Researching and writing about puritan poet Anne Bradstreet

Monday, July 16, 2012

Real Men

This is a little off topic, but it's something that I've been wondering about a lot lately.    

Men.  What's up with them?  Since when was the ideal for male behavior strong, rugged, silent, etc?

Here's the deal:  we have this idea that historically, men are socially conditioned to be tough, to not express their inner fears and weaknesses, to squash the tears . . . etc.  So here is our narrative for male behavior over history:  "Once when the mastodons ruled the earth and humans lived in hunter-gatherer groups, men found that in order to hunt effectively and rule the clans at home, they had to be tough and authoritative.  They had to be 'real men.' They could not afford to give into their 'weaker' emotions, like grief.  Over the eons, they did not form close, intimate relationships with other men, preferring instead to form friendships around activities (such as hunting mastodons or fixing cars).  They certainly never told their guy friends how much they cared about them, except when inebriated ("I love ya, man.")    Then the 1970s happened and that all changed, except that it didn't because guys are still hard-wired to be strong, tough, silent, and fix cars.  The end."

OK, it's not perfect, you get the basic narrative.

The problem is that, as I tool along through the centuries as a historian, I keep finding evidence that that is not the case.  Whole generations of guys were very free about expressing their emotions to their guy friends, and we know because we have these intimate expressions of love and friendship to each other in their letters.

I know what you're thinking -- no, we're sure these are straight guys.  It was quite typical -- I think -- to express yourself rather rapturously about how you feel about  your closest guy friend to your closest guy friend.  Women did it too in their letters to their close female friends.

Or it was quite typical at certain times and or certain places and or certain social classes or or . . . you see, I'm hampered in two ways here:  1) it's not my area of specialty, so I don't really know, and 2) I don't think there's so much research being done on heterosexual male behavior over time.  Women's history, women's studies -- you bet.  Men's studies?  A few months I took a couple of hours googling around for some publications or university programs on the topic to get me going and get some questions answered and found zilch.  Women's studies, gender studies and LGBT was everywhere, but as far as looking specifically at norms for straight men in various times and places -- zilch.  "Men's studies."  Does that sound funny to you?  Should it?

I suppose this is all because we think that if you want to find out about male norms, look no further than history itself -- at least, the stuff we think of when we think of history, the wars, the parliaments, the leaders and their decisions -- because most of those players were men.  And I get that.  Certainly, you can learn about male behavior by looking there.

But this going narrative that we have -- that straight male history is public history, and female history is Other, seems very suspicious to me.  I think the truth is far richer because in my experience, it always is.  The real story that history reveals about any issue is always richer and more complicated than our perceptions concerning long-term effects of mastodon-hunting or what have you.

For instance:  Hillary Clinton.  There she is, a woman and Secretary of State, looking the Egyptian military in the eye and telling them to knock it off.  Is she doing that in an inherently "female" way?  Or is she doing that in a "male" way because she's operating in a context (Egypt) that demands male-style norms?  Or is this actually a "human" way?  Or are gender categories completely useless here because they're so conditioned by time and place and historical context?

Or:  are there consistent differences between matriarchal societies and patriarchal ones, all other things (size, complexity, development, etc) being equal?  That question might actually be answerable.

That's just a tip of the iceberg on this topic, so jump in if you have comments or questions,and especially if you can point me to a book on the topic.

1 comment:

  1. I remember when I was a teenager and spent summers in Spain and Italy. Men walk holding hands, arm in arm, or with their arms around each other. So do women. Machismo is big there, as far as having affairs, double standards, and all, but affection between male heterosexual friends is very openly expressed. I was struck by this, and by how the Northern European, (I stayed with a German family, and travelled throughout Europe,) and American men must suffer with loneliness. The silent desperation written about in another context. The "love letters," between men which many try to say prove this or that man was gay, were from a time when men were more like the Mediterranean guys, I think. Some of them were surely gay, but on the whole, I think men were more free to love their friends before the turn of the century. All writing was overdone and flowery. Spanish literature still is terribly flowery. That's all I know. I wish, for the men in my own life, that there was more freedom here for them to express their deep affection for their friends. Some kind of Male Relations Studies is certainly necessary!