Friday, August 6, 2010

Masculinity in Crisis: A Recurring Meme at Times of Cultural Stress

Another link to a recent posting: I blogged recently about the wide appeal of the show “Mad Men,” and my suspicion that we’re watching this popular series not because it exposes the pitfalls of the socially constructed definition of masculinity of the late modern period, as many of us claim.  We’re watching precisely because we want to reassure ourselves that a masculinity we imagine to be under siege in postmodernity remains continuous with the hyper-maleness of modernity at its peak.

And so I’m interested to watch Brian Safi’s recent infoMania send-up of the accentuated machismo of recent commercials: Masculinity is in crisis!  Let’s bring back the real man in this era of economic downturn and a black man in the White House!

I’ve lived long enough now to have seen this masculinity-under-siege meme come around cyclically.  It reasserts itself, in particular, when economic times are tough or strong cultural shifts (e.g., the election of a nation’s first African-American president) take place.  Masculinity evidently never stops being threatened, under siege, in danger of disappearing in American culture.  It’s perennially fragile and in need of bolstering.

This is a cultural scab we need to pick occasionally to reassure ourselves—to reassure ourselves that the world remains right and its core values remain in place at times of cultural stress and rapid change.  The ultimate suggestion of this apocalyptic line of thought is that even if everything else in the world may shift, men need to remain on top and what it means to be a real man must remain secure.

For many of us, that reassurance is evidently really, really necessary.  Without it, we imagine  that the world as we know it will cease to exist.  Every other cultural symbol and practice may be up for grabs.  But leave our manhood alone.  It above all weaves the cosmos together.

That’s the logic of the recurring males-under-siege hysteria.  And a strange logic, indeed, when one looks at what hyper-masculinity has meant to classic (gay) American artists like Thomas Eakins, a man’s man who loved other men’s men in a way that ought to make us take a second look at precisely what’s going on in those commercials about frantic male bonding designed to reassure men’s men that they aren’t, well, half-men after all.