Blog Against Sexism – Some (disjointed) thoughts on Masculinity & Masochism

I came to this blog topic through the Feministing website, and after reading Jill’s story as well as glancing through some of the threads on AutoAdmit, I find myself interested in raising a few points about masculinity and its fragility as a psychological construct. This is not an attempt to displace the conversation–Masculinity Studies does have a propensity to divert attention from some of the key issues that surround the continuing battle for equality and against sexism–but I hope that some of these thoughts might shed at little light on why so much vitriol is still aimed at women. To be clear, I am mostly referring to a white, Western, masculinity because that is what I have studied and, in some ways, what I am.

Masculinity, just like femininity, is a performative act. As such it has a history and context as well as a psychology and a practice. As much as anything, masculinity is a stereotype, a kind of lie that is held up as the “truth.” Masculinity does not simply appear, it is not “natural,” but it is performed, over and over again, through constant repetitions of actions. If not performed correctly, one is labeled a “sissy,” a “faggot,” a “girl.” Why are those words so terrifying to the male subject? Because they threaten his very subjectivity. When one defines oneself as a man, rather than as a person who performs certain gendered behaviors, then any break in those behaviors, any chink in the armor, any deviance out of the norm threatens his whole being.

Masculinity is a house of cards on a rickety card table and the slightest disturbance will knock it down.

Nick Mansfield, in his book “Masochism: The Art of Power” postulates the concept of the “total subject.” The total subject both operates and refutes power, but not simply in the binary sadomasochistic sense, he does this by assuming a variety of subject positions and desires. Thus:

The subject splinters and preserves, fragments and controls itself in the same time. It is both active and passive, powerful and powerless, in the one act. It constantly initiates its own destruction with the reassertion of itself as its goal, remaining consistently present throughout, at least as its throbbing narrative core. (Mansfield 19)

Now, it may be odd to bring up masochism in this context, but given the constant displacement of responsibility by men (she shouldn’t have been wearing that dress, Matthew Shepard shouldn’t have tried to come onto Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, she’s a “bitch” so she deserves to be ridiculed, etc.) seem to me to be a symptom of this total subject. The power that men wield by making it the woman’s fault is immense and destructive and predicated upon both giving women power over the man (“I couldn’t help myself”) and reasserting masculinity’s “inherent” superiority. While I don’t recommend reading AutoAdmit, many of their posts–and indeed, most anti-feminism rhetoric–demonstrate a kind of aggressive whining, a petulant rage that one expects more from a spoiled two-year old child. If women assume a power of their own, if they define themselves for themselves and not for men, then a great many men feel that their own power is diminished. But if women are inferior, then how can they diminish a man’s power? If women threaten a man’s masculinity with but the slightest of words or actions, then that man can no longer feel secure in their own subjectivity and women must be hurt, punished, disparaged, and insulted precisely because masculinity is so fundamentally insecure.

For Mansfield, the total subject is one who “can operate power while remaining technically removed from it, even highly critical of it, who is, in short, capable of (being) anything (42). Could this explain–not excuse–the blind spot in Keith Olbermann’s liberalism?

By no means have I “proved” that a greater part of white, American masculinity is masochistic, but I do think that the connection between masculinity and a political and social masochistic subject position is actual and tangible. This subject position is dangerous because, as Mansfield points out:

The suffering of others is not recognized because suffering is initiated and suffered first by the masochistic subject himself. The suffering of the other is derealized, and no amount of its representation can reinstall its meaning and weight within the consciousness of the subject, whether the sufferer is woman, the colonized, the indigene, the child, the beautiful, the handicapped, the criminal, or the dead. (20-1)

I honestly don’t know if this makes sense to anyone, or if I have completely muddled my thoughts and arguments on this one. However, in writing against sexism, I feel strongly that it is important to look at how masculinity is performed as well as to interrogate the operations masculinity’s power–often disguised as victimization in a warped and sick manner that punishes the real victims.

Recommended Reading:

“Masochism: The Art of Power” (Nick Mansfield)

“Manhood in America: A Cultural History” (Michael Kimmel)

“American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era” (E. Anthony Rotundo) “The Image of Man: The Creation of Modern Masculinity (Studies in the History of Sexuality)” (George L. Mosse)

“Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (Routledge Classics)” (Judith Butler)

“Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex” (Judith P. Butler)

“Male Subjectivity at the Margins” (Kaja Silverman)

“Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women” (Susan Faludi)

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On this day..

3 thoughts on “Blog Against Sexism – Some (disjointed) thoughts on Masculinity & Masochism

  1. I, for one, fail to see “the blind spot in Keith Olbermann’s liberalism.” I am inclined to think that Sandi Burtseva is the one with the blind spot when it comes to Keith Olbermann. Otherwise, she would be too familiar with his attitudes toward women, and his general tendency to ridicule celebrities he finds useless (male and female alike) to accuse him of misogyny just because he speaks disparaging words about Paris Hilton or Britney Spears. I mean, the man has a semi-regular feature on his show called “Tom Cruise Scares Me”–and we’re supposed to believe he has an irrational hatred of WOMEN?

  2. I think you have a point, and I’m not really qualified to take either side because I don’t have cable and can’t watch his show. The question I would raise, however, is this: does Olbermann attack male celebrities by using their looks or their sexuality against them?

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