The Cult of Masculinity

The Cult of Masculinity

The growing popularity of hypermasculine sports such as boxing was partially a reaction to concerns about the influence of modernity on the martial ethic. Teddy Roosevelt became the leading spokesman for those who feared that “overcivilization” had led middle-class men to lose touch with their own masculinity. Prior to the growth of the corporation, middle-class men were prosperous gentlemen farmers and artisans. These men might not have worked with their hands every day, but they were still connected to the hard and substantial productive labor of the farm and shop. Equally important, they were the masters of their domain as independent producers.

After the turn of the century, the majority of middle-class men were midlevel employees who had to submit to the authority of other men. They neither owned nor controlled productive property nor commanded or conducted physical labor. The number of such jobs in corporate offices multiplied tenfold in the decades following the Civil War. The fact that much of their work was being assigned to a growing army of women did little to counter the fears that clerical labor was emasculating a generation of American men.

A secondary concern was that the growing number of female school teachers was leading young men to become “soft” while eliminating masculine role models. American men had always been raised by women, but this new generation of women was seemingly different from the submissive matron of the past, or at least the popular imagination of the past. Women were increasingly demonstrating their ability to compete in the marketplace and agitating for the vote in every community. Women were also clamoring for the eradication of the saloons where men had gathered in the past. Even the boxing ring and gambling houses had been closed following the campaigns of female reformers. These were progressive changes from the perspective of those horrified by the crippling violence and financial ruin that occurred in such “manly” places. For those already convinced that masculinity was on the decline, the growing power of women to influence politics and constrict the separate sphere of manly recreation was further proof that men were under siege in a battle of the sexes.

The solution, it appeared to some, might be found in other kinds of battles. Roosevelt declared that the Spanish-American War had led to national revitalization through cultivating the martial ethic and rekindling the manliness of generations past. “If we shrink from the hard contests where men must win at hazard of their lives,” Roosevelt counseled, “the bolder and stronger peoples will pass us by, and will win for themselves the domination of the world.” Roosevelt’s exhortation contained multiple references to masculinity, his final exhortation a challenge to the new generation of men who must resolve to fulfill their duties “manfully.” Behind the nationalistic bluster, Roosevelt’s defense of “splendid little wars” as a method of preventing American men from growing soft and effeminate demonstrated that the conception of masculinity could be cited in defense of aggression as well as protection.

For most of the nineteenth century, manliness was based on the notion of paternal duty and obligation. Historians of gender have shown that the concept of masculinity was related to one’s success as a patriarch and provider. The worst gender-based insult at this time was to refer to an adult male as a “boy.” Whites regularly used this word to emasculate minority men, denying their independence and therefore rejecting their manhood. By the turn of the century, the conception of manliness and the language used to express it had shifted. Perhaps in relation to concerns about the growing power and influence of women in a world where physical labor was becoming less relevant, men began to define masculinity in opposition to female traits and characteristics. As a result, the worst insults for men were those suggesting effeminate traits. In fact, the entire conception of “emasculation” shifted from projecting immaturity to the use of gender-based and often misogynistic insults.

A “cult of masculinity” emerged in twentieth-century America where prize fighters like Jack Dempsey were idolized. Enlisted soldiers and sailors had previously been held in low regard because these ranks were occupied by the lowest social castes. In the past, such soldiers and sailors were often considered “boys” due to their poverty and bachelorhood. The cult of masculinity reversed that view and military men were increasingly admired for their martial prowess. Bodybuilding had also been held as suspect—either as a vain pursuit or one related to the underground world of homosexuality. By the turn of the century, bodybuilding emerged as a manly pursuit that some middle-class men believed might alleviate some of the consequences of sedentary work routines. As a result of this changing definition of masculinity, the concept of heterosexuality emerged in opposition to homosexuality.

Prior to the turn of the century, heterosexuality did not exist as a category and was merely an assumed trait. People who would later be classed as homosexual were simply marginalized in ways that precluded any deep level of analysis by the dominant society. Psychiatrists and physicians who wrote about the subject tended to assume that gay men were simply men who possessed “feminine” brains. Self-identified homosexual men thought of themselves as “queer,” a word that connoted uniqueness rather than a negative stigma. The era’s hypermasculinity and the absence of concepts of “straight” and “homosexual” meant that straight men could commit homosexual acts without being considered homosexual. As long as they did not demonstrate effeminate mannerisms associated with “fairies”—a derogatory term applied only to effete homosexuals—a man might successfully project his own homosexual urges upon a male sex partner.

A wealth of primary sources demonstrates the widespread acceptance of this seemingly incongruous way of thinking. For example, newspaper articles frequently described the debauchery of soldiers and sailors on leave who visited both male and female prostitutes. In most cases, the authors only considered the makeup-wearing male prostitutes as “deviants” and “fairies” because of their effeminate dress and mannerisms. The soldier and sailor retained their masculinity regardless of their choice of sexual partner as long as they retained the dominant (masculine) sexual role in that liaison and eschewed effeminate behaviors. Sources from prisons and mining camps likewise demonstrate the degree to which this cult of masculinity permitted men to engage in sex with other men without being regarded as homosexual themselves. The social construction of sexual deviance as related to effeminacy created a closet around many male homosexual acts while vilifying homosexuals who displayed effeminate traits.


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