domestic bashers; and most people involved in street brawls, riots and the like.
The same story, then, for both organized and unorganized violence. It seems there is some connection between being violent and being male.
There is a common belief that this is all ‘natural’. Human males are genetically programmed to be hunters and killers, the argument runs. The reason is that ape-man aggression was a survival need in the prehistoric dawn, while the ape-women clustered passively round their camp-fires suckling and breeding.
Right-wing versions of this argument thus explain and justify aggression, competition, hierarchy, territoriality, patriarchy and by inference private property, national rivalry, armies and war.
The tissue of pseudo-biological and pseudo-anthropological argument on which these doctrines are built crumbles on critical examination. The pre-history is speculative; and a little thought will show that by similar arguments one can ‘prove’ equally well that men are naturally co-operative, naturally pacifist and naturally democratic.
The truth of the matter is that no such argument proves anything at all. War, murder, rape and masculinity are cultural facts, not settled by biology. The patterns we have to deal with as issues of current politics have been produced within human society by the processes of history. It is the shape of social relations, not the shape of the genes, that is the effective cause. ‘Male’ and ‘masculine’ are very different things. Masculinity is implanted in the male body: it does not grow out of it.
Once that is seen, we can look at the familiar images and archetypes of manliness in a clearer light. They are parts of the cultural process of producing particular types of masculinity. What messages they convey are important because they help to shape new generations.
One of the central images of masculinity in the Western cultural tradition is the murderous hero, the supreme specialist in violence. A string of warrior-heroes - Achilles, Siegfried, Lancelot and so on - populate European literature from its origins.
The twentieth century has steadily produced new fictional heroes of this type: Tarzan, Conan, James Bond, the Jackal, the Bruce Lee characters. If you walk into a shop selling comics to boys you will find a stunning array of violent heroes: cops, cowboys, supermen, infantry sergeants, fighter pilots, boxers and so on endlessly. The best of the Good Guys, it seems, are those who pay evildoers back in their own coin.
This connection between admired masculinity and violent response to threat is a resource that governments can use to mobilize support for war. A cult of masculinity and toughness flourished in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in the USA and helped commit the country to war in Vietnam. I can remember the process operating on young men of my generation in Australia, whose conservative government sent troops to support the Americans in Vietnam. Involvement in the war was presented as standing up to a threat and opponents were smeared as lily-livered effeminates. In the fullness of time support for napalm raids and carpet bombing by B-52s became the test of manliness.
Yet Western opposition to the Vietnam war did grow and together with the Vietnamese resistance eventually forced the American military to withdraw. The cult of masculine toughness is not all-powerful. This should alert us to some complexities in masculinity and its cultural images - which have, indeed, been there from the start.
The story of Achilles, for instance, centres not on his supremacy in violence, but on his refusal to use it. And what changes his mind is not his reaction to threat, but his tenderness - his love for his friend Patroclus. Siegfried and Lancelot, not exactly gentle characters, are likewise full of hesitations, affection and divided loyalties.
So the image of heroism in modern figures like Tarzan and James Bond is a degraded one. The capacities for tenderness, emotional complexity, aesthetic feeling and so on have been deleted. More exactly, they are split off and assigned only to women, or to other, inferior types of men - such as the effeminates who evaded the Vietnam war.
History may exclude herstory, but the detailed research into masculinity has not been done. We know enough to understand that such changes in images of heroism are part of the historical process by which different kinds of masculinity are separated from each other, some exalted and some spurned.
At any given moment some forms of masculinity will be honoured and influential - and other forms will be marginalized or subordinated. In some civilizations the honoured forms of masculinity stress restraint and responsibility rather than violence. I believe that was true, for instance, of Confucian China. In contemporary Western society, masculinity is strongly associated with aggressiveness and the capacity for violence.
Modern feminism has shown us one of the bases of this, the assertion of men’s power over women. This relationship itself has a strong component of violence. Wife-bashing, intimidation of women in the street, rape, jealousy-murder, and other patterns of violence against women are not accidental or incidental. They are widespread and systematic, arising from a power struggle.
This struggle has many turns and twists. Even in a society that defines husbands as the ‘head of the household’, there are many families where wives actually run the show. Bashings may then result from an attempt to re-assert a damaged masculine ego. In other cases domestic violence is a direct expression of the husband’s power, his belief that he can get away with anything and his contempt for his wife or for women in general.
So there are many complexities and contradictions. The main axis, however, remains the social subordination of women and men’s general interest in maintaining it. The masculinity built on that bedrock is not necessarily violent - most in fact do not bash women - but it is constructed, so to speak, with a door open towards violence.
In much of the writing about men produced by the ‘men’s movement’ of the 1970s it was assumed that violence was simply an expression of conventional masculinity. Change the macho image, stop giving little boys toy guns and violence would be reduced. We can now see that the connection of masculinity and violence is both deeper and more complex than that. Violence is not just an expression: it is a part of the processes that produce masculinity. It is part of the process that divides different masculinities from each other. There is violence within masculinity: it is constitutive.
Once again, this is not to imply that it is universal. Real men don’t necessarily bash three poofters before breakfast every day. For one thing, TV does it for them. Part of the pattern of contemporary masculinity is the commercial production of symbolic violence on an unprecedented scale, from Tarzan movies to Star Wars, Space Invaders and World Series Cricket.
It is also very important that much of the actual violence is not isolated and individual action but is institutional. Much of the poofter-bashing is done by the police: much of the world’s rape is done by soldiers in the context of war. These actions grow readily out of the ‘legitimate’ violence for which police forces and armies are set up.
Yet, for all this, we know masculinity is not fixed. Feminism has been re-working feminity. It is at least conceivable that we can re-work masculinity in a way that sustains a u struggle without reproducing the enemy.
Bob Connell is Professor of Sociology at Macquarie University, Sydney.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7