Psychoanalytical Concepts of Crisis in Masculinity
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Published: Fri, 23 Feb 2018
The late 60s saw a rapidly materialising concern about the status of masculinity. Before the 60s it seemed that the idea of masculinity was safe – males could be useful within modern capitalist societies, providing for their families and gaining a sense of satisfaction from their place in society. But society began to change, economically, socially and especially in relation to the position of women. The rise of feminism was changing women’s attitudes about the way in which they were (and are) treated. In turn this was starting to affect how men viewed themselves. Carroll (2004) explains how in American society the ‘breadwinner ideal’ was being eroded with support from professional groups including psychologists and cardiologists – working all the hours and a constant striving for material wealth might not be good for you. How, asked men, do we define ourselves now? This essay will examine the crisis in masculinity from the point of view of psychoanalysis – through the Oedipal complex and the castration complex – and then move onto evidence from social and cultural theories.
To examine how masculinity might be in crisis, it is first necessary to examine how psychoanalytical theories posit that boys gain their masculine identity – or in other words how they become men. Modern psychoanalytical theory, as did Freud himself, 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 mother shows a great interest in the child and the boy realises that his father represents his main rival to this relationship. The boy desires the mother, but the father stands in the way. Attempting to maintain these conflicting influences at some kind of equilibrium is the central drama of development from a psychoanalytical viewpoint.
What, then, are the most important processes that occur in early life that influence the construction (or otherwise) of the male identity out of the Oedipal crisis? Greenson (1968) explains that psychoanalytic theory concentrates on the idea of disidentification, this 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 identification with the father should allow the boy to have a way of communicating with the outside world, to tempt the boy away from psychological closeness with the mother and provide the support needed to avoid the boys return to a symbiotic relationship with his mother.
The relationship with the mother, then, is seen by Klein (1975) as a delicate balancing act. It provides a prototype for later relationships with women and so needs to be warm and loving, but it is difficult for a man to have relationships with women if he is too close to his mother. Horrocks (1994) argues that, in fact, the male child is surrounded by femininity throughout his early childhood, and it is important for him to break away and discover a world of men for here lie the roots of the male identity. The central paradox, though, is that the man wishes to escape this cocoon of womanhood but there is also the desire to become close to a woman. One danger in this dynamic is that the early influence of the mother is too great and not sufficiently counter-acted by the father – this leads to an inability to separate himself from the mother (Horrocks, 1994).
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, the introduction to a role that has previously been shrouded in mystery. While there are some initiation rights and ceremonies in some cultures, overall, and especially in western societies, it is not particularly strong. There has actually been a disconnect between the son and his father, now the father heads out to work everyday and no longer has a chance to bond with his son. Horrocks (1994) sees 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, but still to live together. It is through the father-son relationship that the boy can learn that it is possible to live a civilised existence without continual recourse to violence and satiation of primitive longings. The damaged modern male, the male in crisis, is seen by Horrocks (1994) as ‘unfathered’. Women are viewed as dangerous – to have a relationship is to have a battle and the man must draw himself away from women from time to time to maintain his safety. By never really making a strong connection, the modern man in crisis feels damaged and abused and uses the methods of abuse and damage to relate to others because he knows no other way.
This analysis of the Oedipal complex and its effects, as well as the possibility of transcendence, actually describes a rather prototypical interaction between the young boy and his caregiver. Blazina (2004) describes how some criticisms and refinements of this model have been made by subsequent theorists. Bergman (1995), for example, has argued that it is not necessarily with the mother the boy should be disidentifying. There are many situations where the father is actually the provider of the most emotional nurturance. In this case it is better to see the individuation as occurring with the primary caregiver rather than the mother. Blazina (2004) also maintains that there should not be such emphasis on the cutting off of the other identity. Where the other identity is feminine, there is now greater acceptability of feminine qualities in men so these can be integrated into male identity without compromising maleness.
For the crisis in masculinity, Freud’s conception of the castration complex is of great interest. Freud (1925) theorised that the castration complex had the following stages. Firstly a boy guesses from the evidence of his own anatomy that everyone has a penis. Secondly he finds out that women do not have penises and assumes that they have been mutilated in some way. Thirdly when he begins to masturbate, he is told that he will be castrated. Fourthly, finding that the breast has already been removed, summarises that the penis will be next. Finally, the Oedipus complex is destroyed by this threat of castration.
According to Horrocks (1994), Freud saw this sequence of events as concrete, whereas many psychoanalysts now see this in more allegorical terms, as mediated by culture and society. Through gender, both men as well as women are denied a whole world of being, the world of the other gender. After the process of partitioning men and women both feel a sense of loss at the things that they will not be able to experience. In men this castration complex expresses itself in a variety of different ways. Men have a desire for love, a fear of their own sexuality, and, in particular, a fear of their own anger. Horrocks (1994) describes how, as a psychotherapist, many men talk about their fear that their anger will be exposed to the world. To stop this, they have to bottle it up and repress the emotion. As a result, in heterosexual men, this is recognised by the women with whom they have relationships and they are rendered impotent and asexual. A man who acts in this way behaves passive aggressively – he is motivated to manipulate those around him by his anger. This prohibits a direct connection with other people because his relationships are based on manipulation. The result of this is that feelings are kept inside and denied.
A similar problem is seen, in Horrocks’ experience, in macho men. The castration of the macho man leaves him profoundly afraid of expressing his own feelings. This denies him the possibility of acting emotionally in any situation as this will simply reveal his weakness – as he sees it. It is the emotional parts of himself that this man hates and wants to hide away – the feminine parts of him are an embarrassment. By being cut-off from his own feelings, the psychologically castrated man experiences an emptiness within himself that he attempts to fill with methods that will never work. The emptiness inside is often experienced as a dead feeling, almost of death itself. It is precisely this ‘almost death’ from which, Horrocks argues, many men in the crisis of masculinity are suffering. Without the connection with his own emotions, or those of anyone else, he is only half a man, not able to experience himself or others properly, safely cocooned within an empty world.
Within Freud’s writings, woman were theorised to suffer from envy of the male penis, but Freud did not acknowledge the possibility of men being envious of the female breast. The male-centred idea that penis envy is fundamental to psychoanalysis is attacked by the introduction of the idea of breast envy. Klein (1975), for example, has pointed out that both male and female children have very strong feelings towards the breast – both are attracted to it and both want to destroy it. Instead of defining both sexes in terms of the penis – one having and the other jealous – a reciprocal envy provides balance that acknowledges the lacuna in men’s lives as well. The breast does, after all provide, not only nourishment, but also love to the child, and so a woman’s breast is a symbol of these qualities. Horrocks (1994) argues that men have a strong desire to return to the breast, to return to the originator of life and at the same time men attack the breast and want to destroy it.
Melanie Klein posited that the idea of womb envy was also an important component in the male psyche. Minsky (1995) describes how the Kleinian viewpoint sees the development of male power as being rooted in the fear of the womb. Like the young boys envy of his mother’s breasts, he also becomes envious of her womb and the power it has to create new life. To make up for this envy, men are forced to concentrate their efforts on cultural and creative efforts and to suppress women’s forays into the same field. Minsky (1995) explains that it is the phallus that then saves men and provides a distraction from the envy of the womb.
Lacan has a different take on the Oedipus complex. He sees the father not as a real father but as a representation or a metaphor for culture (Lacan, 2004). It is through the young boy’s experience of cultural factors such as language that he is pulled away from the mother. The mother represents desire for Lacan and so culture, through the representation of the father, pulls the boy from what he desires. This cutting off is like a castration and the child then attempts to substitute this with a search for truth (Minsky, 1995).
Many of these psychoanalytical ideas about the roots of a crisis in masculinity are analysed in social theories in terms of a conflict in gender roles. O’Neil, Helms, Gable, David, & Wrightsman (1986) have defined gender role conflict as where socialised gender roles have an adverse psychological effect which causes a restrictive effect on the self through barriers created around personal creativities and freedom. O’Neil et al. (1986) identify four different types of role conflict. There is a restriction in the range of internal emotionality; similarly, there is a restriction in the types of emotional behaviour that are possible towards other men – this results in an inability to communicate feelings. Personal achievement and constant comparison to what others have creates a constant sense of fear and worry. There is a conflict between the requirements of work and those of the family which results in stress and health problems, and a simple lack of time to relax.
Evidence to support these ideas of role conflicts has come, for example, from Sharpe & Heppner (1991) who found a connection between role conflict and problems with intimate relationships. Watts & Borders (2005) point out, though, that many of these studies have not been carried out in younger, adolescent boys. In rectifying this hole in the research, Watts & Borders (2005) investigated role conflict in adolescent boys. Their findings were in line with the theories put forward by O’Neil et al. (1986). The boys in their study said they found there was a societal pressure to restrict their emotionality, both internally and between themselves and other boys. Further they theorised that many of the boys had only been exposed to a very limited range of emotions from male role models – indeed many denied experiencing any emotions other than anger.
Cultural theories, which intersect with Lacan’s ideas, are also important in how the crisis in masculinity has been studied. Whitehead (2002) considers arguments that have been played out in the public domain. Firstly he considers the publication of Stiffed: The Betrayal of Modern Man (Faludi, 2000). The thesis of this book is that it is now the male who finds himself objectified and the subject of much sexist consumer culture. In addition the man’s secure attachments and relationships with the world of work are no longer as strong and exclusive as they once were. Men seem also, in Faludi’s view, to be failing to fight back against the new culture, failing to take on this creeping emasculation. Now that feminism has attacked the patriarchal systems of power and control, masculinity has been left undermined and unsure. The rise of feminism has surely encouraged many men to question how they view women – and then apparently left them confused. Faludi (2000) places the blame for this crisis in masculinity at the door of ‘culture’ and encourages them to work together to combat it. While the argument has some elements of truth, quite how men and women are supposed to step outside of culture is not clear. Without men and women, there is no culture – people are intimately bound up with it and part of it.
The second set of arguments centre around research carried out by Professor Richard Scase as part of the European Commission’s Futures Programme (Scase, 1999). This research found that many women are choosing to live alone as their opportunities in the workplace increase and especially as the roles they can adopt widen. It is hypothesised that this is having a knock-on effect on men who find it difficult to cope with this new situation. Evidence for this is in the rising rates of suicide – between 1991 and 1997 they have increased by 60%. 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) sees this as evidence that men are failing to cope with the new challenges they are facing.
Further cultural and social evidence that men are in crisis is provided by Beynon (2001). Relying heavily on role theory, Beynon (2001) points to the changes in work patterns – particularly the fact that less than half the men over 55 are in work. There is also a sense in which these men are caught between attempting to maintain the old-style macho posturing and the new-man type behaviour requiring a man to be in touch with his feelings. Beynon (2001) claims that generally men are less likely to tackle any psychological or physical illness which faces them. In marital breakdown, Beynon (2002) argues, the man is normally most responsible, with women starting 75% of divorces. Similarly nine out of ten men move out of the marital home after the breakdown of a marriage. This reason, however, is probably more of an artefact of the legal system and simple practicality than an indictment on men. Apart from anything else, men generally die younger and are much more likely to suffer from heart disease.
The worrying facts and figures continue through both crime and education and other major areas of life. Violent crimes are mostly committed by men, indeed it is men who are mostly the victims of violent crime, and so it is violence that is seen as an important component of masculinity. Whitehead (2002) sees this violence discourse as having a powerful effect on people’s attitudes to men. Men are seen as being unable to cope with the demands of modern life, especially those men on the social and economic fringes, and so the resort to violence is only natural. Within education, in the schools, male performance is significantly lower then female.
Despite much theoretical attention as well as some evidence from research on role theories and other areas, there has been a fair degree of criticism of the idea of a crisis in masculinity. Writers have asked whether the crisis of gender is anything new. Mangan (1997) (as cited in Whitehead, 2002) argues that masculinity, like femininity is constantly in crisis, constantly changing and adapting to new circumstances. Indeed, some of the fundamental ideas from psychoanalysis support the idea that masculinity is always a matter of crisis – men will always have to cope with breast envy, womb envy and a castration complex. This question aside though, some commentators have asked if there is really anything to explain at all – with the rise of feminism, men have suffered a loss of power relative to women and are trying to cope with that loss, some less successfully than others. Whitehead (2002) suggests that the crisis in masculinity is, in reality, an illusion confined to academic journals and has no meaning for people in the real world. Heartfield (2002), in arguing against a crisis of masculinity, talks of the fetishising of sexual difference, an exaggeration of the differences between men and women. Heartfield (2002) suggests that it is instead the working classes that are in crisis, not men in general. These ideas are far removed from those that come from psychoanalysis where many of the roots of future struggle are born in that difference.
In conclusion, psychoanalytical ideas about the crisis in masculinity are grounded in the biological differences between the sexes and how these are dealt with psychologically. Other psychoanalysts and Lacanian ideas have taken these literal conflicts and, to some extent, moved them away from a focus on biological difference and introduced more cultural and social ideas. Social and cultural theories provide a wide variety of, and some reasons for, a possible crisis in masculinity. In particular, the use of role theory has provided an important analysis. Despite using the language of role conflict, the male preoccupations and problems described by role theory have many things in common with those arrived at by psychoanalytical means. Nevertheless, many authors have questioned whether this crisis in masculinity really exists and whether it is anything new.
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