This is a feature I wrote and which was selected for publication for the series ‘Behind the Mask of Masculinity’ hosted by Gender Across Borders at http://www.genderacrossborders.com/
The orthodoxy of masculinity was encapsulated by Thomas Hobbes, the British philosopher, who wrote of it in his famous political book called ‘Leviathan’. Within his work, he coined the phrase the ‘natural state of man’. According to Hobbes the natural state of man is one of war and strife. By this he means that man is naturally competitive and gives in to a primeval instinct to conquer and rule in a manner that is devoid of consideration for others. Domination, aggression and bullying are the words that come to my mind in interpreting the ‘natural state of man’.
It may seem far too general to define masculinity in these terms because we all know men who don’t fit description. Yet, it describes the contemporary world of boardroom politics, dictatorships and autocratic states which are dominated by men. Viewed in this pervasive context masculinity comes across as being a negative trait.
Hobbes himself alludes to this negativity in his mitigating theory against the ‘natural state of man.’ He says that a ‘covenant’ needs to be established to prevent against man becoming solitary, poor and brutish. The covenant must stop man from falling back into his natural state. Hobbes views this as a social contract, with its central tenet designed to ensure that man takes into consideration the good of others. Hobbes says that the Covenant stops the ‘war of every man against every man’. This is an overt call, as I see it, to withdraw from the natural state.This then begs the question as to whether masculinity has evolved to become a social construction? In present day masculinity has retained the age old trait of physicality but has picked up an emotional dimension too. A man with muscles and a flat board stomach is a visual display of masculinity. A man who writes poetry and cries openly over sad films is seen as being in touch with his feminine side but will be viewed by many as still being masculine. A man who never cries and is always in charge of himself is also seen as being masculine. James Bond as played by Daniel Craig, the ultimate show of masculinity, came close to crying when his beloved drowned herself.
With so many variations on masculinity I think it is logical to assume that it has, indeed, become a subjective social construction. Dictators, ruthless male CEOs and despots like the African rulers aren’t viewed as being masculine anymore. What is missing with these men is an ability to distribute consideration for others – the Hobbes ‘Covenant’.
My theory is that the ‘natural state of man’ has evolved to become more socially acceptable and that those who refuse to buy in to the ‘Covenant’ are the miscreants of our world. The global social ills of rape, wars, drug and alcohol abuse, sport hooliganism, child abuse and domestic violence are mainly perpetrated by men. The fight back against this has come from feminism, the gay movement and the considerations of social justice which demand a need to think of others.
The ‘natural state of man’ is the number one enemy of women. Yet, many women aid and abet this state for example wives of dictators and women who enjoy the wealth created by their ruthless businessman husbands. It may have been an ideology that created a male ideal of masculinity but now it is reviled and rightly so.
Any form of masculinity that rejects women in its power structures is facing a backlash. We see this with the demonstrations in the Arab world where women are leading the way. The women who continue to support the traditional state are vilified. This modern narrative is rewriting the participatory principles of masculinity- ‘if you are not with us women we don’t want you’. Only with a greater amount of cohesion between the genders can a truly acceptable philosophy of masculinity be unmasked.
About the author
Jane Chelliah lives in London, UK where she works for the public sector as a senior policy manager. She read law and philosophy, which serve her on the two national committees she sits on and an Age Diversity Group which she chairs. Her interests include gender politics, social justice issues and blogging on motherhood and feminist issues.