(Re)presenting Masculinity: Crises, Superheroes, Androgyny.
The sexes are now considered to be largely pliable to the point where they can be considered as no more than a rough signifier of gender. This is a consequence of both the research that has been carried out by scholars in the area of gender as well as the development of disciplines such as cosmetic surgery (making transsexual operations widely available). As a result, gender is now regarded as being a more pertinent feature of identity, both personal and social. Indeed the area of gender studies has exploded as a scholarly discipline within the twenty-first century. Interestingly, while the discipline originally contented itself with a focus on Feminist theories and studies of women, studies that concentrate on the masculine are now appearing at a far greater rate. Nonetheless, the majority of these studies have been carried out within the disciplines of history and literature as well as the social sciences and cultural studies. An area that appears to lack significant masculine-related studies is the field of art history. In fact, apart from Abigail Solomon-Godeau’s Male Trouble: A Crisis of Representation, there is little to be found on the subject of masculinity in art, indicating that perhaps the discipline has something of a blind spot in this area; a blind spot which I hope to address to some extent within the work that follows.
For certain, the area of masculinity is not an easy one to address. While masculinity has always been at the forefront of history (the anthropology and sociology of humankind is essentially about men), only since the feminist movement highlighted this point has the idea surfaced that masculinity needs to be studied as a gender in its own right. In the words of Solomon-Godeau, writing in the late 90s, ‘Masculinity was for the most part not an identifiable issue twenty years ago and is very much one now’1. While the concerns within masculinity studies may be vaguely related to those that dominated the preceding feminist studies, they are essentially quite different. Less pertinent appear to be the origins of a patriarchy, more pertinent are a deconstruction of the masculine-feminine binaries and the imbalance of power among men themselves. In my work here, I will thus attempt to combine recent gender studies with a focus on the material context, in an attempt to identify the ways in which some are choosing to either resist or at least undermine the hegemony of the masculine, while at the same time possibly re-enforcing it.
Masculinity in Crisis
Go and find a mirror. Look at yourself in the mirror closely for a full five minutes. Notice that there is an increasingly large disconnect between who you feel you are and the person in the mirror2.
Let us proceed here by addressing our first sub-topic – that is the alleged crisis that masculinity is currently suffering. Many scholars point to the alarming figures relating to areas such as unemployment, divorce rates and low academic performances as well as the ever-increasing decline in manufacturing. These figures, they claim, are evidence enough that men are indeed suffering a crisis that threatens the idea of masculinity as a means of self-identity confirmation. However, should we not be too hasty into jumping to the usual ‘manufacturing is in decline – therefore masculinity is in crisis’ type assumptions. Rosalind Gill has largely denied any such crisis, asserting that it is simply ‘A sloppy, lazy label for a whole range of different trends, which get bundled together and treated as if there is a major problem.’3 Solomon-Godeau, on the other hand proposes that ‘…like capitalism, masculinity is always in crisis, but like the phoenix…it continually rises again, retooled and reconstructed for its next historical turn’.4 Along similar lines, but perhaps more to the point, is Robert Nye’s assertion that ‘Masculinity is in perpetual crisis, permanently engaged in patching up traditional ideals, inventing new ones, and reconsolidating masculine advantage’5. For her part, Kaja Silverman locates the crisis of masculinity in the nineteenth-century, at a time when the industrial world began to replace the existing agricultural model6. The period we are living through at the moment is perhaps experiencing similar upheaval. At a time when the things men have traditionally done are no longer in such demand, they are struggling with the search to find a suitable role within modern society7.
Men can thus said to be experiencing a ‘crisis’ on three different fronts: a crisis that occurs when the subjective experience does not correspond to the objective experience perpetrated by the demands of the prevailing ideologies. On the one hand the shift in social and economic conditions has led to a confusion for many men on their true role within today’s society, a confusion that is compounded by the contradiction between the call for the strong, heroic type, well-equipped to tackle the dangers of the recession, terrorism etc. and the continued feminist demands on the new sensitised man. The constant tensions between the ideologies of the masculine and the subjective consciousness of men themselves inevitably lead to anxieties that are tantamount to a crisis indeed.
There appear to exist three diverging ways of approaching a theory of masculinity. The first involves a somewhat reactionary attempt to defragment the masculine and to locate it within an essential Jungian type archetype that is contained profoundly within the male body. Those who advocate this viewpoint tend to see masculinity as having been aggrieved, the victim of a harmful ‘effemisation’. Thus they propose a thorough re-masculisation of men in order that a less effeminate type of masculinity can be recreated8. Conversely, others choose to adopt a more critical stance towards masculine domination. Here domination is turned in on itself in the sense that it sees men as being essentially dominated through their domination, thus they suffer from their very masculinity itself. A third and final discourse rallies against the traditional image of masculinity and calls for the creation of the ‘new sensitive man’ who has successfully incorporated his feminine side. Thus we see how such contradictory discourses, often contradictory within themselves, lead to the confusion of masculine ideologies.
The Rise of Body Culture
The image of the ideal male physique is a product of ideology and fantasy as the images of perfect womanhood have been shown to be.9
Let us proceed on somewhat clearer ground. Few could have failed to notice the astonishing rise of ‘body culture’ in recent years. A concern (obsession?) with the body beautiful has become perhaps more pertinent than at any other point in history. Today, no-one can be happier than the cosmetic surgeons whose surgeries are never lacking in clients; in fact, perhaps their delight is only surpassed by the ever-increasing number of new gym owners, whose memberships are never slow to fill. While these factors are testament to the reality of body culture’s immanence, they alone are no indication of what is perhaps the most interesting aspect of this phenomenon. I refer, of course, to the fact that this concern with the body beautiful is no longer confined to the sex traditionally associated with identification through the body i.e. – women, but has been extended to include men.
Popular culture is currently bombarding us with a generic-type ideal as far as the representation of man is concerned. This ideal is a (predominantly) white, young, slim and muscular man with features that allude to both strength and sensitivity i.e. square jaws, full lips and flawless skin. Indeed it would appear that Laura Mulvey’s assertion, (oft echoed by many scholars, including John Berger), which states that men do the looking and women are looked at, has been contravened;10 men are no longer confined (privileged?) to the active role within the gaze, but have joined their female counterparts in becoming the passive objects of the gaze’s attentions (both male and female). These ‘splendid male bodies’ as Solomon-Godeau chooses to describe them are of course, on the one hand, ‘conscripted to the service of commodity culture’11. However, on the other hand, it appears to be an indication of how, as Rosalind Gill argues, ‘Men are increasingly defining themselves through their bodies… [a fact] linked to the more general sociological and economic arguments about what has happened to work and the end of the career’. In such times of ‘crisis’, real or not, societies the world over have a natural tendency to revert to apparent ‘gender norms’ that, considered to be stable, are largely focused on the body – this despite the idea of biological sex as foundational to identity having been discredited. Nonetheless, the ways in which resistance to this habit of gender norm reversion are historically plentiful, especially within the arts.
A visit to Paul Mellia’s recent exhibition of Superheroes (along with the recent explosion of Superhero movies), led me into contemplating both the reasons behind our fascination with these now mythological figures and how they can be linked to the masculinity debate. Superheroes have always tended to mirror social history since their first inception in the 1930s. In fact, it can be argued that each Superhero has been created depending on what each period has required, whether it be a response to World War II or to Feminism or even to the race issue. While they may be well cloaked as action-oriented narrative and separated into genres (Superman as science-fiction; Batman as detective story; X-Men as social marginalisation, etc.) all the superhero stories and franchises essentially contain three key features that occur in each – that is violence, heroism and gender.
Considering how images can become myths when their prevalence is widespread enough that society presumes them to be legitimate narratives of masculinity, mythological figures such as the superheroes can also serve as non-ideological, stable and eternal representations of manhood. Mellia’s Superman (fig. 1) stands out as the focal point of his superhero oeuvre. Indeed, Superman is perhaps the most famous of all the male superheroes and certainly one that can be considered as being mythological in the above sense. His universal appeal – for boys and men alike – has seen him become foundational to masculinity throughout the world. Since he first appeared in 1938, Superman has had a commanding impact on the collective imagination. His, and the other superheroes’, vicarious ability to reflect the hopes, dreams and desires of many make them invaluable to culture. Mellia’s treatment of such characters is testament to how they have been, perhaps surprisingly, embraced by high-art; an event that has done much to eradicate the attitude towards them as largely superficial and frivolous. In fact, it is perhaps precisely this supposed triviality that made them ideal for addressing more serious issues. Superman’s day job as the nerdy Clark Kent, for example, creates an artifice which allows him to reply to the fluid attitudes surrounding both self and society and therefore to both identity and ideology. Since their inception, superheroes have metaphorically personified both social and political realities, while concurrently representing notions contemplative of both sexuality and corporeality. Their images project an objective, idealised and hyperbolic representation of the human body; images that have undergone a constant reworking in order that they fit the prevailing notions of beauty. In other words, superheroes ably express the superlative12.
However, there are alternative, more revealing interpretations that we can make here regarding the representations of our superheroes. As Peter Middleton has noted ‘Most of the superhero stories are about the threats to the sovereignty of masculine subjectivity, threats projected onto external forces’.13 Paradoxically, Superman – the owner of the ultimate male gaze (x-ray vision) – is so often revealed as being unable to see his own masculinity. Indeed, if Superman were to gain some capabilities of self-reflection, the rationale behind most of his adventures would be lost; in the words of Middleton every story ‘depends on Superman’s own lack of introspective capacity, especially the lack of any way of looking at himself as a man’.14 Similarly, in times of great threat or, indeed crisis, the everyday man is unable to reflect on himself without posing a real danger to both his reality and his masculinity. Elsewhere Middleton equates Superman’s one and only vulnerability – kryptonite – with childhood cathexes and proposes that ‘if those reach consciousness their regressive pull may destroy his manhood completely’.14 In other words, Superman’s very power entirely depends on its total isolation from his subjectivity. More…
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1 Solomon-Godeau., A Crisis in Representation, p18
2 Joseph Gelfer, “The Masculinity Conspiracy”. p1
3 Gill, R., “Rethinking Masculinity”, Session 5 p1
4 Solomon-Godeau., A Crisis in Representation, p40
5 Nye, R., “Locating Masculinity” p3
6 Scholars of gender have asserted that the rapid change in the working life that saw self-employed proprietors being readapted into salaried office workers undermined the notion of independent manhood. See Silverman, K., Male Subjectivity at the Margins and Fox, R & Lears, T, The Culture of Consumption.
7 See Heathfield “There is no Masculinity Crisis” for detailed analysis on men’s role in society.
8 See Robert Bly’s Iron John — Bly claims that contemporary men can counter their masculinity problems by rediscovering the Wild Man (Iron John) within themselves. “To receive initiation truly means to expand sideways into the glory of oaks, mountains, glaciers, horses, lions, grasses, waterfalls, deer. We need wilderness and extravagance. Whatever shuts a human being away from the waterfall and the tiger will kill him.” p57 However, the psychological and even biological basis for archetypes is more explicitly articulated by Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette in King, Warrior, Magician, Lover.
9 Still, J., Men’s Bodies, p4
10 See Laura Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures
11 Solomon-Godeau, A., A Crisis in Representation p23
12 See David Fingeroth, Superman on the couch: what superheroes really tell us about ourselves and our society
13 Middleton, The Inward Gaze p6
14 Ibid., p 6
15 Ibid., p6