The politics of masculinity


By R.W. Connell
Allen and Unwin, 1995.
Reviewed by Chris Slee

In recent years, an increasing number of books have been written about men's problems. These books have varied greatly. Some are progressive, questioning the current forms of masculinity as both oppressive to women and destructive to men.

But others are quite reactionary. As Bob Connell notes in Masculinities, "... the most popular books about men are packed with muddled thinking which either ignores or distorts the results of the growing research on the issues. The burst of publicity has brought back obsolete ideas about natural difference and true masculinity. It has also provided cover for a neo-conservative campaign to roll back the rather limited advances against discrimination made by women and gay men in the last two decades."

Connell briefly summarises various approaches to masculinity, from Freudian theory to ideas developed in the feminist and gay movements and in the masculinity therapy movement (which the media often refer to as "the men's movement").

He stresses that masculinity is neither homogeneous nor static. Men are divided by class, race, nationality, sexual orientation. Forms of masculinity vary greatly between these groups, as well as between individuals within them. Furthermore, these forms of masculinity change over time as society changes. Connell gives a brief historical review of the transformation of masculinity over the past 400 years.

He also discusses the various current forms of "masculinity politics". Gay liberation emerged in the 1960s as (in Dennis Altman's words) "the most blatant challenge of all to the mores of a society organised around belief in the nuclear family and sharply differentiated gender differences".

But soon the initial revolutionary impulse of gay liberation was replaced by "something resembling ethnic pressure group politics, jockeying for space within the system rather than trying to overthrow it". Nevertheless, the very existence of openly gay men is a challenge to narrow ideas of "normal" masculinity.

A very different kind of masculinity politics is represented by the "gun lobby". Connell argues that "the defence of gun ownership is a defence of hegemonic masculinity". There is a strong association between masculinity and violence in Western culture. Examples include war (which is glorified in literature and art), rape and domestic violence.

A third trend is masculinity therapy. Its roots go back to the early 1970s, with the waning of the New Left and the rise of counter-cultural therapy. While it was initially close to feminism, a large part of the movement has since shifted from criticising traditional forms of masculinity, to attempting to restore a masculinity which is thought to have been lost or damaged in recent social change.

This shift was partly a result of the general rightward shift in politics in the advanced capitalist countries, particularly in the US in the '80s. It also reflected the inadequacy of the earlier phase of the movement, which focused on individual change, not social change. Many men felt individually guilty about their own sexist behaviour. They often felt bad about being male.

Connell argues: "... these emotional dilemmas have no resolution at the level of personality alone. To pursue the reconstruction of gender any further ... requires a move towards collective practice.

"There is a mismatch between the social character of gender issues and the individualised practices with which the counter-culture generally handles them. Therapeutic methods of reforming personality treat the individual as the unit to be reformed." To achieve real change, he says, it is necessary to "address the institutional order of society".

The majority of participants in the therapy movement, however, were not prepared to challenge society in any fundamental way. Instead, they welcomed the right turn of masculinity therapy, which "offered reassurance in place of stress and a personal resolution of the guilt — rather than reform of the situation that produced it".

Connell finishes with a discussion of how to bring about progressive change in gender relations. While anti-sexist men's groups can play a certain role, Connell does not see them as the main vehicle for change. Such groups tend to be small and unstable, which Connell thinks is inevitable since they lack a social base. He argues that there can be no men's liberation movement:

"The model of a liberation movement simply cannot apply to the group that holds the position of power ... Consciousness-raising for straight men did not lead towards mobilisation and group affirmation, as it did for women and for gay men; after initial gains in insight, it led to marginalisation and disintegration."

While anti-sexist men's groups are weak, anti-sexist politics amongst men can take other forms. Connell argues that "the best prospects ... may be found outside pure gender politics.

"There are situations where solidarity among men is pursued for other reasons than masculinity, and may support a project of gender justice, especially where there is explicit solidarity with women in the same situation. These situations arise in labour and socialist parties, in the unions, the environmental movement, community politics, anti-colonial resistance movements, movements for cultural democracy, and movements for racial equality."

The result will not be a unified "men's movement", since it involves joint action with women, and brings to light the conflicting interests of different groups of men.

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