U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Masculinity and the Culture Wars

stiffedA little over a month ago, I posted a list of topics that will tentatively form the basis of my chapter on sex and gender in the culture wars. Dan Wickberg responded with a predictably astute critique:

It’s interesting that on issues of sex and gender, the default is to go to issues of women and the contest over their changing roles, while leaving the question of masculinity aside, as if women were sexed and gendered beings, and men were the unexceptional norm from which that sex and gender were deviant. I looked at the list and at the suggestions and was wondering why there was no discussion of the intellectual turn to both critique masculinity and to reinvent it in new terms.

Dan argued that my tentative list, because it seemingly focuses on women and their ascribed role in society, runs the risk of reproducing the very gendered divisions that feminist and queer theorists sought to unmask as patriarchal constructions. In any case, read the entire back-and-forth, which has been very instructive to me—in fact, I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

Although I will continue to defend my ability to analyze topics that are seemingly about women in a way that does not assume essential gender divisions, I admit that masculinity bulks larger in this history than I originally thought. Dan suggested two topics in particular that demonstrate the centrality of thinking about masculinity: the Promise Keepers, and the conceptual shifts made by Susan Faludi in the transition from Backlash (1991) to Stiffed (1999). The latter, Faludi’s tome on “the betrayal of the American man,” included a long chapter on the Promise Keepers. I’ll use this occasion to analyze that particular chapter.

Backlash is a very important book that made Faludi deservedly famous. But Stiffed is an even better tribute to Faludi’s exquisite writing, sharp analysis, and empathetic reporting. Stiffed is a long-form journalistic exegesis of how patriarchy misshapes everyone; of how men are just as twisted by its forces as women, the difference being that men have more difficulty pinpointing the source of their troubles. “Women see men as guarding the fort, so they don’t see how the culture of the fort shapes men. Men don’t see how they are influenced by the culture either; in fact, they prefer not to. If they did, they would have to let go of the illusion of control.”

Faludi introduces her topic by way of a description of her time spent observing a counseling group for domestic abusers, where she went to learn more about an out-of-control masculinity that had been the subject of so much media speculation. She quickly discovered that abusive men felt powerless. “The men I got to know in this group had without exception lost their compass in the world. They had lost or were losing jobs, homes, cars, families. They had been labeled outlaws but felt like castoffs.” That came as no surprise. What was surprising is that none of the men in the counseling group blamed women—or more specifically, feminism—for their sense of powerlessness. Rather, they were incapable, or at least, unwilling to attribute their feebleness to any one particular source. “The men had probably felt in control when they beat their wives,” Faludi wrote, “but their everyday experience was of feeling controlled—a feeling they had no way of expressing because to reveal it was less than masculine, would make each of them, in fact, ‘no man at all.”

If the abusive men had no language for their “problem that has no name,” Faludi had words for their predicament. Simply put, she contended that the shift to a post-industrial, service-based economy left the mid-twentieth-century paradigm of American masculinity in tatters. Men were no longer assured of their position atop the family as the sole breadwinner.

The best history of the social transformation that engendered a crisis of the male breadwinner is Robert Self’s All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s. But because Stiffed is also about how men found novel ways to reconcile their masculinity to the crisis of American manhood, another historical monograph in conversation with Stiffed is Bethany Moreton’s To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise. In particular, Moreton’s book seemingly pivots from Faludi’s chapter on the Promise Keepers.

Moreton shows how Wal-Mart was the vanguard of the service economy and all that accompanied it, including the dying out of male-specific work. “Under the stress of deindustrialization,” she writes, “men’s jobs came to look more like women’s work.” Men had to find new workplace patterns of behavior to delineate male hierarchy. Wal-Mart thus served as a cultural workshop of sorts for Christian neoliberalism. At Wal-Mart, where the vast majority of bosses were men, a servant-authority model of patriarchy emerged: men reconciled themselves to service, with Jesus as their model, on the condition that they were allowed some degree of paternalistic authority. A similar development happened in the home. As breadwinner wages dried up and women entered the workforce in greater numbers, often out of necessity, the servant-authority mindset freed Christian men up to help out at the house but not lose their grip on patriarchal authority. Moreton writes: “This novel interpretation of Christian manliness spread through evangelical, fundamentalist, and Pentecostal circles after 1970, bearing an unacknowledged debt to secular feminism but scoring a significant success of its own that still eludes the broader culture.”

The Promise Keepers, a Christian organization for men founded in 1990 by then-head football coach at the University of Colorado Bill McCartney—a group that famously filled up football stadiums in the 1990s and held a massive gathering on the Washington Mall in 1997—embodied this male-servant ideology. In Faludi’s words, the Promise Keepers had a “vision of founding manhood on spiritual principles; it seemed to promise a new way for men… to reclaim respect, appreciation, and authority at home as devout husbands and fathers.”

The Promise Keepers were thought by many mainstream reporters, and by most feminists, as just another branch of the antifeminist Christian right. The rhetoric of some of their spokesmen made such connections plausible. For example, Tony Evans gave the following advise to thousands of men at a Promise Keepers stadium rally: “The first thing you do is sit down with your wife and say something like this: ‘Honey, I’ve made a terrible mistake. I’ve given you my role. I gave up leading this family, and I forced you to take my place. Now I must reclaim that role.’ Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying here. I’m not suggesting that you ask for your role back, I’m urging you to take it back.”

Faludi emphasized the other side of the Promise Keepers, the side that seemed more about accommodating men to post-industrial society. When he wasn’t thundering about a man’s duty to rule over his wife, even Evans, for instance, suggested that Christian men needed to reject macho attitudes; they needed to realize it was OK to cry and good to talk to their wives about each other’s feelings. Faludi described the Promise Keepers she met while attending one stadium event as polite, wistful, certainly non-threatening. One man told her: “If you’re putting guys like us in your book, you should call it, ‘Men with Low Testosterone.’”

Consistent with the men she chronicles in other realms of American society, many of the Promise Keepers whom Faludi spent time with were insecure in their jobs and their marriages. She wrote:

The solution that Promise Keepers offered to this work-marriage dilemma was masterful, in its own way. Once men had cemented their identity to Jesus, so the organization’s theory went, they could reclaim a new masculine role in the family, not as breadwinners but as spiritual pathfinders. Promise Keepers proposed that men reimagine themselves as pioneers on the home front, Daniel Boones for Christ, hacking their way through a godless wilderness of broken marriages and homes lacking all spirituality to build a spiritually fortified bunker in which their families could settle for the long haul.

In short, Promise Keepers helped men adjust their roles as patriarchs: instead of economic providers, men were to be spiritual leaders. As Bill McCartney told Faludi: “the only way the spiritual work’s gonna get done is if the man takes responsibility.” Leading the family in God’s path became a viable way to express manhood. As McCartney said, it was “mandated.”

Even though McCartney and the other men who ran the Promise Keepers were Christian Right activists, many of the millions of men who joined Promise Keeper prayer groups in the 1990s were not particularly political. As such, it’s difficult to say how the Promise Keepers phenomenon explicitly relates to the cultural conflicts we know as the culture wars. How did it relate, for example, to the political controversies about abortion and pornography? I’m not sure that it did, which was the point I tried to make to Dan Wickberg in our conversation last month. As I wrote at the time in response to Dan: “I’m writing a history of the culture wars, that includes sex/gender as one aspect of the culture wars, not a cultural history of sex and gender during the so-called culture wars (which is the book it seems you want me to write–which is a book somebody should write, but not me).”

But I will say this: the idea that masculinity was in crisis is shaping the way I think about topics more commonly thought to be closely related to the culture wars. For example, James Dobson, who is a key figure in my sex/gender chapter, was both a far-right culture warrior on matters related to the family, such as abortion. But he also, like the Promise Keepers, represented a softened Christian masculinity in ways that other far right culture warriors like Jerry Falwell did not. Dobson’s therapeutic brand of Christian psychology helped millions of Christian Americans adjust to postmodern cultural patterns. But I’ll leave that for my book.

In conclusion, I will also say this: I love writing for this blog! I started thinking about a book on the culture wars at the same moment I started writing for this blog in 2007. Although all the mistakes of my book will by mine and mine alone, I owe a debt of gratitude to all of you who have been helping me think through some very complex issues for six years now. Even (especially) critics like Dan Wickberg. Cheers!

29 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Great post, Andrew. I love STIFFED and teach the chapter about the Spur Posse it in my American Youth Cultures class – in part because I couldn’t find a way to fit it meaningfully into my Culture Wars course for the reasons you so eloquently explain. Thanks for this, and looking forward to your book!

  2. This is a really great post and a very promising turn for this chapter. I’m wondering, though, how the emphasis on spousal relations in Faludi and Moreton and others (Hochschild, Ehrenreich) rather than paternal relations shifts, as you argue, the “crisis of masculinity” narrative somewhat away from the core or generally acknowledged battlefields of the culture wars. Might there be a way to connect the Promise Keepers (and other reactions to the crisis of masculinity) to abortion or school prayer or Bill Bennett-like handwringing over educational standards via concern not so much over control of women as control of children? Dobson seems like a pretty ideal example (Dare to Discipline, etc.).

    • Andrew: Great points. I write about Bennett extensively in my chapters on the public schools and higher education. Concern for children is always present when there’s anxiety about a national future, whether such anxiety is wrapped up in a “crisis of masculinity” or some other such crisis. But I think you’re right to suggest that these connections are lear-cut in the example of Dobson. So thanks!

    • Thanks, Dan. And here I was awaiting another round of your sharp criticism! (Not that I’m asking for it.)

      • I like the direction this is taking. Andrew, the distinction you make in the quote to Dan included near the end of the essay makes sense. But the addition of this new material seems consistent with that, and I think will lead to more satisfying discussion in your book. I look forward to hearing, among other things, how to discuss how conflicts in ideas about gender roles for women were connected to concerns about male roles. I think it helps you connect to major concerns at the time (Robert Bly might be tricky to slot on a side in the Culture Wars, but he received a lot of press and criticism) and recently (Hanna Rosin, for instance).

  3. Andrew: Good stuff, as usual. I have GOT to read *Stiffed*. I really enjoyed *Backlash*, and have used it in prior studies. And Moreton has sat unread on my shelf for far too long.

    Based on the thesis/definition of the Culture Wars that you supplied at the end of this post, I was somewhat surprised to see you write the following (italics mine): “Many of the millions of men who joined Promise Keeper prayer groups in the 1990s were not particularly political. As such, it’s difficult to say how the Promise Keepers phenomenon explicitly relates to the cultural conflicts we know as the culture wars.”

    This seems to point larger political argument about the Culture Wars that you haven’t articulated here before. I mean, it’s one thing to say that the Culture Wars accommodated (or provided adjustment mechanisms for) certain groups to the political/economic beatings they took in the 1960s and 1970s, and another to transfer the dynamics of those accommodations to the political sphere (organizations, movements, policy, legislators, etc.). I look forward to reading about how you connect and make sense of those complicated links (links you complained about in the works of others like T. Frank, Dionne, Gitlin, etc.).

    As someone who was peripherally touched by Promise Keepers in the early 1990s, via Campus Crusade for Christ, I’m so glad to hear that Faludi tackled that group. And I’m happy to hear that you’ll continue that analysis in your book. I can confirm that “male leadership”/responsibility topic was huge back then. So I think your book will resonate with readers as you draw everyone together under the Culture Wars rubric. – TL

    • I’m not sure I understand your point, Tim. The culture wars were first and foremost a political phenomenon. To argue that they helped various actors adjust to modernity or postmodernity is not a mutually exclusive claim. In fact, to argue that the culture wars were political is, in my opinion, to directly counter the Thomas Frank paradigm, which sees them as trans-political or epi-phenomenal. But perhaps I’m missing your point.

  4. Let me see if I can clarify:

    I’m not sure that I’ve ever heard you argue that the Culture Wars are, in fact, political in origin—that politics are the ultimate cause. Or perhaps we’re using the term “political” differently (e.g. cultural politics? pure politics via elected officials?). That point is not well explicated in your original definition that I linked above. Perhaps it was assumed?

    Thomas Frank, as I understand him, argues that the Culture Wars began with political actors manipulating divisive cultural phenomena for political gain (i.e. starts with politics, goes to culture, and comes back to politics). I’ve always understood you to be saying, in relation to Frank, the the Culture Wars started as genuine cultural concerns (a la breakdown/fragmentation of culture per Rodgers), not with manipulative politicians.

    Does this help? I’m not proclaiming to have any answers here. I’m just trying to *fully* understand your argument in relation to politics as a realm distinct from (but overlapping with) culture. – TL

    • clarification on Frank: Politicians used real Culture Wars phenomena for political gain, manipulating and distorting real concerns in the process such that the original issues (e.g. abortion) re-entered the political realm only partially like they originated with the people. So the the Culture Wars were a real thing before politicians used them, but those wars did not necessarily begin with political but rather community and family concerns.

      • Tim: I have a more capacious definition of the political. Cultural politics, educational politics, academic politics, etc, all count as political in how I conceptualize the culture wars. The culture wars, I argue, rested on epistemological and political divides that often, but not always, were symmetrical.

      • The explicit or traditional political realm (i.e. executive, legislative, and judicial goings on) were an important sphere for the culture wars, but far and away not the only or perhaps even most important sphere. Part of what made the culture wars was the ways in which political struggles slipped in an out of traditional political spheres and into other political spheres (like academia and media) with such ease and frequency.

  5. To Andrew Seal’s point about “control over women” and “control over children,” these have not necessarily been two separate issues. They are certainly linked culturally / historically. Harrumphing or handwringing about the moral/intellectual formation of Young Minds These Days has often ended up being harrumphing / handwringing about whether or not Mother is doing her job right.

    This asymmetry is hardly changed by the Promise Keepers’ emphasis on fatherhood. The polarity is reversed, but the emphasis on the proper hierarchical heteronormative relations between men and women remains. Now all will stand or fail depending on the standing of the father/husband — seemingly rendering women / mothers either irrelevant or infantalized. Or both.

    At the same time, emphasis on fatherhood is necessarily an emphasis on motherhood — real men can’t be the husbands / fathers that God wants them to be unless there are wives / child-bearers fulfilling their proper roles as well.

    To Tim and Andrew’s discussion about what the culture wars were first / essentially / necessarily — you both seem to be assuming the existence of this discrete object from the past called “the culture wars” (or, heaven forfend, the Culture Wars), and you are just figuring out how best to frame that object. To some extent, I think, you’re begging the question.

    I know you already know my opinion — but every once in a while, for the sake of new readers, it’s important to review what position we’re taking. Makes scoring at home easier. I could have gotten away with a walk on this one. Instead, it’s another swinging K. One of these days, I’m gonna connect.

    • LD: Culture Wars, culture wars, so-called “culture wars,” whatever. Everyone was talking about it, so as far as I’m concerned, it is discreet enough. But what the hell else would you expect someone writing a history of this so-called discrete object to say.

    • Andrew and I may be talking past each other a bit. In these comments I’m thinking about causality (i.e. origins), and he’s talking about what the Culture Wars (circa 1970s-2000ish) are essentially. I actually agree with him that there’s a strong political element to what he (and I) call the Culture Wars (i.e. identity, personal as political, politicos using Culture Wars topic for power grabs, etc.). The Culture Wars are, foremost, a political phenomenon in the period he’s studying. But I’m not sure those battles originated in that way—I think they began with concerns about the fate of religion in American life, about divorce, about moral degradation in social life and entertainment (i.e. sex, disco, drugs, heavy metal music, counterculture, personal identity crises, etc.). – TL

      • The causality question is really complex: it was all that you say and more. Generally speaking, the culture wars of the 80s and 90s arose out of the perhaps unparalleled confusions and anxieties about what it meant to be an American, post-sixties.

      • I thought Andrew understood the culture wars as a struggle to define a normative national identity (in the wake of the liberal implosion of 1968?). Thus, debates about abortion, women’s roles, child-centered education, etc., were really about what was and what wasn’t “American.” Here, Andrew’s “capacious defintion” of the political enters in. At least, this is what I’ve understood of Andrew’s work from the past several months and today’s post, but I could be and frequently am wrong.

      • I’m not sure those battles originated in that way—I think they began with concerns about the fate of religion in American life, about divorce, about moral degradation in social life and entertainment (i.e. sex, disco, drugs, heavy metal music, counterculture, personal identity crises, etc.).

        Yes, that the questions get reduced to the abstract and the subjective–attitudes–ignores whatever substance underlies it, “science,” if we must.


        Many “attitudes” turn out to be fads, overrun by reality [or at least by better fads!]. Somehow, we muddle through.

    • And on which his actors stood, of course. One thing I love about hanging with USIHers: they attempt to interrogate everything, even if everything doesn’t make it into the MSS.

  6. Mark: You are exactly right about my definition. Now, whether I am exactly right with this definition, that’s another question.

  7. Andrew’s book will be a wonderful, much needed contribution to the topic. I have no problem whatsoever with the culture wars as a discrete object since it circulated everywhere–even in Puerto Rico we heard about it in the 90s–as a short hand for conflicts regarding cultural politics.

    A question popped up while reading the comments here: to what extent is the Gramscian idea of hegemony part of this project’s tool kit? I am thinking not only in analytic terms but also in how it figured in scholarly and artistic approaches to cultural production. Scholars in my field have critically engaged this idea of hegemony in interesting ways (from Laclau and Mouffe’s now classic Hegemony and Socialist Strategy to Jon Beasley Murray’s polemical Posthegemony).

  8. L.D., that’s a really great point, and I didn’t mean to imply that control of children and control of women were in any way separate or separable. More that I felt that Faludi et al. have in some measure neglected the forms of the “crisis of masculinity” that appear as a crisis of fatherhood, focusing largely on forms of gender performance vis-à-vis adult women. I just meant to suggest that thinking about control of children might offer a fresh point of entry into the larger complex of the “crisis of masculinity.”

  9. Does Faludi go into just how the Promise Keepers constructed (or from whence they received) their particular version of spirituality? The Christ of the gospels who rent families asunder would not seem the most promising role model for the building of spiritual bunkers for one’s family.

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