The Independent cultural journal “¯”

to main page

Femininity - Masculinity

¯ archive


Carol Harrington

Phallic Masculinity as Chimera

© Carol Harrington, 2002

Feminist intellectual work has necessarily included analyses of masculinity as part of the study of the construction of gender. While the majority of academic analysts writing from a feminist intellectual perspective are women, there are also men interested in critical analysis of gender and in analysis of masculinity in particular. I use the term “feminist” here to describe scholarly work by men or women that criticizes gender relations as power relations, arguing for gender egalitarianism at both a social and interpersonal level. In the first section of this article I describe three major themes in feminist theories of masculinity in the Anglophone world: the gendering of bodies and phallic power, masculinity as performance and homophobia, and hegemonic masculinities. Taken together, these themes analyze the essence of hegemonic masculinity as the performance of phallic power. In the next section I apply this theoretical framework to two expressions of masculine identity that dominate public discourse in the Anglophone world: the hyper-masculine man and the authoritative father. These two masculine types, along with the specter of the homosexual as non-phallic man, have been central to struggles about masculinity in the late 20th and early 21st century; they also illustrate the tensions involved in the masculine sense of entitlement to phallic power. Men’s movements, responding to what they see as a contemporary “crisis in masculinity,” have been significant participants in these public discourses and struggles and in the final section I give an overview of these. I argue that the sense of crisis in masculinity they express is inherent to the association of masculinity with phallic power and entitlement. Phallic masculinity is a chimera, as long as masculinity is defined through authority most men will feel cheated and bitter, emasculated, and women will be excluded from equal access to authoritative social positions.

Phallic Masculinity as Performance

Gendered bodies and phallic masculinity

Most academic feminisms employ the concept of gender to draw a distinction between sex, as a biological attribute, and gender as the set of meanings cultures attach to the pre-given biological categories male and female. Some recent feminist work has criticized the biological/social dichotomy this conceptual distinction rests upon. The thrust of this critique is that we “read” bodies through the cultural dichotomy male/female, privileging genitals as symbols of gender essence. Much as human beings have constructed categories of race based on physical attributes, often in the form of elaborate taxonomies, so we construct a gender dichotomy because of the cultural significance we place on genitals. According to this view maleness and femaleness is not inherent to anatomy itself but a cultural meaning given to anatomy. Our experience of our bodies as male or female is saturated with gendered cultural meaning. Male and female bodies are thus produced through the masculine/feminine dichotomy that defines who is entitled to what kind of power according to their genitals.

Analyses of discourses about the penis have been a fruitful source of information for feminist explorations of masculinity since the penis is the defining anatomical marker of gender. The penis and the man have a synecdochal relationship: the penis is the part that represents the man. [1] The penis is most often imagined as phallus; as erect and powerful. Feminist analyses of mainstream discourses about male sexuality have shown the construction of the penis as imbued with strength and power and defining of sexuality. For example, through interviews and document analysis Potts shows that for most sexual health experts and heterosexuals penile hardness and activity define healthy heterosexual sex: model heterosexual sex means a man penetrating and thrusting. [2] In such discourses women are not active and sexual activity is over after ejaculation. Male “sexual dysfunction” is defined as not having an erection for the duration of sexual activity, even though this definition is not realistic for many men whose erections go up and down [3] and are not always the best measure of their sexual excitement or desire. Both male and female critics have pointed out that this focus on hardness and thrusting is not a recipe for heterosexual pleasure, the imperatives of signifying masculine power actually get in the way of sexual fun for many people. As Potts points out, pleasures associated with the flaccid, semi-flaccid or semi-erect penis are culturally under-rated. [4] Sex can happen without the phallus and female orgasmic needs should also define when sex is over, yet culturally the phallus is privileged as defining sex. In her analysis of men’s accounts of why they asked for Viagra, Bordo shows that men expect to get and keep a “quality” erection without their partners actively stimulating them in any way and without touching themselves. She suggests that the association of the penis with power provides the frame through which these men judge their erections and sexual response, and this has created the huge market for Viagra. [5] Viagra meets a cultural demand for harder longer lasting erections and this demand is about the pleasurable excitement of the power that phallic erections signify, it is not simply about treatment of a medical problem.

Peter Lehman analyses chatter and joking about penises in 1990s Hollywood films and shows that jokes about small penises highlight the phallus of the men of power. He argues that phallic penises are defined as such through references to inadequate penises. For example in True Lies the used car salesman who masquerades as a glamorous spy when caught says: “I’m nothing. I have to lie to women to get laid and I don’t score much. I got a little dick, it’s pathetic.” [6] He then wets his pants, thus fulfilling the “two most humiliating possibilities” associated with the penis: “smallness and loss of bladder control due to fear”. [7] Lehman suggests that one of the dynamics operating in this scene is that our belief in the pathetic failed sexuality of this man intensifies the aura of the phallic sexuality of the real glamorous spy, Arnold Schwarzenegger. There is no place for the man who lacks the phallus except one of humiliation, lack of the phallus equals emasculation.

Masculinity as performance and homophobia

The phallus is not openly displayed, its presence is signaled through certain behaviors. As Lemoine-Luccioni says: “If the penis was the phallus, men would have no need of feathers, ties or medals.” [8] Phallic authority distinguishes masculine from feminine and is signaled through performance. Masculinity literature agrees that men are under pressure to perform and gain public recognition for their possession of phallic power, their masculinity. Kimmel, drawing on evidence from other cultural analysts, argues that it is ultimately men who determine the measure of manhood, i.e. what signifies phallic power. “Public” recognition is equivalent to recognition by other men. [9] Of course this does not men that men are indifferent to female admiration of their masculine prowess. A man’s ability to impress women has masculinity affirming value insofar as he imagines that success through the eyes of other men. This is why men so often seek to display their success with women to each other, through telling each other tales of sexual “conquests” or having a beautiful woman on their arm in public. Women become “trophies” to be displayed to other men.

Men fear humiliation, loss of masculinity, in the eyes of other men, and secretly fear that they do not “measure up” to the standard of masculinity. Kimmel argues that this leads to a fear of other men being core to lived experience of masculinity. Other men have the power to “grant” masculinity or to take it away. Agreeing with other analysts and writers, Kimmel says that men “rate” one another according to their masculinity criteria: this constant measuring of themselves against each other means that men again and again report always feeling in competition with other men. Many commentators talk about the secret fear that all men have that other men will discover their lack of the phallus. Kimmel argues that this fear is at the root of “homophobia,” usually a word that means fear and hatred of homosexual men, Kimmel links it to fear of all other men. He argues that homophobia is rooted in fear of being unmasked as having a fraudulent masculinity, a fear of being perceived as homosexual and thus a desperate need to display contempt for homosexuals and be sure to avoid doing anything that might signal homosexuality.

Why are homosexuality and lack of masculinity so often conflated? Because of the association of masculinity with wielding the phallus. Homosexuals are imagined as being penetrated rather than penetrating: since masculine power is so strongly associated with the erect active penis it is even possible for men to rape another man they accuse of being a “fag” and feel their masculinity affirmed. It is not the physical contact with a man that emasculates but the active or passive relationship to the penis/phallus. Thus the word “fag” can mean both homosexual and emasculated man, demonstrating the strong connection between masculinity, heterosexual prowess and being active not passive in sex in Anglophone cultures. An example of this is the writing of “High Jack this Fags” on one of the bombs dropped on Afghanistan after September 11. [10] The serviceman who wrote the message probably did not think that the perceived enemy were homosexuals, rather he was identifying them as emasculated (feminized) by their impending military defeat, claiming phallic power for the US military. When verbal and physical aggression serve the purpose of constructing masculine authority targets tend to be feminized, thus there is an intimate connection between phallic masculinity, hatred of women and hatred of homosexuals.

Hegemonic masculinities

The concept of hegemonic masculinity is common in the gender literature, it signals that not all versions of masculinity are equal, masculinities are valued differently in different contexts. What styles of dress, body comportment, achievements, relationships with women, possessions and so forth signify phallic power varies between and within cultures. However at the state level there are certain gendered practices that signify legitimate entitlement to elite power and constitute the “measure of masculinity” within that state. Michael Kimmel describes hegemonic US masculinity as “marketplace man” who derives his identity from his marketplace success: his accumulation of wealth and possessions and of status and power in the market. He quotes Robert Brannon’s four rules of American manhood to describe the discourses and practices through which marketplace man signifies his possession of the phallus. For the sake of brevity I have re-phrased Kimmel’s explanations of these four points here: [11]

1. No sissy stuff! Masculinity depends on never doing anything that remotely suggests femininity.

2. Be a big wheel! Masculinity is measured by power, success, wealth and status.

3. Be a sturdy oak! Masculinity depends on remaining calm in a crisis, not displaying emotion, especially never crying.

4. Give “em Hell! Masculinity requires an aura of daring and aggression, embracing risks.

This is a model that resonates with hegemonic masculinities in other states, displays of phallic power demand physical prowess, material wealth, and eschewing cultural markers of femininity.

Hegemonic masculinities have a political character, they tend to encompass similar themes based in responsibility for decision making, protection and provision for family and state, which is usually imagined as a nation with all the connotations of kinship that nationalist discourses carry. Men are imagined primarily as leaders, soldiers and breadwinners protecting “their women and children” from other groups of men and providing material support for their women as they care for their children, while making decisions for the nation as a whole. Therefore the ability to protect and support one’s “own people” are common requirements of phallic masculinity and nationalist discourses tend to be strongly gendered. [12] Hegemonic masculinities have cultural particularities, for example Friedman and Healey note that Russian masculinity allows for displays of affection between men, unlike West European masculinity. [13] The masculine style of the dominant group in a state becomes crucial for defining access to institutional power and economic power. Thus gender constructs and is constructed by the web of institutional and economic structure and cultural practices.

Feminist scholars have shown that masculinity translates into institutional and economic power, that at the local national and international level political and economic elites are overwhelmingly male. The term “glass ceiling” is used to describe the invisible barrier to women rising above a certain level in private companies and in public institutions. When a woman effectively wields power in a male dominated sphere, for instance by becoming a political party leader or a business executive, she is often interpreted as masculine, as phallic, for example the expression “she’s got balls” might be used of her. However an anatomical penis is still a crucial marker of phallic authority and beyond certain points it is masculine men who form elites in most fields. Even in female dominated professions men disproportionately occupy senior positions. Williams [14] calls this effect “the glass escalator,” her study shows that while women in male dominated professions encounter barriers to advancement, men in female dominated occupations find the road to top positions smooth. The male nurses, social workers, librarians and elementary teachers Williams studied said they only faced prejudice from outside their professions, their masculinity sometimes being called into question by people in their social network. This kind of stigmatization of men who do “unmasculine” work acts as a deterrent to men entering female-dominated professions. However when men do enter these professions masculine privilege still operates and they tend to quickly advance to well paid senior positions. The men in William’s study reported that they felt they received fair if not preferential treatment in their professions.

Men have much higher individual incomes than women and, when unpaid work is taken into account, work less and enjoy more leisure time. [15] Men enjoy petty privileges in their households, enjoying the best food, the most comfortable chair, control over the television, the level of background music, or noise. Most men do little or no domestic work and where they do it they still escape the most disagreeable household tasks. As Anthony McMahon points out [16] such petty privileges are not only symbolic signifiers of power but also make life more pleasant, it is nicer to be the one who escapes disagreeable work and has things structured around their needs and preferences.

Tensions within Phallic Masculinity: Entitlement, Hyper-masculinity and Patriarchal Authority

Phallic masculinity as entitlement

I have described the essence of hegemonic masculinity as the performance of phallic power. In identifying themselves as masculine men identify as powerful and, consequently, as entitled to privilege. Men’s sense of entitlement to power and privilege and their subjective feelings of powerlessness are key themes of analyses of men’s lived experience of masculinity. The evidence from scholarly analysis of masculinity [17] and from political debates over masculinity is that few men ever achieve a sense of fulfilling masculine power and that such moments of achievement tend to be transitory. Phallic masculinity is inherently fragile because, while self-identification as masculine carries a sense of entitlement to power, few men feel that their entitlement is recognized. Thus, while masculine privilege clearly operates in most fields of human activity, the majority of men do not feel powerful. In what follows I will consider some ways in which men struggle for masculine power, but first it is necessary to consider reasons for the male sense of powerlessness.

One reason is that men’s privileges are often invisible to them. Messner opens his book with an anecdote that illustrates this. [18] As a student he had a temporary summer job working in city parks: there were about twelve female workers and three male workers. The women (also students trying to make money to go to college) were routinely assigned only twenty to thirty working hours at small parks while the three men were given a forty hour working week at larger parks. When overtime opportunities arose the supervisors always gave the extra hours to the men. Messner describes how he simply failed to notice this gender discrimination (in spite of having written earnest papers on gender discrimination in college!) until one of the women workers challenged the supervisor. Men tend not to notice male privilege, taking it for granted, whereas women are more likely to notice since they are the ones hurt by it. [19] Another example of the male sense of entitlement is how common discourses about the women/blacks/foreigners taking “our” (i.e. men’s) jobs are in times of rising unemployment. But what makes these jobs (white) men’s in the first place? The phrase indicates an underlying sense of entitlement because of gender, race, and/or nationality.

Thus while men do not notice their privileges they do notice the absence of power and privilege that, as men, they feel entitled to. But the hegemonic “measures of manhood” are out of reach of many men, who do not earn enough to be good “breadwinners” and do not have any workplace or political authority. For many men there are few spheres where their “masculinity,” their power, is acknowledged and as men they feel cheated.

Many analysts argue that another reason masculinity creates a lived experience of powerlessness is that in building their identity around public power and success men lose out on emotional or interpersonal skills. Michael Kaufman says that men frequently feel powerless in their personal lives because they need care and nurturing but masculinity leaves them ill-equipped to provide this for themselves or anyone else, or to express their sense of need. [20] Many analysts stress that emotional inexpressiveness leads to men having a terrible sense of emotional dependence on the women in their life. Men experience women as terrifyingly powerful not only because they need to prove their sexual success with women to other men but also because they depend on women to interpret and express their emotions for them. [21] They require women to understand and attend to their vulnerabilities without ever admitting them.

But of course satisfying intimacy requires some degree of emotional communication and analysts argue that masculinity tends to get in the way of this. As Kaufman notes, in public life most forms of emotional expressiveness are inappropriate and taken to signify vulnerability so men learn to ignore and hide many of their emotional responses. [22] In personal relationships such masculine behavior can be a disaster. Besides inhibiting intimate communication through behaviors that create hierarchy and distance, men are often simply absent. As Messner points out, men tend to spend most of their time and energy on public success and less time with loved ones, often paying little attention to them. [23] A typical story is of the man who has no idea that his wife is unhappy and planning to leave until she informs him of the fact. Thus one cost of being a masculine man is that focus on public success is frequently at the cost of emotionally shallow personal relationships and an abiding sense of loneliness.

Literature about masculinity is quick to point out that men pay dearly for their manly behavior in terms of personal dissatisfaction, and also in terms of poor health and shorter lives. Men consume more tobacco and alcohol than women and are trained to ignore physical pain; they are less likely to seek help for early warnings of serious health problems. Earlier I referred to men’s pervasive anxiety about being unmasked as a non-phallic man, several masculinity analysts argue that the stress of male competition is a major contributor to men’s poor health and higher suicide rates. [24] Men fear failure as a man and this fear fuels their performance of phallic masculinity

Phallic entitlement and hyper-masculinity

Frustrated masculinity is one explanation offered for masculine violence and “hyper-masculinity”. “Hyper-masculinity” refers to a set of practices and discourses, including: excessive emphasis on male physical strength; belief in the legitimacy of male violence in certain inter-personal interactions; misogynist discourses; anti-homosexual discourses. The underlying theme is constructing masculine authority through emphasizing and acting out male physical power and female physical weakness. Public discourses tends to focus on hyper-masculinity as a dangerous masculinity found among low income men and men from racial or ethnic minorities, however empirical studies suggest that hyper-masculine behavior occur among men from across the social spectrum.

The concept of “hyper-masculinity” is ubiquitous in public debates about social and racial tensions and violence which frequently dwell upon the physical power of low-income men, especially those from racial or ethnic minorities. In some contexts such public discourse has an explicitly racist and sexist component: the ruling elite justifies control over minority men and over women by claiming to protect “their” women from sexually predatory animalistic “other” men. Angela Davis analyzed the historical construction of “the myth of the black male rapist” as a key ideological construct that justified lynching and other forms of racial control in the post Civil War years in the US. [25] Jacquelyn Hall documents how women’s organizations in the Southern states campaigned against lynching, which were often justified by false rape charges, linking discourses of black men as rapists to limits on white women’s freedom. [26] Several commentators argue that this stereotype of the dark skinned rapist has become rooted in the white psyche: analysts, not only in the US but in Britain and Australasia also, have shown that in contemporary times whites associate dark skin with sexual threat. [27]

However hyper-masculine behavior is also often analyzed as a form of resistance to racial, ethnic and/or class oppression. The theory is that men, when denied institutional and economic power, assert physical power and displays of aggression as the main markers of manhood. Messner’s research [28] with male athletes showed that, in contrast to white men, black and Latino men talk about their motivation to be an athlete as a way of getting “respect.” Tolson [29] says that British working class men’s sense of power is undermined in the workplace, thus working men develop exaggerated masculine bravado and characterize middle class men as feminized “paper pushers.” Collison [30] argued the same in relation to Australian male blue-collar workers, who commonly engage in sexually aggressive misogynist humor as a means of bonding with each other against management males who they identify as feminized. Manuel Peña’s [31] research on illegal Mexican immigrants in the US identified their misogynist humor as the basis of workplace culture and argued that the high levels of aggressive masculine posturing they displayed were a defensive reaction to their oppressed class status. In two of these examples we see men, the bosses, discursively feminized and then aggressively targeted in the speech of working class men. Similarly, Franklin [32] found from interviews with men who admitted assaults on gay men that it was not unusual for poor men to identify men in expensive suits as feminized “faggots” and beat them up because of this.

That thwarted masculinity and the prevalence of female-headed families among poor US blacks is a major cause of black male criminality, especially rape, is commonly accepted by black male analysts. Majors claims that black men’s sexually aggressive style is also a form of resistance to racism as performance of a kind of power. Staples [33] argues that “rape by black men should be viewed as both an aggressive and political act because it occurs in the context of racial discrimination which denies most black men a satisfying manhood.” He says that black men act out their feelings of powerlessness against black women because they frequently encounter black women as authority figures: mothers and teachers. While Staples is not justifying rapes committed by black men he looks for the cause of rape in societal racism, failing to critically consider the value of the “satisfying manhood” that black men are denied. Actually, we do not know that black men are more likely to rape than white men, only that they are more likely to be caught and that if caught they will be punished more harshly. [34]

While stereotypically hyper-masculinity is associated with low-income racial minority men, hyper-masculine behavior can also be found among college men, especially in fraternities. Peter Lyman [35] analyses the role of sexist jokes in male group bonding in a campus fraternity showing that for these men bonds with each other are built on the basis of repudiation of anything signifying femininity. Boswell and Spade’s [36] analysis of rape culture in college fraternities shows that fraternities which female students identified as high risk for rape showed more gender segregated behavior at their parties, with men and women socializing in different parts of the party space. They also found that the men in these fraternities indulged in a lot of misogynist jokes and comments, and discouraged one another from treating women politely or forming affectionate relationships with women. Franklin’s study [37] also includes accounts of groups of college men indulging in gay bashing. The hyper-masculinity found in college fraternities can also be understood as an expression of a frustrated sense of entitlement to power. College men are no longer boys but not yet qualified to enter the world where they aspire to wield public power. Thus hyper-masculinity as a performance of phallic power by men with little institutional power is not unique to poor and socially marginalized men.

Many men feel themselves denied a “satisfying manhood” and it is this assumption of entitlement that the idea of “manhood” carries that needs to come under critique. Misogynist posturing and sexual aggression do not characterize black men in particular, similar behaviors are found among white college fraternity men, military men and all kinds of men in the context of their families. Rather than focus on the characteristics of men who rape, racial or otherwise, it seems more productive to consider the social contexts where rapes are most likely to occur. The evidence suggests that contexts (such as military organizations, some male-dominated workplaces, some college fraternities) where bonds between men are built through the prizing of a shared masculinity, expressed through the degradation of feminine characteristics, are especially dangerous for women.

Phallic entitlement and the patriarchal family

Several studies suggest that poor and socially marginal men assert not only masculine authority but also social respectability through claiming patriarchal responsibility for and authority over their families, based in assertion of natural order, religious observance or cultural tradition. Patriarchal authority, respectability and whiteness intersect in the discourses and practices of white low income American men interviewed in Jersey City and Buffalo. [38] These men had a strong sense of lost entitlement. While their fathers and grandfathers could earn enough from jobs in heavy industry to be successful breadwinners, such well paid manual jobs have been disappearing from the American domestic economy and real wages have fallen. Thus the economic basis for working-class white male privilege in relation to women and other racial and ethnic groups has eroded. These men spoke of their entitlement as men to privileges in their households and proudly emphasized that they avoid applying for welfare. They portrayed themselves as responsible citizens and family men who wanted work, drawing a contrast between themselves and black and Latino men who they said hang around on street courses, live off welfare and do not take responsibility for their families. They perceived these “other” men on the street corners as a threat and styled themselves as protectors of “their” women and children. “Their” women included not only their kin but all white women in the neighborhood, for example elderly widows living alone. Responsibility to family and community formed the core of their self-definition as men. Many of these men were involved in “block clubs”, groups of white men who patrolled their neighborhood (that was becoming increasingly racially integrated) looking out for criminals who they imagined as lazy, violent black or Latino men.

Racial and ethnic minority men also deploy discourses of their patriarchal authority as a bid for social inclusion based in cultural recognition. For example, a study of Puerto Rican American men describes them as feeling deprived of cultural symbols of masculinity and as asserting claims to cultural citizenship in the US based in their patriarchal authority in the Puerto Rican cultural community. [39] Male-dominated families are commonly reified as the heart of culture by leaders of cultural minorities: the family is a sphere they assert the right to protect from other cultural influences and change. Thus male leaders of minority groups often claim the right to certain kinds of authority over matters impacting on “their” families.

Integrating marginal men through the family is a common theme of policy recommendations about minority men. Such discourses imagine the family as providing men with the authority their masculinity demands and that will otherwise be asserted through hyper-masculine violence. For example, in 1967 Martin Luther King argued that government economic policy should aim to “help the frustrated Negro male find his true masculinity by placing him on his own two economic feet,” suggesting that “true masculinity” is based in being able to economically support a wife and children. [40] King lamented that slavery had disrupted black family patterns and asserted that this lack of male-headed families is a major contributor to black criminality. By contrast black feminists reject calls for supporting the male dominated family and affirm the “multiform family structures” of black American families. [41]

Male dominated families are dangerous for women in so far as they are a context where men feel entitled to certain privileges as signs of their masculine power. Analysts of family violence frequently comment that men act out their frustrations at a lack of economic or public power by asserting power at home through intimidation, humiliation and beatings. Men feel entitled to authority in the home, entitled to dispense punishments when their wishes are not met, and entitled to forcefully claim privileges not willingly granted. Thus feminists argue against versions of cultural inclusion that reify the patriarchal family as the basis of culture. In Britain a group called Women Against Fundamentalism [42] protests against the tendency of British authorities to accept self-styled Islamic leaders’ doctrines of male dominance as accurately representing “Islamic cultural practice.” For example they cite cases of local welfare authorities, out of a misguided sense of cultural sensitivity, applying different standards when intervening in family violence cases in London Pakistani families than they do with London white families.

Men’s movements and the “Crisis in Masculinity”

The belief that supporting male dominance would be a solution to rape and criminality in general seems strange given that male dominated environments are high-risk for rape and other forms of violence. Nevertheless, conservative commentators link all sorts of social ills, especially rising crime and violence, to the break down of male authority in society and call for a return to “traditional” (i.e. male-dominant) family values as the solution. Social movements in favor of male-authority claim that if men wield authority responsibly social order will be restored. Men’s movements, which became increasingly popular throughout the nineties, frequently invoke a “crisis in masculinity,” urging men to “take responsibility” for social problems and arguing that distorted masculinity is the cause of much crime and violence. Different movements have different theories about what the cause of this distortion is and about the character of proper masculinity, yet they all rest on the idea that there is a distinctly masculine form of authority that needs to be recognized for the good of society.

One of the major movements for restoring male authority in the US is “The Promise Keepers.” Launched in 1990, this group grew dramatically throughout the decade. Although sharing some basic themes with secular men’s movements within and outside the US, The Promise Keepers are characterized by a distinctively American blend of Christianity, pop psychology and politics. The Promise Keepers are well funded and well organized, they are networked within the Republican Party, George W. Bush has associates among their leaders, and has cultivated their support. The Promise Keepers thus form a significant base for mobilizing support for the Republicans around ideals about gender that directly oppose the egalitarianism and sympathy towards feminism associated with the Democrats.

The Promise Keepers are concerned about “sissified” men causing a “national crisis” through abdicating “their role as leaders” and forcing women to do men’s work. They portray Jesus as a masculine authoritative figure. The Masculine Journey was written for The Promise Keepers by Lt Col. Robert Hicks, [43] they distributed it for free at their first rally, and subsequently mass marketed it. Hicks writes:

Possessing a penis places unique requirements upon men before God in how they are to worship Him. We are called to worship God as phallic kinds of guys, not as some sort of androgynous, neutered non-males, or the feminized males so popular in many feminist-enlightened churches. …(p. 49). Sexual energy is essentially spiritual (p. 55).... Our sexual problems only reveal how desperate we are to express, in some perverted form, the deep compulsion to worship with our phallus. … (p. 56). I believe Jesus was phallic with all the inherent phallic passions we experience as men. (pp. 180-181).

Such passages provoked outrage among some Christians, as did Hick’s indulgent attitude towards the “sins” of young men in their so-called “phallic” and “warrior” phases of life. However, despite the controversy The Promise Keepers continued to support the book as consistent with the Bible and helpful to men, although they stopped giving it such prominence at their events. This phallic version of Christianity was hugely successful in attracting men in large numbers. Catholics and Protestants joined together at The Promise Keepers’ meetings in a call for men to follow an ideal of phallic authority and “take back” leadership of their families, not as capricious, violent, irresponsible husbands, but as sober, just, pious men. [44]

The Promise Keepers tried to “reach out” to black men, however their movement remains predominantly white. Black political movements exist that share very similar values, although they tend to blame racism, rather than feminists or gays, for the “crisis” of black masculinity. I have already mentioned that violence and criminality in black men is frequently analyzed as a response to denied “manhood”. Black political leaders often talk about the struggle against racism in the United States as a struggle for lost masculinity. We saw this with Martin Luther King mentioned above, we also see it in the language of Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Power movement, who proclaimed in 1965 “we shall have our manhood.” [45] Some black analysts argue that feminism “allowed the white man to keep his act together while he further alienated and distorted and confused black male/female relationships.” [46]

The theme of “black masculinity in crisis” in American racial politics was expressed by “the million man march” on October 16 1995 when about 837000 African American males marched in Washington. The message of the march was a call on black men to “assume responsibility” in the context of high unemployment, homelessness and high rates of imprisonment of black men and to “reclaim” their place at the head of the family. [47] March organizers called on black women to have a “Day of Absence,” staying away from work school, business entertainment and/or sports on the same day as the march. Thus the symbolism of the event was clear: men were the leaders occupying public space while women retired from public space to the home. [48]

What exactly “assuming responsibility as men” involved, and how that might be different from assuming responsibility as a woman, or simply an adult, was not given a lot of clear content. But one message of the march was that only black men can properly train black boys and youths in masculinity. The assumption here is that the absence of adult men and proliferation of adult female influences in the lives of black boys causes the poverty, crime and violence that characterize the lives of many blacks. Some community leaders advocate “manhood training” and/or all male public schools staffed primarily by black men, for black boys. [49] Black men on the Million Man march were urged to pay more attention to their children, to adopt black children and to volunteer for organizations such as “Big Brothers” that assign male mentors to young men at risk of falling into lives of violence and crime. Thus manhood was to be built around and expressed through taking responsibility for children at a social as well as family level. However the contribution of men to child-rearing is conceptualized as distinct from that of women, men are imagined as bringing children, especially boys, the guidance and authority many lack because of absent men.

Similar understandings of the problem of violence poverty and crime among racial minority men are also found outside the US. For example the New Zealand movie Once Were Warriors vividly portrays the hyper-masculinity of “Jake the Muss” an unemployed Maori father who is horribly violent and abusive to his family. The sequel to this movie, less well-known outside New Zealand, What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted?, [50] explores how Jake is rehabilitated through his sense of responsibility for one of his sons who has became involved in gang life and who Jake intervenes to save from a violent death. Whereas Warriors ends with Jake, in a painful rage, impotently screaming after his wife as she leaves him, Broken-Hearted ends with a sense of hope on the warm note of Jake’s reconciliation with his son.

The theme of the need to re-build father son bonds is not unique to discourses by or about minority men. One of the most popular themes of recent men’s movements is that boys need strong male guidance to grow into men. The most influential book to popularize this theme is Robert Bly’s Iron John: a book that some claimed radically changed American masculinity while also inspiring men’s movements beyond the US. Men’s movements based in Bly’s teachings, often called “mytho-poetic” movements, grew rapidly during the nineties in Canada, Australia and the US, although the book had less impact in Britain. Bly is a poet, who rejects both academia and urban life, living in a small town with his wife and children making a living from his poetry, writing, and translations of Scandinavian fiction. He also tours, giving poetry readings and leading seminars about masculinity for men. The basic message of Iron John is that modern fathers fail to give their sons what they need to be men. Because of this modern masculinity is distorted masculinity, tending toward dangerous hyper-masculinity or soft effeminacy. The culprit for Bly is not feminism but the modern world, which has alienated men from their true masculinity.

Much of Bly’s poetry explores the connections between the natural world and the human mind and this theme informs his views on the problems of men. Bly argues that men have lost the rituals through which adult men traditionally initiated boys into manhood. Urban societies have cut ritual ties between men and replaced them with competition and bureaucracy. Modern society confines men with rationality and blunts their emotional communication. His program is for individual transformation through men’s groups where men can reconnect with each other through new bonding rituals, preferably carried out in rural contexts, since Bly places great importance on being close to nature. He tends to celebrate traditional rural life as encouraging more “natural” gender identities than the city. Through spending time in a natural environment bonding with other men men will discover their “Zeus energy.”

What Zeus energy is exactly is unclear, one definition Bly offers is “male authority accepted for the sake of the community.” [51] But what kind of authority, and over who? Bly insists that he is not talking about “patriarchal” authority and he speaks favorably of feminism as a movement through which women re-discovered natural womanhood. According to him men and women have different deep spirits or natures. He is concerned that because so many people have had painful experiences of distorted masculine authority societies are now unwilling to accept any expression of masculine authority at all. [52] However it is unclear if he thinks men and women have different proper spheres of authority or how their exercise of authority might be different. The only area where he is clear that men have a unique contribution is the raising of boys. As with male leaders of poor racial minorities, his focus is less on the practical routine problems of child-rearing than on the symbolic and ritualistic elements and the passing on of wisdom about how to be a man.

Steve Biddulph, Australian psychologist and author of a number of best-selling books, translated into fourteen languages, on both masculinity and parenting, has been described as “Bly popularized.” Biddulph, speaking with the authority of a psychologist rather than a poet, argues that the lack of bonds between boys and men has led to a social crisis. Like Bly he paints a romantic picture of pre-industrial times. He blames the industrial revolution for the “crisis of masculinity”, because it moved production away from households, taking fathers from the home and placing the rearing of boys with women who, as women, cannot possibly train boys to be men. [53] According to Biddulph, boys without a good father and male mentors will follow hyper-masculine stereotypes and form criminal gangs seeking male contact, or will become “wimpish” loners whose best friend is a computer. Like Bly he offers men a program of personal transformation that emphasizes the importance of bonds between men. [54]

Both Bly and Biddulph claim an egalitarian approach to male-female relationships while still grounding masculinity in a special kind of authority: authority in training boys to be men. Thus they are clearly distinct from conservative men’s movements, like The Promise Keepers. Nevertheless such movements do not disrupt the grounding of masculinity in a gendered notion of authority and do not confront the issue of male social privilege. While they assert that men and women should be equal, nothing in their rhetoric or practice confronts the issue of male social privilege. Parenting involves doing a lot of boring disagreeable work, but mytho-poetic men’s movements are only interested in the authority of fatherhood, not in sharing in the tedious, routine work of parenthood. They encourage men to talk and play more with their sons, not to cook for them, wash their clothes, or stay home with them when they are sick. Furthermore, the emphasis on boys suggests that they are not as interested in sharing the care of small infants and daughters.

Feminist analysts generally argue that men becoming more involved in routine child-care would enhance gender equality. For example, Isaac Balbus describes his personal commitment to equal parenting as arising from his psycho-social analysis of mothers as primary carers as resulting in gender inequality and social misogyny. [55] Scott Coltrane claims that his extensive comparative analysis of non-industrial societies shows that: “fewer displays of manliness, less wifely deference, less husband dominance, and less ideological female inferiority were evident in societies where men participated in child rearing and women controlled property.” [56] He also found that “the association between close father-child relationships and women’s public status [meaning women’s participation in public decision making] was statistically robust.” [57] The variables Coltrane is measuring, namely involvement in childcare and women’s subordination, are not easily defined and Coltrane’s implied claims of causality seem rather strong to me. Possibly Coltrane is indulging in the same romanticization of pre-industrial societies as Bly, it is not unusual for human beings to project their utopias onto pre-industrial societies, either their own past or other cultures. Feminist utopias usually include equal participation of men and women in childcare, economy, and political life. Rather than trying to revive masculine authority through a vision of men as symbolic and authoritative father figures, feminists argue that social benefits would flow from men taking equal responsibility for the day to day routine aspects of raising children. They challenge the ideal of fatherhood as a source of male authority, stressing that, apart from the requirements of giving birth and breast-feeding, parenthood requires similar contributions from both men and women.


The attraction of the myth of lost masculine authority to so many men in the late nineties and in these early years of the twenty first century suggests that lived experience of masculinity is that it is in crisis. Contemporary men’s movements seek to assert masculine authority in the family, mainly based on ideals of gender distinct contributions to child-rearing. However this strategy seems unlikely to resolve the sense of powerlessness that the promise of phallic power produces for many men. Masculinity analysts point to the inherent fragility of hegemonic phallic masculinity: phallic masculinity is simply unattainable for most men. The hegemonic “measures of manhood,” based in decision making power and providing protection and material support, have tended to elude poor men from racial minorities and increasingly elude men from majority racial and national groups. Furthermore, men are, for the most part, oblivious to how male privilege benefits them and acutely conscious of their vulnerability in personal life. For most men phallic masculinity is a chimera, something they feel should be theirs, but which is always just out of reach.

1 Annie Potts ““The Essence of the Hard On”: Hegemonic Masculinity and the Cultural Construction of “Erectile Dysfunction”” in Men and Masculinities Vol 3. No. 1 July 2000:85

2 Potts, “The Essence of the Hard On, ” 89.

3 Bernhaimer notes the penis’ “capricious variability” that means it justifies “phallic appellation only at certain moments” in Potts, “‘The Essence of the Hard On,’” 89

4 Potts, “The Essence of the Hard On”, 89

5 Susan Bordo “Pills and Power Tools” in Men’s Lives (fifth edition) edited by Michael S. Kimmel and Michael A. Messner (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2000)

6 Peter Lehman, “In an Imperfect World, Men with Small Penises Are Unforgiven: The Presentation of the Penis/Phallus in American Films of the 1990s”” in Men’s Lives (fifth edition) edited by Michael S. Kimmel and Michael A. Messner (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2000): 497

7 Lehman, “In an Imperfect World, Men with Small Penises Are Unforgiven” 498.

8 Quoted by James Donald in “The Citizen and the Man About Town” in Questions of Cultural Identity edited by Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay (London: Sage, 1996): 184

9 Michael S. Kimmel “Masculinity as Homophobia: Fear, Shame, and Silence in the Construction of Gender Identity”, in Theorizing Masculinities edited by Harry Brod and Michael Kaufman (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1994): 129

10 The military establishment was forced to apologize for this use of the word following an outcry from US gays. Associated Press, who released the photo, apologized, saying it should never have been circulated, and withdrew it. Many disagree, however, arguing that the appearance of these words in this context are a good opportunity to discuss many issues related to war. Verification and background information about the photo can be found at: Typing the words “High Jack this Fags” into the google search engine will provide you with many different points of view on the photo.

11 Michael S. Kimmel “Masculinity as Homophobia: Fear, Shame, and Silence in the Construction of Gender Identity”, in Theorizing Masculinities edited by Harry Brod and Michael Kaufman (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1994): 125.

12 Several analysts of gender discourses in the transformation of socialism have pointed out that calls for return to traditional gender roles as part of “rebuilding” national culture were one way that the new space of politics was constructed as a masculine domain. See: Susan Gal and Gail Kligman. The Politics of Gender After Socialism: A Comparative Historical Essay. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000) and, Susan Gal and Gail Kligman eds. Reproducing Gender: Politics, Publics, and Everyday Life after Socialism. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000) for further reading on this.

13 Rebecca Friedman and Dan Healy “Conclusions” in Russian Masculinities in History and Culture, edited by Barbara Evans Clements, Rebecca Friedman and Dan Healey (New York: Palgrave, 2002): 231

14 Christine L. Williams “The Glass Escalator: Hidden Advantages for Men in the ‘Female’ Professions” in Men’s Lives (fifth edition) edited by Michael S. Kimmel and Michael A. Messner (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2000)

15 See, for example “Valuation of Unpaid Work” Unifem gender fact sheet no. 3,(, accessed April 2002) which reports data from the 1995 UNDP Human Development report.

16 Anthony McMahon Taking Care of Men : Sexual Politics in the Public Mind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

17 For example, see Michael Kaufman, “Men, Feminism and Men’s Contradictory Experiences of Power in Theorizing Masculinities edited by Harry Brod and Michael Kaufman (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1994)

18 Michael Messner, Politics of Masculinities: Men in Movements, (Thousand Oakes: Sage, 1997): 4

19 Of course this phenomenon is not unique to men: white’s tend to not notice white privileges. Human beings in general tend to notice discrimination against them and take privileges for granted.

20 Michael Kaufman, “Men, Feminism and Men’s Contradictory Experiences of Power,” in Theorizing Masculinities edited by Harry Brod and Michael Kaufman (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1994).

21 Michael A Messner, , Politics of Masculinities: Men in Movements. (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1997): 38

Messner quotes pioneering sex role theorist Joseph Pleck on this point. Pleck was one of the first to argue that the “male sex role” was oppressive to women and harmful to men.

22 Michael Kaufman, “Men, Feminism and Men’s Contradictory Experiences of Power,” 148.

23 Michael A Messner, , Politics of Masculinities: Men in Movements, 6.

24 For example: Michael A Messner, , Politics of Masculinities: Men in Movements, 6; Michael S. Kimmel “Masculinity as Homophobia: Fear, Shame, and Silence in the Construction of Gender Identity”, 133.

25 Angela Davis Women, Race and Class, (New York: Vintage Books, 1981).

26 Jacquelyn Dowd Hall Revolt against chivalry: Jessie Daniel Ames and the Women’s Campaign against Lynching (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993).

27 See Messner, Politics of Masculinities, 69 for a discussion of several analyses of this stereotype.

28 Messner, Politics of Masculinities, 66.

29 Tolson cited by Messner, Politics of Masculinities, 57

30 Collison cited by Messner, Politics of Masculinities 76

31 Manuel Peña’s cited by Messner, Politics of Masculinities 76

32 Karen Franklin, “Unassuming Motivations: Contextualizing the Narratives of Antigay Assailants” in Stigma and Sexual Orientation: Understanding Prejudice Against Lesbians, Gay Men and Bisexuals, edited by Gregory M. Herek (London: Sage, 1998).

33 Robert Staples. “Stereotypes of Black Male Sexuality: The Facts Behind the Myth” in Men’s Lives (fifth edition) edited by Michael S. Kimmel and Michael A. Messner (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2000): 413.

34Lynne Segal, in Slow motion: Changing Masculinities, Changing Men (New Bruswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990): 178, reports that in the Southern states half the men convicted for rape are White but 90% of the men executed for rape are Black and no White man has ever been executed for raping a Black woman.

35 Peter Lyman, “The Fraternal Bond as a Joking Relationship: A Case Study of the Role of Sexist Jokes in Male Group Bonding” in Men’s Lives (fifth edition) edited by Michael S. Kimmel and Michael A. Messner (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2000)

36 A. Ayres Boswell and Joan Z. Spade, “Fraternities and Collegiate Rape Culture: Why Are Some Fraternities More Dangerous Places for Women?” in Men’s Lives (fifth edition) edited by Michael S. Kimmel and Michael A. Messner (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2000)

37 Franklin, “Unassuming Motivations,” 1998.

38 Lois Weiss, Amira Proweller, and Craig Centrie. “Re-examining ‘A Moment in History’: Lowss of Privilege Inside White Working-Class Masculinity in the 1990s” in Men’s Lives (fifth edition) edited by Michael S. Kimmel and Michael A. Messner (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2000).

39 Lois Weis, Craig Centrie, Juan Valentin-Juarbe, “Puerto Rican Men and the Struggle for Place in the United States: An Exploration of Cultural Citizenship, Gender and Violence” in Men and Masculinities Vol 4. No. 3 January 2002: 286-302.

40 King, Martin Luther “The Dilemma of Negro Americans”. In Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (New York: Harper and Row, 1967): 125.

41 Robert L Allen “Racism, Sexism and a Million Men” in Men’s Lives (fifth edition) edited by Michael S. Kimmel and Michael A. Messner (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2000): 537.

42 Women Against Fundamentalism ( (accessed April 17 2002)

43 The Masculine Journey by Robert Hicks, published in 1993 by Colorado Springs: NavPress.”

44 Messner, Politics of Masculinities, chapter 2

45 Messner, Politics of Masculinities, 73

46 N. Hare and J. Hare. The Endangered Black Family: Coping with the Unisexulalization and Coming Extinction of the Black Race. (San Francisco: Black Think Tank, 1984): 154. Quoted in Messner, 74

47 Messner, Politics of Masculinities, 65

48 Some feminists supported the march anyway, bringing to it a different content. See: Robert L Allen “Racism, Sexism and a Million Men” in Men’s Lives (fifth edition) edited by Michael S. Kimmel and Michael A. Messner (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2000):

49 Messner, Politics of Masculinities, 79. See also R. G. Majors, “Conclusion and Recommendations: A Reason for Hope” in The American Black Male edited by R. G. Majors and J. U. Gordon (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1994)

50 Once Were Warriors, directed by Lee Tamahori, was released in 1994.The screenplay was an adaption by Riwia Brown of Alan Duff’s novel. A heart-wrenchingly powerful movie, it was widely critically acclaimed, winning at least five best film awards at various international film festivals, along with numerous other awards. What Becomes of the Broken Hearted, released in 1999, has a different director, Ian Mune, and the screenplay was written by Alan Duff. The best part of the movie is Temuara Morrison who returns as Jake the Muss, but otherwise this movie lacks the intensity of Warriors and has something of a “made for TV” quality about it.

51 Robert Bly. Iron John: A Book About Men. (New York: Addison-Wesley, 1990): 61

52 Men’s Work and the Media: An Interview with Robert Bly and Robert Moore an interview with Bert H. Hoff for M.E.N. magazine 1993 (, accessed April 17 2002)

53 See David Buchbinder “Past and Future Tense: The Crisis in Masculinity,” The Future of Gender Conference, 30 March 2001 (, accessed 21 April 2002) for a critique of Biddulph’s historical analysis.

54 Steve Biddulph, Manhood: An Action Plan for Changing Men’s Lives . 2nd edition (Sydney: Finch Publishing, 1995.

55 Isaac D. Balbus, Emotional Rescue : The Theory and Practice of a Feminist Father (New York: Routledge, 1998)

56 Scott Coltrane “Theorizing Masculinities in Contemporary Social Science” in Theorizing Masculinities edited by Harry Brod and Michael Kaufman (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1994): 48.

57 Coltrane “Theorizing Masculinities,” 49.