Is Masculinity in “Crisis?”
According to scholar Roger Horrocks, patriarchal masculinity is killing men. That is to say, the particular ways that manhood is idealized requires men to engage in what are essentially deeply self-destructive behaviors (Horrocks, 1994). The movie “Fight Club” serves up a dramatic rendering of the crisis in action. Men are portrayed as having been effectively neutered by advanced capitalism. The protagonist, played by Edward Norton, embodies this type of man, as the plot reveals his “split” personality in tortured by conversations with his idealized self – the character played by Brad Pitt.
So what is this crisis and where did it come from? There are no simple answers to describe the confluence of events. Post- World War II era developments ushered in major changes in the economy, which brought about changes at home and at work. Relations between men and women were radically reformulated. The breadwinning role of the family patriarch, who worked a blue collar job – “Joe Lunchbox” – was destabilized and income responsibility shifted toward women.
By the late 1960’s, the post-World War II economic boom that helped secure lifestyles for working-class men began to give way. The American Dream here gave way to the American nightmare as the stable work of middle-class white men started to crumble.
Anger and resentment over the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal helped to bring about a strong anti-government sentiment. During this time period, office work replaced stereotypically masculine heavy industry occupations that were the mainstay of previous generations. In the world of work, the newfound egalitarianism brought about by these changes and through force of necessity (two household incomes instead of one were now required) was as not always celebrated. Men were in many respects emasculated, as their factory jobs became outdated and “feminized.”
The “real man” of days gone by – the thick-cut working-class muscle man – was no longer the ideal…at least not according to Hollywood and Madison Ave. He was effectively replaced by the stylized version of man depicted in films and popular media. This “new man,” more often than not, was a well-groomed, slight built, chiseled model, who sported bikini briefs. They weren’t real men; far from it – they’re feminized “gay” men – men who have been neutered and domesticated.
Race relations were also renegotiated. The success of the Civil Rights movement meant that the secure jobs white men once claimed to themselves without competition from more than 50% of the population were no longer “off limits” to women and racialized others. Diversity and multiculturalism now rule the day and define contemporary society. As a result, narratives about who deserves social rewards, who works hard (who is on welfare), and who is privileged (or not) form the basis of a new form of contentious populist social politics that are imbued with strong racial undercurrents.
Labor relations were also put to the test. Union wages that once secured a comfortable lifestyle for such men were undone as well, such that the percent of jobs reflecting union pay dropped from 30% to the barely 10% where it stands today (census citation…source income stats). Working class men with high school diplomas have borne the brunt of these changes and are among the first generation that economists point to as being “downwardly mobile,” meaning that they are statistically more likely to not be as economically secure and successful as their parents before them.
Having called into question what it means to be a man, these developments left many men feeling hopeless, adrift, and unsure of their place in a world that has by every indication left them behind. What does it mean to be masculine? What can a man do? What would it take to make men “great again?”
This is why the 1950’s are forever ensconced in the minds of many men as a “golden era.” For it is perceived to be the last uncontested time that men could be happy and secure – where they could do all this and still be “real men.”