Manhood in America

Michael Kimmel

“Manhood in America: A cultural history.”

The first half of the book is the most interesting part. It defines three historical bases for traditional masculinity, each of different source, and how the three strove in turf-war. The Heroic Artisan was crushed by the Industrial Revolution, the Genteel Patriarch gets woefully discredited by the American Civil War, and the Self-Made Man of the capitalist marketplace eventually won out. ... and then, lacking opponents, proceeded to cannibalize itself in a pattern that has since repeated several times over. A “Male Privilege Economy” (my description, not his) took form to deal with the distribution of masculine resources and the dwindling sources thereof, as the institution of manhood itself—like capitalism in many other spheres of study—begins to offer itself in solution to the very problems it causes. ... unable to mend the faulty assumptions it rests on, leading it to fail over and over, in the same method each time.

The book offers a good grounding for the sociological development of many aspects of modern masculinity, including the things often thought to be “innate” or “biological” given how eternal they otherwise seem. An example: homophobia as a homosocial construct only has a history since 01900 that was born out of a mix of workplace competition and class-based social control from the bourgeois onto the working class; whereas beforehand, physical and platonic love between even heterosexual friends was actually quite common. ... or so Kimmel's argument would go. A problem of Kimmel's rhetoric is that it assumes the opposite situation in a past state simply due to the lack of evidence towards it, leading to spurious argumentation. He would posit that women were only first disallowed into the industrial workplace by the first wave of exclusionary masculine cannibalism, and that beforehand in agrarian societies men and women worked as equals. (A claim, while logical, I'm not entirely sure I can believe.)

Other problems with the text includes its American-centric argumentation, and how it just seems to denote most problems of manly malaise as culturally linked to the first trauma from the imposition of the capitalist marketplace in the mid-01800's. In short, it's all capitalism's fault, which is an empty and fatalist thesis. I didn't much like this at the time, though with some degree of retrospect I can see in it a substantivist outlook on the development of gender roles in North America.

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