sociology

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How and why masculinity is in crisis

It is widely argued that Western Societies are currently witnessing a crisis of masculinity. The status of masculinity is changing and this is partially due because the society is changing economically, socially and especially in relation to the position of women. These changes also affect the sphere of consumption and popular culture.

I will examine at first how Freud places a great emphasis on the early relationship of the young boy. This relationship will have important consequences for development. According to Freud, this relationship is overshadowed by the oedipal conflict. Secondly I will go through Klein’s theory about the relationship between the boy and the mother. Contrary to Freud, Melanie Klein emphasis the powerful maternal figure. After that I will explain how masculinity is shaped by social and cultural theories; how and why masculinity is changing. “Masculine” identity as it has been seen formerly within patriarchal cultures as evolved into a new “male”. The roots of a crisis in masculinity are analysed in social theories in terms of a conflict in gender roles. Cultural theories, which intersect with Lacan’s idea, are also important in how the crisis in masculinity has been studied. The rise of feminism has surely encouraged many men to question how they view women. Now that feminism has attacked the patriarchal systems of power and control, masculinity has been left undermined and unsure. Finally I will give an overview on how masculinity is view between men.

To evaluate how masculinity might be in crisis, it is first necessary to examine how psychoanalytical theories assume that boys gain their masculine identity; or in other words how they become men. Freud’s ideas about masculinity developed in three steps. The first one is the idea of continuity between normal and neurotic mental life, the concepts of repression and the unconscious, and the method that allowed unconscious mental processes to be read through dreams, jokes, slips of the tongues and symptoms (Connell, 1995). Freud understood that adult sexuality and gender were not fixed by nature but were constructed through a long and conflict-ridden process. Freud places a great emphasis on the early relationships of the young boy with his parents or caregivers. It is the vicissitudes of these relationships that will have important consequences for development. In Freudian terms, this early relationship is overshadowed by the oedipal conflict. The Oedipus complex is characterized by the desire for one parent and hatred for the other. For boys, the Oedipus complex is the rivalry with the father and terror of castration. Here Freud identified a formative moment in masculinity and pictured the dynamics of a formative relationship.

Freud argued that homosexuality is not a simple gender switch and “a large proportion of male inverts retain the mental quality of masculinity”. The second step in Freud’s analysis of masculinity is the development to gender. He goes further by saying that masculine and feminine currents coexist in everyone. In his final stage, Freud developed his account of the structure of personality, in particular the concept of the superego. The superego is formed in the aftermath of the Oedipus complex, by internalized prohibitions from the parents. Freud gradually came to see it as having a gendered character, being crucially a product of the child’s relationship with the father, and more distinct in the case of boys and girls. This provided the germ of a theory of the patriarchal organization of culture, transmitted from one generation to the next through the construction of masculinity.

The most important processes that occur in early life that influence the construction of the male identity is the oedipal complex. According to Greenson (1968), the idea of disidentification is divided into two processes: firstly a boy must sever the emotional ties he has with the primary caregiver, usually the mother, and secondly he needs to identify with a male role model, usually the father. The role of the father in the masculine identity is seen as crucial by psychoanalysts. Horrocks (1994) sees the role of fathering as an introduction to manhood. He also identify one of the most important functions of the father as to show the young boy that it is possible to live with the mother, to have conflict, fear and guilt. According to Horrocks, the modern damage male is seen as “unfathered”.

The boy’s entry into his ‘masculinity’ can only be achieved through his castration complex which sets in motion his separation from his mother and identification with his father. Freud (1925) explains the castration complex by a few stages. First, the young boy believes that everyone has a penis. Secondly, he discovers that women do not have penises and assumes that they have been mutilated. Thirdly, when he begins to masturbate, he is told that he will be castrated. Fourthly, when he finds that the breast has been removed, he believes that the penis will be next. The Oedipus complex is abolished by the fear of castration.

In contrast to Freud, Melanie Klein argues that is envy of the mother rather than rivalry with the father that impedes psychic changes. The relationship between the boys and the mother has been left undeveloped by Freud. Disagreeing with Freud, about his account of oedipal feelings in relation to the father, she argues that the first signs appear in relation to the mother. In fact, according to Horrocks (1994) the young boy is surrounded by feminine presence throughout his early childhood, and it is important for him to break away and discover a world of men where he can gain his roots of male identity. The central paradox is that men want to escape from womanhood but there is also the desire to become close to a woman. For Klein, ‘masculinity ‘and ‘femininity’ are biologically determined and reinforced during childhood in opposition to Freud who believes that bodies and minds are structured through patterns of cultural power. Klein assumes that the concept of the womb envy is an important component in the male psyche. Minsky (1995) describes how the Kleinian point of view sees the development of male power as being rooted in the fear of the womb. Besides his envy of his mother’s breasts, the young boy also becomes envious of her womb and the power it give to create life. According to Minsky (1995), the phallus saves men and provides a distraction from the womb envy. Klein’s concept of womb-envy is important to understand male misogyny. Boys envious of their mother have to accept that they can never have breasts or a womb. Unconscious womb-envy helps to explain the opposition between ‘nature’ (identified with women) and ‘culture’ (identified with men). Men have to opt for culture because nature, in the sense of giving birth and feeding children from their own bodies, is simply unavailable to them (Minsky, 1996).

Is the notion of a crisis in masculinity new, or it is just that each generation experiences it in different ways? The evidence has been suggesting the latter. As Mangan says “Crisis is...a condition of masculinity itself. Masculine gender identity is never stable; its terms are continually being re-defined and re-negotiated, the gender performance continually being re-staged. Certain themes and tropes inevitably re-appear with regularity, but each era experiences itself in different ways.” (Mangan 1997:4).

Cultural conceptions of masculinity and femininity vary between cultures and alter over historical time. Cultural theories, which intersect with Lacan’s ideas, are important in how the crisis in masculinity has been studied. According to Lacan, the phallus is the central signifier of the sexual difference. The principle of masculinity rests on the repression of feminine aspects and introduces conflict into the opposition of masculine and feminine. Faludi (2000) described the new male as objectified and subject of a sexist consumer culture. In addition, he believes that the man’s secured attachments and relationships with the workplace are no longer powerful and exclusive as they were. Now that the rise of feminism has attacked the patriarchal systems of power and control, masculinity has been left undermined and unsure. Apparently, this rise has left men confused in the way they view women. Faludi strongly believes that this crisis in masculinity can be resolved if both women and men can work together to combat it.

There are a number of contributory factors to the so-called crisis in masculinity. I will be describing some of them.

Maguire (1995) point out that men’s crisis concerned their social role and identity. For her, these uncertainties manifest themselves in violence, increased levels of suicide and abusive behaviour towards them or others. Men are more likely to commit suicide than women. Suicide appears to be triggered by relationship problems, unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse, low self-esteem and mental illness. Many men remain bad at acknowledging and expressing feelings which left them trapped between the old-style macho and the new-man type behaviour requiring a man to be in touch with his feelings.

Social research finds that men are choosing to remain living at home rather than move out on their own (Office of National Statistics, 2000). Whitehead (2002) found out that this evidence prove that men are failing to cope with the new challenges they are facing.

Society is moving from a patriarchal culture, to give way to different masculinities. The rise of feminism, changing family patterns, social concerns about jobs contributed to these changes.

The advent of post modernity has resulted in redundancy, constant job role changes and unemployment for men. According to Beynon (2001) men now suffer deep depression at the loss of the breadwinner role and the status that went with it. He claims that men are falling out of family life in greater numbers and may end up lonely. More men end up isolated socially and psychologically, finding it difficult to ask for help. At least 50% of marriage in UK result in divorce and as Beynon found out men is mostly responsible for marital breakdown.

Nowadays, women have demonstrated that they can bring up children without men. Clare says that “the rise in the number of single mothers suggests not merely that men are inadequate as partners and fathers, but they are simply redundant. Women are asserting that they can convince rear children on their own. They don’t need men to father their children...women can do without them in the workplace. Even more significantly, they can do without them in their beds.” (Clare 2000:100).

A significant number of fathers involved in divorce leave the family home and become non-resident. “The visiting father is a shadowy, displaced figure trying to avoid becoming an ex-father, who stops but does not stay, who is no longer a man of the house, but a visitor who come and goes.” (Clare 2000: 150-1).

Women are seen to be living more successful and fulfilling lives, without relying on their partners. So, the loss of patriarchal authority and the equality in heterosexual relationship have left men disoriented.

In other way, is the notion of a crisis in masculinity new, or it is just that each generation experiences it in different ways? The evidence has been suggesting the latter. As Mangan says “Crisis is...a condition of masculinity itself. Masculine gender identity is never stable; its terms are continually being re-defined and re-negotiated, the gender performance continually being re-staged. Certain themes and tropes inevitably re-appear with regularity, but each era experiences itself in different ways.” (Mangan 1997:4).


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