The following are adapted excerpts from my "Tough Enough? Beyond the dominion of conventional masculinity in the politics of national security" -- a presentation to the Women in Public Policy weekly seminar, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA USA, 18 October 2005.
These excerpts address the contingency of 'manhood', the social enforcement of conventionality, and how these in combination are used to create gender-based 'war parties' to pursue international violence. They also explore what's to be done to move beyond this sort of destructive politics.
While conventional womanhood status is achieved for the most part through biological processes, conventional manhood status is granted by other males after ritualized ordeals and other social tests that often involve symbolic or actual violence. That other men are the keepers of manhood status has important consequences for gender politics. Men live with their manhood under the constant threat of revocation, and this contingency is a powerful enforcer of conventional power relations among males.
To illustrate how contingent manhood fits into the discourse about security and how it shores up a hegemonic masculinity I refer to the words of an archetypical man of action who in a moment of enthusiasm told us something interesting about how he experienced the fighting in Afghanistan.
On February 4th of 2005 the AP quotes Marine Corps Lt. Gen James Mattis as saying:
Actually, it's a lot of fun to fight. You know, it's a hell of hoot… It's fun to shoot some people. I like brawling. You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn't wear a veil. You know, guys like that ain't got no manhood left anyway. So it's a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them.
What drew my attention in this statement is that Mattis is justifying his pleasure in lethal violence within a cultural notion of 'manhood' and, in particular, the issue of who has it and who doesn't. Mattis derides the manhood of his enemy counterparts and once Mattis can judge them as less than real men he finds full permission to enjoy killing them.
Feminists have pointed out that in the stories of war the victor is usually gendered male and often the vanquished is gendered (or re-gendered) female [Goldstein p. 371]. In the binary system of conventional masculinity and femininity, if you have your manhood taken away what are you other than a woman, or in the masculinist discourse, a sissy or a girly-man? Furthermore, while a woman is tolerated in her place, in this system of thought there is no place for 'out of their place' males who are named and rejected as sissies, girly-men, fags, or queers.
From an international relations perspective the personal motivations of an individual soldier such as Mattis are well below the radar: state interests and associated motives are thought of as quite different from those of individuals in the state system. Furthermore there is no evidence I know of that most soldiers are motivated to fight by ideas such as Mattis' or that the military is a haven for men who share those ideas.
Nonetheless, Mattis's story provides me with a good introduction to a key political premise:
For every person like Mattis in the military there are undoubtedly ten, twenty or a hundred in civilian life. And in the American system of governance wars are pursued by ad hoc war coalitions that need to mobilize diverse groupings of political actors. People who are inclined to fight over matters of manhood offer a significant and reliable part of war coalitions and this group tracks closely to conventional masculine identity.
Now I want to return your attention to Mattis' seemingly gratuitous remark that he likes brawling! Brawling is fighting, usually fist fighting, for sport. People who do it tend to think of it as a worthy activity, and even if bloodied in the process, it is experienced first and foremost as fun. Participants who are usually male pride themselves with being ready for a fight at the slightest provocation. I believe Mattis made this remark about brawling because our culture includes the notion that real men are brawlers, and his affinity for brawling shores up his identity as a 'real man.'
However, brawling is not something that I have ever, ever wanted to do or thought might be fun. And when I have witnessed it I have made a point to give it a wide berth. Mattis' statement signaled that his masculinity is very different from mine.
I believe there is some more than trivial portion of males in our society who feel something like me and who exclude from their masculine identity affinity for brawling and, indeed, most any violence against males or females. I propose to you that this portion of males, when organized into self-confident identity and in alignment with other gender identity groupings, represents a potentially significant political expression in regards to national security policy. Right now organization of these males is inhibited, but with attention to this potential, this situation could change in the next decades.
However, under current conditions of hegemony the leading males who have laid claim to the title of 'real men' are able to make political use of the binary opposition of 'real man' and 'not a man' which is internalized in nearly all males. They use this to suppress opposing political expression of other males who are inclined toward different security policy preferences and to thereby rather too easily pull them into a hegemonic consensus.
If other masculinities are to challenge the hegemony of the conventional, we must resist the temptation to contest the character of a 'real man' -- to redefine this type - to say "We are real men of a different sort..."
The best strategy, I believe, is to cede to conservatives this particular ground, the lonely mountain top held by real men. Instead we need to develop multiple strong points for males in a diverse gender space of politics. I stress the word 'develop' since I believe there are as yet few alternative strong points in gender space for males to occupy. Gay man is one such point that has some strength, culturally and politically. But we need several others.
When I refer to gender space I am thinking about all of that space between and around what has traditionally been placed into a duality of masculine and feminine. I believe there is a multidimensional space of gender possibilities that don't lie in a straight line between man and woman. Gay, lesbian and transgender (and more recently queer) culture and politics has brought awareness of this gender space, especially among younger Americans who are increasingly open and accepting of a wide range of gender expressions simply unimaginable a couple decades ago.
Although GLBT and Q cultures are leading the way in this discovery, it is not my contention that they as an allied set of social movements will gain sufficient power to transform the politics of national security in the foreseeable future. Rather, my hypothesis is that there is some meaningful portion of males, many of whom are sexually straight and don't currently identify with queer culture, who have masculinities distinct from the traditional 'real man' type. This set might be composed of two or three different masculine types. Right now we simply don't know much about this male gender space and as part of a research agenda we need to learn more about these males and the gender space they occupy.
Just as women have organized themselves in opposition to conventional feminine roles and behaviors and then moved on to positive new feminine identities, there is latent potential for males to make this move away from conventional masculinity. It is time to realize this potential!
To restate my political hypothesis:
In the set of non-conventional masculinities that already exist, yet are currently subordinate, there is considerable political latency which could be organized into eventual alliance with progressive women to advance security policies that are less reliant on violence. Effective political organization will require establishing strong points of identity and confidence for these males.
The power of this set of other masculinities will remain latent as long as these males are kept within the confines of conventional masculinity by a combination of shaming and physical intimidation and the reified idea that there is only one gender choice for males - "real man" or "not a man." It is routine for boys growing up to be teased, harassed, and beaten if they stray ever so little from conventional male looks or behavior. This is something I can vividly remember from my childhood.
At the extreme, many of the most vicious hate crimes are against gays, transsexuals, and people of ambiguous gender appearance and behavior.
Returning to the potential political expression of males who are not fixed in the conventional masculine posture, the requisites for realizing their potential political power when aligned with women are these:
1. describing and "raising consciousness" about these different masculinities so that males can recognize them in themselves and have the option of identifying with one or another of their aspects or types.
2. an impassioned struggle, along the lines that gays have mounted in the last thirty years, against the shaming and physical intimidation of boys and men; and
3. following the examples of gays and lesbians, creating a proud and assertive political and social expression for these male gender variants.
I don't want to speculate on how long it will take for these new masculinities to emerge as a contending political force, but I am willing to hazard a prediction that a generation from now gender expression in politics, including national security politics, will be very different than it is now.
posted by Charles Knight