‘Man Up!’: How history has shaped masculinity

Ideas53:59Man Up! The Masculinity Crisis, Part One

Part one of Man Up! a three-part series exploring masculinity in crisis.

The troubled state of masculinity seems to be nearly everywhere. Countless books, articles and films feature titles like: What’s Wrong with Men?, Boys Adrift, Angry White Men, and Patriarchy Blues.

“Is there a crisis of masculinity? I think there’s really a lot of evidence that many men are suffering,” said Michael Kimmel, a sociologist and the author of several books on male identity, including Guyland, and Healing from Hate and Manhood in America.

Many social scientists agree that men aren’t doing well — they’re dropping out of the workforce in greater numbers, their addiction rates are climbing, and they’re three times more likely to commit suicide than women.

In Canada, France, South Korea and other countries, girls have been outperforming boys in primary and secondary school — although women ultimately make less money in the job market.  In Sweden, researchers say their country is facing a pojkkrisen, or “boy crisis.” In India, girls score higher marks than boys but their enrolment numbers end up dropping. In the United States, female undergraduates outnumber males by almost two to one. 

In this Saturday, March 10, 2018 photo, Michael Kimmel poses at his home in New York. Kimmel is a leader in what's known as "masculinities studies," and an in-demand purveyor of insight on why men are the way they are. The field he helped develop has long had men's misdeeds as an area of focus, but it's gained newfound exposure and relevance with #MeToo and #TimesUp. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
Sociologist Michael Kimmel is a leader in what’s known as ‘masculinities studies’, and created the first masculinity studies centre in North America. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

“The question for me,” Kimmel asks, “is are men suffering because women are succeeding, or are they suffering because they’ve inherited an ideology of masculinity that no longer works for them in the way that it did for their grandfathers?” 

He says while the masculinity crisis has been ramping up in the 21st century, “the crisis runs much deeper and extends much further back in history.”

Ancient anxieties about being ‘man enough’

The origins shaping masculinity go back 2,000 years, to ancient Greece, according to Simon Goldhill, the author of Love, Sex and Tragedy:  How the Ancient World Shapes Our Lives. 

“It’s part of the pervasive imagery of masculinity because there was a huge cultural anxiety about not being a ‘real’ man. It’s there — all through the Greek comedies and tragedies,” Goldhill said.

The ancient world was preoccupied with gender, added Mary Beard, a Cambridge University classicist and cultural critic. It was obsessed with proving that men are “naturally more powerful” and that it “sees the duty of men as saving civilization from the rule of women.” 

Beard says that in many ways, “the patriarchy has been doing this ever since.” 

She points to the snake-haired Medusa as a “classic myth where the dominance of the male is violently reasserted against the illegitimate power of the woman.”

circa 1810:  Perseus, the son of Zeus and Danae from Greek mythology holding the severed head of the Gorgon Medusa.   Sculpture by Antonio Canova  (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Perseus, the son of Zeus and Danae in Greek mythology holds the severed head of the Gorgon, Medusa. Sculpture by Antonio Canova. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images )

Medusa was punished for being raped, her hair transformed into a head of writhing snakes, and if anyone dared to look at her, they turned to stone. Then Perseus, son of Zeus, became the Greek hero for decapitating Medusa as she slept, triumphantly presenting her head to the world as a trophy.

And in this century, Beard points to an example portrayed a few years ago when Donald Trump supporters evoked this image of Perseus brandishing a decapitated female head. 

“It is with Hilary Clinton… there were plenty of images produced by Trump supporters in the presidential campaign showing her with snaky locks,” Beard said.

“This is about patriarchy’s desperation to see this as natural. The underlying point of principle [was] that it was the duty of men to save civilization from women.”

Communal manhood

Men in ancient Greece competed in sports, theatre and intellectual pursuits.  Sexual activities were varied, and might have included sex with their wives, slaves and younger men. 

By the Middle Ages, however, men often entered into a different competition: that of battling sexual desire. This could take the form of abstinence, fasting, penance or prayer — or combinations thereof.   

In her book, Love, Family and Marriage in the Middle Ages, Jacqueline Murray writes that some men engaged in punishing activities.

“Saint Jerome in the desert talked about how he’d be starving and living in a cave… it was a way to stave off visions of dancing girls and great feasts.” 

Jacqueline Murray and her book cover
In the Middle Ages, murder wasn’t penalized as harshly as sex outside of procreation, says Jacqueline Murray, author of Love, Marriage, and Family in the Middle Ages. (University of Toronto Press/University of Guelph)

Castration, a common act in the Middle Ages, was sometimes employed as a way to deny a man sexual pleasure.  But at the same time, Murray observes that for wealthy men, the masculine ideal was the outward display of virility; namely, having lots of children, especially boys.     

From the late 1700’s onwards, masculinity would be transformed once again.  Historians call this period “communal manhood”, with one’s prescribed behaviour earmarked by the vertical rung on the social ladder one was born onto. White men, such as farmers, merchants, tradesmen and tenants worked from the home or nearby.  Duties to family, church and community created social bonds that were valued within societies.   

Enter the self-made man

Nothing short of a metaphorical earthquake occurred with the advent of capitalism. Men no longer viewed themselves as strands in a larger social web. 

Men competed to climb the ladder as greed and self-interest were by then the new values to admire. Enter the “self-made man”. This notion became the “natural” way for men to be in the world.  And to this day, we still hear versions of the idea, from figures like Jordan Peterson who states, “men are naturally business-like, organized and capitalistic.” 

Historian Anthony Rotundo says capitalism not only affected wives and children but also men’s relationships with each other.

“If you look at a picture of an American college football team from the 1880’s or ’90s, you see men randomly arranged in a room, draped on each other. Someone’s arm on someone’s shoulder, a hand on the knee of a teammate. Then, 20 years later, you see team shots and you get men neatly arranged in rows… like ice cubes in a tray.” 

B J Scott, W T F Macdonald, R F Popham, G D Pidgeon, middle row left to right ñ J C Gow, T P F Campbell, A H G Kerry, A L Hoise, C B Johnson and seated M Mackinnon and C H Arkwright. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
A 1912 portrait of the Oxford University soccer team. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images )

In the Victorian era, it seemed everyone was worried about boys. Mothers were the primary parent, and school teachers were all female — as were Sunday school instructors.

A common perception developed that boys were becoming effete. So a conversation developed about clothing.  Perhaps young boys and girls should not wear dresses and jumpers. 

Historian Joe Poletti tells us that back then, “boys wore red as red was considered a powerful colour, while girls wore “pale, ethereal blue.” 

With cultural concerns mounting about boys and “manliness,” parents soon decided that blue was the colour of power and that’s been that way ever since. 

A photograph of Franklin Delano Roosevelt at age 2 1/2
A young Franklin Roosevelt in 1884, age two and half. (Wikimedia)

Making men out of boys

In the early 20th century, once again, great concern about the welfare of boys became a cultural flashpoint. 

The Boy Scouts announced: “boys suffer from shaky nerves and doubtful vitality.” J.H. Kellogg agreed. The health reformer believed his Corn Flakes could make men out of boys. 

Kimmel says Kellogg went even further by launching an anti-masturbation campaign targeting boys because he believed it weakened them greatly. 

The cultural hysteria was widespread, some doctors prescribed that men eat rare steak twice a day. 

4th March 1974:  A father holds his baby on one arm and the Kellogg's Cornflakes on the other, whilst shopping at a Foodtown Supermarket in Lewisham, London.  (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)
‘James Kellogg went way beyond cereals. He created a sanatorium in Battle Creek, Michigan. And he had all of these remedies to basically pump up men,’ says sociologist Michael Kimmel. (Evening Standard/Getty Images)

Kimmel adds the early days of the Calgary Stampede was another effort to masculinize society. He says the invention of the dude ranch was meant for city slickers to get back to their wild roots and re-experience authentic manhood. 

“Let’s go back to the rough and hardy ways, the ropin’ and ridin’ sort of thing, shootin’.  Well, that whole idea was a creation,” Kimmel explained.

“That’s the language that we use today, too.  We have to restore, reclaim, retrieve masculinity. It’s somehow been lost and we have to get it back, right? Make masculinity great again!”

Guests in this episode:

Michael Kimmel is one of the world’s leading experts on men and masculinities.  Among his many books are Manhood in America, Angry White Men, The Politics of Manhood, The Gendered Society and the best seller Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men. With funding from the MacArthur Foundation, he founded the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities at Stony Brook University in 2013. 

Mary Beard is a fellow emerita of classics at Cambridge University and the author of Confronting the Classics.

Anthony Rotundo is the Alfred E. Stearns instructor in history and social sciences at Phillips Academy Andover. His book is American Manhood: Transitions in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era.

Jacqueline Murray is professor emerita of history at the University of Guelph. She is the author of Love, Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages.

Simon Goldhill is a lecturer in classical archaeology at the University of Sheffield and the author of Love, Sex and Tragedy: How the Ancient World Shapes Our Lives.

Michael Kaufman has spent a lifetime as an activist, writer and speaker, addressing issues about masculinity and how to transform mens’ lives, including The Time has Come: Why Men Must Join the Gender Equality Revolution

Angus McLaren is a professor emeritus of history at the University of Victoria and has written The Trials of Masculinity, amongst other books.

Eva Keuls is a classics professor at the University of Minnesota, and the author of The Reign of the Phallus: Sexual Politics in Ancient Athens. 

Tanner Mirrlees is an associate professor and an undergraduate program director of Communication and Digital Media Studies at Ontario Tech University.

*Man up! The Masculinity Crisis is a three-part series produced by Mary O’Connell.

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