Raoul Wieland reviews Michael Kimmel’s ‘Manhood in America’ and explores the evolving and expanding definition of masculinity.
American men have no history. With this controversial statement, Michael Kimmel begins his book Manhood in America – A cultural history. He explains that while practically every history book is a history of men—feminist scholars pointing out that it is women who, for the longest time, have had no history—what remains hard to find is an account of how manhood structured the lives of men as men. To clarify, Kimmel states that to write of men as men, requires first, to chart how the definition of masculinity has changed over time; second, to explore how the experience of manhood has shaped the activities of American men.
I am reminded of James Baldwin’s comments about the need for a ‘White History Week’:
White Americans really do not know their history, and that’s one of the reasons they’re in trouble. And when I suggest White History Week, I’m not making a parody of Black History Week, but I’m suggesting that the truth about this country is buried in the myths that white people have about themselves. These myths have to be excavated and only can be excavated by white people.
Like White America, I believe that American men need their myths interrogated, deconstructed and ultimately replaced with a new or a much more nuanced, variegated and self-reflective history altogether.
Myths, according to Joseph Campbell, support and validate the specific moral order of the society out of which it arose. Myths show how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances … and carry the individual through the various stages and crises of life, from childhood dependency, to the responsibilities of maturity, to the reflection of old age, and finally, to death. As such, the myths that circulate in our society have a big impact on how we view ourselves, each other, our conduct and our relationships. In my article The stories we become, I write that stories/myths, whether fictitious or true, spring forth from our values, believes, perceptions, dreams, imaginations or wishes, all of which are bound to our life experiences, which in turn are fundamentally shaped by our particular environment. The stories that we tell ourselves are bound up in a feedback system whereby our lives find expression in stories which are in turn enacted by us. When stories are repeated over and over again, they take root in our daily lives to be enacted, perpetuated and strengthened. At one point, they become a sort of conventional wisdom or a fundamental truth.
Myths of masculinity abound and Kimmel’s Manhood in America not only exposes them but reveals the harm that they have caused and continue to inflict upon men and women. Similarly, in the book Challenging Myths of Masculinity, the authors address many taken for granted assumptions that predominate within Western society about the existence of “real” or “authentic” forms of masculine expression and ask the reader to reconsider practices that are too often dismissed as deficient masculinity. Easily accessible is Joe Ehrmann’s Ted Talk. A former pro football player, he looks at three myths about masculinity circulating in America and discusses how these impact the lives of men.
Part of the process of myth busting requires making gender visible to men. I am reminded of the proverb that the fish are the last to discover the ocean. On the invisibility of gender, Kimmel shares that when I look in the mirror, I see a human being. I’m universally generalizable. As a middle-class white man, I have no class, no race, no gender. I’m the generic person!
I believe that the more we are privileged in life, the less we come face to face with that which forces us to self-reflect and critique. About 2500 years ago, a young prince, Siddhartha Gautama, grew up sheltered from sickness, age and suffering so that his mind would not turn to serious thoughts. In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell writes that whenever the young prince ventured forth into the town, his father would order everything that might upset or frustrate him to be removed from sight. The Gods, however, had other plans and presented themselves, one by one, in the form of a decrepit old man, a sick man and a corpse. His illusions had been shattered and his privilege made very visible. Siddhartha’s initial response was to turn back that I may somehow find deliverance from these destroyers of life—old age, sickness, and death.
As is well known, Gautama eventually left his father’s palace, however, and came to be known as Buddha, or ‘awakened one’. Many years later, Buddha, the mythology that surrounded him, the movements that he inspired, the stories carried forward into the present and their intermixing with western thought gave us, amongst many others, the concept of mindfulness or critical consciousness; for, ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance is suffering and ignorance may even cause suffering.
Enter critical consciousness. Critical self-reflection, does not mean a singular focus on the self, but a stepping back to understand one’s own assumptions, biases, and values, and a shifting of one’s gaze from self to others and conditions of injustice in the world.
I want to use Siddhartha Gautama’s story as a metaphor for coming to terms with Kimmel’s book. A little learning is a dangerous thing, as the saying goes. It unsettles the mind and may push one into new and as of yet unexplored emotional, social and intellectual realms. The moment I realized that I am a white, middle class man and began to see gender, race and class, was also the moment when like Gautama, I wanted to ‘turn back’ and seek deliverance from the disharmony that such revelations stirred up. All of a sudden, life became a whole lot more complex.
Processing how my class status, my ‘whiteness’ and my gender provide me with certain unearned advantages over others, and how these are historically rooted, led to feelings of discomfort. I was no longer sheltered from deliberating on the implications of my status/identity because the person in the mirror who was now looking back at me stood at the intersection of many intertwining histories, many of which were marked with the blood and anguish of those who were marginalized and oppressed.
Within the archives of the history of Whiteness we find the the oppression, extermination, domination and colonization of those races and groups considered less than. A history of Class reveals the exploitation of the masses for the benefit and accumulation of wealth in the hands of the few. And within a history of manhood in America we find the marginalization, exclusion and oppression of those who were unworthy, incomplete or inferior.
In Kimmel’s Manhood in America, what it means to be a man in America depends heavily on one’s class, race, ethnicity, age, and sexuality. An ‘ideal’ or hegemonic version of masculinity, described as—young, married, white, urban, northern, heterosexual, Protestant, father, of college education, fully employed, of good complexion, weight, and height, and a recent record in sports—stood as a myth that men had to live up to and contend with. Working-class men, gay man, men of color, immigrant men and of course women were often seen as unworthy, incomplete, inferior and hence marginalized as an ‘other’. Multiple masculinities exist and some are considered more masculine or closer to the hegemonic ideal than others.
Kimmel writes how these different groups of men and women were used as a screen against which the ‘complete’ men projected their fears, and, in the process, constructed a prevailing definition of manhood, from which other groups were excluded. Throughout the history that Kimmel examines, being a man came with a need to define this identity, to define it with limited scope and always in contrast to other identities – the effeminate gay, the hypersexual black, the dimwitted immigrant, the exotic Native, the feminine women, the uneducated working man. In the words of James Baldwin, the American ideal of masculinity … has created cowboys and Indians, good guys and bad guys, punks and studs, tough guys and softies, butch and faggot, black and white.
The word ‘faggot,’ for example, writes David Leverenz, has nothing to do with homosexual experience or even with fears of homosexuals. It comes out of the depths of manhood: a label of ultimate contempt for anyone who seems sissy, untough, uncool. Kimmel adds that homophobia is the fear of other men—that other men will unmask us, emasculate us, revel to us and the world that we do not measure up, are not real men, that we are, like the young man in a poem by Yeats ‘one that ruffles in a manly pose for all his timid heart.’
Men need men’s approval and much of the effort to prove their manhood in front of the watchful and evaluative eyes of fathers, friends, teachers, coworkers, and bosses stems from a fear of not measuring up, of losing one’s reputation of being a man amongst other men. The fear that one is not powerful, strong, rich or successful enough has accompanied men for a long time and has influenced their actions.
In The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam explores the history of the making of the Vietnam tragedy. Considering Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, he writes:
He was always haunted by the idea that he would be judged as being insufficiently manly for the job, that he would lack courage at a crucial moment. More than a little insecure himself, he wanted very much to be seen as a man; it was a conscious thing … [H]e wanted the respect of men who were tough, real men, and they would turn out to be hawks. He had unconsciously divided people around him between men and boys. Men were activists, doers, who conquered business empires, who acted instead of talked, who made it in the world of other men and had the respect of other men. Boys were the talkers and the writers and the intellectuals, who sat around thinking and criticizing and doubting instead of doing.
In a related article, Thinking about the gendered state, I delve a bit more into how the specter of masculinity and manhood influences men in politics. In particular, I look how gendered language brings to mind values attributed to superior masculine qualities in contrast to weaker feminine ones and how these are put on both Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin. People are looking at Putin as one who wrestles bears and drills for oil … They look at our president as one who wears mom jeans and equivocates and bloviates, so Sarah Palin.
I want to conclude by recalling James Baldwin’s sentiment that not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced. I believe that it was in this spirit that Buddha left the palace of his father to delve into the suffering he saw in Samsara. Common interpretation sees Buddhist practice as oriented away from the world: life is suffering, the world is a place of uncertainty; liberation lies in freeing oneself from attachment to worldly things and concerns, attaining a transcendent enlightenment. Looked at more critically, this interpretation requires nuance. In Nichiren Buddhism, for example, it is impossible to live in the world without attachments, or indeed to eradicate them. The challenge then is not to rid oneself of attachments but to become enlightened concerning them. The teachings of Nichiren thus stress the transformation, rather than the elimination, of desire. In their proper perspective–when we can see them clearly and master them rather than being mastered by them–desires and attachments enable us to lead interesting and significant lives.
As I think about this, I realize that I will not be able to get rid of the privilege that history has bestowed upon me. Neither do I think that it is practical to turn away from the implications tied to my identity in willful ignorance. Rather, I believe that becoming enlightened concerning my position as a white, middle-class man will allow me to not only better negotiate my own anxieties of being and growing up as a white man in America but to also permeate my engagement with the diversity of people around me with compassion, empathy, a renewed sense of the importance of dignity, the right of all to self-determine, as well as a strong emphasis on social justice. In the process, I might be able to contribute to shaping a new mythology to guide the life of men as men as well as to orientate such mythology towards expansive inclusion as opposed to narrow-minded exclusion.