Archive for October 2009

Martial Arts and broadening understandings of masculinity.

October 27, 2009

One of the few ‘traditionally’ masculine and predominantly homosocial activities I engage in, and have (on and off) for many years, is martial arts/self-defence – and I’ve found it  really interesting and surprising in terms of engagement with masculinity.

A little bit of context about my involvement – the martial arts I have done broadly speaking, are hard martial arts – which (among other things) means there is partnered contact training – think Kung Fu instead of Tai Chi. Furthermore what I’ve done – while being ‘traditional’ (ie with a claim to history/heritage) – has also had a strong practical self-defence aspect, against empty-handed attacks and attacks with weapons. So this broadly speaking, places my personal experience in the broad spectrum of martial arts kind of in the middle, between Sunday morning Tai Chi in the park and Dave’s Ultimate Commando Defence. Oh, it is also relevant to note that what I’ve done hasn’t really had a competitive, sports element, like judo (for example).

My experience of martial arts has been that it has not been full of macho, blokey guys trying to hit each other hard in the head (Though these type of men are very well represented).  Now, when I started thinking reflectively about this kind of thing, I was a little surprised by this. Moreover  – over time I’ve practiced with a few men who exhibit forms of, what I would call, a radical masculinity – varying  forms of queer or genderfuck, in terms of presentation at least. These chaps have not been marginalised within the martial arts class context, nor in my experience, have any other people; be they younger people, women, people of varying fitness, etc. (Here I should point out that all my classes have been taught by professional and generous people, had this not been the case my experiences may have been radically different)

I think I have a theory (surprise!) about this.

The classes I have done have a strong emphasis on supportive training and safety. Obviously, if you’re practicing how to hurt other people you want to avoid injury. In this way, a class is a very (self) regulated place – it’s inappropriate to train with someone who has been there for 2 weeks in the same way as someone who has been there 2 years. And aggression is regulated in the same way, most people (and I can think of a few notable exceptions over the years) recognise that training is a learning environment and curb any aggression – or when training with aggression, are well aware of the need to stop when their partner lets them know.  This all makes a lot of sense in an occupational health and safety sense, but I think this awareness and attitude has a broader impact.

What the above really is, is getting along with other people who you don’t know that well, in a potentially dangerous environment – and this, I’ve found, breeds a more general tolerance.

Many of the people I’ve done martial arts with I would not choose to socialise with, outside that little realm, but within that context – we get along great, punching and kicking and whatnot.  And, as a result of this I’ve gained a little more respect or understanding for their various opinions, ideologies etc.  

So, in my experience, martial arts classes provide a neutral and regulated space, where diverse people can (to a degree)  interact sans usual sociocultural baggage, and because of the largely male component of classes it allows men to interact on an equal footing with other men they may normally have little to do with. In  martial arts class men with (at times) greatly different conceptions of masculinity can interact in a neutral place. Thus allowing them to broaden their understandings of the diversity of what constitutes masculine identity, and form meaningful personal relationships with someone they might usually make a whole host of assumptions about. I think this is  really positive, and my experiences have been overwhelmingly positive.

I’m sure this kind of interaction takes place in other contexts, but I think martial arts attracts quite a broad range of people for diverse reasons (plus it’s the only context I have any real experience with). I’d love to hear other peoples experiences in relation to broadening understandings of masculine identity, in a martial arts, or any other context.

Dealing with a Crisis

October 23, 2009

As I’ve said earlier, a common refrain in contemporary discussions on masculinity is that in some form of crisis, that men have lost their way, and become in various ways, or depending who you listen to, emasculated, feminised or in some other way, less “manly”. – For those interested in a readable book dealing with this mid twentieth century phenomenon – Susan Faludi’s Stiffed  is an interesting and informative read on the topic.

Two websites that also address the issue are the Art Of Manliness which I have been reading on and off for a year or so. The other one only came to my attention yesterday (Thanks Kate) and is called The Spearhead. (WARNING: Before clicking The Spearhead link – be advised that the content is potentially triggering and generally hateful – especially the comments)

Here is an excerpt from the AoM website –  their rationale

“My idea for the Art of Manliness came about as I was reading Men’s Health magazine. It seemed to me that the magazine’s contents were continually going downhill, with more and more articles about sex and how to get six pack abs. Was this all there was to being a man?
And as I looked around at the men my age, it seemed to me that many were shirking responsibility and refusing to grow up. They had lost the confidence, focus, skills, and virtues that men of the past had embodied and were a little lost. The feminism movement did some great things, but it also made men confused about their role and no longer proud of the virtues of manliness. This, coupled with the fact that many men were raised without the influence of a good father, has left a generation adrift as to what it means to be an honorable, well-rounded man.”
And the equivalent section from The Spearhead website
“Over the last few years, it has become increasingly obvious that American men — particularly those of the post-boomer generations — have fallen into a cultural gap. Our voice is barely a whisper in the traditional media, we are consistently portrayed as worthless buffoons and advertisers ignore us….What sets our movement apart is that many men, because of the real injustices so many of us have faced first-hand, have come to a common awareness that there are serious political, legal and cultural problems that plague men in our society….Rather than engaging in status displays of conspicuous righteousness, we are raising our voices in defense of ourselves, our families and our fellow men.”
So. These sites are quite different; AoM has a lot of lifestyle content, and talks a fair bit about dress and grooming etc. but still within the context of  ‘becoming a better man’ – their idea of a better man is a very traditional, early twentieth century idea, and like all things nostalgic, I can see the appeal. AoM does not explicitly validate all the patriarchal, sexist etc.  aspects of masculinity that we associate with that time – and it has a strong focus on empowerment, through skill building and building meaningful relationships. This article is a nice example.
Compared to this The Spearhead is, in my opinion, thinly veiled hate speech and misogyny of the worst, pseudo-objective, kind. While they deny that they are an activist website (here) I have rarely read such disgusting, inflammatory and vitriolic words on the internet or elsewhere. And while they are more explicit and overt in their hate, I think this attitude, and their rationale is increasingly common among men.
Both these sites deal with a perceived crisis (As I’ve already stated on this blog I tend to disagree with that concept), and there is a lot of subtextual anxiety, fear & anger on these sites. And while I disagree with the underlying ideology and thesis of both sites, it is with The Spearhead that I object to massively.
AoM, as a site, has an active community and a strong emphasis on self empowerment and behavior change. If you’re going to use the internet to create and amend masculine identity AoM is a pretty good way of doing it, a broad range of content, from the lighthearted and superficial, to content relating to improving attitudes and relationships. it’s not a type of masculinity I love, but I can see where it’s coming from socially and it’s appeal, and I think it’s coming from a perspective of respect and equality.
The Spearhead on the other hand, does not attempt to rectify the perceived ‘problems’ through meaningful self change, preferring to espouse an easier message of opposition to all who have done them wrong, with feminists and women uppermost on that list. I am finding it difficult to come up with any more cogent analysis of that site, because it is making me so angry. So I will stop.

Women in the military and the myth of male combat

October 20, 2009

This originally started as a reply to a comment by Kristy on my Generation Kill post, but it’s a big and important topic, so I thought I’d give it some independent space. The salient section of that comment is below;

“And I wonder if men resent women for not going to war in the same numbers that they do? Does this account for misogyny amongst some male soldiers? i.e. the thought those that silly women aren’t out there risking their lives and limbs for freedom and country like us? I suppose that the idea that women are loathed because they are less physically capable is not new.”

In regard to the role of women in combat, and whether or not this is something male military resent, I would argue that it isn’t a resentment of women not being more involved. Rather I’d argue that the masculine identity constructed relies on what is essentially the myth of a homosocially exclusive experience of combat. Women, especially in a conflict like Iraq are a part of combat, ‘rear echelon’ military see combat along with the ‘front line’ troops, in a type of conflict where these divisions are increasingly meaningless. However the experience of combat is seen as something so quintessentially male, that great social and cultural lengths are gone maintain the strict gender division. Discursively women do not take part in the same combat as men; and the two great arguments always raised in defence of this maintenance of gender are the physical inferiority of women, and their negative effect on morale/cohesion. In regard to the latter variants of the arguments “Men will instinctively risk themselves to protect a female soldier, who is more vulnerable” and “Male soldiers will become sexually distracted” I believe I even once read an argument against frontline female troops based on the military’s inability to accommodate menstruation “on the frontline”  (surely if anyone can handle a little blood it’s the army) – but I kinda want to believe I’m making that up.

Oh, by the way, the same argument can be applied to homosexuals in the military – and the convenient political/discurvice tool of ‘Don’t ask Don’t tell’ is a prime example of how combat is constructed as not only a masculine pursuit, but a heterosexual pursuit also.

In Australia at least, there have been man arguments, some quite recent about the role of women in the military, and the debates around this fiercely enforced gender division are often quite vitriolic.

I can think of few other aspects of modern society where the gender binary is so demarcated and enforced as combat. Women take part in combat, not as active, masculine participants, but as victims, as in ‘womenandchildren’ as I believe (and I could be wrong) the excellent Cynthia Enloe so rightly put it. If women are not directly victims of war, then their only role is as some sort of conflated meta-housewife, keeping the home fires burning.

It is essential to the construction of a martial masculine identity, itself an immensely influential  hegemonic masculinity, that combat is exclusively male. And in a world were conflict is increasingly technologised, fluid and based less on ‘fronts’ it is hard work for the social and cultural discourses to maintain that strict gender division.

So thanks for your comment Kristy. That’s my take on women and the military.

Images of masculinity

October 20, 2009

Men I would marry III
Originally uploaded by ♥ shhexycorin ♥


I found this image whilst browsing flickr – I think it’s amazing in terms of of masculine identity and expression. There’s a whole lot going on in this picture. I’m not sure where I to start, so for now I’ll submit it without comment, and maybe ponder and come back to it.

Generation Kill – a study in hypermasculinity.

October 16, 2009

Oh that’s right, I don’t just talk about regular masculinities, I talk about hypermasculinities.

In the last week or so seven of my hours were spent watching  Generation Kill – a HBO produced 2008 miniseries,  from Ed Burns et al. It’s a 7 part miniseries that tells the story of a Marine Recon Units involvement in the invasion of Iraq. On a production level, it is superb, visually impressive, well shot, acted and written. 

What was of particular interest to me, and relevent to this blog, was the depiction of masculinity in Generation Kill.  I should also point out that I am not attempting to form any detailed or conclusive analysis of masculinity in the series. It is very dense and to do it justice requires more time and commitment than I can offer at the moment, so please read my thoughts as a few notes and broad impressions relating to the series as a whole.

Now, it might be obvious, but I’ll still say it – in terms of representation of masculine identity, The exclusively homosocial world of marines in  wartime is a pretty extreme example. An archetypal hypermasculine identity.  Hypermasculinity is term used to describe a masculine identity, that is in one or more ways, extreme; marines, pro-footballers, Tom of Finland are all good examples.

And from my “extensive” research (ie – reading comments on IMDB from Marines and other service personnel/veterans) it seems that Generation Kill is a reasonably accurate depiction of events, and more importantly for us, the culture and lifestyle of marines at war (I have no objective way of verifying this, and in some ways, there is no point – but to me, it certainly feels a lot more real than other war drama).  There is a LOT of misogyny, racism & homophobia, both casual and very explicit represented in the series. My thoughts about this are mixed. One one hand it is good to see a realistic representation of an oft valourised community, a counterpoint to common sanitized representations. On the other hand Generation Kill risks further glorifying a culture of hate, oppression & violence. This is something I think true of all representations of war, including anti-war texts; Anthony Swofford, the author of Jarhead noted how movies like Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now where popular with Marines, and that their reading of those films was not necessarily one critical of war. Not much can be done about subjectivity, and if you ARE going to produce war dramas, I’d rather they were like this than say, something from Bruckheimer.

What I found particularly interesting and good about the depiction of masculinity in Generation Kill was the was it demonstrated the powerlessness, real or imagined at the core of hypermasculinity. These Marines, trained, physically and psychologically to be and believe in themselves as elite warriors, have a very limited realm in which to exercise any power. One notable scene shows some marines observing a hamlet for possible mortars, they radio in that there are only women and children in the village, only to see it blown up by artillery minutes later. In other instances the marines are shown as identifying genuine military threats, or obtaining legitimate intelligence, and are ordered not to act on it.  Their powerlessness is also demonstrated in a scene where they encounter some Iraqi farmers, naked – their clothes stolen by Iraqi soldiers. The naked Iraqis ask the  marines what the can do about it, and all they can do is give them some water and drive on. Their powerlessness is also represented on a more micro level, they are poorly equipped, for example their state of the art technology is useless without batteries. Seen in this context their aggressive masculine posturing is a veneer, a comforting and communal lie to make their lack of agency less galling.

Generation Kill also represented a few other things in notable ways; the standard trope in war dramas is for the soldiers to be traumatized or deeply affected by the act of killing, and many in Generation Kill where shown like this, especially one soldier who (perhaps not accidently?) shot some children. But refreshingly, for a representation of this type, several soldiers were shown as not only unaffected by their acts of violence, but revelled and relived their experiences, and sought more grotesque acts of violence, and treated the mutilated bodies of dead civilians and enemy soldiers as entertainment.  That Generation Kill shows a varied and complex range of reactions to sanctioned violence is a good thing, it challenges the traditional understanding of war time masculinity, and problematises the dominant understanding act during, and after war. It isn’t comfortable, but it (again) feels true.

Interestingly though, I noticed that Generation Kill did not depict or deal explicitly with rape or sexual violence. It formed a large  part of how the marines speak about women (and men) – but to my recollection no physical sexual violence is depicted. I am not sure why this is the case, as the show is not at all uncritical or glossing over the unsavoury – and the absence of this aspect of war surprised me.

Generation Kill is television, it is about war, and I’m sure a lot of people who watch it, will not do so critically, and enjoy it for the explosions, violence and tension. In this Generation Kill will not hugely promote a deeper understanding of masculine identity or gender relations.  But if someone is at all inclined to view Generation Kill critically, they will find a rich and nuanced representation of hypermasculinity, and one which, quite explicitly, expresses the powerlessness and anxiety under the muscles and bravura posturing, at times heartwarming, but for me at least, overwhelmingly sad.

Just another quick one.

October 14, 2009

I came across this  post from Harriet Jacobs’ blog  via Teaspoon of Sugar.

It’s an awesome series of stories and anecdotes of men making a stand against misogyny, and it’s refreshing and uplifting. It shows some of numerous way that men can actively, in small or large ways, work towards advancing gender equality.


October 13, 2009

A to the point and spot on piece on the role men can play in ending violence against women (Here) from the excellent online resource for issues relating to men, masculinity & gender politics – XY.

This in turn reminded me of the Australian (Victoria) organisation No To Violence who run the Men’s Referral Service – a telephone counselling service aimed primarily at  men, who may be experiencing issues with anger or anxiety, or those with concerns about men in their life.