Representing Masculinity: in brief

December 30, 2020

“My characters are more like men than these real men are, see. They’re rough and rude, they got hands and they got bellies. They hate and they lust; break the skin of civilization and you find the ape, roaring and red-handed.” – Robert E. Howard

I have almost finished the final 2020 coronavirus timeline for the year of our global pandemic, but given the absurd level of lunacy and devastation that continues to happen daily this year, I am reluctant to complete the final draft until the very last day ensures I capture all of the fuckery that ends 2020.

So let’s engage a pithy discourse concerning cultural constructions of masculinity to momentarily distract ourselves from the pestilence consuming our world, while providing me with the opportunity to dump some of the junk in my head that accumulates from several days of relentless captivation with and devotion to composition.

Gender is a social construct: an unstable categorization of human characteristics spread across the history of dichotomous and essentialized anthropocentrism. Even with contemporary society experiencing its own historically unique upsetting of gender norms, boundaries, qualifications, and a diversity of heterogeneous discourse, we are still captivated by the imagined binary, an imperative to invoke and experience this particular Master Status in order to enable the fundamental architecture of its persistent power of identity construction.

Historical representations of masculinity often reveal how the remnants of bygone gender construction persists into the present, sometimes to disrupt normative exhibitions, but often in support of loosely defined traditional or hegemonic creations that work to establish an imagined congenial path through time and space, linking conceptions of masculinity and the importance of its varying interpersonal intimacies to the historical or authentic man required to the play those particular roles.

For example, the handshake is a remnant of 18th century male homosocial behavior wherein masculinity, by its very design, required physical and emotional intimacy in genteel platonic relationships; its vestige unmasks a forsaken yet persistent generative covenant of androcentric affection. Where contemporary constructions of hegemonic masculinity do not expressly permit or encourage the same sort of intimacies and vulnerabilities required of the respectably idealized relationships one finds in antiquated romantic literary traditions, men still feel this need to connect with one another physically and experience the gendered intimacies of being decidedly or essentially male.

One can even see how the barest intimacy of the handshake has been further eroded by sordid modern conceptions of rugged individualism and homophobia into the innocuous, trendy, and perhaps puerile fist bump. So what happened between the 18th century intimacies of male homosocial relationships and modern conceptions of masculinity bereft of those vulnerabilities?

Well, that would be the Victorian era, wouldn’t it? We can rightly blame a lot of our dysfunctional gender bullshit on the 19th century’s social and interpersonal maladjustments to an emerging modern world.

While early Victorian constructions of manliness still experienced a sense of softness and sophistication, a shift began in the mid 19th century with economic industrialization and the gendered separation of the domestic and public spheres. The discourse of domesticity placed the vulnerable, passive, irrational, emotional, and wavering women within the sanctity of the home while the strong, active, rational, unemotional and determined men occupied the public sphere where they worked, engaged in politics and business, and were the protectors of the women occupying the private, domestic sphere. Christianity contributed to these constructions in the 19th century as well, where emerging bourgeois identities such as husband and father situated men as the head of household with a duty to protect his wife and children, ensuring faithfulness and subjugation to spiritual beliefs; and while men were presumed to rule the household, their participation in the domestic sphere was decreasing. The Victorian shift in masculine identities had effectively rebuffed the sense of domestication associated with the affable man to auspiciously embrace the barbarous instead.

By the second half of the century, the Victorian male had become an indistinguishable image of strength, athleticism, and stoicism that worked to effectively stigmatize the experience of emotions and sensitivities wherein the delicate and sophisticated qualities of masculinity valued in the previous century now constituted derogatory designations such as the dandy: the sort of man who most assuredly would be responsible for society’s downfall.

Victorian constructions of masculinity situated men within their bodies, elevating their dispassionate emotional engagements, strength, virility, and sexual dominance at the expense of those gentle, gracious, and philosophical qualities of maleness that had enabled the sort of transcendent intellectual, emotional and physical intimacies of an idealized platonic love. The brutish and sexualized man of Victorian hyper-masculinity, reduced to the consequence of his corporeal existence, would come to replace quixotic and emotionally permissive masculine relationships, giving birth to some of the more problematic elements of masculinity that we often label as toxic today.

By the time Robert E. Howard was writing pulp fiction in the 1930s, creating beastly male identities like the character with whom we’re most familiar, Conan the Barbarian, and the scantily clad women who often accompanied the tales of those untamed men, the Victorian era had firmly cemented modern conceptions of masculinity in the cultural imagination, shackling the contemporary world to essentialist ideas of masculinity with problematic potentials and equivocal limitations that we are still untangling today.

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