From edition

Dumbing Masculinity Studies Down.Joanna L. Di

John Beynon, Masculinities and Culture. Buckingham: Open University Press, 2002.

In his introduction to Changing Men, the U.S. sociologist of men and masculinities, Michael Kimmel, explains that: ‘As women’s studies has radically revised the traditional academic canon, men’s studies seeks to use that revision as the basis for its exploration of men and masculinity’ (10). Men’s studies opens up a space that ‘attempts to treat masculinity not as the normative referent against which standards are assessed but as a problematic gender construct’ (10).

Over the past decade, a significant number of books has been published addressing the multiple questions that arise as a result of now understanding masculinity as a gender construct. Among them, texts by Kimmel, Harry Brod (The Making of Masculinities, 1987), Bob Connell (Masculinities, 1995; The Men and the Boys, 2000), and Fred Pfeil (White Guys, 1995), stand out for their vigorous scholarship and their sensitivity to the often-contentious relationship between feminism and the study of men and masculinity. Spanning the disciplines of sociology and cultural studies and everything in between, each begins from the position that hegemonic masculinity is a construction in crisis, under scrutiny and under pressure to change. Hegemonic masculinity, as a repressive identity for both men and women, has increasingly become (for both male and female researchers) a concept worthy of interrogation and revision.

Part of the Open University Press ‘Issues in Cultural and Media Studies’ series, John Beynon’s Masculinities and Culture provides a basic introduction to the broad field of research that is masculinity studies today and aims to provide a framework for the future direction of researching and theorizing about masculinities in the British context. Beynon addresses the core issues of hegemony, and of masculinity as a historical construction and a concept created and reproduced by culture, explaining: ‘Each chapter explores or points to the existence of a range of masculinities for, while all men have the male body in common ¼ there are numerous forms and expressions of gender’ (1). Beynon correctly points out that the signifying relationship between masculinity and culture marks it as an unstable and diverse category (2).

Beynon provides ‘a word of caution’ to those considering researching masculinities; the existence of a ‘major’ problem as he sees it – ‘how can masculinities be explored if they cannot be identified?’ (23). Is it not the task of the researcher to identify and delineate the model(s) of masculinity being researched, be they white and straight, black and gay, middle-class, middle-aged, and so forth? Beynon trivializes the importance of ‘identifying’ and naming the model of manhood under investigation by problematising a distinction between the concept ‘varieties of masculinity’ and ‘masculinities’. I cannot help but wonder what this distinction has to do with the now obvious existence of multiple models of masculinity (‘varieties’ or ‘masculinities’) – naming them reveals the fragmentation and diversity of identity that Beynon’s book is attempting to define.

Masculinities and Culture explores a variety of approaches to the study of masculinity, and sociological and historical methods are given the most emphasis. He begins by addressing ‘what’ masculinity is and ‘how’ it is constructed, enacted, and experienced throughout history. Building on this historical perspective, he looks at how masculinity was specifically constructed in nineteenth-century Britain through the discourse of imperialism and the cultural imagery deployed to reinforce this particular model, namely ‘the sporting boy’, the ‘all-white boy’ and the ‘Christian boy’ (33).

This historically specific analysis leads to an account of the critical tools used to (re)conceptualise masculinity, focusing on how masculinity has been mediated in the cinema. He draws on both British and American cinematic examples, including The Full Monty and Fight Club. Beynon’s reading of the cinema as a tool that constructs, reinforces, and sometimes challenges dominant gender ideology, is minimal; he looks at how media images function as role models that ‘teach’ men about appropriate forms of masculinity. He suggests: ‘These representations often have a more powerful impact than the flesh-and-blood men around the young and with whom they are in daily contact’ (64).

A later chapter is devoted to mapping the shift from the ‘new age man’ of the 1980s to the ‘new lad’ of the 1990s. Beynon also grounds this in images and does so by referring to previous scholarship on masculinity and the consumption of identity by Frank Mort, Sean Nixon, and Tim Edwards. He adds nothing new and writes, ‘I can only hope I do their work justice. I proceed as follows ¼’ (98). A final chapter explores how the British media constructed masculinity heading into the new millennium as a masculinity primarily characterised by anxiety about appearance, social role, and an overall loss of control, evidenced in the discourse of men as victims.

For a book about the ‘diversity’ of masculinity there are surprisingly few entries on ethnic or gay masculinities. Is Beynon really putting ‘masculinity under the microscope’ as he might have us believe? His text has a hurried, somewhat tedious tone – simply, it appears that in trying to cover so much, Beynon has detailed very little. By failing to name these other ‘varieties’ of masculinity, he seems to suggest that they are not experiencing their own moment of reconfiguration.

Beynon’s text poses a number of problems for a feminist reader, and is most glaringly deficient in its failure to account for the complicated relationship between feminism and the study of masculinity. Stephen Heath has argued: ‘Men’s relation to feminism is an impossible one(1).’ Further, and more importantly in terms of Beynon’s exclusion, Heath explains:

For a man the negotiation is blocked, doubly contradictory: his experience is her oppression, and at the end of whatever negotiation he might make he can only always confront the fact that feminism starts from here. To refuse the confrontation, to ignore, repress, forget, slide over, project onto ‘other men’ that fact, is for a man to refuse feminism, not to listen to what it says to him as a man, imagining to his satisfaction a possible relation instead of the difficult, contradictory, self-critical, painful, impossible one that men must, for now, really live(2).

The conception of gender – femininity and masculinity – as socially constructed and regulated entities begins with feminism and the work of women’s studies. It is feminism, most masculinity scholars will tell you, that has indeed transformed social, cultural, and political notions of what it means to be a man. Beynon brushes over this with one paragraph:

Masculinity has long been studied within the social sciences, but indirectly. For example, there is a history of youth subculture which, although it does not focus on masculinity per se, has much to say about it. Indeed, sociology has long acknowledged the importance of masculinity but, until recently, has failed to interrogate it and has tended to assume it to be both homogenous and stable. The fact that sociology started to take masculinity seriously was largely a result of the feminist critique. (54)

Masculinity and Culture‘s problematic relationship between men and feminism and, in turn, masculinity studies and women’s studies agendas, shows why a text like Beynon’s might be misleading to the student who picks it up as an ‘introduction’ to the field. Masculinity and Culture ignores the inextricable political relationship between these two fields and their interdependence in both theoretical and practical application. Although Beynon’s book is never intended to be anything more than an introduction, its omissions make it an interesting example of the lack of intellectual engagement with feminism that is often a feature of these ‘introduction to masculinity studies’ books.

Compared to a publication that emerged earlier this year entitled Masculinity Studies and Feminist Theory: New Directions (edited by Judith Kegan Gardiner)(3), Beynon’s text clearly lacks in providing any ‘new directions’ in research in this field. His analyses of films and other texts by way of example appear hurried and underdeveloped. Gardner’s collection, on the other hand, engages critically and provocatively with the analytical potential to be gained from locating masculinity studies in its feminist base. And as a text aimed at the educator, Beynon’s does not consider, as the Gardner collection does, the political implications of this fusion. In her introduction, Gardner explains what masculinity has to do with feminism and therefore also explains masculinity studies’ responsibility to feminism: while the two may at first appear antagonistic, they are ultimately now dependent on one another, for better or worse. She writes:

Talk of a masculinity crisis frequently implicates feminism, and this language of crisis extends, as well, to feminist and gender theories. These arousals of anxiety depend reciprocally on each other. Feminists are anxious that after generations of struggle not enough has changed: sexism, male dominance, and traditional masculinity still hold sway. Conversely, the media frets that American culture has changed too much, so that men’s masculinity is undermined and social stability therefore imperiled(4).

Beynon explains that he finds talking about a masculinity ‘crisis’ a difficult task because he finds it hard to define, specifically, what that crisis is (even though he devotes an entire chapter to it). As he writes, ‘given the absence of much field based evidence, it is inevitable that this chapter will raise more questions than it can possibly answer’ (75). From here, it sounds as if Beynon is avoiding this issue by making a possible analysis impossible. While he lists a number of likely causes and symptoms, such as the high rate of suicide among men, he offers no conclusion that ties this sociological material to cultural or political discourses of male disenfranchisement. Beynon addresses the crisis as an empirically verifiable phenomenon, but not as a cultural vehicle for the reinscribing of hegemony and power. He does not address who might benefit from the existence of a crisis or its resolution.

By the end of that chapter, Beynon concludes that, ‘there is a misleading tendency to assume that the alleged crisis is new and unique to our times’ (95). In fact, Beynon advocates that future research move away from what he sees as a clichéd term, where ‘masculinity’ and ‘crisis’ have become so closely associated in some sectors of the media that they are in danger of becoming synonymous (95). Any talk of masculinity in ‘crisis’ must be more specific about the cultural context from which this ‘crisis’ discourse arises and in particular the cycle of blame that it sets into motion. Beynon’s ‘talk’ asserts that the following can only be ‘vaguely’ attributed to the crisis – feminism, changing economic conditions, technology, and the gay/lesbian movement – while simultaneously pointing to a need to name the crisis more carefully. Problematically, by suggesting that movements like feminism and gay rights have not caused an upheaval to the stability of hegemonic masculinity (which was partly the purpose of both), Beynon inadvertently suggests that these movements have themselves failed.

Masculinities and Culture is constructed through the language of a ‘crisis’ that positions feminism as an absence in relation to the contemporary ‘problem’ of masculinity and holds women and feminism back from playing their necessary role in any solution.

Joanna Di Mattia is a PhD student in Women’s Studies at Monash University writing on anxious masculinity in Clinton-era Hollywood cinema.

1. S. Heath, Men in Feminism. Alice Jardine & Paul Smith (eds.) New York: Methuen, 1987. p.1

2. Heath, p.2

3. Judith Kegan Gardiner (ed.), Masculinity Studies and Feminist Theory: New Directions, Columbia University Press, 2002.   

4. Gardiner p.6.

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