MLA: putting the stud back into gender studies

December 15, 2000

Portraying themselves as victims, men are reasserting their cultural dominance, says Sally Robinson

There's a scene in David Fincher's film Fight Club where the narrator faces a Gucci underwear ad and asks: "Is that what a man looks like?" Clearly not, according to the film, where a real man is shirtless and sweaty, bruised and bloody - not at all pretty or, as Susan Faludi would have it, "ornamental". Faludi's monumental masculinity-in-crisis tome, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man argues that the crisis of American manhood stems from the fact that men have become consumers instead of producers, passive reflectors of consumer culture rather than active participants in it. Resurrecting what feminists decried in the 1970s as the opposition between feminine being and masculine doing, Faludi's book repackages an old argument about the "feminising" effects of consumer culture. Despite the book's claims to historical specificity, Stiffed relies on static, timeless gender categories and draws on outmoded notions of masculinity and femininity to make its argument that men are robbed of their manhood by a culture that elevates the "feminine" values of shopping and vain celebrity over the "masculine" values of work and social utility. Men, Stiffed insists, have become more like women.

Fight Club energetically elaborates on the same argument, with characters saying things like: "I felt sorry for guys packed into gyms, trying to look like Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein said they should." The retailer Ikea epitomises the feminising consumer culture, a culture that has replaced pornography with home-furnishing catalogues. "What kind of dining set defines me as a person?" asks the narrator, a question meant to signal the meaninglessness of consumer culture for men - women, one suspects the film of believing, can more easily accept the accessorisation of their identities.

Faludi's review of Fight Club hailed it as "an incisive gender drama" that supports her own account of a masculinity pushed into crisis by a culture of display that vests identity in products and image. Reviewers of Stiffed added to this aura of crisis with headlines such as "The Fall of Man" and "The Male Eunuch", linking popular discourse to the growing academic field of masculinity studies. From highbrow to lowbrow, in scholarly articles, editorials, internet chatrooms and television talk shows, the debate over American manhood picks up steam daily. But one question remains unaddressed both in the academic and the popular versions of the masculinity-in-crisis literature: is the crisis in masculinity a good thing or a bad thing? And for whom?

The fevered response that greeted the publication of Faludi's book avoided these questions, but still voiced the ambivalence that surrounds all talk about a crisis in masculinity. Popular and scholarly discourses agree that the crisis is caused by one of two forces. Either men are in crisis because women have put them there, or men are in crisis because patriarchy has failed to deliver on its promises. The rise of the "white male victim" parallels the growth of academic masculinity studies and has provoked a good deal of feminist scepticism. As Bruce Traister recently suggested in American Quarterly , masculinity studies institutionalises a crisis model that subtly revises the history of male dominance as it has been written by feminism and functions as an "academic Viagra".

In my own contribution to the masculinity-in-crisis literature, Marked Men , I argue that the popular representation of masculinity as betrayed, wounded and victimised is a perhaps unwitting effort to reconstruct masculinity in line with an American identity politics that requires "wrongs" in order to claim "rights." It is by claiming a crisis in masculinity that men come to reoccupy the centre of cultural priority, value and interest.

Ascertaining the causes of the crisis seems less important than attending to its effects, and Stiffed is valuable as a chronicle of how some men are struggling to respond to it. Insisting that men are incapable of mounting the orchestrated rebellion we saw in 1970s feminism, however, Faludi misses the more subtle rebellion her book depicts - the way men have made use of liberationist rhetoric and claimed victimisation in order to seek new routes to power. Fight Club has a different answer - it argues that the only cure for what ails masculinity is a good shot of testosterone. The film fights the indignities of consumer/therapeutic/corporate culture with a complete remasculinisation. Freedom comes not from "Men Being Men Together" and crying, as the cancer support group motto wimpishly proclaims; but from men being men together in the violent release of beating each other's brains in and blowing up buildings under the banner of "Project Mayhem".

While the film does not exactly endorse the adolescent antics of its fight clubbers, its ironic "solution" to the masculinity crisis (the protagonist renounces violence and gets the girl) is not where the film spends its energies or finds its pleasures. The ending is a parody of heterosexual healing that does not quite cover over the wish that the homosocial, militaristic masculinity of Project Mayhem might be the salvation of American manhood. The film takes quite seriously Tyler Durden's point that for a "generation of men raised by women", another woman is not really what men need - especially since women are metaphorically linked to the consumer culture that emasculates men in the first place. For the greater part of the film, women and femininity are irrelevant, best left behind in the ashes of exploded catalogues, furniture and credit card companies. Nowhere does the film test out the idea that consumer culture could offer anything other than a feminisation for men, or that such a feminisation might be a good thing. Likewise, Stiffed fails to entertain the possibility that men might take pleasure in becoming "ornamental", that men might be liberated by giving up a utilitarian, producer masculinity that has no place in a post-industrial economy.

If the current crisis is an opportunity to truly rethink masculine and feminine - rather than simply moving the pieces around - Faludi surely misses it. This is because the categories of masculine and feminine remain static in Stiffed , as they do in Fight Club - as if men's relation to consumer, ornamental, or celebrity culture is the same as it was in the 1940s or 1950s. It is a bit late in the day to look to journalist Ernie Pyle's post-second world war idea of man as the solution for masculinity in the 21st century.

So, is the crisis in masculinity a good thing? From a conservative standpoint, invested in keeping the meanings of masculinity and femininity stable, the answer is a resounding no. Startlingly, Stiffed aims to erase the more troubling effects of the crisis by insisting that violent male reactions to being "stiffed" are only incidentally "about" women; and, at the same time, erases the more promising effects by failing to listen for the possibility that being "ornamental" does not necessarily mean being "feminised".

From a feminist standpoint, the answer is more complicated. Placing men under the same gendered scrutiny that women have faced causes a good deal of illuminating male squirming. At the same time, being the object of the scholarly and popular gaze produces a number of rewards - wrestling attention away from women and re-centring it on men, for instance. Academic masculinity studies needs to see the current crisis as an opportunity, not to prematurely claim the death of male dominance nor to find an academic Viagra; but to pay attention to how this scuffle on the battlefield of gender can be used either to further or thwart feminist aims.

Sally Robinson is associate professor of English at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, and author of Marked Men: White Masculinity in Crisis , recently published by Columbia University Press. She is speaking at an MLA session on masculinity studies. and feminism.



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