Academic journal article Journal of American & Comparative Cultures

Entrepreneurial Masculinity: Re-Tooling the Self-Made Man

Academic journal article Journal of American & Comparative Cultures

Entrepreneurial Masculinity: Re-Tooling the Self-Made Man

Article excerpt

Perhaps the most wide-ranging, durable, and popular tale in Western culture is the myth of the selfmade man. The most well-known American versions of the myth are Horatio Alger's morally uplifting, turn-of-the-century tales of overcoming less-thanspectacular origins and reaping justly deserved personal rewards. Popular interest in such tales has underwritten a cottage industry in entrepreneurial autobiographies and non-fiction essays during the last two decades. My basic claim here is that the popularity of these tales of corporate prowess rests on their ability to embody the most persistent and complex of social values-those devoted to gender.

What is commonly being offered in the myth, which is dominated by male figures, is access to real masculinity. At the same time, these tales do not resolve masculine gender tensions. Instead they reenact psychological and social conflicts over "correct" gender behavior (exemplified in the myth's own internal contradictions) that cannot be readily resolved. In short, representations of masculine self-making are symptomatic of an incomplete symmetry between social claim and individual experience. The resulting disparity between societal goals and self-perceived identity produces an anxiety that paradoxically reinforces interest in the myth, as both society and its subjects attempt to perform and re-perform the myth's contradictory behaviors in an ongoing attempt to alleviate the very tensions the myth dramatizes.

Among the contradictory appeals that the myth produces, one key element is a call to fight one's way up the corporate ladder that is paradoxically accompanied by an appeal to anti-institutionalism, to a rejection of the status quo and the flabby, bureaucratic, non-masculinity embodied in the aging fathers and the corporate powers-that-be. This is not a new argument, of course. Andrew Carnegie used it in another classic of the genre, his own autobiography of men and steel. But like all social myths, gender is subject to historical strains that intensify its internal contradictions, and one modern source of deep tension is the clash between Carnegie's still-active ideal of nineteenthcentury rugged individualism, especially entrepreneurial self-making, and the middle-class reality of modern corporate life.

The twentieth-century rise of modern corporations has shifted the more blatantly masculinized, oedipal motifs of nineteenth-century industrial rhetoric, such as portrayals of fistfights between workers and managers, toward representations based on a carefully maintained blend of anti-institutionalism, corporate prowess, and personal risk. To these motifs is added a rhetorical dynamic that colors the mythic rhetoric as a whole: a call for movement forward into the future, which is paradoxically underwritten by nostalgia for the past. That nostalgia is further enhanced by the need to offset an end-of-the-century threat to the United States's industrial dominance, and the masculinity it underpins, with a renewed vision of economic strength, creativity, and masculine agency.

Iacocca and the rebirth of Chrysler Motors provides one of the more successful dramatizations of this basic, middle-class success story. It does so, moreover, by masking its corporate connections and dependencies so well that the book has become "essential reading" in arenas as intriguing as Russia's newly formed, all-male school of New Business Technologies (Myre). Yet for all the popularity of Michael Douglas-like visions of corporate power, a deep uneasiness remains over portraying a masculinity ultimately dependent upon the very institutional frames that it decries. And as Russia readily demonstrates, the economic stage does not always provide corporate successes such as Chrysler's to act as a backdrop to a self-made success story.

Steelmaking, for example, with all its elementsits raw power, huge consumption of energy, and Promethean drive to produce a product seen as alternatively molten, malleable, and the backbone of the western industrial nations' economic and urban risehas long been connected to general themes of masculinity in the popular ethos. …

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