A 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!