Masculinity, Men's Bodies and the Great War

By Bourke, Joanna | History Today, February 1996 | Go to article overview

Masculinity, Men's Bodies and the Great War


Bourke, Joanna, History Today


Less than ten years ago, the words `gender history' were interchangeable with `women's history'. Not any more. Thanks to the efforts of a wide range of scholars engaged in mapping out a distinctive narrative concerning masculinity, `gender' has become a much more complex, interactive concept. indeed, the new `invisible actors' in history are revealed to be men. Much of the early work on masculinity focused on institutions such as public schools and boys' organisations. Historians also turned to an examination of manliness in the context of literature, the empire, liberalism, religion, sexuality and domesticity.

Within this historiography, there is considerable diversity about what defines `masculinity'. For many writers, `masculine' is simply what men `are': it is what differentiates them from women. How men came to `be manly' is only rarely regarded as unproblematical (it is part of men's `nature'). More commonly, it is assumed to be the product of socialisation. Other historians have been stimulated by the work of Michel Foucault in which he attempted to demonstrate how human interactions are constructed through particular genealogies and systems of knowledge. This knowledge produces networks of power. Voluntaristic individuals are replaced by socially constructed subjects. Inspiration for much of the best work on masculinity has come from feminist and gay theory. By using the plural `masculinities', these scholars have drawn attention to the ways in which any gender analysis must take into account the power of certain men over other men, and the way pleasure is engendered.

Within this field of work, men's bodies have a special place. Despite Roy Porter's comment that the male body remains `pitiably ignored' by historians, this too is changing. The idea that the biological body is itself subjected to construction has been particularly powerful. It is within a socially constructed `frame' that bodies live, are imagined, and die. Furthermore, there is no inevitable association between the male body and the masculinity. Historical representations and individual embodiment often become confused. Anatomy may not be destiny, but the belief that it is moulds most lives.

It remains true, however, that what we do know about men's bodies in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain remains superficial. Men's bodies were endowed with signs and declarations of age, generation, class and ethnicity. The ragged bodies of the poor are contrasted with the heroic frames of miners who, in turn, draw attention to the effete gestures of the aristocracy. That working-class boys were lighter, leaner and in poorer health than their middle-class contemporaries is well known: that they were less liable to be circumcised also comes as no surprise. Although the empassioned attempts of Elite groups within society to mould the bodies of their successors have been extensively studied, we know remarkably little about the gestures, play and carriage of the mass of boys and men.

This neglect is not due to any sense amongst historians that the way men experienced and imagined their manliness was in any way unproblematical. The century prior to the Great War has been portrayed as one in which men struggled to assert their `reason' over the disruptions of industrialisation and related social and spatial upheavals. Given that the historiography tends to focus on elite men, it is not surprising that the public school is considered to be the site within which manly virtues were inculcated. Most famously, `muscular Christianity' with its stress on aggressive spirituality and physical prowess was a powerful agency. The extent to which these traits were stimulated within state schools needs to be debated. We know that the state explicitly attempted to teach boys what they considered to be appropriate gender roles in, for example, manual training classes which became a compulsory part of the curriculum for elementary, school boys in 1909. …

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