Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Defending Multiple Masculinities with an Integrated Model

Readers of this blog will know that I take a multiple masculinities approach to gender, arguing that there is no one right way to be masculine, nor to be a man. I have held this view for quite some time, but it became more grounded in gender theory when my friend Luke Fullager sent me off to read R.W. Connell's classic text, Masculinities (1995, 2005).

This has been and will likely continue to be the dominant model as more and more of the gender studies world assumes a social construction model (gender is not a biological given, nor it is a binary either/or option, but rather is socially constructed and culturally determined). However, not everyone agrees.

Among those I respect who hold this position is Joseph Gelfer, who blogs at his self-named site, and who is author of Numen, Old Men: Contemporary Masculine Spiritualities and the Problem of Patriarchy (2009) and the in-process The Masculine Conspiracy (4 chapters online so far).

A blogger named Gaia Charis, who also blogs under her own name, has launched a three-part series called Multiple Masculinities: the Postmodern Emperor's New Clothes - the first part of which is called Multiple Masculinities: The No-Singularity Multiplicity. She does not accept the multiplicity model, and this three-part series is her refutation of that theoretical approach.

In this essay I argue that the concept of ‘multiple masculinities’ as derived from, and defined in, the work of its original theoretical proponent Bob Connell, is fundamentally flawed and that the evidence of this lies both in his exposition of the term and in the self-negating outcome of the progression of the concept through the works of subsequent gender researchers and theorists to the present day.

I present and explore both this assertion and its implications across three discrete but interlinking sections.

The first, ‘Multiple Masculinities: The No-Singularity Multiplicity’, examines the faultlines inherent in the original conceptualisation of ‘multiple masculinities’ theory, charts the confusion engendered by its deficiencies and posits its eventual outcome as self-negation.

She begins by quoting Gelfer, which is partly why I mentioned his work. He also has responded to her post, which I may or may not get to below (I'm not sure where this is heading).

Charis offers this statement from Connell's book where he (I am using the male pronoun here because Connell was Robert when the book was written - Connell became Raewyn in 2007 following her sex/gender transition):
‘Masculinity’ is not a coherent object about which a generalising science can be produced.... If we broaden the angle of vision, we can see masculinity, not as an isolated object, but as an aspect of a larger structure.

This demands an account of the larger structure and how masculinities are located in it.’ (Connell, 2005, p. 67)
A few pages later, Connell attempted a simple definition of masculinity, but one that requires multiple variables. Charis takes issue with that jump Connell makes from a singular definition to, because of the many variables that create multiple permutations, a definition of multiple masculinities:

‘Masculinity, to the extent that it can be briefly defined at all, is simultaneously a place in gender relations, the practices through which men and women engage that place in gender, and the effects of these practices in bodily experience, personality and culture. (Connell, p. 71)

The singularity that opens his statement becomes, via his definition, a multiplicity because of the indeterminate number of permutations of the variables inherent in the definition and, in becoming a multiplicity, the existence of the singularity is negated.

Or to put it another way......from the alleged impossibility of defining masculinity as a singularity the conclusion is drawn that masculinity can only exist as a multiplicity. This assertion then logically removes all possibility of verifying those ‘multiplicities’ as definitively ‘masculine’ as it negates the existence of any ‘masculine’ parameter by which to assess them.

The statement, and indeed the whole book, asserts an irreconcilable and illogical paradox...that a singularity, masculinity, can only exist and be understood as a plurality, masculinities.

Charis argues that this definition is the beginning of the end for Connell's model, and she offers two primary reasons:

1) Saying that masculinity is plural means that no one can ever "pinpoint" a sense of what exactly masculinity is; and

2) Saying that masculinity is multiple in its manifestations means that it can manifest as anything at all, including the feminine.

She feels that these two "facts" lead to a third, that "masculinity appears to have no logical, definitional connection to maleness," which she believes is countered by the widely assumed (though often without reflection, in my opinion) working definition that most people would adopt as true: "manly, possessing qualities or characteristics considered typical or appropriate to a man."

She argues that there cannot be a multiplicity without a singularity:
Logically, a plural (whether Postmodernistically relative or not) cannot exist without a singular. Thus how, for example, do we know if ‘masculinities’ are being manifested or enacted unless either we or its actors have some concept of a state of ‘masculine’ being or ‘masculinity’ by which to assess any given social enactment, regardless of whether that masculinity is defined relationally or contextually or not.
This statement is based on a complete (again, in my perspective) misunderstanding of the concept of multiple masculinities as a rejection of hegemonic masculinity.

The idea of masculinities that Connell and others propose does not exist in a vacuum - the concept of multiplicity comes as a result of rejecting the hegemonic model that is dominant in the culture. Here is one brief definition of the hegemonic model from Andrew Smiler (2006) in "Introduction of Manifestations of Masculinity":
The currently dominant (or “hegemonic”) form of masculinity includes directives that men be emotionally stoic, take risks, seek status, and avoid anything that might be deemed either feminine or homosexual (e.g., David & Brannon, 1976; Levant, 1996; O’Neil, Helms, Gable, David, & Wrightsman 1986).
The hegemonic perspective asserts that there is only one version of masculinity in which all males in the culture "should" participate. Connell and others reject that notion and assert that there are many forms of masculinity that can be enacted, thus the idea of multiplicity.

However, by virtue of defining multiplicity in opposition to hegemonic, all of these theorists (and that includes me) give weight to the hegemonic model by saying, "Yes, but . . . ." So what we really have is not an absence of the singular masculine and an ungrounded or unanchored multiplicity but, rather, a monolithic and essentially pre-reflective masculinity that is the status quo and a contention that this pre-reflective, hegemonic model is not fully inclusive and does not fit all men.

I can't speak for anyone else, so I'll speak for me - this is my theoretical perspective.

For a great percentage of the population, the traditional, Western ideal of masculinity, as exemplified by John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Chuck Norris, Ted Nuggent, Colin Powell, or even Charlton Heston, is fully acceptable and an ideal to aspire toward. Many but not all of these men (generalizations) are socially conservative, Christian, NRA members, enjoy NASCAR and most other sports, and may have served in the military - they are patriotic, serving God and country.

These men (more generalizations to follow) tend to be reticent to share their feelings, would prefer never to appear weak or vulnerable, value qualities like honor and respect, and generally believe that moral truth comes from a higher power, such as God. Most, but not all, are somewhat tolerant of homosexuality but oppose gay marriage. They value the traditional nuclear family and consider themselves the "bread winner" while their wives (who also may be employed) are the homemakers.

In general, they are good, solid, law-abiding Americans - and they rarely if ever reflect on what it means to be a man.

Then there are the rest of us. For one reason or another, we have encountered some cognitive dissonance around the idea of masculinity - we may be gay or bisexual, we may be creative and sensitive, we may have been exposed to and reflected on feminist ideas, we may have have been terrible at sports or exceptionally intelligent, we may have been insecure or unsuccessful with girls - any one of those can cause a young man to examine what it means to be a man.

If we continued to explore, we may have discovered that there are some lesbian women who identify as masculine - as man-like - and who definitely carry masculine energy in addition to their male attire. Or we may know some gay men who are extremely effeminate while others are extremely masculine (often a caricature, of sorts, like the Biker guy in Village People).

These are all enactments of masculinity - which is what we are getting at in terms of multiple masculinities - there are many ways to embrace (to enact) masculinity, not simply the dominant one that is widely agreed upon. Masculinity can be seen as an enactment for one simple reason - masculinity is relational, it requires an other by which to define itself. Masculinity of any kind does not exist without femininity (Connell, 2005, p. 68).

This is important because our notion of masculinity (the hegemonic variety) has not been around that long - maybe a few hundred years at most. Before then, men and women were seen as different, but not in qualitative terms as much as in quantitative terms: women were seen to be less than men, physically weaker, intellectually inferior, and so on (Connell, p. 68).

Connell credits the 19th Century idea of separate spheres, the idea that men and women live in different spaces (women "own" the domestic realm and men "own" the public sphere) - an idea that may first have been elaborated by Alexis de Tocqueville (1840):
[Tocqueville] alluded to the separation of male and female spheres in the course of his contrasting and impressionistic portraits of young middle-class American women. The breakdown of aristocratic government, he argued, had important implications for family life in that patriarchal authority was impaired, leaving young women with a high degree of independence, which encouraged a high degree of self-confidence. Yet when one of those same young women married, Tocqueville reported, "the inexorable opinion of the public carefully circumscribes [her] within the narrow circle of domestic interests and duties and forbids her to step beyond it." In this sentence he provided the physical image (the circle) and the interpretation (that it was a limiting boundary on choices) that would continue to characterize the metaphor. (Kerber, 1997, "Separate spheres, female worlds, women's place: The rhetoric of women's history")
It is from this space that we get the qualitative difference between men and women, interestingly it was during this same period that the first rumblings for women's rights were getting louder, partly as a result of the new affluence brought to the household by the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution, which took men away from the home and gave women more autonomy.

But I digress.

Connell identified four main ways of defining masculinity (p. 68-71):
  • Essentialist: Masculinity is defined by some specific quality, such as Lionel Tiger's idea that "true maleness" is "elicited by hard and heavy phenomena" (Tiger, 1969, p. 211).
  • Positivist: Masculine is what men are - more precisely, they are homo sapiens with an XY chromosome pair and not an XX pair. This is the source of binary sex/gender thinking.
  • Normative: Masculinity is what men "ought to be." This is the social norm (often exemplified by some figure, like John Wayne) of what men should be. Connell cites Robert Brannon's "no sissy stuff, be a big wheel, be a sturdy oak, and give 'em hell."
  • Semiotic: Masculine is defined as not feminine - Connell: "In the semiotic opposition of masculinity and femininity, masculinity is the unmarked term, the place of symbolic authority" (p. 70).
He further states that no masculinity can arise without a system of gender relations. And this brings us to where Charis begins her argument against Connell, but with a lot more context. So let's see the whole quote:
Rather than attempting to define masculinity as an object (a natural character type, a behavioral average, a norm), we need to focus on the processes and relationships through which men and women conduct gendered lives. ‘Masculinity,' to the extent that it can be briefly defined at all, is simultaneously a place in gender relations, the practices through which men and women engage that place in gender, and the effects of these practices in bodily experience, personality and culture. (Connell, p. 71)
This quote feels different in full than it did as presented by Charis. What Connell is saying here is that masculinity is not a noun, it's a verb, not a thing but a process - an enactment of the relational space between socially constructed notions of gender. In his conception, masculinity and femininity are gender projects.

Charis finally does acknowledge Connell's relational approach, but she horribly misunderstands it, as this passage reveals:
By defining masculinity as essentially multiple Connell laid the foundation for the day when at least some of its manifestations of multiplicity may come to either fully or partially encompass ‘femininity’ thus both negating itself and revealing its own illusory nature. The true ‘crisis of masculinity’ and the point at which Connell’s assertion that...

‘Masculinity does not exist except in contrast with femininity.’16

.....would need to be amended to the more accurate,

‘Masculinity does not logically exist.’

Which does, however, require the caveat...

....Except in the service of those who have the power to perpetuate this illusion for their own benefit and those whose sense of selfhood is dependent upon it...

....the former being founded on the latter and both of which are discussed in the next section of this essay.

The idea that multiple enactments of masculinities coming to full expression would either partially consume femininity or negate themselves entirely is semantic gamesmanship.

Tackling the first "threat": There is some validity in the assumption that a theory of masculinities - along with a theory of feminities - would partially consume each other, which is not a bad thing at all. The neuroscience seems to suggest that while there are fundamental differences between men and women, much of the perceived difference is culturally constructed (see Lise Eliot and/or Cordelia Fine). Erasing some of the false differences would be a good thing.

We are different - biology dictates that - but a lot of differences have been exaggerated. If some men inhabit a space traditionally seen as feminine, so what? And if some women, like the above mentioned butch lesbians, inhabit a space that feels masculine, so what? That will not destroy femininity.

On "threat" #2: Accepting multiplicity does not mean that masculinity will collapse upon itself or cease to logically exist - that idea is based on her false idea that a theory of masculinities does not recognize the hegemoic masculinity it stands against (dealt with above). There is not, as she argues, a no-singularity multiplicity.

Her whole argument is based on a false "problematics of the no-singularity multiplicity paradox" - there is no such paradox, as demonstrated above.

To further round this out, Charis critiques Gelfer's model at the end of this first installment in her project, and he sees the issue much as I do:
Referring to the stretching of the meaning of multiple masculinities, Gaia concludes this first part of her essay with the claim that “the problem for the outside observer is that, from Connell all the way to Gelfer, we never found out what it was that was being stretched in the first place”. I’m not sure this is as mysterious as she suggests. What is being stretched (and in doing so, problematised) is the normative understanding of a singular masculinity that is commonly perceived to be biologically innate in and appropriate for men (sex role theory), and the power imbalances that have resulted through this in the form of patriarchy.
In his response, Gelfer is more charitable to her position that am I - he honors her project to reveal the illusion of gender, but rightfully suggests that most people are too embedded in their gender identity (a pre-reflexive perspective) to make any use of her ideas.

Integrating the options

As much as a I admire Connell's work in masculinities, and some of the more recent work as well, the model is not complete for me. I would like to suggest that all four of the masculinity definitions he presents, as well as the process/relational element he adds, constitute a developmental model (in rough outline).
  • Essentialist (ego stage): Masculinity is defined by some specific desirable quality.
  • Normative (ethnocentric stage): Masculinity is what men "ought to be" - the social norm.
  • Positivist (rational stage): Masculine is what men are - binary sex/gender thinking.
  • Semiotic (relativist stage): Masculine is defined as not feminine, a linguistic concept or abstraction more than a physical quality.
  • Relational (integrative stage): Masculinity is an embodied process of enactment in the relational space between socially constructed notions of gender.
Even this model feels incomplete to me - and I may not be thinking this through enough in my haste to get it written. Obviously, it's more complex than this. There is the whole issue of transgender that needs to be included, and the myriad ways that identity can be enacted.

Mostly I wanted to refute the main point of Charis's paper, since I did not find the argument convincing or useful to a better version of gender studies.

Maybe I should have waited to see where else she goes with it, but nah, I felt the drive to think this out. I'm sure I'll have more to say as she develops her ideas in future posts.


Connell, RW. (2005). Masculinities, 2nd ed. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Eliot, L. (2010). Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps -- And What We Can Do About It. New York: Mariner Books.

Fine, C. (2009). Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference. New York: W.W. Norton and Co.

Kerber, LK. (1997). Separate spheres, female worlds, women's place: The rhetoric of women's history. Toward an Intellectual History of Women: Essays. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Smiler, A. P. (2006). Introduction to manifestations of masculinity. Sex Roles, 55(9/10), 585-587. doi:10.1007/s11199-006-9114-z


Joseph said...

Gaia got a bit of conversation going though, which is good. Always useful to try and get the multiples masculinities message out of the academy: most regular folks will agree to it when pushed, but swiftly retreat into a singular model (typified, for example, but the continual use of the word “authentic” in regard to men and masculinity).

Sage said...

This was a dense piece to wade through. I finally believe I succeeded on my third attempt. Essentially I you on this one Bill. I have some issues with Connell work, similar to the one you mentioned. Based on what you have presented here I have no real motivation to read more of Charis' work. I do make it a point to read vast amounts of material from people who take very different perspectives on issues that are important to me. However, I have noticed, since I moved into my 50's I am much less interested in that pursuit anymore. I think Fox News is what really solidified it all for me...

Will Meek PhD said...

Wow, awesome article and well said!