Tuesday, March 2, 2010

In which homosocial masculinity displays still matter to adult men.

In many ways I think Amanda Marcotte's critique of Rachel Simmons's post on hook-up culture is better than mine -- I especially like the way she emphasizes the continuity of male power through the different eras of mating rituals -- but I've gotta quibble with one piece of it. Here it is:

If you look at it from my perspective, however, the change is really obvious---as you drift from adolescence to adulthood, the severe power imbalance on the social scene between men and women evens out more. As we mature, we gain jobs and homes of our own, and become more sure in our tastes and our friendships. For women, this is an enormous power grab. The amount of our social value derived from male attention shrinks as more of our social value comes from our jobs and the image we project in the world. You can see this just from the difference in how women dress, honestly---very few women over 21 are going to stand around in microminis, shivering in the cold in order to grab some of that precious male attention. Even as the world continues to be sexist, women start to learn to self-validate more, and they need less from men.

In the meantime, men lose a lot of their homosocial support system. Even men who are the best at maintaining friendships outside of college, where you have roommates and endless hours to sit around drinking and playing video games, still find that they have less time to devote to each other. Misogynist displays of power over women start to lose their allure with maturity; men who come into themselves have less need to dominate women to get that buzz of self-esteem. Getting a girlfriend starts to look more appealing as that would both replenish emotional support, and because the stigma of being “pussy whipped” by the mere fact of showing enough esteem for a woman to socially validate her fades away. And as soon as one guy abandons the immature “girls and dating are GROSS” thing, the stigma loses its grip and they start to fall like dominoes. The possibility of cohabitation and marriage adds to women’s value to men, as well. (Even if men did half the housework, the benefits of living with someone usually outweigh the drawbacks enough to keep that value in place, except for loners.) Men also start to find more validation from career and interests, and need less support from other men, which reduces the incentives to engage in homosocial misogynist joking and displays.
I think there's some truth in this, but I don't think it tells the whole story. I think this reflects a tendency to confuse masculinity with testosterone, and misogyny with rape jokes -- and these distinctions are important to maintain, because by confusing patriarchy with its manifestations in youth, we risk ignoring a potentially even bigger piece of the puzzle.

For example, when she starts talking about how women's value to men is increased by the possibility of cohabitation and marriage -- throwing in an aside about "even if men did half the housework" -- she neglects the fact that since, of course, men don't do half the housework, we have to see our desire for cohabitation in a different light. As they grow older, men stop seeing women as sex objects, because we realize they can be so much more useful than that -- they can cook, and clean, and raise up healthy sons.

I think the same thing is true when she talks about men "los[ing] a lot of their homosocial support system." When she refers to their homosocial support system, she's talking about "drinking and playing video games," which are lost when they "find more validation in their career and interests." But aren't careers, for many men at least, vital sources of homosocial support? And don't men then jockey for masculine dominance in ways that are actually quite similar in structure if not in details to the collegiate who's-sleeping-with-who, who's-pussy-whipped discussions?

When men grow up, they don't give up the misogyny -- they replace immature and (relatively) ineffective methods of social control of women for mature and effective ones. And they don't stop struggling for alpha-male status, they just have new ways of measuring and reinforcing that status. Just ask Dr. Laura.

Or at least, upper- and middle-class white men do. Which is another problem with the way we've all been writing about "hookup culture" -- it's nominally colorblind, but it assumes things like college and "careers" (as opposed to jobs) which probably means it's talking about rich white folks. My impression has been that poor and/or minority youth think and act somewhat differently from rich white youth, and although I don't feel qualified to explain it, I don't think it's okay for us to be relying on narratives which leave out the experience of poor people and people of color.

Race and class also affect the transition from adolescent masculinity to adult masculinity. In many cases, poor minority men aren't offered the same reinforcement of their masculine dominance as they grow up -- these men have fewer options for career advancement and fewer possibilities for status-symbolic consumption, and images of themselves as breadwinners and protectors can be difficult to cultivate.

Our images about the difference between "adolescent" and "adult" masculinity have a lot to do with the transition from transience and insecurity -- which correspond with what one might call "conquering" youthful masculinity -- to stability, power, and what might be called "controlling" masculinity. But this transition has a lot to do with race and class, because for many men the stability and power necessary for "adult" masculinity aren't available.

(By the way, I think the "courtship era" and the "dating era" played out somewhat differently for people of different races and classes too.)

1 comment:

  1. I argue that men seek woman not only for companionship, but for reproductive success. This is a Darwinian perspective, but some of what you posted fits here.

    "For example, when she starts talking about how women's value to men is increased by the possibility of cohabitation and marriage -- throwing in an aside about "even if men did half the housework" -- she neglects the fact that since, of course, men don't do half the housework, we have to see our desire for cohabitation in a different light. As they grow older, men stop seeing women as sex objects, because we realize they can be so much more useful than that -- they can cook, and clean, and raise up healthy sons."

    I am not arguing that you personally are party to and participate in this viewpoint, rather that you were elaborating on her point: women create good nesting environments for offspring. I know that you take issue with the Darwinian perspective, but this post does not address courtship or power displays in any other framework. Could you place courtship in a non-Darwinian sense? As a biological anthropologist, I have trouble thinking outside that framework.

    I agree that careers give an atmosphere where men can exhibit power displays to self-validate within the work sphere. There is a definite shift from validation through sexual conquest to validation through success at the work place.

    From an anthropological perspective, the more males that are in a room, the more power displays will occur. This is seen as early as childhood (talk by WR Jankowiak) and continue through adulthood.

    I agree that I cannot explain the differences in power displays between white and black males. However, what is missing from both your and Marcotte's posts is that lower class individuals will not have jobs that have a positive environment for validation. One who makes minimum wage won't be validated in the workplace and will continue to need outside validation. From that standpoint, lower class citizens would be stuck in the adolescent power display activities because validation would not come from any other source.

    These reinforce a positive feedback system in which the low paid employee does not feel validated within the work sphere, would not move up in work, and would look for outside interactions for support. What outside interactions are available? Here-in is the caveat. The disgruntled employee needs a sphere that is non-violent (ie: not gang related), where power displays are appropriate and power negotiation is available. (MBT)

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