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Guest Post by @henrymcg : Ms Whiplash Strikes Again!

February 25, 2012

I knew nothing , before today, of Lauren Wolfe, one of the writers of this article. On the other hand, Gloria Steinem has always seemed to me one of the more frustrating members of the sisterhood.

She is not obviously stupid, and this being the case, she must surely know what she is doing politically; the consequences of this desperate agenda-setting, the number of issues that are pushed aside so she can get a better and better deal for women; the attempts to anger and scare women as much as possible for political purposes.

What she doesn’t seem to know enough about, is men. And here she is, with Wolfe, telling us how masculinity works. I can only speak for myself, of course, but the idea that I’m going to be told how to be a man by these two women is not a good start to the day.

There are a number of odd statements in the article. In a slightly portentous paragraph where the authors share some wisdom about the human condition, they opine that:

“..the woman a man most fears is the woman within himself”

This may be a ‘truism’, as the authors claim, but I don’t think it is actually true. It has, for example, nothing whatsoever to do with MY personal life. Once again we are being treated to supremely confident, and utterly baseless generalisations about men. Like Greer’s famously muddled contention that women don’t realise “how much men hate them”, we are unclear which men, how many men, how many women they hate, if any, who she has asked, what evidence there is…

You have to admire the cheek of this, and the extraordinary fact that it is printed, albeit as an opinion, in a respected national newspaper. Given the seeming immunity from rational argument on display, one also wonders how many such assumptions underlie the teaching and set texts in the Gender Studies courses that Tom Martin is currently taking to the law, with little support.  Both academia (rather tragically) and journalism have become more and more the tools of politics.

Then there is the central argument:

“The use of sexualised violence on the streets of Britain or America is the result of the cult of masculinity – some men become addicted to it and feel they have no identity without it. This cult is a drug pushed by gangs and the culture of wars in order to make men act violently and risk their lives against their own self-interest as human beings”

With this phrase, the “cult of masculinity” the authors may, for all I know, hope to be quoted far and wide. But at a time when we sorely need clear heads and a clear understanding of what it means to be a man, do we want to be lectured about it by two women who, far from having “walked a mile in my shoes”, have instead spent much of their time behind a keyboard writing about men in a rather abstract way? Everything they say about men here seems like bumbling guesswork.

They link to carefully chosen ‘evidence’, some of it anecdotal. But I’m far from convinced that any analogy with a cult applies. The way men behave in various extreme circumstances, and why, might be an interesting study. But Steinem and Wolfe are not really doing science, are they? They’re only adding this concept of a ‘cult’ (a word with plenty of emotional  impact) to an old discussion.

Perhaps that’s the way they want to understand it. I don’t think it’s going to help us make a better world, but it might put some (probably erroneous) ideas about men into people’s heads.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. February 26, 2012 1:59 pm

    I don’t have a particular problem with the phrase ‘cult of masculinity.’ It’s not a new term here (it was famously used about Fascism by Murray Constantine in Swastika Night and makes quite a lot of sense in that context.) Steinem has used it before as have many other feminist authors. It also makes a degree of sense in context of gang violence and culture and (by extension) gang-related rape, and in military contexts too.

    The cult of masculinity is not the same as masculine identity, it refers to the fetishisation or worship of one particular construction of violent hypermasculinity, at the expense of other models of masculinity.

    The big problem with this article, I thought, is that first of all it was entirely circuitous and self-referential, so it was defining the cult of masculinity by reference to sexual violence and then saying that the defining feature of sexual violence was the cult of masculinity.

    The second huge problem was that it keeps flitting back and forwards from specifics of wartime / gangland rape to sexual violence in general and then back again – as if to say ‘if this is true of what happens in wartime or in urban gang culture, then it must be true of what happens in the rest of society too.’

    That is simply awful logic and is actively harmful if we’re trying to improve our understanding of why sexual violence happens, then it is downright harmful.

    • February 26, 2012 2:04 pm

      HI Ally some good points there.

      The only bit of what you say I am not sure about is your version of the ‘cult of masculinity’. I think you are showing that context is everything, and so is nuance.

      I have not heard him use that exact phrase I don’t think, but Mark Simpson has written before more generally about the ‘fetishisation’ of masculinity. But he presents that not as ‘misogyny’ but far far more as a form of ‘homosexuality’ and men’s narcissism. The Nazis are a great example of how the ‘cult of masculinity’ is positively gay in its imagery and its preoccupations.

      But feminists make it ALL ABOUT TEH WIMMINZ all the time. I think they have a cult of femininity and a cult of victimhood.

    • Henry permalink
      February 26, 2012 10:33 pm

      Hi Ally thanks for commenting, and for the deeper insight into the phrase.

      I confess to still having a few problems with it. For example, should they be talking about “A cult of masculinity”, not “THE cult of masculinity”? The second formulation makes the concept sound more universal than you say it’s meant to be.

      There’s still a problem, I think, with whether the idea really applies. The behaviour of men in an army (where their aggression is strongly encouraged and channeled) and in gangs is worthy of scientific study. Are you telling me that this idea of the ‘cult of masculinity’ is serious science in that respect, or is it the theorising of writers with a political bias?

      (I very definitely see feminism as a political bias, and will argue that point to the hilt)

      When you say that the article flits between talking about wartime events and sexual violence in general, I agree. I didn’t know the history (that you provided) of the use of the “cult” idiom, and I’m sure not that many other readers will have known either.

      And the details of what it means aren’t clear from either your explanation or the Guardian article, so surely many of its readers WILL take away a vague idea of masculine identity being the same as this “cult of masculinity”, if they take away anything at all.

      The slightly aimless character of the Wolfe/Steinem piece is all too common in the feminist writing in the Graun. As if keeping readers thinking and talking about their subject matter is far more important than arriving at any conclusions, or actually clearly stating what the writers are talking about…

      • February 26, 2012 11:51 pm

        yeah, I don’t really disagree with any of that, Henry. It was a very, very weak article, not least for the reasons you give. If they’re going to drop a phrase like ‘cult of masculinity’ they should at least let us know how they’re defining it and what they are basing it on

        Of course you’re right it is not any kind of scientific paradigm, it’s just a bit of woolly post-Freudian theorising. Sometimes woolly theorising hits lucky and comes up with something that might work in cognitive science or whatever. I don’t really see that here though.

        My first comment wasn’t that I was saying you were wrong, I don’t think you were. It was more that I had even deeper concerns.

  2. February 26, 2012 2:52 pm

    Don’t disagree with much of that QRG. I think the moral is that it is always a mistake to think that one specific interpretation of masculinity will always be inadequate in almost any context as it can mean anything to anyone.

    I also think it is reasonable that any interpretation of masculinity which is restricted to misogyny, violence etc is pretty misandrist.

    Don’t know if you saw it, but there was a much more interesting piece in The Atlantic a few weeks ago (which forms the basis of the Cif article). It’s an interview with Steinem by Lauren Wolfe. It is far more nuanced, and specifically about warzone rape.

    There’s one line that leapt out at me though:

    “And, at its most basic, “masculine” means not being “feminine.” On a continuum, it means controlling women, conquering women, raping women”

    I think it is profoundly wrong to see masculine and feminine identities as existing only in opposition / contrast to the other, as a kind of zero sum concept. It think it is possible to have quite a lot of (supposedly) feminine traits and quite a lot of masculine traits (there’s your metrosexuality thing) and also to have very few of either. And of course there are multiple models of both femninity and masculinity that one can adopt, reject or play around with in combination.

    And leaving aside the crude misandry of the second sentence above, I also think it is pathetically reductive to effectively define femininity as purely the absence of control, violence and rape – which is what she does in that sentence.

    • February 26, 2012 6:01 pm

      yes she does. Feminists ‘other’ the feminine all the time!

    • Henry permalink
      February 26, 2012 10:39 pm

      “And, at its most basic, “masculine” means not being “feminine.” On a continuum, it means controlling women, conquering women, raping women”

      It’s a wonderful quote isn’t it. We know that is not what ‘masculine’ means at all. Do you think Steinem is not saying this as a provable fact, or as rhetoric that will inflame anger in women and men alike?

      If it is the latter she is the gender-politics equivalent of an extremist, whose actions are chosen to make it hard for anyone to keep to the rational political middle ground

  3. February 26, 2012 2:53 pm

    should have been “one specific interpretation of masculinity will always be adequate” of course

  4. redpesto permalink
    February 27, 2012 11:53 am


    The cult of masculinity is not the same as masculine identity, it refers to the fetishisation or worship of one particular construction of violent hypermasculinity, at the expense of other models of masculinity.

    Yeah, but then Steinem fails at the first hurdle by using the ‘cult of masculinity’ rather than a ‘cult of masculinity’. By using the definite – rather than the indefinite article – she (intentionally?) pathologises masculinity as inherently predatory and violent, especially (or exclusively?) towards women.

    Okay, this might seem like grammatical pedantry – Eats, Shoots and Blames the Patriarchy, as it were – if it wasn’t for the fact that when the phrase ‘Feminism is a theory, lesbianism is a practice’ somehow changed to the slogan ‘Feminism is the theory, lesbianism is the practice,’ it opened up the whole toxic legacy of ‘political’ lesbianism, radical feminism and accusations that straight women were ‘sleeping with the enemy’, even before we get to the issue of masculinity. Steiniem looks like she’s made a similar (deliberate?) mistake here.

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