Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Book Review: Manly Traditions: The Folk Roots of American Masculinities

This is an interesting, though brief, book review from Western Folklore, by Goodwin, Joseph P.

From the publisher's promotion:

Take this test. You think today's sensitive, caring man is: (a) a myth, (b) an oxymoron, or (c) a moron. No matter whether you laugh at this bit of folk humor, its wide circulation bespeaks a modern predicament for American men.

Men's "manly" traditions have been shaken in an age of "sensitivity." Some observers have even referred to a crisis of masculinity for a new generation of boys. In Manly Traditions, established scholars in the fields of folklore, men's studies, and gender studies identify the folkloric roots of what it means to be a man in America. In a lively volume they examine the traditions men inherit and adapt for their own purposes in contemporary life.
That first part is interesting for what it does say about our culture concerning men - not much has changed since the 2005 publication of the book. We are still often stereotyped into these limited categories.

This was the first book to look at male folklore, so in that sense it is very important in the slow but continuous effort to build a tradition of masculinity studies.

Manly Traditions: The Folk Roots of American Masculinities

Western Folklore, Winter 2009 by Goodwin, Joseph P

Manly Traditions: The Folk Roots of American Masculinities. Edited by Simon J. Bronner. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005. Pp. xxv 383, acknowledgments, introduction, photographs, illustrations, notes, bibliographies, afterword by Alan Dundes, index. $24.95 paper)

Traditionally, folklore studies treated men's culture as unmarked, while women's culture was subsumed under men's. In the 1970s, however, feminist folklorists began studying women's folklore on its own terms (Mills 1993). In 1983 Ronald Baker chaired an American Folklore Society panel called "Men and Manliness," and later called for studies of men's folklore on its own terms. The present collection of essays, Manly Traditions, has now been assembled by Simon Bronner in honor of Baker's many years as a folklore scholar. (Disclosure: I was to have been a contributor to this volume, but for personal reasons withdrew from the project.) In keeping with Baker's call, Bronner and his contributors examine men's folklore on its own terms rather than as generic and unmarked. The first part of the book focuses on typically public "enactments of manliness," while the second half features "more private rhetoric of folkloric communication" (xix) . This approach could make Manly Traditions useful as a text in (for example) courses on masculinity, courses on men's folklore, or courses that compare men's and women's folk traditions.

The editor's introduction situates the book within folklore scholarship, and his essay "Menfolk" examines "what . . . constitutes a masculine text and setting" (26), tying the discussion into points made by other contributors to the anthology. In both of these essays Bronner suggests that folklore plays a significant role in the construction of masculinity. Gary Alan Fine asks whether men's or women's folklore changes when women join traditionally male workplaces. Tom Mould explores how the differences between men's and women's "'stepping' staged performances of dance and march routines" - are used to distinguish masculine from feminine presentations of self (xix) . Norma E. Canni examines the role of folklore in masculine identity formation along the Texas-Mexico border. Taiko, a style of energetic performance on gigantic drums, is designed to counter stereotypes of Japanese American men as effeminate, according to Hideyo Konagaya. Anthony P. Avery presents androgyny at raves as masculine, but different from traditional notions of masculinity, while Mickey Weems writes about the circuit, in which DJs drive dancers to ecstatic performance. Both of these "alternative masculinities" explicitly reject violence, and it is interesting to contrast the de-emphasis of the body at raves with the hypermasculine physicality of the circuit. Jay Mechling uses feminist theory to explore the anxieties, misogyny, and other themes common in men's culture and to explain why so much of men's humor is focused on the penis. Greg Kelley also discusses anxieties in his study of men's stories of squandered wishes.

W. F. H. Nicolaisen examines positive and negative depictions of men in texts from Jan Harold Brunvand's legend collections. The late W. K. McNeil shows ways in which mountain men play with others' stereotypes of them. Bronner argues that traditional toys that men carve with enormous penises "confront the impotence and infirmity of their aging set against the public association of manliness with youthful sexual prowess" (xxii) . The final essay, jointly written by Bronner and Baker, considers relationships among three recitations and their role in proving the reciter's masculinity to other males. The volume concludes with an afterword by the late Alan Dundes, calling for studies of masculinities in other cultures and presenting a bibliographic review to guide future scholars. Dundes also offers an analysis of cockfighting leading up to the question of the value of studying the folklore of masculinity. The conclusion is classic Dundes.

The jargon in a couple of the essays could prove difficult for undergraduate students (and possibly lay readers as well). A few other quibbles: Bronner suggests that social fraternities developed in the early twentieth century (9) , when they actually date back to 1825. He writes of the concept of the "metrosexual" as developed in the 1990s, one attribute of which he says is the wearing of earrings by men who previously would not have done so for fear of appearing gay (37-38). Yet fraternity men in the Midwest were already wearing earrings in the early 1980s. A couple of passages in the essays by Canto and Nicolaisen seem to be jumbled or to have lost parts of their text (128, first full paragraph; 257, last full paragraph, last sentence). Minor points - but factual inaccuracies and uneven copyediting can threaten the credibility of an essay, as when Mechling writes, "the king's castration might be considered disastrous only from a heterocentric perspective, for the joke incorporates presumably the deepest fantasy of male homosexuality - father-son incest" (235-36). Many male homosexuals would contest this "deepest fantasy" and would ask who may be presuming it. Mechling may have made this claim in reference to Freud, but if so, he (or the editor) ought to have framed it as such. Given the significance of this collection of essays, though, such complaints are trivial. As the first book on the folklore of masculinity, Manly Traditions has already assumed an important place.


Mills, Margaret. 1993. Feminist Theory and the Study of Folklore: A Twenty-Year Trajectory toward Theory. Western Folklore 52:173-92.

Joseph P. Goodwin, Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana

Copyright California Folklore Society Winter 2009
Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company.

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