Masculinity in crisis (again)?

Another week, another Observer article prompting me to blog, this time one concerning ‘masculine crisis’ and domestic violence, specifically the murder of children by their fathers.  Or rather, this blog post from Joanne Bailey (whose blog I urge you to follow; it is fabulous) questioning the historical construction of family murders as masculine crisis.

First of all, I absolutely agree with Joanne and the many commentators on the original article who point out that a ‘crisis of masculinity’ is no excuse for family murder (or indeed murder of any sort) and that this sort of argument amounts to victim blaming.  The men who commit the murders are responsible for their own actions and, as Joanne so eloquently argues, not representative of ‘masculinity’ in its entirety or even, from the evidence available, of a particular type of masculinity, although speculation on this latter is quite interesting. The children and their mothers who are the ultimate victims of these murders should never be presented as the cause of their own deaths through the threat they pose to the masculine identity of the men who killed them.

There has been a general consensus on this from the comments on the subject that I have seen.  What interested me, however, was the general assumption that ‘masculinity in crisis’ meant masculinity threatened by the increased power of women, as if gender relations were a zero-sum game.  Yet there is a history of ‘crises of masculinity’ dating back to at least the beginning of the 20th century which sheds a rather different light on the subject.

In my own work, the earliest ‘crisis of [British] masculinity’ I have come across (and I would love to hear from anyone working on earlier examples) was the one that resulted during the Boer War as a reaction to the poor physical fitness of many of the volunteers.  This prompted much national soul-searching about the ability of the British man to match a masculine ideal embodied by the soldier, particularly when set against the rugged frontier masculinity of the Boer farmer who was defeating the British soldier in battle.  By the eve of the First World War, these concerns about the physical state of British masculinity had been supplemented by concerns about its moral state, with the 1918 Pemberton Billing libel case giving voice to the moral panic that conflated homosexuality and fears about the success of the war effort. This was not masculinity threatened by the economic and social power of women; rather it was masculinity threatened by urbanisation and poverty on the one hand, and luxury and decadence on the other.

During the war, the ‘crisis of masculinity’ found another popular name, shell shock, a condition which appeared to emasculate men who suffered from it, depriving them of the ability to be either successful soldiers or self-supporting wage earners in civil life.  Historians and literary critics such as Elaine Showalter and Sandra Gilbert have long argued that shell shock can be (and was) read in part as a response to growing female power on the home front.[i]  Yet, as I have argued at length, this crisis was just as often constructed as a crisis of masculine maturity, a response to the growing authority of the state over men’s bodies and actions in wartime that resulted in infantilisation rather than either the effiminisation feared by Pemberton Billing and his ilk, or the brutalisation that structured post-Second World War anxieties.

The association of brutalisation with masculinity in crisis developed, I believe, much more strongly after the Second World War.  Certainly work on American culture suggests that fears over the state of post-war masculinity were played out in fantasies of male violence and hypersexuality such as the ‘true adventure’ pulps of the 1950s and ‘60s which were constructed in direct opposition to ‘dynasty of the dames’ railed against by Philip Wylie in Generation of Vipers (1942).[ii]  Here we have the ‘crisis of masculinity’ as it appears in the comments in The Observer being spelled out: masculine identity is undermined through the domesticity imposed by powerful women who are invading the public domain, and men are attempting to reclaim it through violence against women.

The problem with this reading, as I think the history of the first half of the twentieth century shows, is that it is a limiting way to define masculinity.  Not only are there multiple masculinities at any one time, encompassing the domestic, the heroic, the alternative, to various degrees but these masculinities can be, have been and still are defined against many other identities, not just women.  My own research is suggesting that the image of the child/boy was a far more significant ‘other’ against which to define masculinity in the early twentieth century than women, whatever their growing social and political power.  Race and class have been equally powerful structures for masculine definition, and thus have as much power to precipitate crises in that self-identity.  None of this starts to answer the question raised by Joanne, as to why violence against the other is seen so often as the appropriate way for individual men to attempt to define their masculinity.  But perhaps by exploring the phrase ‘masculinity crisis’ in more depth we can begin to perceive its limits as a way of categorising men who commit these heinous acts.


[i] Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980 (London: Virago Press, 1987), 172; Sandra Gilbert, ‘Soldier’s Heart: Literary Men, Literary Women, and the Great War in Higonnet, et. al., Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), 197-226.

[ii] See Bill Osgerby, ‘Two-Fisted Tales of Brutality and Belligerence: Masculinity and Meaning in the American “True Adventure” Pulps of the 1950s and 1960s’ in Ellis and Meyer, Masculinity and the Other: Historical Perspectives (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009), 163-189.

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Never such innocence again

Yesterday was the anniversary of British entry into the First World War and, as such, saw a rash of articles in the British press and on line reflecting on both the conflict and the forthcoming centenary. Among them was this offering from Henry Porter in The Observer.  The main thrust of the piece is a discussion of the meaning and purpose of commemoration of conflict, about which Porter has a number of reservations, some of which I share.  What fascinated me about it, however, was the series of assumptions that underpinned Porter’s argument about the nature of the men who fought the war.

The opening paragraph describes a piece of graffito carved into a tree in Gloucestershire: PM 10/9/13 MKN.  As described, that is it, no heart encircling the initials, no indication of the sex or age of either party.  Yet, from this description, Porter makes the leap to a narrative whereby these are the initials of two lovers separated a year later by the war.  While I, too, make the assumption that at least one of the individuals was male (based on assumptions I make about knife possession and the desire to mark things through carving), my immediate narrative conclusion was rather different: two boys marking their friendship after school, perhaps, rather than two lovers swearing eternal fidelity after work.  Yes, they might have been 18 and, a year later, found themselves in the British armed forces preparing to face the enemy.  Or they might have been 13, too young to enlist until the war’s final year.  Porter’s narrative, while romantic, seems to have little evidence to back it up, making his tour of local war memorials even more of a long-shot than he himself implies.

Another, similar, imposition of narrative occurs later in the article, when Porter writes of the war as ‘an event that prods Owen, Sassoon, Graves, Remarque, Gurney and Nash into great art’.  By implication, the war is the sole source of these men’s artistic inspiration.  Certainly experiences of war inspired great art from these men, but their artistic aspirations and labours predate the war and several of them (most notably Graves, perhaps) produced great art in the years after that drew on other sources of inspiration. We cannot begin to speculate what sort of poets, artists, musicians they might have been had the war not occurred, but positioning the war as the sole reason for their artistic endeavour is equally a-historical.

It seems to me that there is quite a lot of this imposition of narrative in relation to our historical memory of the war.  The narrative runs that the Britain of the pre-war world, and all who inhabited her, were innocent and pure.  The war, with its unimaginable (by us as well as by those pre-war peoples) mud and blood and violence, destroyed that innocence, leaving behind only the grief and cynicism of the modern world.  It is the narrative of Paul Fussell’s literary paradigm shift writ large upon British social history.

And yet… As someone who has spent an awful lot of time reading the letters and diaries of men who fought in the war, documents which cover the complete span of 1914 through to 1920 and beyond, this narrative sits uncomfortably with me.  In the first place, as I have argued elsewhere, the post-war world was not entirely bereaved or cynical.  Men survived the war and came home to families who rejoiced.  All had been changed by their experiences of warfare, but those changes weren’t, in all cases, for the worse.  Some had gained new skills, acquired new aspirations, had their horizons widened, their philosophy and tolerance deepened.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly in the run-up to 1914, when questions of war enthusiasm and recruitment will be at the forefront of commemorative events, not all men who served were the lovelorn innocents of Porter’s (and I suspect popular) imagination.  The men who enlisted in the first years of the war were probably fairly reflective of the population at large: some were unworldly, some were sophisticates, a few were criminals.  Following the introduction of conscription, the accuracy of that social reflection may have increased as the reluctant soldiers were called up for service. Among the ranks of the army were surely, throughout the war, wife beaters, bullies, incompetents, malingerers, con men, the lazy and the cowardly, as well the idealistic, the intelligent, the grafters, the loyal, the poets and the heroes.  I have read more than enough papers of young men who started the war as prigs, or fire-eaters, and remained that way until the Armistice to know that war did not necessarily change men in the ways the canonical poets would have us believe, as well as far too many of men who were killed before they had a chance to reach anything like maturity.  Their stories, as well as those of the men who war changed in a myriad of ways, reflecting the myriad of personalities who were engaged in waging war, are worth listening to as well.

Over the course of the centenary it will, I know, be very tempting to look at the many artifacts of the conflict that will emerge into the public eye and impose romantic narratives on them, as Porter has done with a piece of graffito and as Philip Larkin did with a photograph in ‘MCMXIV’.  We should be wary of doing so, however, lest, in our romanticism, we miss far more, and far more interesting stories of this extraordinary conflict than the ones we believe we know.