Bone Up ➤ Sovereign Masculinity

On September 25, 2016 by Josh Vandiver


A recent study of modern American masculinity, Bonnie Mann’s Sovereign Masculinity: Gender Lessons from the War on Terror (Oxford, 2014) focuses on the phenomenology and ontology of gender, concluding “gender is often heavy, sometimes in the more neutral sense of really therereally significant, and sometimes in the less neutral sense of a burden.” (2)

Mann’s A recent study of modern American masculinity, Bonnie Mann's Sovereign Masculinity: Gender Lessons from the War on Terrorapproach to masculinity thereby departs from the dominant “high gender theory,” as she calls it, which emphasizes the social construction and performativity of gender often associated (in a debased form) with the name of Judith Butler.

Gender is very serious, often a matter of life and death. Mann emphasizes this point often as we witness its force in case studies involving the American military. Masculinity emerges as one of the most powerful forces shaping the contemporary war on terror.

Mann’s approach is highly incisive. She rightly emphasizes how political sovereignty and gendered masculinity are usually studied and discussed separately. Her ambition is to analyze them in tandem and as mutually constituting one another:

If we want to understand the United States’ vision of empire, we have to understand its culture and practices of gender, and if we want to understand gender as it is lived in the United States today, we need to understand sovereignty as it is imagined and practiced by the nation. (3)

Saying she uses “sovereign manhood” and “sovereign masculinity” interchangeably in the book, Mann opens the possibility for thinking about how the male body, specifically its manhood or sex, functions within sovereign masculinity. On this point the book does not quite follow through, but it is certainly rich in many other respects. A most welcome addition to the study of men, masculinities, and American politics and international relations.

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