Thursday, May 6, 2010

Thoughts Toward a Developmental Model of Masculine Identity, Part Seven: Why the Stereotype of Modern Masculinity Is so Hard to Transcend

Some of us have been working in our lives to transcend traditional ideas of masculinity, and even help others to do the same. But this is much harder than one might think. In integral theory, Ken Wilber (Kosmic Consciousness) has talked about how the center of gravity of the culture in which one lives acts as an anchor on growth, making it very hard to move more than 1/2 to a full stage above the cultural center of gravity. (He has since stopped talking about this in his promotion of 3rd Stage nonsense.)

What follows is an attempt to make sense of this in terms of masculine identity development.

[Part one looked at some racial identity models as a foundation for how to construct a gender identity model, part two looked at the existing literature of male development (and the lack of anything comprehensive), and part three looked at how attachment styles might impact masculine identity. Most recently, part four looked at horizontal and vertical dimensions of individualism and collectivism. Part five looked at development and nature. Part Six looks at modern, postmodern, and integral versions of masculinity.]

I've just started reading The Image of Man: The Creation of Modern Masculinity (1996) by George L. Mosse. The author maintains a very narrow focus in this book, looking very specifically at the evolution and manifestation of our "modern ideal of masculinity" over the last 150 or so years.
[D]uring its relatively short life—from the second half of the eighteenth century onwards—the manly ideal changed very little, projecting much the same so-called manly virtues, such as will power, honor, and courage. These and other so-called attributes of manliness that fill this book remain near the center of our language to this very day. There have been no dramatic transformations, even if towards the end of the twentieth century the pace of change has accelerated. (p. 3-4)
Mosse focused on the masculine stereotype and its socio-political ramifications. The Image of Man is . . .
concerned with the evolution of a stereotype that became normative, and not with the multitude of personal definitions of manhood or even with an ideal such as that of the "sensitive man" which informed the romantic movement at the same time that the building blocks of the dominant modern masculine stereotype were put into place. There are many ways in which the history of modern masculinity can be explored and focused: it is possible, for example, to concentrate upon several of its attributes, such as will power or self-restraint ("real men do not cry"), and yet, in order to get closer to the way in which manhood was actually perceived at the time we must see it as a totality. Masculinity was regarded as of one piece from its very beginning: body and soul, outward appearance and inward virtue were supposed to form one harmonious whole, a perfect construct where every part was in its place. Modern masculinity was a stereotype, presenting a standardized mental picture, "the unchanging representation of another," as Webster's Dictionary defines stereotypes. (p. 4-5)
One of the points he makes in this first chapter is that the stereotype of manliness was considered good and virtuous, an unchanging ideal for all men to look toward. Much more so than the feminine ideal, it has mostly remained static for more than 150 years, while the feminine ideal has evolved during that same time period.

A Contemporary Example: Metrosexuals vs. Retrosexuals

Because it is static, and because it is a stereotype (which is necessarily unchanging), connecting the masculine ideal with nationalism - or the national ethos - gives it the power to (1) define the national value system, especially when men were seen as the model and women were an afterthought, and (2) act as an anchor on cultural change, pulling the culture back into the conservative definition of masculinity when change (such as long hair on men in the 1960s and 1970s, or ear rings in the 1980s, not to mention the metrosexuals of the last decade) threatens to pull the value system too far into new territory. It serves to restrict personal freedom and expression:
Though the masculine stereotype could exist regardless of political and ideological background, as a stereotype it necessarily restricted individual freedom, because, as we mentioned before, stereotypes were classified not individually but in groups; manliness and what it stood for hardly varied, always reflecting society's traditional values. Thus when society showed a greater tolerance for the so-called abnormal or attempted to legitimize the unconventional—as in the twentieth century—manliness pulled in the reins. At that point, just as it had helped cut short the open-ended process of Bildung [the shaping of the human being with regard to his humanity, ed.] earlier, it became a conservative force reflecting and upholding the traditional standards of a society that threatened to depart from the very norms that had sustained it for such a long time. (p. 8)
Since I mentioned to metrosexual trend above, we need look no further for an example of exactly how this conservative masculine stereotype acts to pull men back into line. The term actually goes back to 1994, when Mark Simpson coined the word on November 15, 1994, in The Independent (via Wikipedia):
The typical metrosexual is a young man with money to spend, living in or within easy reach of a metropolis – because that's where all the best shops, clubs, gyms and hairdressers are. He might be officially gay, straight or bisexual, but this is utterly immaterial because he has clearly taken himself as his own love object and pleasure as his sexual preference. Particular professions, such as modeling, waiting tables, media, pop music and, nowadays, sport, seem to attract them but, truth be told, like male vanity products and herpes, they're pretty much everywhere.

For some time now, old-fashioned (re)productive, repressed, unmoisturized heterosexuality has been given the pink slip by consumer capitalism. The stoic, self-denying, modest straight male didn't shop enough (his role was to earn money for his wife to spend), and so he had to be replaced by a new kind of man, one less certain of his identity and much more interested in his image – that's to say, one who was much more interested in being looked at (because that's the only way you can be certain you actually exist). A man, in other words, who is an advertiser's walking wet dream.
As this newish model of masculinity (I say newish because it has existed in the past in various forms, from the Dandy to the aristocratic ideal of masculinity) has become more mainstream and well-known, the backlash has been swift and extensive.

Recently, a movement calling themselves retrosexuals has risen up to oppose everything metrosexuals stand for and, in fact, anything other than a very conservative, traditional stereotype of masculinity. Again, it was Mark Simpson who coined the phrase in 2003. A more recent Salon article offers the following observation:
That's right, fellas -- put away your eyebrow tweezers and cancel your appointment at Aveda; it's time to return to the barber with his butch-ass straight razors, listen to jazz (hopefully the authentic Negro kind), shop at Brooks Brothers, and wear "authentic 1960s Florsheims" and a "trilby cocked just so" (whatever that means). But wait, being a retrosexual is not just about dressing like a fictional character from a popular period-themed TV show (of course, I'm talking about "V"), it's also about returning to a time when men were men, and women were proud to be frog-marched around town on their squires' Houndstooth-covered arm. That glorious time when men could chivalrously open doors for women (especially attractive ones) without fear of vicious reprisals from angry door-holder-hating feminists. A simpler time when it was clear what it meant to be a man and what his responsibilities were. Come on, I know lots of guys who wear Brooks Brothers clothing and listen to jazz; they just don't have any pretensions about what it means for their masculinity.
But it goes much further than this - and you know it's getting serious when a Miller Lite commercial is positioning itself as the masculine light beer in a new series of commercials (urging men to "man up"):

But it doesn't stop with Miller Lite. The Super Bowl commercial from Dodge Charger this year equates masculinity with a classic muscle car, and the entry from Flo TV equated a man shopping with his girlfriend as spineless. Many other products are positioning themselves as products that "real" men use, not metrosexuals or otherwise transgressive males.

These are just the latest examples.

Retrosexuals in American History

The last serious cultural upheaval in masculinity prior to what we have seen in the 1990s and 2000s came in the 1960s and early 1970s. Men became hippies, grew out their hair, supported free love and equal rights for women, protested the Vietnam war, and preached peace and flower power.

So who were some of the biggest cultural icons of masculinity outside the hippy movement? John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, The Marlboro Man and James Bond.
Eastwood - The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
"James Bond"

The prevalence and popularity of these images in the 1960s and 1970s served to offset and reign in the liberal changes occurring in the culture. The more powerful a transgressive version of masculinity becomes, the more powerful the backlash will be (we are seeing this now in the US with the anti-gay rights movement from the Christian right-wing).

The classic example of retro masculinity in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit from the 1950s, a stereotype of restricted masculinity now being revived in Mad Men on TV. The main character in the film (Gregory Peck as Tom Rath) is a WWII veteran struggling to succeed in the post-war world, haunted by the war, by his infidelity in the war, and various other family issues. But he wants the middle class life style being promoted at the time, so he works hard and becomes alienated from his family.

When the option presents itself to make more money and continue down the path his is already on, he rejects the promotion to work normal hours and spend more time with his family.

The lesson here is more subtle, but it reinforces the masculine ideals of virtue, family, integrity, and service (to country). This was at a time when some men were seeking wealth at the expense of family and others were dropping out and founding the Beatnik movement.

You can look back and see other examples, such as the Boy Scouts (self-reliance, initiative, courage, helpfulness, integrity, and resourcefulness) or even the novelist Jack London, who became the ideal of masculinity for the Socialist movement in America, as well as for those who knew nothing of his politics but enjoyed his adventure novels.

Masculine Stereotypes and Nationalism

Mosse makes the following observation about nationalism and the masculine stereotype:
Nationalism, a movement which began and evolved parallel to modern masculinity, will play an important role as such an educator, for it adopted the masculine stereotype as one means of its self-representation. However, in the last resort, as we shall see throughout this book, it was modern society itself that diffused the ideal of masculinity. Middle-class society helped to create and supported the masculine stereotype that differed from the aristocratic ideal of masculinity as it yielded to bourgeois sensibilities. (p. 7)
His book focuses mostly on Europe (and especially Germany with its notion of the Fatherland), until the last chapter, but even in the United States the ideal American is a rugged individualist who is self-motivated and self-sufficient. Clearly this is the masculine stereotype as the ideal, and male as the true American.

To a certain extent, G.I. Joe represents both the masculine ideal (introduced in 1964), as well as the American male in service of his nation. The same can be said of many characters played by John Wayne and the general public image he held as the rugged masculine man.

G.I. Joe 1964

G.I. Joe was "America's Movable Fighting Man."
G.I. Joe was not a "doll" he was an "action figure."

Many of these same values of rugged individualism and self-sufficiency - including loyalty to country, faith in God, and cherishing "traditional" values - date back to the founding of the country (the minute men), through the settling of the West and the creation of America's industrial empire, and later "saving the world" from Nazism and Communism.

Much of what we think of as the masculine stereotype is also the American stereotype AND the epitome of American values. This is crucial in that each is dependent on the other for its maintenance and survival.

The Masculine Ideal Is Embedded in the Cultural Ideal

If we were to drastically change the masculine ideal, as so many of us are trying to do now, it would amount to American having to redefine itself as a nation. When Barack Obama was elected president, many other people around the world thought this might signal a shift in America's international identity, and to an extent it has - but much has also stayed the same.

Frank R. Cooper, of Suffolk University, asks in a 2009 article if Obama is America's first unisex president.
He was regularly called upon to be more aggressive in responding to attacks and more masculine in general. As a result, Obama could not be too masculine because that would have triggered the Bad Black Man stereotype but he could not be too feminine because that would have looked unpresidential.

Obama solved that dilemma by adopting a “unisex” style. He was a candidate who was designed to be suitable to either gender. I believe Obama’s unisex performance on the world’s biggest stage suggests that we are all more free to perform our race and our gender as we see fit than we had previously believed. (p. 633)
There may be some truth to this observation. The rise of retrosexuals, very conservative versions of masculinity in commercials, television, and movies, and in radical politics, domestic terrorism and anti-government sentiment, all suggest that a great many Americans are rejecting both Obama's supposed socialism and his more postmodern masculinity.

Ronald Levant offers a glimpse of modern masculine ideals in his article, The New Psychology of Men. Here is a quote:
Traditional masculinity ideology is thought to be a multidimensional construct. Brannon (David & Brannon, 1976) identified four components of traditional masculinity ideology: that men should not be feminine (labeled by Brannon as "no sissy stuff"); that men should strive to be respected for successful achievement ("the big wheel"); that men should never show weakness ("the sturdy oak"); and that men should seek adventure and risk, even accepting violence if necessary ("give 'em hell"). These dimensions are assessed by the Brannon Masculinity Scale (Brannon & Juni, 1984). More recently, Levant et al. (1992) developed the Male Role Norms Inventory ( MRNI ), which defines traditional masculinity ideology in terms of the following seven dimensions: the requirement to avoid all things feminine; the injunction to restrict one's emotional life; the emphasis on toughness and aggression; the injunction to be self-reliant; the emphasis on achieving status above all else; nonrelational, objectifying attitudes toward sexuality; and fear and hatred of homosexuals. (See Thompson and Pleck, 1995, for other definitions of traditional masculinity ideology and the associated instruments). (p. 260-261)
According to Levant's Male Role Norms Inventory criteria, Obama - and a whole host of younger American males - are not actualizing these seven criteria, spelled out more clearly here:
1. the requirement to avoid all things feminine
2. the injunction to restrict one's emotional life
3. the emphasis on toughness and aggression
4. the injunction to be self-reliant
5. the emphasis on achieving status above all else
6. nonrelational, objectifying attitudes toward sexuality
7. fear and hatred of homosexuals
If one were to look more closely at the Retrosexual Code that showed up online last year, posted by the Radical Conservative blog (dedicated to the eradication of liberalism), it looks very much in line with these seven items. It seeks to uphold the traditional masculine stereotype as an antidote against the postmodern exploration of multiple and non-traditional masculinities.

Despite the efforts of young men coming from more liberal families to transgress these limiting traditional values, the 150 year old stereotype holds strong.
The recent youth culture continues to thrive side by side with normative masculinity, but there are as yet few signs that it will triumph over the needs of traditional society. However, the battle is still joined, and the unanswerable question is not whether true manliness will be overturned but just how far it can bend. Here the women's movement is of prime importance, for it raises the question of whether the masculine stereotype can survive a downfall of patriarchy. Given the greater equality that prevails among men and women today, however, especially in the family, the manly ideal has still managed to hold its own. That ideal was never merely dependent upon power relationships but fed upon the whole network of manners and morals and the social ideals we have mentioned so often. The importance of modern masculinity as part of the cement of modern society makes the manly ideal difficult to defeat. History cannot so easily be undone. (Mosse, p. 193)
My point with all of this is that we cannot escape the modern masculine stereotype as easily as simply getting more men to adopt more progressive values and worldviews. Those values are so deeply enmeshed in the fabric of American culture that we will have to transform the entire culture in order to uproot the stereotypical masculine ideal that Mosse writes about in his book.

These is a tall order - time moves slowly for stereotypes because they rely on being static concepts, not evolving systems. This is not to say we should not try - but we need to understand that change requires much more than changing a few men through men's groups (which do help), but it requires changing the culture at large as well.

Cooper, R.F. (2009). Our First Unisex President?: Black Masculinity and Obama's Feminine Side. Denver University Law Review; Vol. 86: 633-661.
Levant, R. (1996). The New Psychology of Men. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice; Vol. 27, No. 3: 259-265.

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