Herbert Anderson – « A theology for reimagining masculinities »

3. Challenges to reimagining masculinities

Reimagining masculinity for our time is as complicated as it is urgent. Assumptions of privilege and patterns of abuse have endured so long that men still believe that it is their nature to dominate. Having physical power made male domination easy, but it also defined what it meant to be a man. Men plowed fields, fought wars, built railroads, dug graves, and forged steel because they were physically strong. Emotional strength was neither necessary nor encouraged. The ideology of patriarchy has endured long after physical prowess was the occasion for male dominance. When power came to be understood as the capacity to influence or have an effect, psychological power replaced physical strength for men in the exercise of control. Subsequent definitions of being a man not only favored dominance and independence and self-control but also control over people, social realities, and physical resources. 

As Raewyn Connell defines it, the hegemonic ideal of masculinity includes not only behavior toward women but also hierarchies of men arranged and marginalized in relation to the dominant male gender stereotype. Hegemonic masculinity helped me understand a damaging lifelong pattern of comparing myself to other men whom I determined were really masculine because they were more taciturn, more self-assured, self-contained, less vulnerable, more aggressive, more sexually potent. A personal story illustrates this point: Some years ago, while I was still teaching at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, I announced to a class that my wife had just accepted a position at Seattle University and that I would follow her career for a second time and move to Seattle. In response to this announcement, a young student blurted out: ‘You’re a wuss.’ It was a clear declaration that in his world view I did not embody hegemonic masculinity.  

For the student, I suspect my decision was a violation of the unspoken masculine code about headship, dominance, and control. I was already aware of my low status on the masculine hierarchy whenever men would say to me ‘I couldn’t do what you do’ in response to learning that I was the primary cook in the family. The unspoken message was ‘you shouldn’t either!’

Any time of transition is notoriously chaotic. The present challenges to male dominance are no exception. When traditional male values are challenged and as more elastic visions of gender emerge, some men say they are confused. Other men feel betrayed by social progress that has created uncertainty for them about what it means to be a man. They have not experienced the challenge to male dominance over the last decades as beneficial to their well-being or success. Dismantling hegemonic hierarchies that abuse and marginalize other men will be a uniquely challenging agenda in reimagining masculinities.

Leave a Reply