The Evolving Man
issue 175 - September 1987
Illustration: Clive Offley
The evolving man
We may believe that masculine behaviour should change.
But this can be dismissed as mere personal opinion - which is
why academic study of masculinity is so valuable. Bob Connell,
Norm Radican and Pip Martin publish here for the first time the
findings of their pioneering research on men.
'One is not born, but rather becomes a woman.' Simone de Beauvoir's insight applies equally well to men: one is not born, but rather becomes a man. Dean, a bus driver we interviewed, put it simply: 'I've always been brought up that the man is the breadwinner and that the man serviced the woman. They had children. She stayed at home and cooked.'
History and anthropology tell us that this apparently 'natural' arrangement is both recent and culturally specific. In other times and places the arrangements about work, the family, and economic responsibility are very different. What a man believes to be 'masculine' or 'manly', the way he expresses his sexuality and identity, depend mainly on when and where he was born.
Masculinity, then, is produced by historical processes. To understand the way it works and its effects in the world we must study the way it changes. These changes are not trivial. In Renaissance Europe, for instance, the dominant form of masculinity made no sharp distinction between heterosexual pleasure and homosexual pleasure. A powerful man, such as a prince or famous artist, could and would enjoy himself both with boys and with women. By the late 19th century the homosexual and heterosexual components had been split apart. The dominant form of masculinity was now defined as strictly heterosexual. 'Homosexual' became the label for a minority whose whole social being was defined as criminal. Oscar Wilde was one of the men whose lives were destroyed in this process.
We are plainly living through another phase of change now, though its shape is not well understood. Since the rise of the new feminism in the early 1970s there has been a good deal of interest in 'men's liberation', masculinity and men's social position. Around 50 books on the subject have been published in English in the last 15 years. Unfortunately the volume of output has not been matched by quality. The research base of most of the 'books about men' is slight Most authors have taken one dominant form of masculinity for granted, as a definition of the 'male sex role', and have concerned themselves with where the shoe pinches - where men do and don't fit into their 'role'.
As a way of understanding the realities of men's lives, this is very limiting. It stimulates little curiosity about other forms of masculinity, especially those that are marginalized or stigmatized. It plays down the issue of sexual choice: most discussion of 'sex roles' conspicuously avoids the experience of homosexuality. Equally it avoids the issue of social power, whether of men over women or of men over men. In consequence the social acquisition of masculinity is presented as a rather bland process of learning sex-role 'norms'.
But consider this far-from-bland account of a boy's first day at secondary school:
'The boarding school master and my mother were there and they handed me over to this guy named Anthony who was a charming young chap in third form, good family and all that Anthony was supposed to show me around and look after me. But as soon as we left the office, it was "biff bam" and I was hanging upside down by my legs with a rope. It was quite cruel actually.' (Matthew, a student).
Violence is a vivid childhood memory for many men, from all social backgrounds. (Matthew came from an affluent background and was talking about an élite private school). The making of masculinity cannot be understood without taking close account of the patterns of social power. And yet power, in turn, cannot be understood abstractly. It is about relationships, and can only be understood by looking at how men live their lives on a practical day-to-day basis.
Our research has used the collection of personal histories as its basic tool. This approach gives abundant evidence of the social pressures operating in childhood. A boy growing up encounters rules, rituals and symbols that define 'masculinity' in its dominant form. Conforming may not be easy. Adam, now an architect, offers an early memory: 'How a man throws a ball is different to how a woman throws a ball. I didn't want to throw a ball in front of my Dad because I wouldn't look right. It wouldn't be the way a good strong boy would throw it. And once, I remember, I was brave enough to throw it. And he made for me and said I threw it like a girl.'
The insult by Adam's father points directly to the main social basis of the dominant form of masculinity: the subordination of women. In white Western society men are supposed to be stronger and more powerful than women. Broadly, men are supposed to have authority over women. To be 'like a girl' is to be weak, to be in danger, to have a flawed masculinity.
In a patriarchal society, popular culture is permeated by the belief that men are superior to women. The assumption is often unstated or only half conscious, and generally contradicts official, legal and religious declarations of equality. But it is still constantly assumed in practice that men rather than women are the people who matter, as analyzing the content of any daily newspaper will show. Accordingly, to become a man is to acquire a position of social power - courage in the face of threat or conflict, command over resources, etc. These qualities define an admired, socially dominant form of masculinity.
But this does not settle the everyday reality of men's lives, for most men can't or won't live according to the ideal pattern. Rather, it defines a basic tension in masculinity. The tension about power may be built into an individual life, as is clear in the case of Adam. At a collective level, it marks out relationships between the dominant form of masculinity and less honoured forms. There are subordinated or marginalized kinds of masculinity. In contemporary European cultures these include homosexual men, effeminate heterosexual men, very young men (i.e. boys), and a broader spread of adult men who simply don't live up to the dominant pattern.
Masculinity never exists by itself. It exists in relation to femininity, in the context of an over-arching structure of gender relations. To understand that structure is a complex proposition. The structure includes - at least - the social organization of production, the structure of power and authority, and the social organization of emotion. A recognition that structural change is important is nevertheless a key to understanding what is happening to masculinity as a form of personal character.
Sources of change
What are the prospects of a major alternative emerging? The 'men's movement' of the 1970s proclaimed a great transformation, but had no clear idea of where it might come from. Our research points to several distinct sources of change in masculinity. They do not necessarily move in the same direction.
The dominant form of masculinity in Western culture embodies men's social power over women. It emphasizes force, authority, aggressiveness. But to sustain this cultural ideal, the majority of men as actual living people must be put down. Some fail to match up: their legs are too flabby, their chests not hairy enough, their glance insufficiently flinty. Others are actively oppressed, gay men and effeminate men most obviously. Gay men are still sometimes beaten to death on the streets of a city like Sydney.
'Rabbit' - young, working class, unemployed, and as tough as they come - ran into this contradiction head on: 'Gays I have trouble putting up with. That's half the reason I don't see my brother as much as I'd like. I used to go up to the Cross and poofter-bash and all the rest of it.2 When my brother turned queer I ended up stopping it anyway. So long as they stay out of my way. I just have to remember he's my brother first, a queer second, makes it a bit easier to handle.'
The economy produces another contradiction. Traditional masculinity is constructed around traditional authority landlord over peasant, boss over worker, husband over wife, old over young. But the restless development of capitalism disrupts such authority as it disrupts all other cultural patterns. And, besides, the rise of technical rationality challenges patriarchy itself. The subordination of women is economically irrational. It means a loss of labour and of talent, as 'equal opportunity' campaigns in the rich countries point out, and as development agencies argue in the Third World.
A third contradiction arises in sexuality. The dominant form of sexuality is heterosexual, focused on the genitals and on erotic performance. Greg, a computer specialist, reflects wryly on his sexual life in these terms: 'I fell flat on my face.., being successful in getting it up, so to speak, because my mind was just turning me off. It's difficult to know if I'm going to perform properly or not If it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen. It doesn't happen frequently. And they say, "what's wrong?" And you go, "oh well, I'm not at my peak at the moment"'
The dominance of heterosexuality has been socially constructed by tabooing other forms of sexuality. But, as Freud showed, what is tabooed is not abolished. On the contrary it is likely to be given new symbolic and emotional power. Homosexuality haunts the masculine world, as endless jokes about football teams illustrate. Beyond flashy genital performance is a world faintly sensed by many men and actively explored by some of relaxed, mutual, whole-body pleasure. In this direction (though very much in the future) lies a form of sexuality in which gender would cease to be one's social fate and would become mainly a means of play.
These contradictions are emerging within the structure of masculinity. There are also pressures from outside. The most obvious is the demand for change from women. 'Women's liberation' as a political movement has lost some impetus. But modern feminism must not be underestimated as a cultural force. Every man we interviewed has been conscious of it Some are receptive and some hostile, but all feel the mobilization of women as a presence.
A case in point is Barry, who describes his encounter with feminism thus: 'I didn't really understand very much about sexism, like just sort of knew there was something wrong about sexism... And I read some pretty heavy stuff which made me feel terrible about being male, for a long time. I remember I found it really hard because there were these conflicting needs. I needed sex and I needed relationships, and then again I needed to set aside my ideal and my own sexism, and I couldn't reconcile these. So I went through lots of guilt.'
Guilt does seem to be a common experience for men who take feminism seriously; it can be paralyzing, as it was for a time for Barry. But he has worked through it to some purpose, and is exploring some new paths in his own life; among other things he has taken the unusual step, for a man, of training to be a nurse,
General economic change also puts pressure on masculinity, as might be expected from the importance of 'work' in most men's self-images. There are now 30 million officially unemployed in the West3, and much more hidden unemployment than that Traditional work-based masculinity can survive quite radical changes in technology, as Cynthia Cockburn's wonderful study of British printing workers, Brothers, has shown.4 But structural change is now eliminating whole industries and categories of workers. What does it mean to be brought up a 'breadwinner', as Dean was, if the bread is not there to be won? Young working-class men like Rabbit - for all the media hype about unemployed managers, unemployment is mainly concentrated in working-class areas - face a lifetime of at best intermittent casual employment
A new way
The pressures just sketched will certainly generate change in and around masculinity, but they do not by themselves settle the shape that change will take. That is a matter of social action, of collective choices.
Among those men who have become conscious of the politics of masculinity, the main reaction has been to try to remake themselves in a new image, moving as far away as possible from mainstream 'macho' images. This has meant new codes of conduct leaving space for women, not pushing for control within families, not demanding the initiative in sex. It has meant trying to build new relationships: caring for children, opening up emotionally to other men. It has meant shifting the focus of life from careers and money to human relationships, from the mechanical world to the natural world, from computers and cars to people and trees.
This effort is important in producing new models of masculinity, showing how men might live more peaceably with each other and with women. But there are also dangers in this strategy. Some men become inward-looking and individualized. Even a shared politics, if focused on 'masculinity' alone, can go astray. Parts of the 'men's movement' came to the quite false conclusion that men and women were 'equally oppressed' by their sex roles. Changing masculinity in these terms may be therapeutic and comforting but does nothing about equality.
In the final analysis it is equality that is central. In an 'advanced' country like Australia, the average income of a woman is 45 per cent of the average income of a man. All the major centres of power are substantially controlled by men: the state, finance, media, industry, unions. That is broadly true across the world. Women are less likely to own their own houses or land, are more likely to be in poverty, and rarely control major institutions.
To reconstruct masculinity in a way that acknowledges its social dimension means men tackling those kinds of inequality. Partly it means quite conventional politics, in unions, parties, and workplaces. On the other hand it means an unconventional politics of households. It especially means changing the mundane, and often unspoken, arrangements that require women to do most of the housework and virtually all the care of young children.
This is a collective enterprise more than an individual one. As it develops, the diverse sources of change in masculinity may become an asset rather than a source of confusion. For it won't be a change brought about by dramatic revolution. Rather it will mean complex alliances, many small gains and losses, twists and turns. It will be important for different groups of men to learn from each others' experiences, as well as from the experience of women. Attempts to share experience, like this issue of the NI, are a hopeful sign.
Bob Connell is Professor of Sociology at Macquarie University near Sydney. Norm Radican and Pip Martin work in the same department.
1 See Connell, R.W.. Gender and Power, Polity Press, I987.
2 'The Cross' (King's Cross), the main red-light district in Sydney, borders on the main social centre for Sydney's gay men. 'Poofter-bashing' means gang attacks on gay men.
3 Western countries in this case defined as members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
4 Cockburn.C., Brothers. Pluto Press, 1983.
My life is lost
Cape Breton is an large island off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada. One of the first areas of the country to be heavily industrialized, the island is now a clichéd example of the consequences of deindustrialization. Rich in coal, wood, fish and natural beauty, the island has an unemployment rate of 50 per cent.
Ryan Sullivan is 51 years old and has been unemployed for two years. This father of four, an electrician by trade, had never known unemployment since beginning work in the coal mines in 1954. Active all his life in union and community politics, Ryan is now trying to cope with a very lonely struggle simply to survive. He speaks softly, his voice cracking frequently.
'When you lose your job, you lose everything. No one wants to touch you. People turn and walk away.' Ryan has lived his whole life in Glace Bay, a town of 22,000. 'These people used to be comrades and buddies. Now I see no one really and I wonder why there's no one here for me, outside my family.' And even his family is not there the way he had expected they would be in time of need.
Ryan Sullivan did everything for his family. He's put three children through school and has one still at home. 'What's cut deepest is the effect this has had on my children. They aren't as jovial. They don't tell me what they are doing, about their jobs, about their plans. They don't want to hurt me and I can't find the way to tell them it's okay.' In the course of a three-hour talk, Ryan will repeatedly come back to this point. He doesn't have the tools to break through the barrier joblessness has placed between him and his children. 'They look at me differently, it's a shock, it hurts.'
It has not been easy with his wife Beth either. 'She's not realistic about this, she likes living here and won't think of moving. She's not going to even discuss it. There's nothing here for me in terms of work. what choices do I have? I have to live with her and what good's an income if we have to move and she's miserable? They don't fight about it, they just put the issue aside, but it keeps coming back. 'I spent 70 per cent of my time trying to figure out what I can do to get free of this and to be honest, there's no way out.'
Ryan Sullivan's life has become a timeless whirl of worry and hopelessness. 'For 31 years a Sunday evening had meaning, it was a marker. It meant getting geared up for work. Now it means nothing, I find myself asking what day it is the whole time. I work a bit in the garden. I sit at home. I lie awake wondering if it will ever end.
'When I went to work, in 1954, I thought I could do anything. This is just destroying me, I've lost the confidence to do even the smallest things. I'm scared the confidence might be lost forever. When I was young I figured by now I'd be working to put something away for retirement. Now it's all gone. The kids are different, my friends have vanished, my life is lost and I don't know what I'm going to do.'