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Academic Viagra: The Rise of American Masculinity Studies

Bryce Traister

American Quarterly, Volume 52, Number 2, June 2000, pp. 274-304 (Article)

Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press

DOI: 10.1353/aq.2000.0025

For additional information about this article


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Academic Viagra: the Rise of American

Masculinity Studies

University of Western Ontario

Some years ago, Elaine Showalter distinguished “feminist

critique” from “gynocentrism,” defining the former as the critical
analysis by women (“woman as reader”) of “male-produced” depic-
tions of women, the ideological positionings of feminine gender and
sexuality in such textual practices, and the misconceptions about
women rampant in literary criticism. The latter category, derived from
the French term la gynocritique, “is concerned with woman as writer—
with woman as the producer of textual meaning, with the history,
themes, genres, and structures of literature by women.”1 Since the
appearance of Showalter’s paradigm-establishing essay, a two-pronged
feminist literary criticism has developed into a more generalist move-
ment of “gender studies,” which Showalter describes in a later essay as
“an investigation of the ways that all reading and writing, by men as
well as by women, is marked by gender.”2 With the rise of gender
studies there has emerged a new focus on the construction of masculin-
ity as a gender. In the words of historian Gail Bederman: “To study the
history of manhood . . . is to study the historical ways different
ideologies about manhood develop, change, are combined, amended,
contested—and gain the status of truth.”3 Judging from the sheer
number of titles published, papers solicited, and panels presented in the
last ten years concerned with the analysis of masculine gender, it would
appear that “masculinity studies” has emerged as a discipline unto
itself. Masculinity, one might say without irony, is everywhere.4

Bryce Traister is an assistant professor of English at the University of Western Ontario.

His published work includes articles on masculinity and authorship in the antebellum
United States, and he is now embarking on a longer study of female religious
expression and American secular culture.

American Quarterly, Vol. 52, No. 2 (June 2000) © 2000 American Studies Association


To some degree, cultural “masculinity studies” has become a code

term for “heterosexual masculinity studies.” This semantic codification
at the very least separates what I will call heteromasculinity from gay
male studies, although there is clearly overlap between the two, and
there is no doubt that gay/lesbian studies has authorized some of our
recent attention to the gendered construction of the straight male
subject. Indeed, according to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and other
theorists of gay male identities, the construction of the heterosexual
male cannot proceed independently of a concomitant construction and
consideration of the homosexual male; heterosexual male desire,
according to Sedgwick’s now well-known account, proceeds in part
through a phobic prohibition against the eroticism contained within
normative homosocial relations.5 In a prescient 1979 article, Peter
Schwenger began elaborating a paradigm of writing he called at the
time “the masculine mode,” a practice of writers “who, rather than
neutralize, contradict, or simply ignore their male sexuality, take it as
their explicit subject.”6 For Schwenger, this mode excludes neither
women (who may of course write powerfully about male sexuality) nor
gay men. He writes: “Homosexuals, of course, are by no means to be
excluded from the masculine mode . . . As a male who is himself
fascinated and attracted by the nature of masculinity, the homosexual is
fully capable of insight into that masculine mode” (109). Although
“making room” for Gide next to Hemingway, Schwenger nonetheless
places gay male desire in fascinated opposition to the masculinity
which attracts the gay writer or critic. It is, in other words, the
homosexual’s desirous distance from “the nature of masculinity” that
authorizes his inclusion within Schwenger’s “masculine mode.”
To some degree, then, the heteromasculinist encounter with the
homosexual partially replicates heterosexuality’s phobic construction,
which is a theoretical way of saying that the new masculinity studies
acknowledge the proximity of hetero- to homo- masculinity only to
insist on their ultimate difference. For example, antisexist activist
Timothy Benecke explicitly positions his meditative work, Proving
Manhood: Reflections on Men and Sexism, in a heteromasculine
precinct: “Unless otherwise stated, when I refer to men in this book I
am focusing on straight, white, American men, though it is my hope
and belief that what I have to say will apply, with appropriate
emendations, to other men as well.”7 In Manhood in America, which
this essay discusses in more detail, Michael Kimmel makes a similar

declaration when he concludes a brief summary of his book’s goals by

saying: “this book describes only one version of ‘Manhood in America’—
albeit the dominant version.”8 Let me say at the start that this article does
not fully consider the awkward waltz in which gay, queer, and
heteromasculine studies are now somewhat clumsily engaged.
One of the effects of this recent critical interest in heteromasculinity,
this essay will argue, has been a restoration of the representations of
men—produced by men and analyzed for the most part by men—to the
center of academic cultural criticism. With the rise of masculinity
studies—and here I am for the moment thinking of heteromasculine
and gay-male studies together—we are bearing witness to the emer-
gence of a “new” category of literary and cultural criticism:
phallocriticism.9 Less than a genesis, however, masculinity studies
constitutes a critical renaissance, and one with a formidable Americanist
component. This essay considers the rise of masculinity in American
cultural studies, with sustained attention to treatments of
heteromasculinity, and I argue that the current trend, while promising
as a movement within gender studies, has come to operate within a two-
pronged “crisis theory” of American masculinity: one is rooted in a new
historiography of American masculinity that locates instability at the
base of all masculine identities constructed within American cultural
matrices; the second is derived from Judith Butler’s influential theoreti-
cal account of gender as always performative and contingent. The
ostensibly mimetic relation between these historical and theoretical
accounts of male gender, far from supporting each other’s claims to
describe and produce anti-foundational and alterable accounts of
gendered identity, together produce a picture of American
heteromasculinity that is surprisingly unchanging and fixed. Although
informed—sincerely, I believe—by the political and critical principles
of feminism and left-liberalism, the new masculine American studies
effectively crowds out the women and texts responsible for the rise of
feminism within academic literary studies and returns the man to a
humanity whose historicized particularity nonetheless shifts Americanist
cultural criticism, once again, into the dominant study of malekind.
Although it is not my purpose to detail and discuss the origins of the
new American heteromasculinity studies, such an analysis might begin
with Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel. With its
narratives of male territorial eroticism and adolescent sexuality, Fiedler’s
1960 text reads in many respects as a literary case history of American

normative masculinity and its discontents. In the last three to four

years, however, the sheer number of monographs and articles focusing
on American masculinity has grown precipitously, and some specula-
tion as to the causes of this sustained interest may be useful here. In
part, the late focus on masculinity is a chapter within the project of
feminist Americanist cultural analysis. As a development within femi-
nist critical precincts, heteromasculinity studies may be an evolution-
ary—even “organic”—phenomenon, as Elaine Showalter proposed in
1989. Heteromasculinity may also be seen to parallel—some might say
feed off—gay male and queer studies in the sense that it seeks to reveal
a hitherto invisible, not to say closeted, history of the constructed
masculine subject. In the realm of gender studies, moreover,
heteromasculinity studies is not limited to only Americanist domains;
postcolonial criticism’s destabilization of the transcendent nation pro-
vides a potentially rich avenue of inquiry into the postcolonial nation’s
concomitant articulation of the historically contingent masculine citi-
zen. Together with the multiple contributions of academic film studies
and that discipline’s focus on Hollywood and American film produc-
tion, the postnational Americanist agenda has set the pace for other
national and ethnic cultural disciplines, at least with respect to the
heteromasculine inquiry.10
Because so much of the political energy to be found in
heteromasculinity studies gestures toward the ongoing demystification
of masculinity as transcendent model, another explanation for its recent
popularity is the rise, in popular media and expressive arenas, of the
“menz” movement (in England, the phenomenon is known as “laddism”).
From loud-mouthed radio and television talk shows promising to give
manhood back to the men who have either misplaced or allowed
“women-on-top” to smother it, to the historically amnesiac “men’s
rights” groups fighting back against the feminist ideology of North
American family courts, the emergence in mainstream culture of an
unsurpisingly well-funded and widely reported masculinist voice has
created too loud a clamor to ignore. Is it overstatement to suggest that
the discussion of widespread impotence—suffered by all kinds of
“normal” North American males—that nervously framed the appear-
ance of Pfizer’s “wonder drug” in the late 1990s depicted the straight
male sexual organ in well nigh diasporic terms? However historically
laughable or politically appalling we may find the newest voice of
victimhood, we can no longer dismiss it simply as outrageous parody.11

Dedicated to the revitalization of a “true manhood” emasculated by

feminism and threatened by gay male outism, these media texts pander
to a cultural imaginary whose ubiquity may be measurable only in
economic and demographic terms.12 Heteromasculinity studies is the
academic answer to the regressive politics of “menz ideology” now
proliferating in mainstream periodicals, radio, and television.
Another reason why many of us are interested in masculinity is that,
while (comparatively speaking) the cultural analysis of “men as men”
remains an inchoate domain of inquiry within gender studies, its
practice in Americanist precincts allows us to rethink what we thought
we already knew about the canon (in literary studies), American history
(in historical studies), the golden age of film, and the like. In other
words, heteromasculinity studies gives us something relatively new to
say about Hawthorne and his representation of genders. T. Walter
Herbert’s Dearest Beloved: the Hawthornes and the Making of the
Middle Class Family, for example, reads Hawthorne’s novels as the
recorded evidence of antebellum codes of male and female gender and
makes a case for our sustained interest in Hawthorne not necessarily
because of his deviance from or resistance to the normative but because
his complex masculinity was so exemplary.13 The turn to masculinity
gives us a new take on, to take another example, American masculinity
in the 1950s, a time when, far from supplying a stable image of
hegemonic male dominance, the regime of the “domesticated male”
contributed to a male culture of anxiety and resistance that masquer-
aded as the fulfilled suburban corporate man.14 Action movies starring
film-stars Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger, widely re-
garded as testosterone-driven vehicles for male authority and power,
may be seen as the counter-cultural deployment of the “parodic super-
phallus” rather than as violently regressive programming for your
garden-variety male couch-potato, fingering the safety on his remote-
control.15 The new complexity of the historical American male invites
a reconsideration of a cultural record previously examined; we get to
take another crack at Teddy Roosevelt, not to celebrate the cult of
muscular manhood but rather to take it apart. The American male
literary canon, while never entirely uninteresting and never entirely
ignored, is now interesting again in slightly shifted terms, as hunter
Hawkeye gives way to bachelor Natty, and Ahab astonishes less as
political megalomaniac than as screaming queen.


One conceit frequently found in heteromasculinity studies is the

declaration of personal investment in, or relation to, the field of study.
In his introduction to the pathbreaking Manhood and the American
Renaissance—a study whose concluding chapter presents us with
Ahab’s “queenly personality”— David Leverenz confesses that his
“rereadings emerge from several experiences in my own life, especially
my involvement in childcare.”16 One result of this “gender role
reversal,” which Leverenz speculates may have “been quite common to
upper-middle class American men in the last fifteen years,” is that he
“now read[s] classic American texts quite differently” (6). The cultural
work of this expressive masculinity performs a self-authorizing func-
tion, as the author’s identification of males as anxious and his
identification with such males as an anxious man come to stand as a
shorthand précis of the analysis to follow. Another example of this can
be found in Calvin Thomas’s Male Matters, whose author writes:
“[d]espite what should be this work’s clear indebtedness to feminist
and queer theory, however, I myself can hardly identify it as feminist,
much less queer, without recourse to an identity politics in which I,
writing as a heterosexual man, cannot in any way participate.”17 He
positions his work in “coaxial relationship” to these “other” discourses
but hopes that it can be a “productively anxious” relation. As it turns
out, this “disruptive” relation is the book’s central premise and ultimate
argument: “I want the book to situate itself not in an identifiable
position, or a positionable identity, but rather in a dispositional space of
rifting between erotics and ethics, between the production of bodies
and pleasures and the realm of knowledge and argument—an anxious
space perhaps most usefully described as radically inadequate.” To a
certain degree, I would wager, such scholars are taking seriously the
notion, modified by and within feminism, that “the personal is profes-
sional is political.” Literary critic Leverenz, cultural theorist Thomas,
and historian E. Anthony Rotundo, who says in the preface to American
Manhood, “[a]s I have written this book, I have been more aware of my
inner discord on issues of manhood than of my inner coherence” (x),
each take up the rhetoric of the embodied and gendered critic, a thinker
whose analyses remain inseparable, in the final analysis, from their
heteromasculine subject-positions.18
Re-informed by life experiences, David Leverenz argues that the
“best work” of the American male literary canon “takes fire from

complex feelings about male rivalry for dominance” (5), and that “any
intensified ideology of manhood is a compensatory response to fears of
humiliation” (4). Thus in a book that models itself titularly (Manhood
and the American Renaissance) on F.O. Mathiessen’s classic
conceptualization of mid-nineteenth-century male-authored literature,
Leverenz brings the struggles of masculinity to the center of his reading
practices and argues that antebellum struggles of gender were central
features of the American literary renaissance. He then links those
ideological struggles of gender not only to the production of aesthetic
merit, but also to the appreciation of the American renaissance’s
aesthetic accomplishments. Over the course of Manhood and the
American Renaissance, we learn how its author’s “interpretive authority”
is challenged by his subject matter: “[i]nsofar as I want a feeling of mastery
and control over the reading experience,” the interpretive multiplicity
demanded by the Hawthornian text “unmans me” (229). Earlier
Leverenz posits a male community of readers (“any male reader can see all
of these feelings in himself” [29]), which is narrowed still further to a
heterosexual community of male readers, as “Whitman’s grandiose
promises and his implicit homoeroticism make . . . a heterosexual male,
recoil” (30). Making himself the comparative object of the simile,
Leverenz aligns his critical analyses of male-authored texts with his own
heteromasculinity, thereby reproducing, in effect, the isomorphic relation
between masculine culture and its historiography, a relation ostensibly
denied by critical heteromasculinity’s attempt to deconstruct the essen-
tialist transcendentalism of “ungendered” critical historiography. The
manhood of Leverenz’s nineteenth-century American renaissance, in
other words, looks a lot like his own confessed struggles with masculinity.
Rendering masculinity visible here takes the form of excavating an
aesthetic tied intrinsically to the definition of what it means to be a man in
the antebellum United States, and in the contemporary period as well.19
As a critical school fast approaching the status of discipline, critical
heteromasculinity studies has begun developing a framework language
that places its disciplinary desires in careful if perhaps insufficiently
anxious relation to feminism. When Michael Kimmel opens Manhood
in America with the following claim—”American men have no history”
(1)—he is being provocative, if not entirely accurate. The provocation
on which his introduction mediates is delivered in the statement’s
suggestion that we lack a history of male achievement, that we live in
an intellectual culture somehow devoid of the masculine perspective.

Of course we have that. And then some. What Kimmel wants to write
instead is a history that understands “American men . . . as men” (2), a
statement that, on the face of it, sounds a tautological cadence, one that
is repeated with remarkable and nearly ritualistic precision in the newer
scholarship of American masculinity. E. Anthony Rotundo opens his
1993 history American Manhood by revealing that he began the project
by wanting “to understand men as men” (ix). David Pugh’s 1983
cultural analysis, Sons of Liberty: The Masculine Mind in Nineteenth-
Century America, begins his introduction by observing that “[u]ntil
quite recently, WASP males dominated the political, social, and eco-
nomic affairs of this nation to such an extent that any effort to assess
them historically as men could be dismissed as a superfluous analy-
sis.”20 In part, the insistence of the simile speaks to masculine gender’s
resistance to analysis: that because masculinity has for so long stood as
the transcendental anchor and guarantor of cultural authority and
“truth,” demonstrating its materiality, its “constructedness,” requires an
especially energetic rhetorical and critical insistence. We are arguing
with the case, in other words, which explains why the category “men as
men” is not merely tautological. Kimmel refines his assertion still more
acutely, arguing that his task is to “make gender visible to men” (3)
whose presumed unawareness “of the centrality of gender in our [that
is, men’s] lives only helps to perpetuate gender inequality” (4). As
historiographical enterprise, Manhood in America aspires to political
education, as do nearly all of the studies this essay discusses. “I argue
that the quest for manhood,” writes Kimmel, “the effort to achieve, to
demonstrate, to prove our masculinity—has been one of the formative
and persistent experiences in men’s lives. That we remain unaware of
the centrality of gender in our lives only helps to perpetuate gender
inequality” (4). As with Leverenz’s implicit construction of a hetero-
sexual reader, Kimmel’s posited readership emerges from the book’s
pedagogical mission to educate men (and women) about the “central-
ity” and more specifically the “constructedness” of masculine gender
and male identity. The underlying position here is that masculine
gender’s presumed invisibility as epistemological foundation is to be
rendered visible as foundation, and a “constructed” one at that. The
constructedness of male gender—its status as gender—has quickly
become nothing short of a proscribed critical refrain.
Another idée fixe found in heteromasculinity studies is that of the
critical pioneer. Kimmel’s claim that American men “lack a history”

reads most convincingly as polemic, as insistence that despite the

academic critique of gender undertaken in the last twenty-five years,
masculinity-qua-masculinity remains, if not an entirely unexplored
territory of cultural expression, at least one whose interior complexities
remain hidden from view. Yet histories of complex and even anxious
masculinity have been around for some time (and in literary studies,
Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel strikes another
resonance in American studies, probably not for the last time). Rotundo’s
American Manhood, appearing some three years before Kimmel’s
contribution, is precisely the kind of project (“men as men”) that
Kimmel implies American men are lacking. The book follows a path at
least trod earlier by Joe Dubbert’s 1979 history, A Man’s Place:
Masculinity in Transition. Dubbert in turn anticipates David Pugh’s
1983 treatment of “the masculinity cult in American life,” which Pugh
takes to be a nineteenth-century mix of psychosexual development,
political struggle, and territoriality, an essentially historical thesis first
explored some eighteen years earlier in Joseph Cawelti’s Apostles of
the Self-Made Man (1965).21 Not only do American men not lack a
history of “men as men,” they are awash in a rising sea of masculinity
studies whose various theoretical, historical, and textual enterprises
constitute an increasingly rich historiography of American men and
their masculinities. Because the language of the pioneer remains a
pervasive one, it is worth noting a rhetorical similarity between the
post-feminist language of the somehow always unexplored new mascu-
linity studies, and the pre-feminist language of the territorializing and
implicitly male colonist viewing the virgin land, a colonial and early
national discourse of America first criticized by Annette Kolodny in
The Lay of the Land.22
So how different are the studies of “men as men” from earlier studies
of “Man”? Manhood in America offers a history of “men as men” to
men by a man whose masculinity is partially defined by his generous
ackowledgement of “the soulful stirrings of Sam Cooke . . . the
passionate longings of Bruce Springsteen . . . the sweetness of
Brahms’s string quartets . . . John Starks’s three-pointers . . . Jason
Kidd’s passes,” etc. (xiii). To be sure, I draw this passage from the
author’s acknowledgement page rather than from the body of his
scholarly text, but its assumption of a reader familiar with these
references unwittingly implies the very audience whose class and
gender status the book otherwise wants to challenge. When Kimmel

goes on to define the scope of his study, the exclusions implied in the
acknowledgements are made explicit as methodology:

A history of manhood must, therefore, recount two histories: the history of

the changing “ideal” version of masculinity and the parallel and competing
versions that coexist with it. It is this tension between the multiplicity of
masculinities that collectively define American men’s actual experiences and
this singular “hegemonic” masculinity that is prescribed as the norm that
forms one of the organizing dynamics of this book. In a sense, this is a
history of that “complete” male that Goffman describes—straight, white,
middle class, native-born–the story of his great accomplishments and his
nagging anxieties. Yet in another sense, it is at least indirectly the story of the
marginalized “others”—working class men, gay men, men of color, immi-
grant men—how these different groups of men and, of course, women were
used as a screen against which those “complete” men projected their fears
and, in the process, constructed this prevailing definition of manhood. I do
not tell the story of these “others” from their point of view nor in their own
voices; rather, I trace the ways that they were set up as everything that
“straight white men” were not, so as to provide public testimony and private
reassurance that those “complete” men were secure in their gender identity. (6)

I quote at length to give a fair sense of the difficulties encountered in

the historiographical theorization of a masculinity constructed and
anatomized into so many differing identity and political positions. In
respecting the boundaries erected between these differing masculini-
ties, the possibility of inclusive narrative or history-telling becomes
remote, even as this and similar studies at least titularly embrace an
universalist rhetoric. Indeed, the respect accorded to these “others”
becomes a method not only of constructing the central, perhaps even
the centripetal, narrative of his book—“the dominant version” of
“Manhood in America”—but turns out as well to have been the means
by which the “complete” man imagined himself into a “secure gender
identity” and his presumptive cultural authority. Kimmel’s historio-
graphical method (like Leverenz’s literary-critical assumptions in Man-
hood and the American Renaissance) thus reflects the history he comes
to tell: that of a masculine will-to-power premised on the exclusion of
his necessary “others.”
Manhood and America occupies the centrist position putatively
inhabited by the “complete” men his history chronicles by excluding
precisely the “others” on whose disappearance the construction of
hegemonic masculinity depended. In other words, the book reproduces
as methodology the history it recounts. At a time when Americanists

are increasingly challenging the very idea of American studies as a

coherent historical, political, literary and theoretical discipline, the
recent focus on heteromasculinity provides a new consensus plan for
achieving some measure of Americanist disciplinary coherence. Rather
than the history of America being interchangeable with an uncompli-
cated and invisible masculinity, we now have a history of complicated
masculinity as the dominant history of an exceptionalist America.
This is to say neither that Kimmel’s book furthers the hegemonic
conception of masculinity he documents nor that he in any way
celebrates the “America” aligned with the monolithic accounts of
masculinity he debunks. To its credit and our benefit, Manhood in
America and heteromasculinity studies more generally strain to depart
from the “classic” account of masculinity’s isomorphic relation to truth
and culture by giving us an American masculinity historically contin-
gent and continually at crisis. What the new masculinity studies
undertakes to accomplish is the deconstruction not only of
transcendentalized understandings of the masculine but of the cultural
practices authorized by such essentialized masculine meanings. The
preferred route to this destination is what I call the “crisis theory” of
American masculinity, an approach that denies the transcendental man
by replacing him with the constructed or performative male. Central to
the project of critical heteromasculinity is not just the deconstruction of
masculinity—that is, the analysis of masculinist ideology as con-
structed and historically contingent. In addition to ideological critique,
heteromasculinity purports to separate actual and fictional men from
their entanglements within masculinist ideological structures to show
how such individuals deviate from the normative codes of manhood
they otherwise inhabit or are expected to inhabit. We might say that
heteromasculinity studies attempts to provide less a history (or a
theory) of “men as men” than a history of men without masculinity.
Like the countless men whose erections, we are now finding out, have
been for some time anything but firm and energetic, American mascu-
linity emerges in the pages of heteromasculinity scholarship as troubled,
distracted, counterfeit, constructed, masked, performative, flaccid, do-
mestic, tender, and feelingful. And it is not just the academics or the
journalists who are worrying about masculine identity. According to
psychotherapist Andrew Kimbrell’s popular work The Masculine Mys-
tique (a title whose imitation of Friedan’s should raise more than just
one set of eyebrows):

Over the years I have learned that there is something terribly wrong in the
lives of most men. Whatever age, political persuasion, race, or creed, these
men share a common condition. They feel bewildered, out of control,
numbed, angered, and under attack. Numerous social forces, including the
increasingly difficult task of breadwinning and the financial and personal
devastation of divorce, have eroded their lives to the breaking point . . . They
are locked into rigid stereotypes and financial responsibilities but are also
being jolted by economic dislocations and rising demands for a change in
gender roles. As a result men have been left confused, without a coherent or
sustainable concept of their own masculinity.23

An overwrought generalization to be sure, this sentiment fairly re-

hearses on the popular stage what many academic studies have both
implicitly and explicitly undertaken to demonstrate. If in 2000 we are
only briefly surprised to view war-hero, oft-time presidential candidate,
and former United States senator Bob Dole confess his potential encounter
with “erectile dysfunction” on a nationally televised commercial (a brilliant
piece of commodity art that rescues Dole’s masculine virility by safely
biologizing his feared impotence), it is because the crisis theory of
heteromasculinity circulates in North American popular culture with
about same ubiquity that it proliferates in our academic worlds.24
Because masculinity is now “constructed” rather than “essential,”
however, this contemporary re-investment in masculinity performs
different kinds of cultural and political work than earlier celebrations
of, for example, Ernest Hemingway’s creation of a modernist
heteromasculinity coterminous with the very meaning of twentieth-
century manliness. As part of this re-encounter with Hemingway’s
masculinist canonicity, Nancy Comley and Robert Scholes discuss the
“extraordinary interest in homeroticism on Hemingway’s part” in their
book, Hemingway’s Genders and argue that his potentially prurient
interest in men makes him more interesting as a canonical figure, and,
of course, as a man.25 Because human sexuality is so complex,
however, easy categorizations of Hemingway’s sexual identity (or
identities) are difficult to sustain. Ira Elliot argues in a recent discussion
of The Sun Also Rises that even though a “great deal” of Hemingway’s
“fiction retreats from the possibility of multiple sexual identities and
fluid gender roles,” Jake Barnes’s “attitude toward the homosexuals . . .
reveal[s] the extent to which sexual categories and gender roles are
cultural constructions.”26 Although Hemingway himself does not be-
lieve in “gender fluidity,” his texts still reveal that gender is fluid. While
one may question the logic here (that an author’s sustained lack of

belief in gender fluidity nonetheless produces a fictional character

whose “attitudes” disclose gender’s fluidity in culture), a Hemingway
effectively “queered” by virtue of this reading is a far cry from the old
days of Papa’s pugnacity. Stephen Clifford upholds this point in his
Beyond the Heroic “I” by arguing that the fiction of a dominant
masculine ego “has been constructed by readers who have attempted to
install a dominant hero, whether in the novels themselves or in the
critical narratives created around biographical and similarly Oedipal
heroic centers.”27 The implication here and everywhere in Clifford’s
text is that the desire for the Oedipal hero discloses that there really are
no such heroes, either in culture or in literature. Rather, Hemingway’s
readers desire a masculinity his texts in fact problematize (179), which
is to say that the desire for gender knowledge or identity operative in a
readerly imagination is of a fundamentally different kind than that
revealed in Hemingway’s fiction. In a perhaps unexpected (even
unwitting) concession to authorial and readerly intentionality, we read
that Hemingway’s readers want one thing, while his texts deliver
Intriguing about this kind of claim—that a text’s fiction discloses a
truth about culture that it does not reflect or its readers want to deny—
is its implied retreat from the poststructuralist account of the text’s
unavoidable historicity and the death of the wilful author. That is, to
suggest that Hemingway’s text does not reflect a truth about gender is
to posit that a given fictional text may or may not reflect the cultural
matrix that structures it. The text emerges out of an authorship whose
designing intention may not be structured by the truths of culture.
Because of the historically isomorphic relations between men and
culture, men and history, men and philosophy, and men and literature,
and the historical non-congruity between women and culture, women
and history, etc., the new historiography of manhood proposes to
interrupt the prevailing masculinist isomorphism in part by positioning
masculinity not as simultaneous to culture but rather as other to it. “The
male confronts the patriarchy in himself,” writes Dennis Bingham in his
study of contemporary male film stars.29 In a similar vein of critical alterity,
David Leverenz argues that male writers “empower themselves as narrators
in large part by transforming feelings of unmanly deviance into strategies
of deviousness.”30 The very men formerly associated with masculinist
cultural privilege and projection re-emerge here as deviant, as other to
the culture for which they claim to speak and which they criticize.


The history of American men as men now not only proceeds as a

historiography of masculine crisis but collectively writes itself as an
actual history of American masculinity as crisis. In her recent study of
post-Revolutionary, early American novels, Julia Stern asks questions
of Revolutionary masculinity like: “What is the role of the warrior in a
society that no longer requires defending? And what are the effects on
a revolutionary ‘fraternity’—on masculine identity itself—when the
arena for performing feats of male valor suddenly vanishes.”31 Kimmel’s
Manhood maintains that American men have always contended with
hegemonic constructions of normative masculinity operative in differ-
ent historical contexts. Thus the “Self-Made Man” of the early antebel-
lum period was born “anxious and insecure” (9) in relation to the shift
from a masculinity “rooted in landownership . . . and self-possession”
to one anchored in “the volatile marketplace” (9). Referring to the
“vocational crisis” that male would-be writers faced throughout the
nineteenth century, Scott Derrick maintains in Monumental Anxieties
that “[t]he experiences of vocational crisis were by no means confined
to male writers. Again these were forms of crises that were to some
extent typical of middle-class young men in the nineteenth century.”
David Pugh also reads anxiety in or into the nineteenth-century
construction of masculinity, finding that Jacksonian men “tried to
define themselves in a tension-filled milieu in which contrary forces of
expansiveness and constriction, or amoral development of self and
moral responsibility to others, tugged at them” (6).32
In the 1850s, David Leverenz tells us, we find literary men struggling
to develop “alternative states of manly creativity” to those represented
by the feminized sensibility of literary authorship and the hypermasculine
modalities of the marketplace (14). During and after the Civil War,
according to historian Kim Townsend’s Manhood at Harvard, “[t]he
exemplary man who had once been closest to God, or had been most
valiant in his pursuit of intellectual or moral betterment, was supplanted
by a figure who had distinguished himself on the battlefield....After
the Civil War, men were more concerned about character traits,
attitudes and appearances than about deeds. They felt pressure to be
masculine.” While refusing to label middle-class manhood’s “unusual
obsession” with masculinity in the 1890s a “crisis,” Gail Bederman
does admit, and her Manliness and Civilization proceeds to argue, that

“by 1890 a number of social, economic, and cultural changes were

converging to make the ongoing gender process especially active for
the American middle class.”33
Not only the nineteenth century, but the twentieth century witnessed
repeated crises—variously believed to be discrete and ongoing events,
moments, and processes—of American masculinity and actual men. In
the 1910s, “an era marked by fears of national and masculine enfeeble-
ment” according to film critic Gaylyn Studlar, silent movie stars like
Douglas Fairbanks “represented the fantasy of an adult attainment of
many American reformers’ perfected ideal of manhood” during a
period when “there was a veritable obsession with the attainment of
masculinity.” Joe Dubbert has argued in A Man’s Place that “[t]he
peace and the ‘new times’ of the twenties, followed by a devastating
depression, put a severe stress on American men, especially those who
idealized the masculine past and who felt compelled to live up to the
tenets of a masculine image that stressed aggressiveness and domination.”
During and after the second great war, men faced a transition from their
“attachment to the all-male world of the armed services” to their role as
heterosexual domestic and corporate man, a transition that resulted in
the sustained “crisis of masculinity” charted by drama critic Robert
Corber (Homosexuality in Cold War America) and film critic Steven
Cohan (Masked Men). After the tumultuous 1950s decade—whose
hitherto assumed status as apogee of stable masculinity and America
these discussions of masculinity have dramatically undercut—middle-
class straight (and now gay) American men faced yet a new crisis, this time
the threat of second-wave feminism, black activism, civil rights, and
the uncertainties of authority born of the Vietnam war, all admirably
detailed by Michael Kimmel in Manhood in America (261–90).34
To be sure, not all of the recent studies of American masculinity
subscribe to or promote the crisis narrative described above, even when
they argue that anxiety and conflict attend the American male ego.
Dana Nelson argues both sides of an American masculinity at once
inadequate and powerful, angst-ridden and angst-driven, observing on
one hand in National Manhood that “a reading of white manhood
guided by ‘Benito Cereno’ would indicate that this abstracted identity
is structurally unbalanced, anxiety-making at its foundation,” while
maintaining on the other that “‘[w]hite manhood’s identification with
national unity has worked historically to restrict others from achieving
full entitlement in the United States. At the same time, it has worked

powerfully to naturalize the ‘white’ men as essentially unified sub-

jects.” The precarious nature of masculine ego-formation balances the
historical power exerted by those subjects who wield it, and Nelson’s
study proceeds less as the “recovery” of a constructed identity than as
a critique of its exclusionary practices and objection to the presumptive
cultural power of an overarching masculinist imaginary.35 In the
domain of African American cultural history, black masculinity emerges
as less a reaction to perceived threats to its stability (for the very good
reason that black men have never had a comparably legitimate indi-
vidual terrain to defend) than as the occasionally gradual and often
rebellious appropriation of prohibited masculine positionality. In her
discussion of the nineteenth-century activist David Walker, for ex-
ample, Maggie Sale argues in Slumbering Volcano that black men (and
women) repeatedly challenged “[t]he racialization of the masculine
discourse of national identity,” a discursive sleight of hand that denied
masculinity (and the liberal rights of the Lockean revolution) to black
men based on their racial difference. In Philip Brian Harper’s recent
analysis of late-twentieth-century African American masculinity, we
learn how, within the black community, “subscription to black identity
itself bespeaks a masculine status because the courage thus to claim
social autonomy is precisely what constitutes conventional manhood,
no matter what the racial context.” In these studies, black masculine
identity is a function not just of gendered relations between men and
women but of the relation between gender and American racial
discourses. Unlike the straight white men of Kimmel’s “dominant”
history, whose invitation to masculinity is inked onto the parchment of
the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the African
American male assumption of masculinity has proceeded first as the
slow acquisition of political agency and then as the consolidation of
their social power as men. The point is that the African American
understanding of “normative” masculinity either assumes an historical
coherence of that identity, or posits it as one towards which African
American men strove (and many African American women resisted and
continue to resist).36
One of Manhood in America’s many strengths is its demonstration of
how crises of heteromasculinity—typically attributed either to wider
socio-economic transformations like industrialization, urbanization,
incorporation or to more particular or local cultural formations like
feminism, migration, gay rights—have resulted in reactionary attempts

to re-establish hegemonic, stable and unchanging masculine norms and

practices for men under assault by such forces. Kimmel rightly notices,
and sustains an argument to the effect, that even though “we must speak
of masculinities . . . all American men must also contend with a
singular vision of masculinity, a particular definition that is held up as
the model against which we all measure ourselves” (5). Thus the
ideology of the self-made man became the template of antebellum
masculinity, even though the period witnessed a proliferation of
masculine others (ministers, bachelors, authors, slaves, laborers), and
the postbellum elevation of the muscleman became “the norm” during
a time of widespread male hysteria amongst the middling urban classes
and the dehumanization of the urban industrial laborer. In our own
time, we might look to the Promise Keepers as an example of idealized
masculinity—straight, middle-class, married, imperious, and protes-
tant—presuming to structure the lives of differing masculinities (not-
straight, not-middling class, not-married, etc.). Part of the “crisis,” then,
is the queasy solution offered, as the Promise Keepers are the first to
admit, that their “movement” is born of a perceived crisis, and their
public acts of same-sex intimacy carry the agonistic bearing of the
unrelievedly normal. In this way, a reactionary movement of men
laying claim to a conservative model of masculine authority potentially
becomes part of a longer historiographical narrative of American men
continually in turmoil. The problem here is not only that the progres-
sive history of manhood at crisis must include the Promise Keepers as
one more example of anxious masculinity, but that Manhood in
America and the Keepers share a rhetoric of masculine crisis as
American history. To be sure, where heteromasculinity maintains that
the image of stable masculinity is a fantasy, the Promise Keepers
believe they are recovering a lost past, and in this regard the historiog-
raphy of masculinity as crisis combats the odious nostalgia of this
latter-day evangelical masculinity and its imperious assertion of tran-
scendental authority. To the degree that Manhood in America and A
Man’s Place tells a narrative, however, it maintains a belief in a certain
“deep structure” (viii) to American heteromasculinity, one in which
repeated assertions, contradictions, and retrenchments of masculine
identity structure the chronological narrative of American history: “the
current malaise among men has a long history, and . . . the way men are
responding these days bears a startling resemblance to men’s responses
over the course of American history” (viii). Thus the diachronic

narrative of American manhood is structured synchronically by crisis,

what Calvin Thomas calls in his recent philosophical treatment of
masculinity Male Matters (1996), “the anxiety of ego incoherence.”37
Out of, or alongside, or in some kind of logical relation to, the crisis
historiography of American masculinity stands a theoretical account of
masculinity as incoherence.
Before turning to the theoretical account of beset masculinity, there
are a few observations to be made here.38 Not only do these new
treatments of masculinity tell us things we did not know before, they
provide a new perspective on what we thought we knew, and this latter
development may well be the most useful and lasting contribution to
American studies from the rise of masculinity studies. Another impor-
tant result of the “crisis theory” of American masculinity is that it
brings the hitherto “normal” into closer historical proximity with its
previously repudiated others: gays, racial and ethnic others, women.
Let me emphasize the “historical” aspect of this new configuration of
heteromasculinity. The demonstration, in Leverenz’s chapter on Fanny
Fern and Susan Warner, of masculinity’s uninterrupted encounter with
the female gaze, not to mention the (at the time) radical premise of
Manhood in the American Renaissance, takes a step closer to a more
inclusive and expansive vision of American historiography, whose
affiliation with masculinity as standard of historical truth can no longer
be taken seriously, and whose interest in the cultural work of gender in
masculine individuation we can now take seriously.
Yet, in uncomfortable similarity to the wailing Promise Keepers, one
is left wondering where all the masculinity has gone. That is, the
ideology of masculinity may exist in all of our minds, to various
degrees, but our embodiment of such masculinist ideals remains
always, as evidenced throughout American cultural history, incomplete,
incoherent, stunted, and inconsistent. Kimmel’s historical men are no
different, as for example fathers in the 1920s, who had “difficulty . . .
grounding a sense of manly accomplishment in their performance as
parents” (206); the successful corporate executive of the 1950s was
nothing more than a “hired employee” facing “emasculating demands
and humiliating hierarchies” in the workplace (240, 241); even the
discourse of “hypermasculinity,” the overdetermined posturing of male
bullies and authoritarian personalities everywhere, is little more than a
mask, “a compensation for insecure and anxious gender identity”
(245), writes Kimmel, autobiographically referring to his experiences

growing up in the 1950s. That the men formerly (and still) regarded as
paragons of normative masculinity stand revealed as anxious failures
by the crisis theory of heteromasculine historiography may provide
some comfort to the less successful, the less normative, the less erect—
that is, the less “masculine”—among us. In this sense, heteromasculinity
studies is not just historical corrective; it performs a therapeutic
function as well, and so we may wonder whose compensatory narrative
is being written here: the anxious failures desiring the consolations
afforded by their proximity to the “normal,” or the bullies in need of the
corrective offered up by the new narratives of American masculinity-
Heteromasculinity studies also chart a universe surprisingly bereft of
actual, living embodiments of “normative masculinity,” even though
discourses and representations of normal manhood proliferate in
fiction, film, sports, and beer commercials. Can it all really be read as
camp, drag, or stylized parody? For while a history of “men as men”
demystifies the essentialization of masculinity as all things powerful,
stabile, and erect, it cannot change the fact that American enterprise
was driven by the very men whose masculinity now appears as
masquerade. If the history of the United States as imperialist, racist,
sexist, and homophobic revises older historical models of American
exceptionalism and possessive individualism, such interventions do
presuppose an American masculinity notable for its ability to consoli-
date power and manage its others. On the one hand, Americanists want
to claim a “masculine” historical achievement as patriarchal and
imperialist—the springboard for much recent energy in American
studies and the reigning totem we still purport to topple. Yet on the
other hand we now find that this masculinist identity was and is merely
a “construct,” a compensatory narrative for still deeper anxieties and
fears that the new heteromasculinity studies will render visible: that the
bullies, in short, are more interesting because misunderstood. With
some impatience, I would ask: Are there actually no “real men” out
there? What do we do say to the African American men still being
dragged around behind pick-up trucks driven by white men? To the gay
college student mercilessly beaten unconscious and left to freeze to
death over the course of a cold Wyoming prairie night? To the women
and children hiding in underfunded shelters? I just do not know
whether the vicious masculinity behind these crimes is enduring a
“crisis” in any way comparable to that of their victims, or if instead we

are dealing with a manhood smoothly coherent, frighteningly compe-

tent, and alarmingly tranquil: that is, with “men as men.” The exterior-
ized record of masculine violence—all those assaulted persons and
bodies in literature and in culture—indeed demands our attention but
not on the grounds that such scholarship will bring about a more
desirable masculinity by revealing the historical incoherence of man-
hood. Sadly, that cultural record already presents us with men, even as
men. As long as a world without men competently embodying the
various discourses of what Kaja Silverman has called the “dominant
fiction” does not yet exist, it remains unclear if an historiography that
assumes masculinity as transcendental “truth” is ultimately more
problematical than one that implicitly claims that nobody has or has
ever had it.39


Not only in historical but in theoretical terms has masculinity

returned beaten, flaccid, and uncertain. I want to turn more specifically
to the importation of Judith Butler’s theories of gender in recent
treatments of heteromasculinity. It would be difficult to overestimate
the extent of Butler’s influence not just in American studies (especially
film studies) but in a wide range of humanistic disciplines in all of their
“queer” varieties, including art history, comparative literature, English
literary studies, postcolonial studies, race studies, as well as the social
sciences. A profoundly anti-foundationalist account of identity, Gender
Trouble argues that gender “proves to be performative—that is, consti-
tuting the identity it is purported to be.” There is no gendered self prior
to its performance; “[t]here is no gender identity behind the expressions
of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very
‘expressions’ that are said to be its results.”40 Within this frame of
gender as performance, Butler maintains that the alleged “‘unity’ of
gender is the effect of a regulatory practice that seeks to render gender
identity uniform through a compulsory heterosexuality,” yet that this
regulatory “fiction” can, in fact, be displaced by, among other perfor-
mances, “[t]he replication of heterosexual constructs in non-hetero-
sexual frames,” a displacement that effectively “brings into relief the
utterly constructed status of the so-called heterosexual original” (31).
In undermining the putative “binaries” of original/copy, straight/gay,
man/woman, Butler shows how “[g]ender is the repeated stylization of

the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame
that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a
natural sort of being.” Butler’s “genealogy of gender” thus deconstructs
our received ontology of gender identity, and “expose[s] the contingent
acts that create the appearance of naturalistic necessity” (33). Although
it is a sustained treatment of psychoanalytic feminism, femininity, and
homosexual identity formation, Gender Trouble has been appropriated
by many practitioners of the new masculinity studies to discuss
masculine identity in straight, gay, or “ambivalent” modalities.41
A previously stable understanding of masculinity is not only chal-
lenged by Americanist historiography’s crisis theory of masculinity; it
is also rigorously and thoroughly deconstructed by the theoretical
critique of ontological gender identity. Masculinity emerges as a mask,
as a performance, a masquerade, in which the ideologies of gender
provide a structure in which the self takes up a gendered subject
position whose enunciation within the symbolic order proceeds insepa-
rably from the subject’s (mis)recognition of himself as legitimately
and/or normatively male. In her study of contemporary male dramatists
and plays, Staging Masculinity, Carla McDonough theorizes that “[d]ue
to the ‘rules that limit and maintain ‘normative’ gender, the male’s
empowerment is actually extremely precarious within his own life.” Far
from making available a position of stability and autonomy, ideologies
of normative masculinity ultimately depend on the femininity ostensi-
bly repudiated by masculinist discourse, thereby revealing, as with
Hemingway’s unwittingly yet somehow inevitably queer texts, how the
male inhabitation of masculinity is “fractured and precarious.” Less
abstractly, we might say that if one lesson of history is that of anxious,
agonistic men trying desperately to embody the masculine, then the
next lesson is that they—all men everywhere, from Andrew Jackson to
Teddy Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan—failed in the attempt. Lee Clark
Mitchell writes in Westerns: Making the Man in Fiction and Film: “The
frequency with which the body is celebrated, then physically punished,
only to convalesce, suggests something of the paradox involved in
making true men out of biological men, taking their male bodies and
distorting them beyond any apparent power of self-control, so that in
the course of recuperating, an achieved masculinity that is at once
physical and based on performance can be revealed” (155). Similarly,
according to Timothy Beneke, “boys never quite pull it off; they are
never quite sure they are men and tend to feel only as masculine as their

last demonstration of masculinity” (5). A shared feature of these and

other theoretical treatments of male identity formation and representa-
tion is that of the incoherent or paradoxical male whose fractured self is
a function of identity formation. That is, such accounts proceed from a
theoretical deconstruction of masculine subjectivity whose exposition
is prior to the male self’s emergence within history. In other words, it
does not really matter in the theoretical account which historical
pressure the American male faces. Identity after Butler ultimately
performs independently and in fact prior to its historical manifestation.42
Some might object that this discussion fails to acknowledge the
synthesis of historical and theoretical analysis achieved (or at least
attempted) in some recent discussions of American masculinity. Take,
for example, Steven Cohan’s study Masked Men: Masculinity and the
Movies in the Fifties, perhaps the most sustained account yet of the
historicized performative male American at crisis. In a long introduc-
tory chapter entitled “The Spy in the Gray Flannel Suit,” Cohan argues
that Hitchcock’s 1959 movie North by Northwest shows “how the
social act of self-presentation destabilizes the continuity of a single
identity” and that this process “has particularly disruptive consequences
for the seemingly stable position of masculinity in its various ideologi-
cal settings.”43 At issue for Cohan, and dramatized in North by
Northwest, is the method by which “social identity displaces the ‘real’
person with a persona” (24), which Cohan links to Butler’s theorization of
gender as performative. Because the movie understands that masquerade
and parody (a la Butler) play an important role in the depiction of gender,
it “calls into question whether masculinity can ever be assumed to be a
coherent and singular, not to say authentic, condition in culture” (33).
Cohan’s theoretical encounter with Hitchcockian masculinity is also
informed by his historiographical perception of a masculinity crisis
operative in the 1950s, a crisis North by Northwest addresses. According
to Cohan, “[w]hat seemed homogenous about American men in the
fifties, at least according to the discourses about masculinity in
widespread circulation them, was actually specific to the normative
social position of some men within the culture, namely, the white,
heterosexual, corporate, Wasp, suburban breadwinner” (xi). In fact,
such a creature was not the man he claimed to be:

Viewing masculinity as a masquerade helps to articulate more precisely why

a hegemonic representation like the Fifties’ “Man in the Gray Flannel Suit”
could dominate the culture and yet be subject to change (because of its

location in history as a social position); why such a normative standard of

masculinity is never stable or coherent or authentic (because of its location in
representation as a mask); and why it has to exist alongside a range of
alternative forms of representation (because of its location in a hierarchy of
competing masculinities, even though this plurality has the effect of making
masculinity multiple in its incarnations). xi

Like Hemingway’s unwitting authorization of homoerotic/sexual desire

in The Sun Also Rises, Hitchcock’s text reveals an instability that dares
not speak its name. This instability not only has a theory (the Butlerian
performative) but also a history; it refers to a period in American
history when American men were questioning their claims to masculin-
ity in increasing and increasingly worried numbers. The 1950s was a
time of anxiety for middle-class, breadwinning, domesticated, corpo-
rate men, whose very domestication and corporatization amounted to
an incarceral narrative of male passivity and dependence. The movies
of the 1950s, as reflection or “performance” of the period’s “ideologi-
cal settings,” reflect that anxiety and, in so doing, reveal the masked
man to derive from the mechanistic function of gender. Theory reflects
history, which gives rise to that theory.
Where Butler-influenced accounts of gender declare masculinity—
straight, gay, etc.—to be incoherent, unstable, and performative, treat-
ments of masculinity in American history arrive at the same conclusion.
With the rise of totalizing theoretical and historiographical models of
masculine subject formation and practice, there is a corresponding loss
of explanatory power. “[N]ow that we are all queer,” remarks Robert
Martin, “Queer needs normal in order to exist . . . and its very narratives
of transgression require a normality against which to respond.”44 If a
masculinity in crisis, unsure of itself, accountable to contradictory
ideologies, heterogeneous, racially diverse, queer, incomplete, con-
flicted, and socially constructed is about, by, and between men, it also
serves to essentialize deviance as the case: that is, as “normative.” To
recall the Hemingway example, “El Nuevo Hemingway” is quite
normally queer. While historically and politically “queer” identities and
practices have never enjoyed the privileges conferred on what has
passed for the normative, masculinity-at/as-crisis organizes a rubric for
articulating the masculine in which the contingent, the incomplete, and
the unsure achieves something like a template for the expected, the
predictable, the regular—indeed, the normal. To hold that all masculine
genders are performative, incoherent, and anxious is to hold that

incoherent and anxious gender performativity is normative; the inco-

herence of gender becomes its own kind of “regulatory fiction” to the
degree that all claims to the contrary are treated as the kinds of
defensive self-naturalizing gestures exposed by deconstructive gender
theory as such. In the effort to denaturalize masculinity, its status as
“unnatural” has been instated as the theoretical norm, and in so positing
a field of performance in which all genders are equally contingent on the
operation of gender construction found in Butler and newer historio-
graphical method alike, American masculinity studies has created a
disciplinary field in which all genders and sexualities are equally
constructed, even if they do not share equal political and social power.
In an odd way, according to the analytical trajectory of what I am
variously calling heteromasculinity studies, or American masculinity
studies, men themselves—whether they be your hard-dicked, corpo-
rate-crushing, breast-ogling, Republican-voting neanderthals, or your
sensitive, artistic, politically-aware, diaper-changing, liberal milquetoasts,
or your benefits not-sharing, adoption-denied, tax-discriminated, orga-
nization-bashed, lifestyle-reviled, non-reproductive Abba fans—be-
come not merely potential posterboys for even the most aggressive
forms of anti-patriarchal theorizing but “equal” players within the
domain of gender studies. And therein is part of the problem. As critics,
historians and theorists of male gender generate totalizing models of
agonistic masculinity to describe the function of male gender—in spite
of the universally shared political commitment to use this model to
expose masculine privilege in and as culture—the possibility of
differing masculinities is crushed by the juggernaut of the increasingly
programmatic masculine crisis. The neanderthal, the milquetoast, and
the Abba fan are equally anxious: that is, as gendered selves they
remain subject to the incoherent, incomplete, and stunted embodiments
of masculinity that they must perform as gendered subjects. They may
all be equally anxious, but they are not historical equals; the new
heteromasculinity studies potentially blurs this politically vital distinction.
Now that, for example, Nathaniel Hawthorne is no longer an elitist,
misogynistic, curmudgeonly custodian of all things authoritative—
Scott Derrick, to name a recent example, argues that Hawthorne’s
Scarlet Letter is valuable as a record of the “agonistic baring of the
cultural processes through which masculine identity is constructed”—
he has become the focus of renewed attention as an example of
masculine gender (mal)formation.45 Hawthorne, Poe, Melville, Emerson,

Thoreau, Whitman, Howells, James, London, Norris, Hemingway,

Fitzgerald, and Eliot: these former bastions of masculinist canonicity
and vessels though which the patriarchal institutions of Americanist
literary and cultural analysis assert themselves, are now “monumental
anxieties,” queer, non-normative, tentative, unsure, and very interesting
as men. This is potentially troubling not just because most readers of
this journal probably do not know anything about Felicia Hemans or
Adah Mencken. And it is not just the cynics among us who might pause
to wonder about all of this renewed energy being devoted to the
“problem” of masculinity as it manifests itself through the literary
canon, the Hollywood macho-movie, or the “great men” theory of
American history. We must ask ourselves if we have reached the point
where we can safely evacuate the notion of a powerful, authoritative,
misogynistic, self-interested, and competitive masculinity being tied to
a similarly powerful and institutionalized literary and historical canon-
icity or authority on the grounds that we, “men” and “women,”
“straights” and “queers,” have indeed arrived on the threshold of a
universe whose most essential trait seems lately to be its anxious
A subtitle or alternate title for this essay might have been “Around
1997,” in homage to Jane Gallop’s at times caustically trenchant review
of the situation of Anglo-American and French academic feminism in
the early 1980s.46 As with Gallop’s work, it is not the intention of this
essay to dismiss the contributions made to humanistic studies in recent
years on this topic so much as to chart and assess some of the central
themes, methodologies, achievements, and shortcomings of a field
whose recent and still growing expansion demands more careful
attention than I have been able to offer here. One fruitful path of
analysis would be to consider more closely the origins and causes of the
recent interest in masculinity in American (and not just American)
studies. Why at this particular historical moment is there not merely a
perceived crisis of masculinity, but an academic and intellectual
preoccupation with this crisis and its history? Is our recent interest in
American heteromasculinity part of a longer crisis historiography or a
critical departure from it? What I have suggested here is that there is a
certain blurring of boundaries between masculine crisis and its
Americanist critique, a blurring whose ultimate effects remain to be
seen. A more thorough assessment of the critical relations between
heteromasculinity and gay male studies might also prove salient by

picturing the “crisis” of heteromasculinity within the frame provided

by a masculinity whose agonistic construction may well be the more
immediately and politically vital of the two. Another approach to the
topic of masculinity studies would be to rethink one of the central
assumptions of heteromasculinity studies: the substitution of “mascu-
line” for “feminine” within a feminist or gender studies framework.
This replacement implies that within feminist critical practice, “mascu-
line” and “feminine” enjoy a certain analytical equality: that is, the
critical and/or celebratory gestures of gender analysis functions sys-
temically according to whichever term the critic or historian “plugs in”
to the formula. Is it really sufficient simply to add “masculinity” to
feminist theory and stir?
I would offer, finally, that it is not. The masculine achievement in
American culture has received ample documentation, celebration, and
denunciation, and while the new heteromasculinity studies does not in
any simple way repeat the unaware masculinist biases of a pre-feminist
or gender studies Americanist critical project, its normalization of the
contingent, the unsure, and the incomplete does not sufficiently recog-
nize the historical features of an American masculinity remarkable for
its satisfied ego, its imperial drive, its individual power, its sexual
aggression, and its assumption of citizenship as a matter of birth and
God-given right. While heteromasculinity may well imply a gender that
is performative and constructed, it also recalls an historical gender that
was anything but hobbled by its constructed status, and where a history
of masculinity as construct may contest the transcendental male, it also
returns our critical view to the domain of the unquestionably male.
Finally, following Tania Modleski, I believe it important that American
heteromasculinity studies analyze the straight male subject “with a
concern for the effects of this [subject] on the female subject and with
an awareness of how frequently male subjectivity works to appropriate
‘femininity’ while oppressing women.”47 Certainly many of the studies
this essay discusses attempt to do just that, and some of these with an
edgy, uncomfortable voice unsure of the grounds of analytical author-
ity, because the ground itself is either fragile or suspect. That edgy, self-
conscious discomfort may well prove a more salient contribution to
gender studies than the by now foregone conclusion that masculinity is
always constructed, contingent, and at crisis.


This paper began as a colloquium presentation in the Department of English at the

University of Western Ontario. Thanks to my colleagues Tom Carmichael, Alison
Conway, Martin Kreiswirth, and Cameron MacFarland, for their feedback and
conversation, and to Robert Martin and Walt Herbert for their friendly and engaged
encouragement. This piece benefited from a long conversation I had with the late Jenny
Franchot, and from the comments of two anonymous American Quarterly readers, its
Editorial Board, and particularly Lucy Maddox for her encouragement and support.

1. Elaine Showalter, “Toward a Feminist Poetics,” The New Feminist Criticism: Essays
on Women, Literature, and Theory, ed. Elaine Showalter (New York: Pantheon, 1985), 128.
2. Elaine Showalter, “Introduction: the Rise of Gender,” in Elaine Showalter, ed.,
Speaking of Gender (New York: Routledge, 1989), 2.
3. Gail Bederman, Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and
Race in the United States, 1880–1917 (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1995), 7.
4. Although not the most reliable method for supporting this point, calling attention
to the sheer number of conference panels—not to mention titles—at recent Modern
Language Association and American Studies Association meetings containing some
variant of “masculinity” in their titles would be at least salient. At the 1998 ASA
convention in Seattle, for example, five panels explicitly addressed “masculinity,” and
numerous papers on other panels at least titularly pointed towards a consideration of
masculinity. These figures do not include the many topics and presentations concerned
with gay male identity and representation.
5. Sedgwick develops this thesis in Between Men: English Literature and Male
Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1985), and elaborates it further
in Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley, Calif.: Univ. of California Press, 1990).
6. Peter Schwenger, “The Masculine Mode,” in Elaine Showalter, ed., Speaking of
Gender, 102.
7. Timothy Benecke, Proving Manhood: Reflections on Men and Sexism (Berkeley,
Calif.: Univ. of California Press, 1997), xiv.
8. Michael Kimmel, Manhood in America: A Cultural History (New York: Free
Press, 1996), 6.
9. Many readers will recall the “Men In Feminism” debate carried out in various
academic and popular precincts during the 1980s and captured in the anthology Men in
Feminism, ed. Alice Jardine and Paul Smith (New York: Methuen, 1987). Although
difficult to identify the precise relationship between the recent swerve to masculinity
and the issues raised in that volume, we might provisionally observe the obvious: that
where academic feminism (at least as generally practiced in the 1980s) focused and
continues to focus on women, heteromasculinity focuses on men. This is to acknowl-
edge, as do most heteromasculine critics, that feminism has made masculinity studies
possible, even as masculinity studies effectively elides the gynocritical emphasis on
écriture feminine and female representative practices. Further, where many woman
feminists have argued that women were the best “equipped” to practice feminist
reading and writing practices, many male heteromasculinists assume, as we shall see,
that men are best suited for the job of exploring masculinity, although Dana Nelson’s
powerful book, National Manhood: Capitalist Citizenship and the Imagined Fraternity
of White Men (Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press, 1998), to mention one study among
many, contests that assumption. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the current institutional
power arrangements of the academy and society at large, where a major concern for the

“men in feminism” debate was the politics informing the male practice of feminism,
there is less concern about “women in heteromasculinity.”
10. British studies is not far behind, particularly in Victorian studies. See, for
example, Herbert Sussman, Victorian Masculinities: Manhood and Masculine Poetics
in Early Victorian Literature and Art (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1995);
Richard Dellamora, Masculine Desire: the Sexual Politics of Victorian Aestheticism
(Chapel Hill, N.C.: North Carolina Univ. Press, 1990); and James Eli Adams, Dandies
and Desert Saints: Styles of Victorian Masculinity (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press,
11. Certainly not when a mainstream, best-selling and feminist journalist like Susan
Faludi weighs in with Stiffed: the Betrayal of the American Man (New York: William
Morrow, 1999), a book whose treatment of the dispossessed corporate man of late
twentieth-century U.S. culture locates the crisis of masculinity at the center of popular
feminist thought. While the book does not in any simple way legitimate this new
victimhood of the privileged, it does dwell on the believed powerlessness of the post-
war American man. See particularly her discussion of male actors in mainstream
pornography, aptly (for this essay) titled “Waiting for Wood,” 530–76.
12. My own research in a local outlet of Chapters (Canada’s equivalent to the Barnes and
Noble/Starbuck’s Coffee alignment) revealed no fewer than eighteen magazines with
subtitles like “a magazine for men,” “for men’s men,” and the like. The titles and cover-
copy, not to mention the photographic layouts ranging from women to men to cars to
guns, targeted specific audiences from different demographic groupings, although the
common ground shared was a loudly heterosexual interest in women as sexual objects.
13. See T. Walter Herbert, Dearest Beloved: the Hawthornes and the Making of the
Middle-Class Family (Berkeley, Calif.: Univ. of California Press, 1993), 18–20.
14. See, for example, Robert Corber’s Homosexuality in Cold War America:
Resistance and the Crisis of Masculinity (Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press, 1997).
15. Kenneth MacKinnon, Uneasy Pleasures: the Male as Erotic Object (London:
Cygnus Arts, 1997), 88.
16. David Leverenz, Manhood and the American Renaissance (Ithaca, NY: Cornell
Univ. Press, 1989), 6. Further references to this text will be made parenthetically.
17. Calvin Thomas, Male Matters: Masculinity, Anxiety, and the Male Body on the
Line (Chicago: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1996), 7.
18. E. Anthony Rotundo, American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from
the Revolution to the Modern Era (New York: Basic Books, 1993), ix. Although a
cheap way to make a point, I would note that each author mentioned here profusely
acknowledges his female partner/spouse/significant other for their help in producing
his text. Thus, in perhaps unavoidable frisson, the publicly “anxious” critic exists
coterminously in these texts with the publicly secure heterosexual man.
19. Manhood in the American Renaissance is not the only text to recast personal
experience as literary history. According to David Bergman, “American Renaissance is
Matthiessen’s ultimate expression of his love for [Russell] Cheney and a covert
celebration of the homosexual artist.” See David Bergman, “F.O. Matthiessen: the
Critic as Homosexual,” Raritan 9 (spring 1990): 72.
20. David G. Pugh, Sons of Liberty: the Masculine Mind in Nineteenth-Century
America (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1983), xv, emphasis original.
21. David Pugh, Sons of Liberty, xvi.
22. It is worth noting as well that the “pre-masculinity” phase of American feminist
historiography and criticism—for example, Anne Douglas’s Feminization of American
Culture—was always concerned with the problems of masculinity, although perhaps
not with the critical sympathy to be found in the new heteromasculinity studies.

23. See Andrew Kimbrell, The Masculine Mystique: the Politics of Masculinity
(New York: Ballantine Books, 1995), xii–xiii. Kimbrell’s book, part cultural critique
and part pop-psychology manifesto, resists any easy political categorization as it
embraces a holistic language of masculine renewal and change that might appeal to
reactionary and liberal masculine politics alike.
24. For those readers unfamiliar with this advertisement (which ran on NBC during
the 1999 French Open and Wimbledon tennis telecasts), it features Mr. Dole discussing
his fears of impotence following prostate cancer surgery. Although he never actually
admits to having suffered “erectile dysfunction” (instead he only worries about it), his
wife, Elizabeth Dole, former Secretary of Transportation under the Bush administra-
tion, once told reporters how delighted she and her husband have been with the anti-
impotence medication, Viagra, whose manufacturer, Pfizer Inc., lost little time in
hiring Dole to be their new national pitchman.
25. See Nancy R. Comley and Robert Scholes, Hemingway’s Genders: Rereading
the Hemingway Text (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 1994), 107, ix. Comley
and Scholes conclude their study on a triumphalist note: “We would be the first to
admit that there is more to be done with all these matters, but we hope that our
contribution to the topic will at least make it difficult to think of Hemingway as a writer
with too much machismo for his own good—someone, as he put it himself, who had
eaten too many criadillas. The Hemingway you were taught about in high school is
dead. Viva el nuevo Hemingway” (146).
26. Ira Elliott, “Performance Art: Jake Barnes and ‘Masculine’ Signification in The
Sun Also Rises,” American Literature 67 (Mar. 1995): 78.
27. Stephen Clifford, Beyond the Heroic “I”: Reading Lawrence, Hemingway, and
“Masculinity” (Lewisburg, Penn.: Bucknell Univ. Press, 1998), 21.
28. Ibid., 107. It is worth noting that Clifford’s study of Lawrence and Hemingway
theorizes its exclusive attention to canonical male writers on the grounds that “it is not
only the canon which is in need of revision, but also the ways we read even those
figures who have inhabited a canonical center” (21).
29. Dennis Bingham, Acting Male: Masculinities in the Films of James Stewart, Jack
Nicholson, and Clint Eastwood (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1994), 9
30. David Leverenz, Manhood and the American Renaissance, 172. Michael Davitt
Bell developed a theory of authorial deviance in The Development of American
Romance: The Sacrifice of Relation (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980).
31. Julia Stern, The Plight of Feeling: Sympathy and Dissent in the Early American
Novel (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1997), 168. I should note here that Stern’s
book in no way self-identifies as a contribution to heteromasculinity studies. Rather, it
partakes of the critical language of masculinity studies.
32. Scott J. Derrick, Monumental Anxieties: Homoerotic Desire and Feminine
Influence in 19th-Century U.S. Literature (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers Univ. Press,
1997), 8. David Pugh, Sons of Liberty, 6.
33. Kim Townsend, Manhood at Harvard: William James and Others (New York:
Norton, 1996), 17; Gail Bederman, Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of
Gender and Race in the United States, 1880–1917 (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press,
1995), 11.
34. Gaylyn Studlar, This Mad Masquerade: Stardom and Masculinity in the Jazz Age
(New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1996), 12–13; Joe L. Dubbert, A Man’s Place:
Masculinity in Transition (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1979), 192; Steven
Cohan, Masked Men: Masculinity and the Movies in the Fifties (Bloomington, Ind.:
Indiana Univ. Press, 1997); Robert J.Corber Homosexuality in Cold War America:
Resistance and the Crisis of Masculinity (Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press, 1997).

35. Dana D. Nelson, National Manhood: Capitalist Citizenship and the Imagined
Fraternity of White Men (Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press, 1998), 16, 27. I am
thinking particularly of Nelson’s discussion of “American presidentialism” in the
book’s “Afterword.”
36. Maggie Montesinos Sale, The Slumbering Volcano: American Slave Ship Revolts
and the Production of Rebellious Masculinity (Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press, 1997),
57; Philip Brian Harper, Are We Not Men? Masculine Anxiety and the Problem of
African American Identity (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1996), 69. Discussion of
African American masculinity proliferates in all disciplines of American studies and
literature, and, indeed, has for some time now. In Antebellum Black Activists: Race,
Gender, and the Self (New York: Garland Publishing, 1996), R.J. Young discusses the
meaning of manhood in relation to antebellum black activism; see particularly 55–124.
In literary studies, Frederick Douglass’s autobiographical writings have also received a
good deal of attention, including for example essays by Jenny Franchot, “The
Punishment of Esther: Frederick Douglass and the Construction of the Feminine,” and
Richard Yarborough, “Race, Violence, and Manhood in Douglass’s Narrative,” both in
Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays (New York: Cambridge
Univ. Press, 1991), to cite only a few examples. It is worth mentioning in this context
the vital and at times vitriolic debates within African American studies between black
feminist men and women over the gendered dimension of race, much of which has
explicitly focused on the practices and representations of black men. See for example
bell hooks, Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations (New York: Routledge, 1995),
in which she engages critically with the masculinist dimensions of popular images of
black violence, gangsta rap, and Malcolm X. For other recent essays on the circulation
of black masculinity in American culture, see the essays on the O.J. Simpson trial in
Toni Morrison, Birth of a Nation’hood: Gaze, Script, and Spectacle in the O.J.
Simpson Case, ed. Toni Morrison and Claudia Tate (New York: Pantheon Books,
1997). Don Belton, editor of Speak My Name: Black Men on Masculinity and the
American Dream (New York: Beacon Press, 1995), an anthology of fiction, memoir,
interview and critique intended for a mainstream audience, writes that “[a]t this critical
hour, no one seems to know who black men are beyond a narrow mainstream
representation in which it seems they can only be superathletes, superentertainers, or
supercriminals” (4).
37. Calvin Thomas, Male Matters, 7.
38. I am here deliberately invoking Nina Baym’s now classic article “Melodramas of
Beset Manhood.”
39. Kaja Silverman, Masculine Subjectivity at the Margins (New York: Routledge, 1992).
40. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New
York: Routledge, 1990), 25. Further references will be made parenthetically.
41. And not without some anxiety from Butler herself, as evidenced in the preface
and introduction to Bodies That Matter: on the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York:
Routledge, 1993), where she takes issue with being called by her first name—“a certain
partronizing quality” (ix)—and with the misapplication of her theories of gender
performativity—“[m]atters have been made even worse. . . . ” (x).
42. Carla J. McDonough, Staging Masculinity: Male Identity in Contemporary
American Drama (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1997), 6, 7. Lee Clark Mitchell,
Westerns: Making the Man in Fiction and Film (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press,
1996), 155. Beneke, Men on Sexism, 5.
43. Steven Cohan, Masked Men: Masculinity and the Movies in the Fifties
(Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana Univ. Press, 1997), 23, 24. Further references will be cited

44. Robert K. Martin, “Very Queer Indeed,” American Quarterly 47 (spring 1995): 155.
45. Scott Derrick, Monumental Anxieties: Homoerotic Desire and Feminine Influ-
ence in 19th-Century U.S. Literature (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers Univ. Press,
1997), 33.
46. Jane Gallop, Around 1981: Academic Feminist Literary Theory (New York:
Routledge, 1992).
47. Tania Modleski, Feminism without Women: Culture and Criticism in a
‘Postfeminist’ Age (New York: Routledge, 1991), 7.