Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Configuring Masculinity

Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Configuring Masculinity

Article excerpt

Masculinity studies is not a conservative backlash but a social necessity.1 While gender, women's, and feminist studies have been at least partly institutionalized and can look back into their own history - or histories - as (albeit sometimes contested) academic disciplines, the subject of masculinity has only much later begun to receive the attention of the academy. If, initially, masculinity was hardly more than an occasional topic in disciplines such as sociology, psychology, history, and literary studies, in the meantime it has become a field of study in its own right, at least in the US and the UK.

This genesis of masculinity studies as a new field of research can be explained by the centuries in which, in real life as well as in research, masculinity had been more or less invisible, given that the traditional "overgeneralization from male to generic human experience" not only distorted the "understanding of what, if anything, is truly generic to humanity but also preclude[d] the study of masculinity as a specific male experience, rather than a universal paradigm for human experience". 2

The fact that "notions of the 'human' ... obscure notions of the 'masculine'"3 explains why (notwithstanding Freud and his emphasis on masculinity as "normalcy") masculinity remained something of an unmarked (and therefore invisible) gender in political, social, and cultural contexts.

However, whenever masculinity has become visible in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, it has regularly presented an alarming picture, frequently mentioned in connection with violent incidents such as the Anders Behring Breivik massacres in Norway or shootings in universities and schools. In the current debate on education, at least in Germany, masculinity has been pronounced to be a problem: the latest statistics of the Federal Government and the World Health Organization (WHO) show men4 to be at a significantly higher risk of lapsing into alcoholism, exhibiting personality disorders and committing suicide.

Also with regard to life expectancy, chronic disorders, and the need for long-term care, men have been shown to be seriously disadvantaged.5 If one follows media coverage, one could almost have the impression that the formerly strong sex is about to become the new weaker sex,6 mainly characterized by numerous physical and mental weaknesses7 - which brings me back to the very first sentence of this article, that is, the social necessity of what is called "masculinity studies" or "critical studies on men and masculinities". By this, I mean current research on masculinity as portrayed in the surveys by Todd Reeser, Raewyn Connell, and Stefan Horlacher,8 but most explicitly not the more conservative and reactionary perspectives, such as the men's rights perspective, the mythopoetic perspective, morally and socio-biologically conservative perspectives, or the Evangelical Christian Men's Movement (Promise Keepers).9

Many of the most influential approaches in contemporary masculinity studies are heavily influenced by sociological, historical, literary, and allegedly neutral biomedical knowledge. They collect and analyze gender-specific data with regard to violent behavior, life expectancy, drug abuse, and the susceptibility to particular diseases. Although archaic and obsolete images of men linking masculinity to risk-taking and dare-devil behavior have been called into question for decades, the old stereotypes, lurking everywhere, prove to be almost insurmountable. This has led to some kind of paradox: while current research has shown that in post-modern societies the construction of a monolithic or singular male gender identity has become problematic and increasingly impossible, the construction of a male gender identity based on the premises of an unrestricted plurality has turned out to be problematic and crises-ridden as well.

In this context, Peter F. Murphy has correctly emphasized the role "[that] literature has played in reinforcing the assumptions about masculinity and, at times, [in] helping to establish the norm of manhood";10 additionally, Vera Nünning has succinctly stated the outstanding contribution that literature - fictional constructions of masculinity - can make with regard to male gender identity formation when she stresses the "immense social and cultural relevance" of masculinity concepts that are "disseminated and to some extent critiqued" in literature as well as in non-fictional texts. …

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