Booknotes: A History Of Masculinity

history bit’s ok, the rest less so

Booknotes: A History Of Masculinity

Previously on the HNTRW masculinity series:

NEXT TIME: Adam gets annoyed at a French philosopher.

Now, to be fair, I'd say this book does fulfil its promise: this is an insanely historical book. There is an enormous amount of context for the history of masculine domination which may be interesting or useful to people. It wasn't really what I was after—yeah, alright, "why were you reading a book called A History Of Masculinity' if you didn't want a history of masculinity" I get you, sit down. From the jacket copy:

He then offers an updated model of masculinity based on a theory of gender justice which aims for a redistribution of gender, just as social justice demands the redistribution of wealth.

Spoiler alert: he does not in fact demand "a redistribution of gender", though that's a cool phrase and I have several friends who would no doubt be more interested in the book if he did.

I will also say that—and maybe this is some subtle predjudice on my part—when I saw it was written by a French philosopher, I got a bit worried, but it's not too verbose, not too theory-heavy. I do not have any French past secondary-school level so my ability to judge here is nonexistent but I feel the translation struggles a bit in places—there are definitely certain words and concepts that feel like they're trying to translate something and not quite getting it—"virility", for instance, is used a lot—there's some stuff about "virile objects" like meat and bikes and cars and stuff, which makes sense, but it also feels like it's used in a way that feels quite idiomatic elsewhere—where they probably should've used "macho" or something like that. For the most part, though, it's solid and readable, if a little dry.

We start asking why is masculine domination more or less universal throughout the societies of the world? The basic answer you might expect (due to sexual dimophism, men are generally bigger and more aggressive, which would be a more significant factor in a historical context) seems to be the one he settles on, though he also notes that patriarchies rely more on the construction of laws and institutions than outright force a lot of the time, which again feels about right.

A lot of real the gender inequality seems to start properly when humanity started settling in static cities (once again, Ted was right). The division he makes is that the Paleolithic era saw division between the sexes while the Neolithic era saw inequality between the sexes. He describes the "convergent universals" (of masculinie domination between different historical societies) of gender binarism, sexed division of labour and social superiority of men—though he also says they're not "anchored in biology", even though it seems like most of the stuff earlier in the book would indicate they are? I guess he means they're not innate, maybe?

We identify a bunch of bad masculinities, and while I, as someone who's spent altogether too much time on social media in my day, always love seeing types of guy described, it feels like it doesn't really amount to all that much. Men Can Be Bad In These Ways—fine, don't be like that, what should we be aiming for?

The real frustration comes at the end, where the prescriptions come in—none of these are bad or anything, but it all feels very... passé? It would be good to have gender-equal elected representatives, absolutely. Women's poverty and inequalities in developing countries are certainly very important. Women shouldn't be subject to religious oppression, consent is important, women shouldn't be sexually harassed. There's a big table of stuff about how women can be better accommodated in businesses which feels like entirely standard DEI stuff: don't be talking over or interrupting women, don't have all your after-work culture revolve around stuff that excludes women, mandate paternity leave etc. There's little to disagree with here, but really that's the problem: it feels like all this is stuff that society in general—or at least, the kinds of people who are reading these kinds of books—have agreed on. Men should do chores? You don't say.

The other big frustration to me in this book is that there are so many 'little bits', so many moments where I feel like things could've got interesting in some way, and they just do not. One sentence about the 'androcentric illusion' that means men think their opinions are held by everyone—that's interesting! Go back to that!

Yeah, I dunno. The history stuff is probably worthwhile context; not really what I was looking for but I'm glad I read it. The rest of it, less so.

NEXT TIME: maybe I'll read bell hooks like everyone's been telling me to

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