Men plural

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Men plural

by Michael Flood

Do you need a solid social analysis of masculinity?
Of course you do. Well, look no further than Bob Connell’s new book, Masculinities.
Michael Flood got the story.

ANY writer on men worth his or her salt knows to write about "masculinities", not "masculinity". This is because there are multiple versions of how to be a man in any particular society, and the relations between them are a crucial part of the makeup of gender relations in general.

Bob Connell has played a key role in arguing for and elaborating on this insight, most recently in his new book Masculinities. Masculinities* examines the politics of men and masculinity, the social production of masculinities at both the personal and the collective level, and uses studies of the lives of several groups of men to illustrate men’s paths both towards and away from dominant forms of masculinity. Bob Connell is Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz and is one of Australia’s best known social scientists.

Connell’s writings are on the cutting edge of contemporary theoretical understandings of masculinities. His work is firmly grounded in the everyday lives of men, through a series of studies with working-class men, sportsmen, men in the green movement, men who have sex with men, boys in schools and so on. At the same time, his writing places men’s lives in their social, political and historical context.

One of Connell’s earlier works, Gender and power (1987), has been very influential in the masculinity literature and among various anti-sexist activists. Masculinities covers similar territory, while extending its theoretical and practical insights.

I recently had the chance to interview Bob Connell for the Canberra radio station 2XX. I thought we should begin by dealing with the very common idea that how men are in the world is the product of biology; the idea, for example, that ‘boys will be boys’, or ‘its just natural’.

"Right, the immediate thing I would say is that there’s almost no reason to believe that any of the traits, any of the characteristics, we think of as masculine are programmed in by biology. They are basically social and the simplest demonstration of that is by looking at the way men are supposed to be and the way men act in different cultures. There is, in fact, an enormous variety of masculinities in different cultures and at different periods of history, which would be impossible if men are genetically programmed in any kind of strong way to behave in particular ways."

Between men

ONE of the most basic and important ideas in the book Masculinities is that there are multiple and diverse masculinities. This is a crucial step away from the old idea of one "male sex role". However, Connell goes further, arguing that we must also recognise the relations between the different kinds of masculinities.

"This became very clear to me when I was doing some research on gender in schools and looking at the production of masculinities, and of femininities for that matter, among teenagers. It became very clear that what was going on was not just the production of one single version of masculinity in a particular school but the production of a number of different kinds of masculinity and then a kind of negotiation between them. So, for instance, thinking of a particular school, you could see the production of a particular dominant style of masculinity, the football hero, where the boys were being trained up to assert themselves by physical conflict if necessary. At the same time, another kind of masculinity was being produced in the same school and equally systematically, of boys who were being oriented to competitions through academic work, through going to university and succeeding in professions. These two kinds of masculinity clearly were different because they were in some tension. There was bullying, for instance, from the first group of the second. The second group was being defended by the school because they were needed to get academic prestige for the school, and so on. So it’s a complicated sort of politics going on in that little micro situation between different kinds of masculinity.

"That was how I first saw the point. But once you’ve seen it, it becomes clear that this is a very general process. This goes on in the society as a whole, and it goes on in other societies when you look at other periods of history and other cultures."

Connell also points out that the dominant form of masculinity is a heterosexual masculinity.

"Yes, that is one of the features of the whole gender system of modern Western society, that the dominant form of masculinity is defined as heterosexual and homosexual masculinities are subordinated. They are repressed and marginalised. That’s often misunderstood, I think, by people who have a very black and white view of gender, who can only see on the one hand the dominant form of masculinity, and on the other hand the dominant form of femininity and nothing in-between or around the edges. And people who think like that almost automatically think that if you’re homosexual, if you’re gay, then you must be feminine, as the opposite of masculine. But in fact that isn’t true at all. Among gay men there’s the whole spectrum of different forms of masculinity, some of which are, in certain ways, quite close to the dominant form, others which are, indeed, relatively feminine. But you can’t simply say that if you’re not an example of the dominant form of masculinity, if you’re not a football hero, then you must be effeminate. It’s very much more complex than that."

Making history

ONE of the biggest questions this book raises is: what are the prospects for change in men’s and women’s lives?

"Well, that’s been a big issue with me throughout my research on gender and I think is, in a way, the reason why the research is worth doing. It is clear, I think, from the last generation of historical research, that gender is not a fixed pattern. It’s never been a fixed pattern, in fact. There’s no such thing as a traditional masculinity or a traditional femininity from which we are now moving. There is always change and flux going on in gender relations as history moves on. And the question then is not so much can gender change, because it always does, but in what directions, and are those directions producing a more democratic, a more equal society, more humane and reasonable relationships between men and women and among men and among women, or the opposite? That’s the sense in which I think gender is a political question. There are relations of power here which can become more democratic or more authoritarian, and I would see this moment in history as one where there are quite sharp choices facing us, as to which direction we want to move."

Masculinities argues that attempts by individual men to reconstruct themselves will do little to shift things, and that what is required is change in the institutional and collective character of gender relations.

Vote one patriarchy

POLITICS-as-usual, public politics, is often men’s politics. However, Masculinities also identifies four forms of "masculinity politics". I asked Connell to elaborate on this.

"What I’m trying to define there is the difference between the politics which, so to speak, takes its masculinity for granted and a politics which opens masculinity or masculinities to question. The first kind is really the usual form of politics around the world. It’s a general feature around the world that men are the dominant group in governments, in the military, in corporate management, so that the major institutions of power in our society are overwhelmingly controlled by men. But their masculinity is normally not called in question at all. It’s just taken for granted that a big corporation is going to be run by men and that women are not properly there as a significant group at the top levels of power. But when masculinity itself, when the masculinity is called into question, you then get debates about what is the proper form of masculinity in the modern world, or have changes gone too far and should we swing back to an older form.

"That is the kind of politics that I call masculinity politics, and it’s clear that there are a number of currents in masculinity politics at the moment. There are certainly forms of politics which are strongly reasserting older forms of the dominant form of masculinity and the subordination of women, this so-called traditional pattern, traditional family values, that kind of thing. There’s a strong movement to reassert that in the United States at present, more visibly than in Australia.

"Then there are forms of masculinity politics which are concerned with the pain that men suffer and the kind of psychological cost that men pay for the current pattern of gender relations and are concerned to find forms of ‘masculinity therapy’, in effect to help men overcome psychological difficulties.

"And then there are forms of masculinity politics which are attempting to move beyond the current patterns of masculinity, current gender relations, in a more democratic direction. Those, of course, are the forms of masculinity politics that interest and excite me because it seems that’s the direction in which we have to move if we’re going to have a more peaceful and democratic world."

I was curious about this, because Connell seems to criticise pro-feminist or anti-sexist men’s groups which are part of the "men’s movement". But I think he’s being critical of trying to change things through a "men’s movement", rather than criticising anti-sexist activism in general. I asked about this.

"Okay, let me make clear what’s perhaps a bit ambiguous in the text. I certainly don’t want to knock the efforts of groups like Men Against Sexual Assault, who seem to be doing very important educational work. Nor do I reject the idea that men should examine the emotional costs in current patterns of masculinity and find ways of dealing with them and reducing them. I think those are legitimate and, indeed, important activities. Where I depart from some of the current thinking around these activities is in the idea that you could move from these rather specific developments to a broad, separate movement of men, which would overthrow patriarchal gender relations or move in that direction. I think it’s extremely unlikely that such a movement would develop on any large scale because of, by and large, the pattern of men’s advantages in current gender relations."

Great leap forward?

THERE is a structural problem: we can’t mobilise around our shared material interests, as creating social justice means dismantling those shared interests. Nevertheless, small numbers of men continue to be active in anti-sexist groups such as MASA, and a substantial number of men have some sort of sympathy to feminism. Connell explains this seeming contradiction as a product of complexities and contradictions in the relationships constructing masculinity, and the interweaving of gender with other social structures (such as class and sexuality). A transformation of masculinity is possible, not via the model of a "men’s movement", but through what Connell calls "alliance politics".

"It seems to me the more fruitful way to develop a broad politics around masculinity is by looking to existing forums, like workplaces, like trade unions, like educational institutions and so forth, and finding ways for men to work in collaboration with women in those institutions, to change objectionable patterns of gender. That’s the line of argument and I acknowledge that there is a case to be argued against that, certainly."

In the last five years or so in particular, a "books about men" industry has just boomed in Australia. I’m thinking for example of Biddulph’s book Manhood and before that Farrell’s right-wing book The myth of male power. Where does Connell situate his book in relation to these others?

"Well, part of my book is a reflection on that whole genre. It’s a really interesting measure, I think, of the change, or the emergence of a conscious masculinity politics, that you’ve got this "men book" industry. There was an earlier version of it in the 1970s which was much more feminist than most of this stuff is now. And then there’s been another boom really kicked off by the enormous success of Iron John. My work comments on this but in a way I’m trying to do something rather different. I’m trying to grasp a process of historical change by looking at the pattern of social relations that are involved, while most of the books about men are based on little snippets of individual experience. So I’m trying to think about the pattern of social relations more systematically.

"One is always hesitant to make claims for a book as an author, but I think I would claim to have a much broader picture of the research and theorising around masculinity. I’ve tried to bring together ideas from different parts of the world, from European, North American and Australian research, and from different academic disciplines—anthropology, history, sociology and psychology—to build an integrated picture. So my book, in a way, is working on a larger scale than most of the "men book" industry stuff. But it’s also to connect that research to personal experience through the research that looks at life histories of different groups of men. It’s that connection between the level of personal experience and individual life and the large scale social structures that, I guess, is distinctive about my work and the work of a few other social scientists who’ve tried to do the same kind of thing in other countries."

In my mind these are fair claims for the book Masculinities. Go on, read it.

*Masculinities is published by Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1995. RRP: $24.95

[This piece was first published in the magazine XY: Men, Sex, Politics, 5(3), Spring 1995.]


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