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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 8: Gender •


Book cover: The Image of Man: the Creation of Modern Masculinity

Author's response


The Image of Man: the Creation of Modern Masculinity

George L. Mosse
Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996; ISBN 0195126602, pp. 240

Joanna Bourke

Birkbeck College, University of London

Joanna Bourke has read the book the way I had hoped that it would be read, as a serious effort at writing important but unconventional history. This makes her criticism all the more relevant. The most general criticism is that I was apparently unsure of my audience, that while the book seems to address the general reader with clarity, still I also looked towards an academic reader by assuming that certain topics are familiar. I intended to address the book to a general reader but I did assume some knowledge of the context. More important, I wanted to keep a sharp focus on the male stereotype itself, its history and significance. Perhaps in that process I have shed too much 'unnecessary fat'. But I did have an agenda in writing this book; to demonstrate that here is a factor that is so familiar that it is taken for granted, but which still plays its part it the political and social perception of men and women. I conceived my audiences not as professional historians but as the cultivated lay reader who comes to the book with some sense of European history, however rudimentary. Is that kind of readership an endangered species thanks to over specialisation and the state of secondary schools?

Natural comparisons in summary form are always dangerous, and I am grateful for Joanna Bourke's encouraging words. Still some questions apparently remain. Why could any citizen duel in France, while in Germany the defence of male honour was restricted to a relatively small elite? This question asked in the review goes to the roots of national differences. No comparison between modern duelling customs in different nations has come to my notice, with the exception of that in Kevin McAleer's book Duelling: The Cult of Honour in Fin de Siècle Germany (Princeton, 1994), who makes the valid point that Germany in contrast to France was a caste bound society where aristocratic values remained alive. But surely, equal emphasis must be placed upon the French tradition of Republicanism and Citizenship, which, for example despite all the virulent anti-Semitism which existed in France, allowed Jews to fight a duel with their enemies while in Germany they were deemed not to have any sense of male honour. Such a comparison is but the tip of an iceberg, and a true comparison would have to take in a much broader analysis of both country's development without, it is to be hoped, resorting to the short cut of the German Souderweg.

The most interesting question raised by the reviewer, however, concerns the positive role women may have played in the construction of modern masculinity. The book, as Joanna Bourke acknowledges, does deal extensively with women as well as with men, but not in the way women related to the normative male stereotype itself. This seems a question worth exploring. I do address the women's movements and, of courses the rise of the 'new woman', but here they play a role of either supporting or else trying to deprive masculinity of some of its monopoly over the public space. I am sure that women, however accepting of their situation, did try often to smooth the sharp edges of modern masculinity. But this can only be proved, as far as I am aware through examining individual biographies. But such a method would be too distracting for a book with a different focus, and even if this were attempted would be merely episodic and anecdotal, at best a kaleidoscope, instead of proving the point.

The related question which has been raised of how normative masculinity was institutionalised not merely in schools, clubs or the military, but also in the home, is also of importance and I should, perhaps have made more of an effort to answer it. The growing secondary literature on the development of the family could certainly be helpful in this regard though much of its focus is not upon the male stereotype itself. I do mention contemporary change towards greater tranquillity in the household in the controversial last chapter. But here it seems relevant to reiterate what I wrote in my introduction, namely that I will be concerned with the public image of masculinity, knowing full well that the public influences the private but neglecting to state that the private influences the public as well. Nevertheless it seems to me that the public image had the greatest political and social impact.

The last chapter which deals with the years since the Second World War is said to be least satisfactory. Here I had to rely largely on my own observations. The extensions of the boundaries of what is considered normal behaviour brought about by the renewed youth culture mainly of the nineteen sixties, may only denote a fairly short period in the life cycle, as Joanna Bourke states, but it has extended the periphery of acceptable and tolerated life styles. That certainly is part of the process of co-optation which is the real if hidden strength of respectability. Suddenly, according to the review, I have become an optimist after so often exposing the dark heart of masculinity. I did not mean to say, by the way, as the review states, that this heart is fascistic, but simply that fascism brought to a climax one aspect latent in the manly stereotype, but this was merely latent and not usually activated in normative society.

The greater variety of life styles openly existing today than in the past does seem a promising change, which, in my view, is bound to have a long range effect upon the image of man, The 'closet' has become somewhat porous and the change of attitudes towards Jews and gays I have witnessed during the last three decades seem staggering. Perhaps that has influenced me more then it should have, though I do make clear that the traditional image of man is still dominant, while today's body builders are only some of the men who still want to pass a test of manhood. Joanna Bourke and myself, it seems to me, disagree only to the relative degree that modern life styles have affected modern manliness.

The image of man held and so did the respectable life style of which it was an integral part, I felt that my book addressed a stereotype usually taken for granted but which should emerge into history. I also hoped to contribute to a historical discussion of masculinity which might challenge the current trend which tends to treat masculinity solely as a psychoanalytic problem. Here scholars like Joanna Bourke have already begun to make seminal contributions.

March 1997

Original review

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