Saturday, November 29, 2008

"Hysterical Men: The Hidden History of Male Nervous Illness" by Mark S. Micale

An interesting book review from The Chicago Tribune that challenges the traditional view that men are stoic and only women suffer from emotional issues. It's about time this myth is dispelled.

"Hysterical Men: The Hidden History of Male Nervous Illness" by Mark S. Micale

The James Bond image is a masculine myth. Male psyches get shaken and stirred. But society didn't want it that way.

When times get pretty tough, the tough can't be pretty.

They can't be female, that is. Because at crunch time, women—according to myths, songs, poems, movies and some three centuries of medical opinion—are flighty and dithery and nervous, prone to fainting and screaming and panicking. Not exactly what you want in a crisis.

What you want is a man: A hard-nosed and clear-eyed man, holding his emotions firmly in check. What you want is James Bond: all fist, no feeling.

But if an associate professor of history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign gets his way, Bond might be out of business. Or at least forced to be a little more sensitive when he blows away the bad guy.

"James Bond sees himself as totally motivated by rationality and calculation, and hiding his emotions," said Mark S. Micale, author of the newly published "Hysterical Men: The Hidden History of Male Nervous Illness" (Harvard University Press). "Popular culture helps generate ideals of behavior for men and women. It's a pool of images we draw upon."

And throughout much of history, Micale added in an interview, those images—backed up by a male-dominated medical profession and the fledgling field of psychiatry—included a strictly enforced gender breakdown: Woman got hysterical. Men—allegedly—didn't.

Even the word "hysteria" is derived from the Greek word for uterus or womb "and served for the millennia of medical history as a male-authored commentary, often blatant in its misogyny, on women," he writes in his book. That led to the over-diagnosis of neurotic illnesses among women and the ignoring of such maladies among men.

Why did physicians from the 17th through the late 19th Century go along with the erroneous notion that only women were susceptible to nervous illnesses? Because it served what some saw as the greater good: a stable society. "The critical construction of a civilized, respectable and rational male subject," Micale writes, "was crucial to the ascent of middle-class politics and economics across much of Europe.

"Widespread medical recognition of rampant neurotic weakness in the male sex obviously would have undermined the image of a strong, mature, self-possessed species that in turn was entitled to master the rest of the world," Micale continues.

As he has done in previous books on the history of psychiatry, Micale traces the ways that the medical profession reinforced the dominant paradigm of stout-hearted men and helpless, fluttering females. Only in the 20th Century were those stereotypes challenged. "Popular culture today is going through this amazing reassessment of what masculinity is," Micale declares.

Yet such a change would have terrified Freud's forebears.

"To explore the possibility that hysteria was not a woman-only disorder," Micale writes, "risked uncovering the elements of mental and emotional 'femininity' in the 'male' psyche itself."

Wait a minute. Is he calling Bond a sissy?

No comments: