Archive for the ‘Gender Theory’ Category

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Final Post of Men on the Moon

30 June 2014

If my grandfather were still alive today, he would have turned 100 this month. Raymond Hitchcock made it to 88, having lived a generous, courageous life. There were the remarkable occupational elements of his career: he exercised considerable skill in farming, automobile repair, business management, and real estate. He did everything with great determination. He was and is an icon of manly strength to me. All importantly, Raymond was known for his kindness. He showed tenderness to his family, friends, and neighbors. He demonstrated sacrificial integrity. He told great stories. He was famous as the designated hugger at his local Methodist church.

I mention Raymond Hitchcock as I close shop on this long-standing blog. It was started six years ago as a way to explore aspects of masculinity in the modern world. So often manliness is understood as a kind of oppressive imperative, some kind of social conduct which burdens men with high, even unrealistic, expectations. This blog has tried to show that masculinity can affirm many of the great traditions for men without demanding of them exact codes of conduct and being. Men can walk on the moon.

I close this season of my e-life with gratitude for the men in my life who instilled in me a solid core. My father, my pastors, friends like Mark and Travis and the guys from the Round Table and MKP. Men like Raymond Hitchcock. They affirmed that men can strive to be true men – from a starting point of real manhood. My grandfather had a center, and from that center he lived joyfully.

I wish the same for you, friends and strangers. May you be free men.

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The Other Woman

16 April 2014

My wife and I saw yet another ad for the revenge-flick, The Other Woman. In it a woman discovers her boyfriend is cheating on her. He has another girlfriend and, as it turns out, a wife. The three become conspirators, gleefully torturing the adulterous man, usually through demeaning sexual pranks.

I told my wife that men would never be able to get away with that sort of thing, making a movie about systematically humiliating a libido-driven woman in such ways.

But I was wrong. That’s the script of most every porno ever made.

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Country Boys

31 January 2010

Hugh Campbell, Michael Mayerfeld Bell, and Margaret Finney, eds.  Country Boys: Masculinity and Rural Life. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006. 322+ix.

In the age of corporate identities, urban men often look to rural men as possessing something primeval and masculine.  Whether the frontiersman or the farmer, the cowboy or the co-op producer, something about the wilderness remains in these men.  There seems something rooted to a masculine essence. 

Country Boys contests these powerful images with gritty, provocative sociological studies.  In truth, they say, rural men have their masculine identity socially constructed every bit as much as the city man.  Fifteen essays, from various authors and covering country life from America to Ireland to New Zealand, examine and challenge the gendered values held in these environments.  While its essays are of inconsistent quality, Country Boys is overall a very useful volume for men’s studies. 

As the introductory essay recognizes, men of the fields and forests and outdoors uphold “the symbolic power of the venerable rural myth of rugged individualism” (2).  They exude a sense of toughness, structure and discipline.  They gravitate towards a rather patriarchal order.  Because rural psycho-social organizations erect firm boundaries and expectations, men in these environments sometimes have a hard time challenging norms or responding to dramatic shifts in cultural climate.  There is often a subtle but ubiquitous enforcement of conservative, white, heterosexual lifestyles.  Many of the essays in this volume illustrate the force of rural hegemony. 

The several studies on rural men’s bodies are, I think, the strongest contributions.  Will H. Courtenay writes about the health effects of manly codes, cataloguing compelling statistics about these men’s injuries, illnesses and early deaths.  Jo Little’s contribution explores different ways the male body tends to be portrayed, such as naked calendars and homely singles ads, and how each is intended to steer people away from “scary sexualities” back to the valuation of the family.  The gem of Country Boys is probably David Bell’s “Cowboy Love,” which provides four vastly different portraits of rural homosexualities.  Without sounding bitter or didactic, Bell describes the perilous identities of these men, also explaining how we cannot conflate the idyllic “homosexual rural” with the actual “rural homosexual.”  The essay is all that much more impressive since it was written before the Brokeback Mountain phenomenon.

Missing from the volume is a look into religion among men of the country.  (How it is possible to speak of cohesive societies and cohesive masculinities without religious ties, I do not know.)  Also omitted are studies about migrant workers.  Sometimes lacking is a counterbalancing sense of appreciation about rural men’s decisions, and how their (increasingly unpopular) values help facilitate their often happy lives.  These points aside, Country Boys can be said to contain important studies.  I recommend it as a library resource and a book for upper division sociology classes.

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Sexually Ambiguous 800m Champion under Investigation

26 August 2009

After her impressive victory in the 800m at the World Championships last week, crushing the competition by a good two seconds, South African teenager Caster Semenya was rewarded with a gold medal – and an investigation into whether or not she is female.

Semenya

This is, of course, not unheard of. Ever since people found out that Stella Walsh, the 100m Olympic champion in 1932, had ambiguous genitalia, sporting boards have kept an eye out for this sort of thing.

Very rarely does a man pose as a woman athlete. Much more common are abnormalities in the determination of one’s sex, either because of chromosomal disorders, overproduction of androgens, non-responsiveness to certain hormones, or other conditions which result in some degree of intersex identity. Very occasionally a woman will find out, often in the midst of fertility testing, that she in fact has an XY combination. I recommend Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen’s My Brother’s Keeper for a good summary of just how many things have to be working normally in order for the XY chromosome pair to result in clearly expressed male physiology.

But that’s not what interests me about this case. It’s more the reaction of the South African athletic federation, Leonard Chuene. He was furious that the sex-testing procedure had been made public, and rightly so. That’s a pretty big breach of confidentiality in the sporting world. But Chuene was also indignant about the test being run at all, saying that there was no basis for it – then going so far as to claim that racism was behind the inquiry: “It would not be like that if it were some young girl from Europe,” Chuene told The Associated Press by telephone. “If it [sic] was a white child, she would be sitting somewhere with a psychologist, but this is an African child.” At a news conference he spewed the same accusation: “We are not going to allow Europeans to describe and define our children.”

Think about how fascinating this is. Chuene is defending his own masculine pride through nationalist posturing – over the issue of an athlete who looks insufficiently feminine. Is he trying to appear more assertive and masculine than Semenya? And why does he feel so obligated to defend her at all costs? Is this also a tactic to “feminize” her, by playing to her youth, making her appear helpless and unable to speak for herself?

Moreover, Chuene describes sex as a matter of a society’s authority to “describe and define.” This is a considerable claim. Scholarship in the twentieth century, from Margaret Mead to Julia Kristeva, explained how gender is a matter of social construction. Only recently have intersex peoples (formerly called hermaphrodites) contended for the non-objectivity and pliability of sex itself. Calling into question the basic binary between male and female pulls the carpet out pretty much from under every society. Which is strange that it’s being declared from the mouth of Chuene, who strikes me as – oddly enough – patriarchal and paternalistic.

For the record, I’m not willing to concede the category of sex simply because of the possibility of biological variance. Neither will the World Championships athletic committee either, I’m sure.

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Edward Taylor: Becoming a Man Again

25 February 2009

[This follows the previous post]

How does Edward Taylor return to the world of men, the world of the masculine, after playing the woman? Taylor never trades places with God, making God feminine, as Clendenning suggests. No, the ultra-masculine God reissues Taylor his masculine identity because of his willingness to undergo feminization/humiliation. Taylor receives his manhood back, restored and amplified.

We find this in a drama related to gynesis – but this time a distinctly masculine drama. Consider the fascinating (and overlooked) metaphors of circumcision and emasculation in the Preparatory Meditations. The first, the ritual of circumcision, Taylor invokes in all its biblical richness (see meditations II.10 and II.70). A man must be separated from his sinful, gentilic identity, symbolized by the foreskin. But this means having a real part of one’s manhood cut off, just as Jesus Christ Himself was cut off from God at the cross:

  The Infant male must lose its Foreskin first,
  Before Gods Spirit Workes as Pulse, therein
  To Sanctify it from the sin in’t nurst,
  And make’t in Graces Covenant to spring.
  To shew that Christ must be cut off most Pure.
  His Covenantall blood must be mans Cure. (25-30)

Male blood – whether in the type represented by infant circumcision, or the reality in Jesus Christ’s crucifixion – needs to be shed in order for God’s glory to be granted to him. The effect of this bloodshed is not just forensic justification but total male restoration. This happens ultimately because of Christ, and at Christ’s hands: with His circumcising power He initiates men. He has authority to reshape (not unman) Taylor.

The more radical measure, of course, would be that of emasculation, the very procedure the Puritan minister cannot bear, and pleads against. Relevant here is the work of maverick theorist Gary Taylor, who has claimed to find in western literature the ubiquitous theme of castration. “This is a specter that has haunted men for centuries,” he says, “the fear that manhood will become, or has already become, obsolete, superfluous, ridiculous, at best quaint, at worst disgusting.” One need not invoke Freud to understand Puritan fears associated with such de-sexing. More than surrendering a certain physical vitality, emasculation would imply a forfeiture of one’s claim to authority in home and church. How is Taylor to head his family, his church, his town, if he comes away from worship without his genitals?

His anxiety materializes most acutely in the image of the purse. Rather than the accessory we today associate with women, the most literal meaning for a Puritan audience would have been the money bag. Thus when Taylor implores, “Yet may I Purse, and thou my Mony bee” (I.2.29), or asks, “Am I thy Gold? Or Purse, Lord, for thy Wealth”? (“Another Meditation at the Same Time,” 1), he presents himself as the empty wallet, and God the financier who provides the gold coinage of grace. The purse, I maintain, has nothing to do with the female personae. It is a male object – truly, the male object to the colonial mind. The English word “purse” derives from the French bourse, also translatable as “testicles.” Accordingly, the Puritan man was generally in charge of the home finances, thereby associating the money bag with his manhood. Jokesters of the era regularly made puns about “coins,” “stones” and “purses” in the seventeenth century, and, most suggestively, Daniel Patterson’s glossary of Taylor’s poetry straightforwardly defines “purse” as “the scrotum of an animal.” So the Westfield minister fears for his manhood, and with good reason! He has met the living, all-masculine God before whom no competitor can stand.

There is no doubt as to Taylor’s need to confess his discredited manhood. In meditation II.18 the beleaguered minister confesses that he is a “Pouch of Sin, a purse / Of naughtiness,” and, by the end of the poem, having exhausted all manner of cultic and sacrificial devices, he comes up with the true offering: Shall I my Sin Pouch lay, on thy Gold Bench My Offering, Lord, to thee? I’ve such alone But have no better . . . . And shall mine Offering by thine Altars fire Refin’d, and sanctifi’d to God aspire? (43-45, 47-48) His wealth, his purse, his very man-self, has been splayed upon the sacrificial table. He voluntarily submits, even humiliates, himself. But he pleads for God to refrain from permanently rejecting (or excising) his manhood. In place of his dilapidated offering he prays, Lord let thy Deity mine Altar bee And make thy Manhood on’t my sacrifice. (55-56) At the last minute, by design, the incarnation is invoked. Jesus Christ’s deity is Taylor’s altar, and, more importantly, Jesus Christ’s “Manhood” is the substitute in lieu of Taylor’s own. Christ’s manhood is acceptable, for, exchanged for the Christic substitute, it harmonizes perfectly with the divine. Taylor is spared. He has kept his purse – but now with Christ as his “Mony” ringing within it. The holy coins, replete with honor and authority, fill the poet’s container.

Again in meditation II.9. This time Taylor compares himself to Moses, who must endure the fiery glory of the Lord.

  I long to see thy sun upon mee shine,
  But feare I’st finde my selfe thereby shown worse
  Yet let his burning beams melt, and refine
  Me from my dross, yet not to singe my purse. (55-58)

The radiance of God fascinates and threatens Taylor. He recognizes that the “burning beams” are for the purification of his wealth, his coins, but still he fears that God will “singe my purse.” The literal meaning simply plays out the metaphor, wanting his money refined in such a way in that everything else is not ablaze in the process. Still, in Taylor’s paradigm, this can only mean the fear of permanent damage and dissolution through psychospiritual emasculation. Exchanging one’s coins for purification’s sake is one thing; having one’s sack burnt off quite another. Submitting to circumcision one thing; facing irreparable de-sexing something quite different. Fortunately, God has not neutered him, or, if he has, has done so temporarily in order to fill his purse with gold. Taylor remains the bag, the container. Christ has become the gold coins, Taylor’s new manhood, Taylor’s new wealth.  He can now return to his home, his church and town with a new, robust, manly authority direct from God Himself.  If gynesis emphasizes Taylor’s renewed authenticity, the divine masculization shows that authenticity to be (for him at least) the ground of earthly male authority.

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Mr. T to British Men: “Get Some Nuts”

12 January 2009

In July 2008 Snickers launched a new campaign, featuring the one and only Mr. T (from A-Team, Rocky III, etc.).  In the ads Mr. T harrassed men who somehow lacked the macho vibe needed to be  a “real man,” such as speedwalkers and soccer players who fake injuries.  Driving a tank or some other destructive vehicle, the mohawked hero would procede to throw or shoot Snickers bars at these pastey counterparts, finishing the ad with the blatant double entendre, “Get some nuts.” 
mr-t-tough
Within weeks Snickers yanked it off the airwaves, in response to outcry that the ads, particularly the speedwalker one(the walker is portrayed as especially effeminate), were targeting homosexuals.  Statistically speaking, these protesters were right.  Say what you will in defense, but it doesn’t take a cross-dressing rocket scientist to figure out how many people would, rightly or wrongly, interpret the speedwalker’s outfit and demeanor as stereotypically gay.   Snickers had to have seen this coming. 

But let’s consider what else is going on here.  An interview done around the same time (see here) struck me as particularly humorous, and particularly important for understanding the broader context.  Mr. T procedes to rant against any perceived weakness in men: wine bars, pouting, yoga, non-contact sports, fake tans, tight clothing, man bags and fashion in general.  When asked about how he would address the men of Britain?  “Just be tough.”  Of course, he also advocates going to the pubs less, and making a greater effort to be romantic with one’s significant other.  “Treat the ladies with respect.”

It’s hard to say how much Mr. T buys into his own binary model of gender: men should be tough, women shouldn’t.  Sigmund Freud taught a similar monoessentialism, built around the idea that masculinity was the exercise of proactivity, whereas femininity was receptivity.   Men are characterized by self-assertion, boldness, even aggression.  Women, they, well, respond.  Feminist scholars have rightly pointed out that this kind of oppositionalizing construes women in terms of deprivation more than mere “difference.”  Not that Mr. T seems to be concerned about all this.  His point is more straightforward.  Aside from buying Snickers, men need to pursue life with more vigor – and bigger biceps. 

I’m especially interested in why Snickers felt this would fit so well in the United Kingdom.  While the LGBT community took offence, heterosexual men (even softer, more sensitive men) there did not.   Is this because British men in general are secure enough in their own conception of masculinity that Mr. T provides an opportunity to laugh at a bygone code, one especially rigid (and perhaps American)?  Or do British men feel a need for an archetypal presence to shame them into greater mental and physical toughness? 

Don’t all of us men all need a little Mr. T in our heads, driving us toward ballsy excellence?