Notes for a historic-subjective analysis on the construction and the evolution of the ‘man’ identity in the patriarchal society
The cultural construction of gender has been developed in different ways throughout history, and although all societies have gender cultural registries, not all of them have the concept of masculinity. A culture which does not treat women and men as bearers of polarised character types will hardly have a concept of masculinity in the sense it has in the modern western culture. However, the globalisation in which we currently live presents us with a model of masculinity which is universal, dominant and patriarchal. In this article, we will attempt to elucidate how this imaginary was originated, aiming at understanding how it evolved to our current reality.
The construction of the concept masculinity has followed different processes1, but nowadays it is associated with a series of social rules widely generalised: avoiding femininity; restricting emotions; chasing accomplishments and status; disconnecting sex from intimacy; performing aggressiveness, homophobia, etc. Man, as an identity, is constructed essentially on a relational basis, as opposed to the values attributed to the identity woman. In this binary logic, the male value is always placed in front and holds a positive value, conferring a negative value to its female opposite: strong-weak, brave-cowardly, rational-emotional, social-natural, productive-reproductive, shape-matter, public-private, active-passive, dominant-submissive, abuser-victim, etc.
We can also see how the concept of masculinity intersects not only with gender oppressions, but also with other oppressions such as race, class, age, etc. The “white male” has not been constructed only in relation to the “white woman”, but also in relation to the “black man”2. By the same token, the effect the “rich man” or the “erudite man” have had on the development of masculinity has been different from that the “poor man” or the “illiterate man” have had. The “adult man” has also an identity which is differentiated from that of the “boy”, the “young man” or the “old man”. That is why an analysis with an intersectional perspective can help achieve a better understanding of this process. However, the element which most strongly conditions the conception of masculinity is, undoubtedly, the construction of the identities man-woman.
Gender roles are perceived as a hegemonic reality in contemporary societies. Despite the academic development of theories which question the division man-woman, and which are growing to find more and more support in biologic and sociological studies, those are theories which have a limited practical incidence beyond universities and small bubbles. It seems like analysing masculinity from the optics of queer theory does not help understand how it was originated, since those postmodern theories need of the man and woman subjects, built through history, to be postulated as antithesis. In order to understand how the meaning of masculinity has been configurated, it is important to look back to the river of human history.
I.The origins of patriarchy
Most of the pre-state societies documented by anthropologists and explorers consist of communities of hundreds or thousands of individuals with minimal hierarchy. Since those were self-sufficiency societies, the main goals were feeding, procreation and community safety. This will of collective self-defence allowed the evolution of the species and the improvement of life quality. The fragmented communities died soon, since isolated individuals could not reproduce and did not serve the continuity of the species. This is the reason why many species of primates, humans among them, evolved till they became highly social species.
At an academic level, the cultural imaginary of masculinity starts with the division of work that many anthropological theories assume, within which men were hunters and women were gatherers. Before this division of work, we can imagine egalitarian societies where there were simply human people living together, sharing needs and resources. However, there was a crucial difference: the reproductive scenario. Some of these people had the ability to give birth, thus bringing new members to the community, while others did not. As time went on, that fundamental difference generated a cultural accumulation that determined what we now understand as man and as woman, being the man the one without the ability to conceive.
It is, then, this reproductive scenario, and not so much the biological differences, that probably defined the differentiation which would grow up to become gender roles. At some point after the establishment of this division, processes of hierarchical organisation and oppression of men over women started, constructing what we currently know as patriarchy. Anthropological studies of known matriarchal or matriphocal societies show that patriarchy is not something intrinsic to the human species, but it is currently almost an absolute.
When we analyse societies previous to the state structures, we lack written documents that indicate how those societies functioned, so archaeological research is the main source of knowledge on which we rely. However, even though archaeological remains give hints to know those communities, they offer only a fragmented and incomplete image based on the elements that are found. Studying the recovered vestiges, we can imagine ancient societies3, but each new discovery might bring crucial information that would question everything that was previously imagined.
With the knowledge that has been accumulated till now, we can confirm that no state societies were born outside the patriarchal dominations, although the records of the first state societies we know are around 5.000 years old, while the species Homo sapiens is some 200.000 years old. Knowing how humanity lived before the hegemony of state and patriarchy will help us understand how and why said system was established, but it looks obvious that this establishment was a progressive process, unequal in different regions. It is thus likely that different social models have arisen and interacted along history, but for different reasons the patriarchal system managed to impose itself against other forms of social organisation.
The Neolithic revolution
If there is a key moment in the history of humanity previous to state structures, it is undoubtedly the revolution that agriculture brought with itself. Analysing the conditions in which this phenomenon occurred may facilitate a better understanding of ancient communities and societies, and how man evolved within them.
It is easy to recognise that gregarious species such as our own require a high degree of communication among individuals, and we can imagine how human communities started to develop rudimentary protolanguages4. The beginning of language, together with the construction of abstract ideas, produces an increased social fluidity, allowing the creation the concepts man and woman. Probably, the nomadic communities previous to agriculture did not count on a clear differentiation of gender roles, although at some point they started to identify the relation between biological differences in bodies with the reproductive scenario. Those people born with a penis, unlike those born with a vagina, could not conceive or give birth, thus generating a first identity, differentiated based on sex5.
Bringing a new member to the community would undoubtedly be a reason for celebration, and probably pregnancy and labour would enjoy a mystical dimension, being cause for rituals and worship processes. Women giving birth would most likely get together to tend to the newborns, who required their attention and care for survival, thus generating a feeling of sisterhood between women. Those groups of mothers sharing knowledge and tasks would take up the centre of the community. While other members were able to lead a more nomadic lifestyle, centred in the task of searching for food, the group of women-mothers would require a more sedentary life. This would generate the appropriate conditions to discover the relation between the seeds of certain fruits and the plants that would grow and then generate those fruits again. This knowledge of the nature cycles would open the door for the agricultural processes that would shake up life for humanity. That allowed for the consolidation of sedentary communities, which would in time give way to villages, towns, and what we currently understand as civilisation.
Analysing archaeological remains, we can see that the first villages were constructions of limited dimensions, without walls or defensive structures. Those would probably be used as living spaces to keep from atmospheric conditions, and they would also be useful for stocking seeds and other resources. The land exploitation that agriculture brought with it produced excess, and thus the first known processes of accumulation. It is likely that said accumulation was managed by the group of women-mothers, based on a model of matriarchal society and a communal economy, destined to ensure the well-being and survival of the community.
Another revolutionary process that came with the beginning of agriculture was the beginning of cattle raising. This domestication and exploitation of non-human animals probably brought with it two key discoveries for the consolidation of patriarchy: fatherhood and birth rate control. We can imagine how, through the observation of non-human animals, human animals were able to better understand the relationship between sexuality, pregnancy and labour, together with the role of the male in the reproductive scenario. The birth control strategies that were applied on cattle an other domestic female animals allowed to imagine birth control in women too. And ruling over animals, perceived as a resource that could be submitted and exploited, allowed men to conceive domination and exploitation of women, opening the door to the creation of patriarchal clans.
The institutionalisation of patriarchal violence
The hunters groups, which we imagine mainly constituted by men, fought against animals that would try to defend themselves, probably causing wounds or even the death of some of the group members. These risk situations, with the adrenaline and the excitement of combat they entailed, would confer a mystical dimension to hunting, which would become cause for rituals and worship processes. The combat experiences and the feeling of victory when a hunting expedition was successful would produce feelings of brotherhood between men. The development of an increased aggressiveness, together with strategies to defeat the enemy through the strength of the group would be greatly useful for the community to be able to hunt animals of a larger size. With time and accumulated experience, together with the surge of natural leaderships that would make hunting more efficient, there would surge command structures and hierarchies, which would become primitive military strategies.
At some point, the military logic of the man-warrior was brought to the sedentary settlements, making them the target of attacks directed at obtaining the food that was stocked there. The villages that suffered those raids were then in need to build walls and defensive structures to survive. That process of delimitation and enclosement of the land that walls implied might have been the beginning of the feelings of possession and ownership, which together with the processes of accumulation of excess, opened the door to the capitalistic narrative that would take control of the human mentality. Besides, the development and perfection of military tactics, originated in hunting but useful for combat against other human groups, allowed creating communities that depended on raiding to obtain food. If we imagine those communities as men groups, it is likely that those perceived the women in other communities as resources, so without them the clan was not able to reprocuce itself and gets extinguished. Probably this situation supposed a sistematization of violence against women, based on kidnap and rape, objectivaizing and taking over control over their bodies.
We can then imagine the specialisation of gender roles that followed the Neolithic revolution, where “the man” was focused on tasks related to violence (be it hunting or raiding, or maybe in defensive garrisons to protect their villages), while “the woman” went from a position of managing and providing care at the centre of the community to being subdued and displaced to a defensive survival position. The discovery of fatherhood would probably increase jealousy and phobia of men towards other men, initiating a process of redefining the sexuality based on property. In order to ensure that the offspring of a certain woman was produced by their seed, they would intend to limit the relationships that she could have with other men, restricting her freedom of movement and using violence against her and other men that came close to her. This would entail an increased social conflict, with fights and arguments on access to women.
It is likely that, in these violence conditions, the woman-mother (with a child in her care and isolated from the group of women-mothers) would be highly dependent in terms of protection, which would be provided by the man-warrior in exchange of sex and care for his offspring. That violence was probably channelled in different ways in different communities, with solutions such as creating hierarchies where only strong men were allowed to have relationships with women, or the institutionalisation of monogamous or polygamous structures where men established relationships of ownership of women, thus building the basis of what would become marriage.
It can be noted that everything that has been commented till here are merely assumptions. We are discussing a period of time that comprises thousands of years, and a large number of human communities that were extended through ample and diverse lands, often with limited relations among themselves. It is likely that the order of the “discoveries” and the way they interacted with each other varied largely between societies.The only thing we can imagine with some certainty is that, bit by bit, a civilisation model was forged based on male domination.
With time and demographic growth of those communities, the interactions between people that were expanding their reach in the same land were unavoidable. Those clans which had more efficient military bodies prevailed, and those communities with a lesser ability to self-defence were extinguished. War fostered the construction of the identity man as opposed to the identity woman, deriving in structures and institutions of domination based on different use of violence, which would be the basis of what we currently understand as patriarchy.
1 The essay “The Social Organization of Masculinity”, by Robert W Connel, shows the four approaches that have been used to construct masculinity: an essentialist definition (the traits that define what is masculine), a positivist definition (what men are empirically), a normative definition (what men must be), and a semiotic definition (the man as a product of the system of symbolic difference as opposed to women). As a conclusion, he states that: “masculinity, if it can be briefly defined, is at the same time the position in gender relationships, the practices through which men and women commit to that gender position, and the effects of these practices in the body experience, personality and culture”.
2 The fear of white men of the violence of black men have a long history in colonial and post-colonial situations. The fear of black men of the terrorism of white men, justified in the history of colonialism, have a basis that is extended in the control that white men exert on state repression institutions such as police, the parliaments, the judiciary system, and prisons in the colonies. Nowadays, the racial oppression of white supremacism persists in society. We can see for example how African American men are greatly over-represented in US prisons, as happens with indigenous men in Australian prisons.
3 The lack of written documents (“history” for academy) before the appearance of state societies is due to the fact that “prehistoric” communities did not have the need to use writing massively. Writing would extrardinarily develop with State structures, which require registry and accounting systems (bureaucracy) in order to develop an effective economic centralisation, aiming at administrating the accumulation of resources as a monopoly.
4 There are several theories regarding the origin of language, but according to the essay How did the language begin, by Jay Rackendoff, the concept of a simple protolanguage with a limited vocabulary and the ability to produce spontaneous signifiers when confronted with new needs is inherent to the human mind, as we can recognise infants who are learning how to speak, or in adults who are learning a new language.
5 This simplification does not take into account intersexual people, since they represent quite a small percentage of the total population and their exceptional existence in communities would not be an impediment for the development of the binarist imaginary woman-man.
II.The ideological war
Undoubtedly, the patriarchal war that was fought at a physical level did also take place at mental and social levels. It is hard to know for certain how this ideological war took place, but the vestiges of it in the mythological knowledge that has survived up to our time, together with the evolution of the religious knowledge, comprise the best hints available.
The Venus of Willendorf, dating back around 25.000 years, is the best known icon associated to the imaginary of the goddess-mother1. The large amount of similar statuettes that have been found all over Eurasia2, together with the highly relevant feminine goddessess in ancient mythologies, seem to corroborate the entity of the goddess-mother as the first element of worship3. This primitive divine identity would have very little to do with the contemporary concept of “god”, since it would probably lack attributes such as superiority, omnipotence or domination which are nowadays associated to said idea. The large magnitude of concepts as live or death would be what would lead us to imagine the magical faculties that, in time, would become divine entities, extending afterwards also to elements such as the harvest, war, the earth, the sky, fire, water, etc.
Since there was not a divinity imaginary previous to the goddess-mother, the mindset that would arise with it would be the result of a process of collective construction, based on the cohesion of a community led by the women-mothers. The rituals around this emerging divinity, more than worship ceremonies, would be festive spaces of celebrations, more similar to communal popular parties than to ceremonies of prayer. Those ritual congregations would probably be connected to astrological elements such as the moon cycles, or solstices and equinoxes, and they would help reinforce the bonds within the community. It is likely that, since those were divinities of fertility and procreation, sex be a central or recurrent element in those rituals. The mindset to be built with the imaginary of the goddess-mother would hardly allow men to exert violence against women within their clans, since they would be perceived as subjects of creation and elements to worship.
The rapes carried out within the raids of the men-warrior can be placed opposed to that ritual, communal and sacred sex. Those men would have perceived women as objects, as a part of the booty they deserved due to their victory. Between those two ends, a large range of sexual practices can be imagine, and those would condition the identity of man, since it is probably in the sexual field where gender identities were most precisely defined. We can see how sex was always linked to feminine deities, and was perceived as something to control and dominate by the masculine authority. The ideological war of religious conservatism, with taboo and stigmatisation as control tools can be better understood if we analyse it from this point of view: as tools for patriarchal control on the body and desire of women.
Understanding the evolution of human sexuality, and how it has affected the reproductive scenario and the relationships between genders is a key element to understand how the patriarchal domination narrative was constructed. However, the taboo generated around sex in the latest millennia, together with the sexual repression unfolded by the power institutions (mainly religious institutions) may make this task difficult. The current social construction of human sexuality is largely away from the sexuality of other animal species, since its current redefinition around property, shame, sin and guilt has constructed an imaginary which is hard to analyse without offending anybody’s sensibility4. The hypersexualisation that can be found in advertising and other expression of the hegemonic western culture take a part in aggravating the difficulty of a correct analysis.
The masculinisation of divinity
The improvement in live conditions that agriculture and stockbreeding meant brought together a demographic growth of human communities, and that led to increased conflicts and wars between communities. As clans of men-warriors were consolidated, warlike rituals started to gain more and more relevance, generating an imaginary with masculine divinities that would defy the power of the goddess-mother. Those gods-warriors, forged with blood and fire in the frenzy of battle, would make it possible to justify acts of violence beyond the principle of self-defence, promoting genocide of the rival communities. With them, the ritual of sacrifice could start, making the act of killing a divine experience, as opposed to the act of giving birth associated to the goddess-mother.
The brotherhood between men-warriors closed ranks against the sisterhood and the leadership of the women-mothers, constructing narratives where masculine entities, strong and brave (essential qualities for the warrior) made bloody and heroic warlike feat. Thus was constructed a cultural substrate that allowed to redefine the position of the man, not only in warlike clans, but also within the villages that were gaining more and more importance, and where, till that moment, they had been pussed into the background. The imaginary of the goddess-mother, which had emerged in a peaceful way in the human narrative lost its hegemony to the imaginary of the god-warrior that imposed themselves through force, war and domination.
At a tangible level, the increase and development of the military needs led to a technological race that, with the development of smelting, opened the door to the age of metal. Peaceful societies were annihilated when facing the progress of military technology, and the relationships between different communities were redefined in terms of winners and losers, oppressors and oppressed, masters and slaves. Each military victory convinced the men-warriors that their gods were stronger than those of their enemies, and the processes of enslavement and cultural assimilation against the defeated communities generated societies beyond the tribe or the clan. This gave way to larger collective identities, always centred on the superiority of the victor people, generating an imperialistic imaginary of territorial expansion which, in time, would open the door to the nationalist narrative that would dominate the human mindset.
The institutionalisation of domination and violence against the defeated people, as well as genocide, was centred in two elements: on the one hand, the defeated enemies were taken up as slaves; on the other hand, the payment of taxes and levies were imposed to the communities that kept their freedom. The hierarchisation and stratification of that divided the society in classes as a result of war, gave way to the structures of State, where reduce elites ruled on larger and larger territories. The god-warriors became established, fragmenting the goddess-mother in various feminine deities, and constructing religious imaginaries where gods and goddesses competed for being worshipped by humanity. The deities of the defeated peoples were either absorbed or syncretised, leading to fluid pantheons in constant reorganisation.
The hierarchy of human societies was also translated to divine societies, and the privileged position of a god-warrior in the pantheons we know nowadays (Horus, Marduk, Teshub, Zeus, Jupiter, etc.) reflects the patriarchal domination of the religious imaginary, opening the door to the monotheism of a masculine god. The syncretisation of the deities in one only god, annulling the feminine identity from the divinity imaginary would lead to the definitive invisibilisation of the woman in the society.
While the privileged classes were able to devote time and effort to know and understand their diverse deities, the oppressed classes, particularly the slaves, found in monotheism a simple form of unity and resistance. The imaginary of an only supreme god, omnipotent and omnipresent, placed all men as equals in the eyes of god, defying the stratum societies of masters and slaves.
Moreover, the patriarchal narrative that was extending also among the oppressed men would entail a strong dissociation of their gender roles: on the one hand, they were able to impose themselves on the women of their condition; on the other hand, they had to serve the women in higher strata. This would probably produce a strong misogyny in them, increasing the violence against “their” women. That resentment of the enslaved men against the woman, and the leading role of those in the dissemination of monotheism would lead to the evolution of societies to come into the expression of patriarchy.
Man as an exclusive political subject
As cities and commerce grew more and more important, politics5 was consolidated as a tool for pacification (“politics is war without shedding of blood”), facilitating a larger circulation of people and goods. The “free” men6 rushed into the public life to consolidate their power, not only in the battlefield, but all the spheres of society. Marketplaces, squares, administrative and government centres are dominated by men. Together with the religious temples, which relied on priestess for millennia, ended up being controlled by men. Women were set aside to the private space as “ladies of the house”, aiming at tying them to reproductive labour and pushing them aside from the politic life. With some exceptions7, women barely had any legal weight, and they existed in the social and political life through men, be it their father, husband or son.
The patriarchal social institutions need of patriarchal family institutions, and marriage got consolidated as a domination tool on women. The Hammurabi code, the first known legislative framework, describes the conjugal institution based on a commercial exchange, where the man takes possession of the woman after paying a certain economic amount to her father, her previous owner. The narrative that can be deduced from its 282 laws makes clear the strong patriarchal character of the Sumerian society, the first known State system8.
With the beginning of what we understand as philosophical knowledge in ancient Greece, some thinkers tried to rationalise the sexist oppression, aiming at providing scientific explanations to justify the rule of men over women.
A token of that is the thinking of Aristotle, one of the most influential thinkers for the western narrative, who defines the man, in his biology treatises as the representation of the human being, describing the woman as a “mutilated man”, an imperfect man. He states that her soul is inferior than that of the man, as are the souls of animals or slaves. His ideas on reproduction and his conception of the female body were studied and repeated by men for centuries, instilling his philosophical view of man as shape and woman as matter; man as subject and woman as object.
However, it was the Roman man who draw the most popular profile in the masculine imaginary, due in part to the idealisation that it experienced with the Renaissance in the Western Europe. The mentality of the man-warrior in the ancient Rome was based on the duality soldier-peasant and inspired on the war god, Mars9, held the symbol that is nowadays attributed to man and masculinity. This solider-peasant would fight in far lands serving the empire, and aspire to return to his home in victory, to toil the land, enjoying the privileges that entails being a part of the largest domination structure of the known world, with what was known as pax romana. His duty and serfdom to the empire were considered as superior than anything else, being a clear inspiration to the fascism that would be redefined in the Italy of the 20th century.
The Roman civilisation made a further progress in the invisibilisation of women, solidifying the patriarchal domination throughout the massive extension of land it got to control. During the centuries that its rule covered three continents, it was consolidated as the maximum expression of the empire of the ancient times. Based on conquest, standardisation and assimilation of other peoples and cultures, they designed a system where, both literally and metaphorically, all roads led to Rome. This is undoubtedly a paradigmatic example of the model of central civilisation10.
1The goddess-mother is a goddess that represents/personofies nature, motherhood, fertility, creation, etc. When they are equated to the Earth or the natural world, they are sometimes known as Mother Earth.
2Nowadays, there are around 150 catalogued statuettes of “Venus”, being the Venus of Hohle Fels, sculpted at the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic, more than 35.000 years ago, the oldest human sculpture known. The Venus of Monruz, dating back around 11.000 years, is the latest known, which implies a period of at least 25.000 years during which these figures were sculpted.
3In Mesopotamian mythologies, we can find the goddesss-mother as an omnipresent figure, but fragmented from the original Creator entity. In the Sumerian mythology, Nammu is the primitive goddess which gives rise to the world, but the qualities of the goddess-mother are held by Inanna, the goddess of love, beauty, sex, desire, war, and political power. Inanna was the protectress of the city of Uruk, which was probably the first large city built by humanity. We can find her represented as Ishtar in the Babilonian, Hitite, Asyrian and Acadian mithologies; and as Astarté in the Phoenician one. She is Astarot for Israelites, Anaith in the Armenian mythology, Tanit for Carthaginian, etc.
4One example of the difficulty to understand the history of sexuality is the culture shock the western explorers felt in the 19th century the ample sexual representation of the ancient Egiptian civilisation. The paintings and representations with explicit erotic scenes, where sexuality was experienced in an uninhibited and sometimes public way was considered something that needed to be kept from society, and many historical pieces were hid without being catalogued or researched for decades. Another example would be the debate and controversy that exists at academic institutions around ritual prostitution in the Sumerian civilisation.
5The concept of politics, constructed in the ancient Greece, comes from the word polis (city). We can see how, in its origin, politics was simply associated to the management of the city, but it has been associated to the management of state by extension, and the term has lived on to our time.
6It is important to emphasise that the slavery system did not recognise slaves as the subject man, they were considered as objects, as material possessions.
7Egyptian women had ample liberties compared to their counterparts in other ancient civilisations, and in many occasions their rights were equal to those of men in their social stratum, getting even to hold administrative positions of great power and even, in serveral occasions, the throne of the empire. Sumerian women had certain rights on their offspring and their properties which were recognised by the Hammurabi code, a situation that faded away in the Mesopotamian civilisations to come. It is relevant to emphasise that the reign of both the Egyptian and the Sumerian civilisations lasted over 3.000 years, which means the situation of women in those societies probably varied widely along the different periods and dinasties.
8The Hammurabi code also describes possible causes for breaking said union and how to proceed, from economic exchange in case of fruitlessness of the marriage if the woman did not conceive children, to the punishment against the woman (and her lover) in case of adultery. For a man to lie with another not married woman was not considered as adultery, and he could also “take ownership of” concubines, which did not hold the few privileges of the wife although the same obligations befell them. It should be recalled that this Sumerian legislation was only applied to free people (awilum), since servants (muskenum) and slaves (wardum) were considered material possessions be they men or women.
9Mars was the god of war and agriculture, due to his being the syncretisation of Ares, Greek god of war, and Maris, Eritrean god of agriculture. The Greek pantheon included an important warrior goddess, Athena, goddess of wisdom, justice and military strategy, who was syncretised to Minerva for the Romans. In exchange of the organised and strategic war that Atenea meant for the Greek, Mars was the god of a visceral, chaotic, bloody war… a front line war. It was the war of the private, violent and aggressive, who fights without thinking beyond the fight he is experiencing. That implied an exaltation of values such as recklessness, brutality and violence, embodied by Mars and which were decisive in a military sense, since the model of masculinity of those warrior-men did not include the possibility to cowardly retreat: the only alternative to death was victory.
10By system of central civilization we refer to the different institutions that seek to build an integral hegemony (social, cultural, economic, political and military.) governed by a small elite of people. For achive this aim, they are based on various interrelated structures of governance and administration, which respond to the same authority that runs the social conglomerate. The State is the factual representation of the systems of central civilization.
III.The concept of man in Modernity
The fall of the Western Roman Empire put an end to what is known as the Ancient Age. Little more than 1.500 years separate us from that time, but the large amount of available information allows for an extensive historic analysis that will be only briefly outlined, highlighting some points that have been relevant for the construction of current masculinity.
The downfall of the empire ended the domination centralised in Rome, initiating a process during which new elites intended to fill the power vacuum. The system of feudal kings expanded into the post-Roman world, with the increasing power of the Christian church as a consolidator, a key element to fight the fragmentation of the Christian imaginary and identity. The different philosophical currents that came together against the ecclesiastic domination would be brutally exterminated under the accusation of heresy went down in history as were described by the victors: as evil and abominable. That would place them as deserving of the genocides that eradicated them.
However, the Christian hegemony would soon be disputed. Only 622 years after the alleged birth of the prophet who revolutionised Judaism, the teachings of Mohammed started the fast expansion of Islam in the Middle East. The call to what would be known as the first crusade happened on 1095 in the Christian calendar, 488 in the Islamic calendar. It intended to contain the expansion of the Turkish Seljuks who threatened the Byzantine Empire. This call for “holy war” perpetuated the binarist narrative of the men-warriors, with the dualism Christian-Muslims. The submission of man to his masculine and exclusive supreme god was an element skillfully used by ruling elites to handle the society, and this would lead to the ill-will towards the socialist ideas that would appear further on (“religion is the opium of the people”).
Another key element of the modern construction of masculinity was the sexual redefinition carried out by the religious institutions of the central civilisation. This was imposed through repression and stigmatisation, associating sexual desire to sin. In the face of the ritual sexuality of ancient polytheistic religions, usually linked to feminine deities, the servers of god in monotheism were constructed as ascetic subjects. They generated an imaginary of purity that included chastity and abstinence, desowning the desires they considered unclean and thus generating a cultural substrate that would allow them to accusing people with different ways of living sexuality of heretic and unclean. That would lead to establishing a generalisation and sacralisation of marriage, taking it away from the commercial materialism to give it a new spiritual dimension, and thus settling a reproductive model acceptable in the eyes of God. In time, double standard would appear in society, which abided by the conservative values in public but allowed for the satisfaction of the masculine sexual desire in private.
Homosexual pratices, which was a common sexual practice accepted in diverse ancient civilisations became subjected to a violent persecution1. On the one hand, it defied the Jewish-Christian conception of sexuality (which was inherited by Islam), which restricted it to marriage and for reproductive purposes. On the other hand, it was an affront to the supremacist idea of masculinity, in which the act of sexual penetration is linked to an imaginary of domination over the woman. For a man to be penetrated by another man defied the gender roles of the time, placing the homosexual man in a position of lack of definition in terms of the dicotomy man-woman. An increasing social renunciation took place intending to eradicate homosexuality both at a physical and ideological level, constructing an imaginary that would redefine it as something evil and abhorrent, and generating a framework of humiliation and shame that lasted up to our time.
With the expansion of the ideas of the Renaissance in Western Europe from the 15th century started what we know as scientific knowledge, which would perpetuate the rationalism of ancient Greek thinkers. These doctrines would be followed and discussed by the Enlightened Western men, excluding a large part of the population from the process of construction of science. This scientific knowledge led to a universe of fragmented disciplines in which only that which could be seen, experienced and proven was given a value, thus highlighting the material values and making metaphysic values such as emotionality and spirituality invisible. These ideas were used at first to justify the religious doctrines, but they would open the door for agnosticism, defying the ecclesiastic power that was the basis of the theocratic monarchies, thus allowing for the development of socialist ideas.
Colonialism and industrial revolution, the unfold of the capitalist modernity
The “descovery” of America is considered as the beginning of the Modern Age, with the expedition led by Christopher Columbus on 1492. the western man faced there human societies that were identified as primitive and backward due to the lesser technological development of the civilisations that populated the continent.
They did not hesitate to class the indigenous population as “savage” and “uncivilised”, thus generating an imaginary in which the white man is placed as a superior being, with the natural right to exploit the resources that were there and the moral duty to “civilise” and “evangelise” the inhabitants of the “new world”. After the controversy between the Spanish Catholic Kings and the king of Portugal for the right to exploit the American continent, the Pope of Rome mediated to define the territories that could be taken by each empire. This is how the first wave of colonialism started, with both of the empires developing processes of genocide and colonisation against the natives, intending to impose their culture and religion and exterminating whole civilisations.
The exploitation of the resources and the plunder of precious ores conferred great wealth and power to the colonial empires, which needed for that large amounts of labour force. The cost of said labour force would have been huge, so in order to avoid paying for it they restored the system of slave-holding that had been abolished due to the Christian values after the fall of the Roman Empire. The philosophical and theological debate started by the Christian missionaries, who intended to evangelise the natives, concluded that the American “savages” did possess a soul in the eyes of God, and thus were not susceptible of being enslaved. The slave trade was then focused on the African continent, since the racism of the western elites made them assume that the black population lacked a human soul, and thus it could be enslaved without it meaning an affront to the principles of the Christian religion.
The economic prosperity generated by this first colonial wave fuelled the expansionist ambitions of other European powers. As these started their conquests in what we understand as the second wave of colonialism, the plunder and exploitation of resources was intensified, expanding throughout Africa, the south of Asia and Oceania. The scientific development led to improvements in hygiene, healthcare and nutrition, producing a demographic revolution in the “old continent”. The increase in population allowed the colonisation of the occupied lands, building harbours and cities in the new conquered territories. The western man perceived himself as the lord and master of the world, and the genocides against indigenous populations were intersperced with pacts and wars among colonial powers, signing treatises and drawing the borders that would redefine the modern world.
However, the return to the slave-holding system, which was the hegemonic productive model in ancient times, contradicted the progressive mentality promulgated by the permanent progress of civilisation. The need for low-cost labour was studied through the prism of positivistic rationalism, finding an innovative solution that fit the progressive imaginary: the machine. Technical improvements allowed the mechanical systematisation of production in a process known today as the industrial revolution. England was the cradle of said process2, which opened the door for capitalist modernity together with the market economy that was triggered by colonialism.
This capitalist modernity fit perfectly the patriarchal system, slightly adjusting the imaginary of masculinity and the family model. The man was then conceived as the engine of the family gear, the one who gets the productive machinery of state turning. He becomes the strong and able worker who brings money home, the provider father who provides his family what they need to live. The bourgeois domain is shown as the paradigm of success, presenting capitalism as the system where the strong and rational man, who understands and dominates the “science” of the capitalist economy, can get rich and reach a higher social status. This is how the privileges of the dominating elites are justified: they are presented as a product of their greater effort and abilities. Together with that, the poor man is blamed for his social situation, and presented as stupid and ignorant if he does not thrive, or lazy and a parasite if he does not work, generating an imaginary of humiliation and shame on the unemployed man that does not contribute to the capitalist productive system.
The flourishing of the socialist ideas meant a deep questioning of society and its power structures. Inspired in social contracts that intended to delineate the power of absolute monarchs, they promulgated the distribution of wealth and the suppression of social classes, defending equality and common good. However, the lack of the analysis of the patriarchal oppression limited its freeing potential. The scientific socialism developed by Karl Marx and Frederich Engels defended the struggle of the working class, but also perpetuates the invisibilisation of women. Their ideas presented ‘the worker’ – usually as a men identity – as the revolutionary subject, whose destiny was to transform the capitalist society in a socialist society through class struggle. This struggle was understood as the only driving force of history. When socialist women tried to visualise their condition as subjects oppressed by men, they were frequently ignored with the argument that they were fragmenting the struggle of the workers, and arguing that when the class struggle was won, all kinds of oppressions would come to an end.
1The first known prosecutions started on the 6th century, promoted by the ambassador Justinian and his wife Teodora: they castrated the homosexual men who were then paraded on the streets. However, it is from the 13th century onwards when specific legislation can be found to punish said practice, labeling them as sodomy in memory of the city of Sodom, which was punished by God according to the bible. Their most extreme prosecution coincided with the time of the Inquisition and the witch-hunt, described by Silvia Federici as “a prosecution unprecedented” in the history of humanity, where women were accused of being “the most abominable beings in the world”. The social structures and relationships between women and men who rejected the hegemonic ecclesiastic authority in secret societies are well documented in the book “Witchcraft and the Gay conterculture”, written in 1978 by Arthur Evans.
2Various factors led England to become the pioneer power in the first industrial revolution. Apart from its naval supremacy, which is key to hold and dominate the ample colonial extension Britain had achieved and which was expanded all over the world, the great mineral coal reserves it counted on and the improvement of the steam engine by the Scotiss James Watt allowed the British Empire to be the first power to finish the process of industrialisation. Apart from it, and unlike the rest of Europe, England had a liberal parliamentary system which fostered individual entrepreneurship and the development of private companies.
IV – The subject man facing feminism
One of the most important strategies for perpetuating the patriarchal domination has been to monopolise the ability to become cultured, limiting the accumulation of knowledge to its exclusive use by the masculine elites. However, access of bourgeois women to education and enlightened ideas opened the door for questioning the social invisibilisation women were submitted to leading to what we know as feminisms. The visibility and questioning of the female subject that feminism triggers forces men to rethink their masculinity, since at that time the subject “man” perceived himself as a “human” subject. That the subject “woman” reappears in social life, after centuries of forced invisibility, forcing them to realize that there is another gender within the human specie. Modern man realizes that masculinity is not intrinsic in humanity, opening the door to the conception of masculinity (or masculinities) as we know them today. Since this article intends to focus on the construction of the masculine identity, I shall not elaborate on the development of feminist ideas, but on how they affected the construction of the man subject and on how they are brought to the current masculine imaginary at a social level.
First wave and posturing of men
What we now know as the first wave of feminism, preceded by the “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen” written by Olympe de Gouges (Marie Gouze), grew during the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. It initiated a process of organisation and collective action of women, who demanded legal equality in relation to the rights attributed to men. Those mobilisations were met with disdain and violence, and many men devoted themselves to actively confront their ideas and deeds, mocking the women that participated and the men that supported them. The attitude of those men is framed in what we now know as sexism, and they intended to actively perpetuate the patriarchal order, believing they themselves superior to women based on the privileged position the patriarchy conferred them. Those men held the hegemony in the masculine imaginary, but with time and the development of ideas that question the patriarchal domination this hegemony is slowly becoming eroded.
On the other side we can find anti-sexist or pro-feminist men who understand the claims against patriarchy and defend the emancipation and empowerment of women. Within those, we can find two groups: the passive partners who share the theoretical imaginary but do not actively participate in ending patriarchal domination; and the active partners who are actively involved in the struggle against patriarchy. However, that second group of men is a minority, and the hegemony that is being lost bit by bit by the sexist men is being taken by men who are ambivalent about patriarchy. Those men can be identified as progressive and advocate values such as equality, but they make their own the narrative of the State institutions that presents the legislative progresses that have been reached regarding women as equality. They tend to feel disoriented when confronted with the increasing relevance of women in society, inserting some influence of the feminist narrative in their patriarchal rhetoric with a passive resistance to new progress. They can accept the narrative that advocates women liberation, but they react, sometimes violently, if their privileges are questioned.
Second wave and “men groups”
The second wave of the feminist movement started during the latter half of the 20th century and it went beyond legislative vindications, focusing on a deep analysis of women as subject. The academic research and the essentialist analysis of the identity of women intended to separate the original feminine values from those added by the patriarchal domination, such as weakness. Weakness is associated to femininity as opposed to the strength associated to men, since in the dichotomous logic, if men are strong women must be weak. The questioning of the subject woman brought with it a questioning of the subject man, and feminist men intended to replicate the process of deconstruction of the identity woman. Emulating the “women groups” that were organised to debate on feminism, “groups of men” were started, aware for the first time of the deliberated exclusion of women among them. The deep studies about feminisms inspire some men to also start studies on masculinities, following the same methods the women used. But they found out that all the values in the identity man had been constructed by men, which led them to a seeming denial of their identity if they intended to reject the values of patriarchal domination1.
Facing the perspective of an identity vacuum of this first studies, the “mytho-poetic movement” emerged, intending to define a masculine identity redefining an imaginary with values which were natural to men. The mytho-poetic movement appeared in the USA in the late 1980s and was led at the beginning by the poet Robert Bly. It mainly comprised heterosexual white men, frustrated and dissatisfied by the identity crisis of man, who respond to what they perceive of an erosion of patriarchy vindicating “natural” or “mitical” spaces where they can “experience their power”. A great deal of their activities result from an introspective work to restore, according to their claims, “the masculine energy” in these times of “absence of the father”, “might of the mother” and “feminisation of males”. The activities they carry on, mainly through groups that gather for the weekend in natural places, consist of rituals to recover the “wild nature” of men, which allows a reconnexion with an alleged “masculine sensitivity”, effectively generating self-help groups and a space for emotional support.
Other “groups of men” were known as “men’s rights”2, a chaotic mass including everything from sensitive men that vindicated their rights of fatherhood, to divorcees who were resentful after court ruling that gave custody of their children to their mothers. Those bring together mainly “mild” sexists who considered that women had gone too far and that legislative progress needs to be stopped since it brings, according to them, a reverse discrimination favouring women. Unavoidably, there are also anti-feminist groups, or masculine supremacists, which rarely recognise themselves as such publicly but which intend to restore the “traditional” patriarchal masculinity. Those are frequently linked to religious fundamentalisms or to racist and xenophobic groups.
There are also groups of anti-sexist or pro-feminist3 groups of men, mainly study and debate groups, mainly with young men having higher eduction in social sciences such as sociology, psychology or anthropology. Those groups confront the injustice that patriarchal domination entails, maybe after witnessing the harm it brings on female partners, maybe after having been victims of the hegemonic model of masculinity, maybe simply after understanding the suffering that patriarchy generates. They start with feminist theories as the basis to review their attitude towards women, analysing also how the patriarchal oppression affects men, with a focus on the mutilating alienation of the masculine socialisation. They intend to profile masculinities that can live in harmony with the new femininities drafted by the feminisms, reviewing the privileges that entails being a man in a patriarchal society.
Third wave, intersectionality and queer theory
The third wave of feminisms, labeled at its beginnings as post-feminism, started at the end of the 20th century and lives on. Its analyses pull away from essentialism, proposing that there is not one only woman subject, opening the door to analyses on intersectionality. The interaction of different oppressions such as race, class, sexual orientation, age, religion and others is studied and debated. This leads also to the conception that there is no only man subject4, opening the door to the study of non-hegemonic masculinities: masculinities that had been invisibilised by the patriarchal oppression of the traditional dominant masculinity5.
The queer theory, which questions the dichotomy masculine-feminine in gender roles, widens the perspectives of analysis in the theoretical field. Despite the diverse and innovative possibilities that this entails, the academic framework where these postmodern theories are developed, and the wide technical language they use, excludes a great part of the population from the process of dialogue, which is majorly limited to western people with higher education. Besides, the practical incidence of these theories on the development of the identity man is still unknown due partly to its recent apparition, partly to their condition as an antithesis to the construction of the subjects man-woman. On the one hand, it proposes an imaginary where it is possible to construct identities beyond the dichotomy man-woman, and on the other hand it allows masculine subjects to find shelter in these ethereal identities, avoiding being confronted by their social reality as members of the oppressor gender.
Regardless of all of this, or perhaps even due to it all, the groups of anti-patriarchal men proliferate. They generate spaces of diversity and mutual support, intending to provide a place for those who try to scape the traditional dominant masculinity. They intend to give support to those who suffer the violence of the patriarchal system, trying to elucidate the appropriate ways to accompany partners (regardless of their sex and gender) from positions of care and respect, and constructing an imaginary of masculinity which allows to go beyond the patriarchal domination system.
1In “recreating sexual politics”, 1991, Victor Seidler wrote: “It looks like men on their own struggle to escape an essentialism that for generations had been used to legitimate the oppression of women, gays and lesbians. Masculinity could not be “deconstructed”, it could only be disowned”.
2The groups for “Men’s rights” appear in a clear opposition to groups for “Women’s rights”, which were organised to foster changes in legislative systems, intending to limit the patriarchal domination and generate legal equality. In an interview with Michael Kimmel, a scholar focused on masculinities, he says: “The masculinity studies suggest that most men, despite all the power they hold on women, are unhappy and do not feel powerful” (Caribi and Armengol, La masculinidad a debate). He proposes that men who use violence against women often do it to experience power on them, since it is not a power they experience in their daily life. “Sexism works for men as a group. It does not work for a man as an individual. Most men as persons do not feel powerful in the patriarchal structure, they rather feel like they lack power”. It is likely that those “groups for the rights of men” allow them to experience a feeling of power thanks to the collective process of organising themselves with political goals, although unfortunately those objectives be trying to defend the privileges that the patriarchal system grant them.
3These groups have often generated controversy in feminist spaces, which while some sectors may see them as important and necessary contributions, others warn that they can take excessive protagonimso, perpetuating the invisibilization of women. They also warn of the risk that they can generate a simple layer of varnish to the patriarchal domination, softening it and making it more tolerable, difficulting the process of overcome it. While it was true that there were some opportunist groups, in a search for protagonism with a cultural phenomenon of “me too”, others really demonstrated a deep commitment to ideas. In 1995, Imelda Whelehan modeled the feminist reaction to the growth of the mythopoetic movement as follows: “We need a men’s movement that is part of a feminist revolutionary movement. If the masses of men in our society have not unlearned their sexism, they have not abdicated their masculine privileges, then it would be obvious that a men’s movement directed only by men, with only men participating in it, runs the risk of following models different but still oppressive within the patriarchal culture. “
4As Seidler says: “Recognizing more than one type of masculinity is only a first step. We have to examine the relationships between them. Moreover, we have to separate the context of class and race and look at the gender relations that operate within them. There are black gay men and effeminate factory workers, as well as middle-class rapists and bourgeois transvestites. “
5The study on “New alternative masculinities and overcoming gender violence” by Ramon Flecha, Lidia Puigvert and Oriol Ríos, (The New Masculinities and the Overcoming of Gender Violence, International and Multidisciplinary Journal of Social Sciences, 2013), propose the classification of Dominant Traditional Masculinities, Oppressed Traditional Masculinities and New Alternative Masculinities (DTM, OTM and NAM for its acronym in English)
Redefining our role as men in society
Learning to think, feel and live in equality
Unlearning inoculated dynamics in socialization
Coming together in the struggle for emancipation.
Qamislo, summer-autumn 2017