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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2 thoughts on “Masculinity in crisis (again)?

  1. Thanks for writing this Jessica. I think that these crises are actually far more viable as lenses into masculinities than those which scholars later identify as shaping masculine identity, which so often simply oppose male and female power. You demonstrate forcefully just how crudely the term is extracted from its context and used in an unthinking way!

  2. Thanks, Joanne. I definitely want to do more work on post-Second World War anxieties about masculinity in Britain. There is a definite shift towards concerns about male brutality and violence which don’t seemed to be as prevalent in the interwar years and I would love to work out why as I don’t think it is solely about increased female power.

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