Manhood in the Making: Cultural Concepts of Masculinity
© David Gilmore 1991
What is it to “be a man”? Manhood in the Making reviews various ethnographic studies that focused on sex and gender roles, throughout the world. In it, the author argues that despite the general variety of specific male roles, there’s enough overlapping expectations that a ubiquitous – if not universal – vision of man emerges. Common to all is the belief that Manhood is earned, not assumed. Preindustrial – that is, traditional – cultures prescribed rituals to graduate mere young males into the canon of Men, and these rites were not mere words spoken with gravity. Rites of passage often demanded trials in the wilderness, or trials of pain administered by their elders. Strength was demanded: strength in body, strength in character. Strength in character manifests itself slightly differently based on the culture, but a commonality is the ability to endure pain and hardship. This stoicism does not extend to social interactions, as perceived insults are responded to forcefully. Aggression, both against one’s fellows and against women — by trying to seduce them — is a given. Even in societies that were not militaristic, like agricultural tribes, men were still expected and required to be active — to spend their leisure time in the public sphere, competing with other men.
In some societies, to be a Man was not a permanent achievement, but a temporary status that could be imperiled by shirking. The most common image here is of one as man the warrior — defining and enforcing borders, risking his life to procure food in the wild or resources from other tribes. The author’s conclusions are drawn from a survey of global cultures: around the Mediterranean, several spots in Africa, India, Japan, China, South America, and various islands. The author notes that some island cultures are outliers, with no perceptible gender roles; these societies also seem to lack strong perceptions of personal boundaries or property, freely allowing visitors to roam their houses and flirt with their partners. The author doesn’t speculate whether this is purely cultural on their part, but an interesting comparison may be drawn from another isolated group of social primates, the bonobos: they, too, are not nearly as aggressive as their chimpanzee cousins across the river. Gilmore pans evolutionary/biological explanations in general, favoring a Freudian interpretation that all society is role-playing, and that the role of the aggressive Leader is one most pre-industrial societies promote for their men.
Although there’s not a strong evolutionary psychology component, the survey in general indicates that manliness is not a cultural veneer that can be scraped off or dispatched, but an elemental part of the male character. I appreciated the connections Gilmore drew to gang cultures and traditional male behavior, as well as the ambiguity he pointed out as far as manly character goes. For instance, while many societies measure men by how much alcohol they can consume without falling over, or by how many women they can pursue, other moral cultures abstain from alcohol and restrict sexuality to the pair-bond. As the technological mass state continues to develop, this authentic if volatile part of being human remains, and will go increasingly against the grain.
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