ROTTERDAM – In the next few blog posts we will analyse Modern Masculinity and attempt to answer some fundamental question left unanswered by the Art of Manliness: how does modern masculinity relate to [the] other gender[s]? What, if anything, is so different about the art of being a modern man that we haven’t encountered in the last 200.000 years since the rise of the subspecies Homo Sapiens?
Mind you, this’ll be a long(er) read.
Before we start answering the first question and refer back to the 30 Days Challenge, I want to write about the conceptualisations of masculinity we’ve encountered before: patriarchy.
Embedded within this question is the assumption that some (if not all) conceptualisations of masculinity have subjugated women across cultures and civilisations. Structure (e.g. the whole of iterated behavioural parts) has favoured men over women seemingly exclusively since what seems to be the dawn of humankind:
Patriarchy has been the norm in almost all agricultural and industrial societies. It has tenaciously weathered political upheavals, social revolutions and economic transformations. Egypt, for instance, was conqured numerous times over the centuries. Assyrians, Persians, Macedonians, Romans, Arabs, Mameluks, Turks, and British occupied it – and its society always remained patriarchical. Egypt was governed by pharaonic law, Greek law, roman law, Muslim law, Ottoman law and British law, and they all discriminated against people who were not ‘real men’
- Y. N. Harari (2014). A Brief History of Humankind, p. 171.
Now, why is that? More extremist views within the oeuvre of masculinity (like these guys) will claim that because patriarchy has appeared in cultures that were completely isolated from each other, it is somehow part of the natural order. These arguments can best be labelled as biological determinism:
The power relations between men and women in patriarchical systems that grant priviliges and opportunities to men whilst simultaneously tend to further restrict a women’s behaviour, is somehow natural. It is part of our genetic code.
There are a few caveats here, though. Let us, for the sake of argument, examine the validity of the biological determinism claim thereby (hopefully) excluding the extremists from the conceptualisation of modern masculinity, leaving us to deal with what by default are the moderates, I guess.
An obvious argument in favour of patriarchy is the fact that men are physically stronger and they have used their greater physical power to force women into submission. A more subtle version argues
their strength allows men to monopolise tasks that demand hard labour, such as ploughing and harvesting [or hunting]. This gives them control of food production, which in turn translates into political clout.
- p. 172.
Hunters and gatherers were mostly dependent on gathering (80-90% of their diet consisted of foods gathered) and not so much on hunting. Assuming a reasonable 50/50 male-women ration in any tribe or group, the division of labour doesn’t make too much sense since most members of the tribe (regardless of sex) were busy gathering rather than hunting.
It’s not really about physical prowess, even when humanity left behind hunting and gathering and the Agricultural Revolution commenced. Women are on average more resistant to hunger, disease, and fatigue than men, and patriarchy doesn’t really divide social power accordingly to physical strength (priests were/are mostly male, for instance). If anything, a good predictor for social power is communication skills.
Even amongst chimpanzees, the alpha male wins his position by building a stable coalition with other males and females, not through mindless violence.
- p. 173.
Maybe it’s not so much physical strength, but rather aggression. Men have on average more aggressive impulses than women thanks to their hormonal make-up, and that is not limited to our species, which would make them more suitable for war-like purposes and also more likely to force others into submission.
However, aggression is seldomly a good predictor for succesful outcomes in war or skirmishes, so why were all the generals, mandarins, and officers, who really didn’t engage in much fighting (mostly because they were upper-class citizens or even aristocrats), also men?
Then there is the patriarchical gene. The survival strategies of men and women are radically different: women are dependent upon men for the upbringing of her offspring. This dependency is ultimately translated into inferiority. Men, on the other hand, compete against each other for the opportunity to impregnate fertile women.
The result of these different survival strategies – so the theory goes – is that men have been programmed to be ambitious and competitive, and to excel in politics and business, whereas women have tended to move out of the way and dedicate their lives to raising children.
The assumption that women are dependent upon men because of the impregnation is largely belied by empirical evidence. There are many species of animals such as elephants and bonobo chimpanzees
in which the dynamics between dependent females and competitive males results in a matriarchical society.
- p. 177.
Dependency of females on males because of their ability to produce life does not necessarily lead to the first being subjugated by the latter.
In 1974, Sherry B. Ortner wrote a paper titled Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture? in which she attempted to explain the fact that most, if not all cultures, are patriarchical even if their development was completely isolated from the rest of the world.
Because if biological determinism does not explain the idea that women are subjugated by men, that they are somehow inferior, “belong in the kitchen”, then what does?
First of all, Ortner differentiates between three levels of patriarchy:
- The universal fact of culturally attributed second-class status of women in every society.
- Specific ideologies, symbolisations, and social-structure arrangements pertaining to women that very widely from culture to culture.
- Observeable on-the-ground details of women’s activities, contributions, powers, influence, etc., often in variance with cultural ideology (although always constrained within the assumption that women may never be officially preeminent in the total system).
So, the second and third we are familiar with. Societal expectations and beauty ideals are in the second category. These are social norms that may differ from culture to culture. The third category mostly focuses on how women try to negotiate within (or in conflict with) the parameters of the ideological framework they are being placed in.
I am explained this to you in order to avoid confusion later on by someone perceiving this analysis as some sort of personal affront or attack.
Ortner operates in the first category. According to her, there should be some universal social fact that explains why women occupy a lesser power position.
Her theory is that women are perceived to be closer to nature in a divide between culture and nature that is defined by the latter. Humankind, according to Ortner, always makes this distinction between what is deemed Nature and what is deemed Culture. Women are closer to nature due to their physiology (they give birth).
French feminist and philosopher De Beauvoir has written a rather eloquent paragraph on this:
Here we have the key to the whole mystery. On the biological level a species is maintained only by creating itself anew; but this creation results only in repeating the same Life in more individuals. But man assures the repitition of Life while transcending Life [Nature] through Exististence [Culture; i.e. goal-oriented, meaningful action]; by this transcendence he creates a value that deprive pure repition of all value.
- S. De Beauvoir, (1953). The Second Sex. p. 58-59.
Because of their natural lactation process, the woman is usually quite restricted to the household itself, especially because rearing children lies in the direct vicinity of early upbringing due to the natural bond between mother and child. This in turn translates to women being excluded from the public spheres of life (e.g. religion or politics) because of the domestic/public opposition, which is:
the notion that the domestic unity – the biological family charged with reproducing and socialising new members of the society – is ooposed to the public entity – the superimposed network of alliances and relationships that is the society.
S.B. Ortner, (1974). Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture? p. 78.
Men are more active in this public “less-natural, more cultured” sphere of human activity, and the artificiality of a construct like society transcends it above mere biological or natural activities in the same way we humans often regard ourselves to be superior to animals.
Ironically, in this scenario, it are the women who introduce children into this cultured space. However, as Ortner argues, there are particular rites of passage in some societies wherein a boy (who has not fully entered this cultured space) is becoming a man by being accepted by other men thereby leaving the domestic household. Children are not seen as full social human beings until they have passed these rites.
In a way, women are the intermediacy between nature and culture. They are participants in both, but operate on a different level than men usually do.
This nature/culture divide is an universal distinction according to Ortner, and can be found in every culture. In the last century, however, we’ve seen the first attempts to break away from this divide by women wanting to play an equal part in cultured space. Modern childrearing, contraceptives, feminism, and human rights have brought us to an era in which, for what might be the first time in human history, men and women will be truly equal.
Is modern feminism challenging the universal nature/culture divide? Or are they, like the Art of Manliness, merely operating on (or challenging) the second- or third level of of patriarchy?
That is, after all, essentially what the Art of Manliness is doing: reinvigorating the ideologies, and social-structural arrangements that make men, men.