Got Masculinity?

On July 30, 2016 by Josh Vandiver

Olympian Gymnasts 2016 large


Overview ➤ Got Masculinity?

‘Men and masculinity are in crisis.’  Oft heard since the 1960s, such alarmism is rising again in light of deepening political and economic instability in the West, feeding off tendentious reports of a 10 million ‘male jobs deficit’ compared to 1965 (WSJ, 1 Sept 2016), and likely contributing to the explosive growth of reactionary political forces like the ‘alt-right.’  Throughout my career, the core of my research and teaching has centered on the politics of men and masculinity – including bisexual and homosexual men and queer masculinities – and is motivated, in part, by the radical and reactionary political implications of ‘crisis.’  I expect the above trends to continue, and even hypertrophy, over the coming years.  So I feel my research and teaching carries a special urgency.

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For centuries in the West, man did not have a sex.  He was to be a rational political being, detached from his body and, especially, from his sex.  After the Greeks and Romans, men and the male body were rarely depicted or discussed in concrete physical and sexual terms, as opposed to being used as abstract symbols for “universal” political values like authority, rationality, and humanity.  Women and the female body, in contrast, were considered the sex – as having a sex and being governed by it – and were constantly subjected to the masculine gaze – endlessly discussed and analyzed in physical and sexual terms.  LGBTQ persons – to use an anachronism for a moment – were either scapegoated as monstrous and perverse or erased from the public political realm entirely.

A key intention of my research is to reverse the masculine gaze, turning it upon men, the male sex, and masculinity itself.  My research ties together all my specialities – Greek and Roman political ideas; Sex, Gender, and Sexuality Studies; modern political ideas and ideologies; and queer politics and theory.   An example of my research has recently been published in Political Theory.  My research explores political systems like phallocracy, patriarchy, and hegemonic masculinity as well as resistance to those systems by subaltern and transversal politics.  Always, I strive to be attentive to the interaction of Western and non-Western traditions and to issues of empire, race, indigeneity, capitalism, and global modernity.  My larger intention is to enhance the study of politics by entering into spaces – sexed, gendered, sexualized, psychological, and pornographic – usually hidden from view in the public and “rational” political realm.

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I consider contemporary Western thinking on men, the male sex, and masculinity to begin in earnest in the second half of the 19th century with Nietzsche and Freud (the former being the first great postmodern thinker, a fact intimately linked to his obsessive arguments that European men and masculinity were in crisis), joined in the 20th century by an explosion of powerful feminist, black, and queer thinkers. Most of these 20th century analyses are post-signifying, a concept developed by Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus. That is, they all react to and struggle with the dominant signifying system in which the male European heterosexual stands at the center as the Signifier, the Phallus (the abstract sign of masculine dominance, to use Bourdieu’s term). The post-signifying line of flight for many feminist, black, and queer thinkers and subjects – the trajectory their identity takes in reaction to a feature of the dominant signifying system – differs accordingly: sex, race, or sexuality, respectively. (Of course, in some post-signifying political thought, and for many post-signifying political subjects, these interrelate and overlap – as Kimberlé Crenshaw recognized when she developed the concept of intersectionality.) In contrast, men and masculinity are sometimes conceptualized not for the purposes of critiquing the dominant signifying system but for defending it. Here I have in mind an otherwise diverse set of thinkers who begin to emerge in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They range from Theodore Roosevelt and Lord Baden-Powell (the founder of the Boy Scouts) to Futurists like Marinetti and fascists like Mussolini. But in recent decades we have also seen a new upsurge of related thinking, ranging from the ‘men’s movement’ (Robert Bly) to conservative defenses of manliness (Harvey Mansfield) to New Right advocates of ‘neomasculinity,’ ‘neopatriarchy,’ and the like (easily found on Twitter and Reddit).

In addition to the thinkers above – who in most cases I have treated, if only for dramatic effect, as partisans – there have also been scholarly schools researching men, the male sex, and masculinity since the 19th century. We might count Freud among them. Those who relate their research to politics are few and far between, however, with notable exceptions like Wilhelm Reich (whom Deleuze and Guattari praise for his attempt to analyze ideologies like fascism through the lenses of sex and sexuality). But it remains until the 1970s for something like a scholarly field to emerge, as it first did in sociological ‘Men’s Studies.’ Historians soon followed, and while political science and philosophy are still not up-to-speed, it is now possible to speak in the 1990s of an inter-disciplinary Men and Masculinity Studies within Sex, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. (See below for foundational texts in the two fields.)


Greek vase featuring erect phallus


Sex, Gender, and Sexuality Studies – Core Texts

Plato’s pioneering work in antiquity is impossible to ignore, but in modernity psychoanalytic methods long dominate the study of sex, gender, and sexuality. As the twentieth century progresses, feminist and queer reactions to psychoanalysis – alongside new phenomenological and historical approaches – come to the fore, often with clear political implications. The following list is not comprehensive. It is representative of thinkers and works I am currently finding most stimulating as I research and teach on masculinity.

The Freud Reader (1893-)

Sigmund Freud advances the study of sex and sexuality more than any other thinker in modernity. This despite – or perhaps due to – the explosion of popularizers and opponents of his psychoanalytic work.

The Second Sex (1949)

Simone de Beauvoir’s phenomenological manifesto forever transforms how we see the place of women, “the second sex,” in the West.

Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1972)

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, a philosopher and a psychoanalyst, launch their assault on traditional approaches to sexuality and identity. This book and its companion volume, A Thousand Plateaus (1980), are immensely – and I think increasingly – influential in queer politics and theory.

Speculum: Of the Other, Woman (1974)

Luce Irigaray is expelled from the school of Jacques Lacan, perhaps the most important psychoanalytical thinker since Freud, for her blistering exposé of Western thinking on women from Plato through psychoanalysis.

The History of Sexuality, vol. 1 (1976)

Michel Foucault revolutionizes the historical study of sex and sexuality with this short introduction to a larger project left unfinished by his untimely death. He shows how essential it is to study sex and sexuality not as human universals but in their specific cultural and political contexts.

Gender Trouble (1990)

Judith Butler’s notion of gender as a kind of performance – refined in her Bodies That Matter (1993) but widely circulating in popularized form –  set the terms of gender studies for decades.

Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible” (1989)

Linda Williams does scholarship an enormous service in this book as she almost single-handedly establishes Porn Studies as an academic discipline. While due for an update and expansion, her edited volume Porn Studies (2004) has some good pieces – especially her own, “Skin Flicks on the Racial Border: Pornography, Exploitation, and Interracial Lust” – and shows how much exciting research remains to be done in this field.

Men and Masculinity Studies – Core Texts

What a Man’s Gotta Do: The Masculine Myth in Popular Culture (1990)

Antony Easthope’s short and lively book shows how Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalytic ideas can generate insight into men and masculinity in American and British culture.

Men’s Lives (1992)

Now in its ninth edition, this is one of many related works by sociologist Michael Kimmel, a founder of the academic discipline of Men’s Studies in the United States.

Running Scared: Masculinity and the Representation of the Male Body (1993)

Recently reissued with a new preface and conclusion, Peter Lehman here demonstrates how to conduct a detailed analysis of representations of the male body in popular film and culture.

Masculinities (1995)

Widely influential, and now in its second edition. One of many works by Australian R. W. Connell – who also now publishes as Raewyn Connell and earlier did so as Robert William ‘Bob’ Connell – a founder of the discipline of Men’s Studies in sociology.

The Male Body (1999)

Susan Bordo’s vivid and highly readable account of ideas and representations of the male body in the mid- to late twentieth century, particularly in America.

Men in Political Theory (2005)

Political theory finally sees an explicit treatment of men in this broad survey by Terrell Carver.

Manliness (2007)

Political theorist Harvey C. Mansfield makes a controversial defense of manliness as it has been, and he thinks ought to be, practiced in politics and culture.

Masculinities in Theory (2010)

Todd Reeser gives us a much-needed, if rather abstract, exploration of how theory has functioned, and may yet function, in the study of men and masculinity. Drawing from Deleuze and Guattari, he also proposes a new concept of masculinity as “an endless series of different masculinities” – masculinity as becoming, man as nomad, always on the move.

Sovereign Masculinity (2014)

Bonnie Mann develops the concept of sovereign masculinity and sees it motivating American empire in the post-9/11 world.

A History of Virility (2016)

This multi-authored abridgment of the three-volume French original (2011) maps Western virility from the Greeks through late modern bodybuilding.

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Josh Vandiver, a graduate of Harvard College and Princeton University, is an American political scientist and historian of political ideas. Based in Manhattan, he was the Lord Harlech Fellow at New College, Oxford, and has taught at the University of Chicago and Williams College.