Real men don’t eat quiche, or do they?
The answer depends on when you ask, according to sociologist Michael Kimmel, Ph.D., who charted the progression of American masculinity in a presentation on March 8 at Lincoln Center.
Kimmel, a professor at SUNY Stony Brook, is one of the leading voices on masculinity and author of the groundbreaking book, Manhood in America: A Cultural History(Free Press, 1996).
The notion of what makes the ideal American man has changed radically, he told the audience of nearly 80 people who filled the McMahon Hall lounge.
“The founding of America is a gendered story,” he said. “No sooner had the ‘Sons’ of Liberty thrown off the yoke of the tyrannical king of England, than they needed a ‘father’ —George Washington.”
The ideal colonial man, he said, took two forms—the “genteel patriarch” and the “heroic artisan.”
The patriarch—most notably embodied by Washington—owned productive land, was actively interested in the arts and spent time with his wife and children.
The artisan was seen as a virtuous worker who owned his own labor, and was likewise a good family man. Paul Revere the pewtersmith exemplified this archetype, Kimmel said.
These two masculine forms held sway until the 1830s, when a new idea of American manhood rose to prominence—the self-made man. Sen. Henry Clay coined the term in 1833 when he said, “We are a nation of self-made men, no longer looking to Europe.”
The idea that men could rise to the heights of success from modest means was new to the nation, Kimmel noted, but the reverse was also true.
“If you can make yourself, who’s to blame if you fail? Only you,” he said. “So the dominant theme of my research into American masculinity is not the thrill of victory, but the fear of failing.”
The idea of the self-made man was heavily influenced by the American frontier, though Kimmel’s take on manifest destiny skews slightly from historians’ accounts.
“I call it the westward expansion of losers,” he said.
“If you succeed and make a name for yourself in New York, then you stay there,” he explained. “But if you don’t, then you try Chicago. If that doesn’t work out, you go to Denver. No luck? It’s off to Sacramento.”
According to Kimmel’s research, the self-made man exhibited three defining characteristics:
• Escape—Boys become men through escaping the inhibiting effects of civilized society, women and cities. Only in nature, in the frontier, with other men, can they find their masculinity.
• Exclusion—Non-WASP ethnic, racial and religious groups are considered unworthy for acceptance into the circle of manhood and, therefore, are repressed.
• Self-Control—If someone intends to make himself into a man, he must learn to control his body.
Not surprisingly, pioneer men such as Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett embodied the self-made man.
Kimmel also examined subsets of ideal masculinity that rose to prominence in different geographic, ethnic and religious groups.
He noted that the Civil War was emasculating for men who ruled the antebellum South. This was embodied—quite literally—when Confederate president Jefferson Davis escaped from besieged Richmond dressed as a woman.
“After the Civil War, Southern men were so humiliated that they felt a greater need to exhibit masculine traits,” he said. “Still today, the notion of honor is an element of Southern manhood. The idea of being dishonored is more palpable among Southern whites than among anyone else in the country.”
Among Protestants, the feeling that their faiths were losing male members gave rise to the Rev. Billy Sunday, the inventor of a more muscular Christianity. He put forth that the Protestant churches had become so feminized that they attracted only women. To draw men back into the fold, he portrayed Jesus as “the greatest scrapper who ever lived,” Kimmel said.
As the West closed and the 20th century progressed, men dealt with how to exhibit self-made manhood without the “pressure valve” that the frontier had once supplied. According to Kimmel, sports and bodybuilding exploded in popularity around this time.
“The NCAA sports that we all watch were invented during that period of 1890 to 1910 to help boys develop into men,” he said, “which led to a bodybuilding craze in the first few decades of the 20th century.”
Kimmel’s appearance was sponsored by the American studies program at Fordham.