Academic journal article Culture, Society and Masculinities

Why Study "Masculinity," Anyway? Perspectives from the Old Days

Academic journal article Culture, Society and Masculinities

Why Study "Masculinity," Anyway? Perspectives from the Old Days

Article excerpt

This paper, written by a self-styled "old-timer," invites current scholars to consider what it means to study masculinity. It argues that "masculinity," as scholars use the term, is a heuristic category, and is most useful when recognized as such. To provide perspective, it revisits the 1980s and 1990s and contrasts the two very different, but equally valuable movements then pioneering the study of masculinity: "men's (or masculinity) studies" and "poststructuralist gender analysis."


As one of the "first generation" of gender historians to study masculinity in the United States, I welcome the opportunity to revisit this subject. Tilings have certainly changed, since the "old days," when the notion of "men's history" or "men's studies" elicited only puzzlement.

On the other hand, as someone who has not worked on masculinity since 1995, I feel a bit like Rip Van Winkle, awakening from his twenty-year nap. Much is familiar; much has changed. Certain assumptions about why we studied masculinity- so obvious they barely needed to be spoken in 1990- have fallen away. Conversely, as a member of that older generation I am not always clear about what members of this generation of masculinity scholars really want to know, or why.

My paper will, in fact, remain mostly in the past, as an invitation to the scholars of the present to think about why they are studying masculinity. What does it actually mean to study masculinity -particularly when we consider it as "invisible" or "performative?" Consider this, as well, a report about how difficult it was to imagine how to study masculinity twenty-five years ago, when I was a graduate student. As a historian, I find use in understanding how new generations of scholars adopt, adapt, and forget the assumptions and resources of previous scholars, as time passes. I hope that those who study masculinity in the present may find some use in seeing how we "old-timers" tried to cobble together a "history of masculinity" in the 1990s.

I will begin with a brief argument that masculinity (as scholars use the term) is a heuristic category, and should be recognized as such. Second, I will deal with what kinds of resources were available to historians of masculinity when I began working on my dissertation, in 1986 (Bederman, 1995). Third, I would like to distinguish between the two very different scholarly movements working on "masculinity" in the 1980s and 1990s.1 One, "men's (or masculinity) studies," was led by Michael Kirnmel, R.W. Connell, Joseph Pleck, and Harry Brod, among others. The other, "poststructuralist gender analysis," is exemplified by Judith Butler and Judith Halberstam. I will use, as examples, the scholarship written by Kirnmel (1993), Connell (1995), Butler (1990), and Halberstam (1998). I hope to show that at the time, "men's studies" and "poststructuralist gender analysis" had entirely different goals, and therefore entirely different understandings of "masculinity," as well as "invisibility" and "performance."

Putting these two traditions into conversation (or argument) with one another, as I hope to do here, illuminates the kind of problems that can be caused by citing masculinity as a self evident "thing" rather than using it as a heuristic category. "Men's studies" and "gender analysis" scholarship need not be intrinsically incompatible. Yet these approaches are most usefully combined when we understand their quite disparate goals and assumptions- that is, when we understand precisely what each one means when they invoke "masailinity."

This paper will be valuable only if it helps us to define what we think masculinity scholarship ought to do, today. What do we mean when using the heuristic term "masculinity?" And how does our definition of that term help us understand what we, as twenty-first century scholars, want to know?


In any type of academic research, the answers we find depend on the questions we ask. …

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