Harvard Educational Review
  1. Summer 1995 Issue »

    The End of Manhood

    A Book for Men of Conscience

    By John Stoltenberg
    New York: Penguin, 1994. 308 pp. $21.00, $10.95 (paper).

    If all violence committed by males were somehow eliminated from the planet, we wouldn't need a special issue on violence. And yet, discussions of gender, and especially "masculinity," as a socially constructed identity that needs to be engaged and deconstructed are often marginalized into gender studies, or, worse yet, women's studies (as if it's their problem) and are virtually missing as a focus within debates about violence and violence prevention. The detailed critiques and impassioned common sense of feminist thinkers through twenty-five years of "women's liberation" in the women's movement have helped make possible the current men's movement, with its similar aspirations of "liberation." Exactly what men need to be liberated from is, of course, the first central question one must address before any meaningful movement toward male liberation can begin. In The End of Manhood: A Book for Men of Conscience, author and lecturer John Stoltenberg addresses this question and a host of others with a bold passion, sense of humor, gift for story telling, and a deep commitment to what he calls "loving justice."

    Stoltenberg presents a radical critique of the very concept "manhood," arguing that it serves no socially desirable function — only hurtful functions that can and should be eliminated from men's personal identities and social interactions. He presents a provocative alternative to most thinking about men and the problematic aspects of our behavior and identity. He bases his critiques on the claim that "manhood," in all of its various masculine incarnations, is at odds with, and in fact mutually exclusive of, an authentic sense of "selfhood" — a selfhood necessary for relating to others in just, moral, and non-violating ways. He argues:

    This book therefore rejects the widespread notion that "manhood" can be somehow revised and redeemed — the contemporary project variously described as "reconstructing," "reinventing," "remythologizing," "revisioning," and re-whatevering gendered personal identity so as to bring its hapless adherents back into the human fold. That project is utterly futile, and we all have to give it up, as this book will carefully explain. (p. xiv)

    Stoltenberg's book provides a detailed and complex analysis of gender relations and identity formation around his underlying argument that gender is nothing more than a means of social control that is harmful to individuals, families, and society because the culturally defined ways of "being a man" are generally at odds with intimacy and real interpersonal connection. As boys take on a "masculine" identity in place of a true sense of themselves, they lose those parts of themselves in conflict with "manly" values — their sensitivity, vulnerability, emotions, affections — all of which are needed for achieving intimacy and love. The falseness and distance of their own ways of being in relationship typically leave males feeling lonely, insecure, and scared of honest intimacy, which in turn makes it difficult for them to have loving relationships where they can finally get the love they've always wanted. In the face of this downward spiral, Stoltenberg argues, the only reasonable response is to change our focus from achieving manhood to achieving "personhood," and do away altogether with the concept and social institution of "manhood." Stoltenberg illustrates the social coercion and shame used to pressure boys into accepting, rather than resisting, this social identity and way of being, despite its obvious costs to them as human beings. He argues that the true philosophical nature of this conception of masculinity is based on competition, a lust for power, domination, mistrust, insecurity, and a deep-seated disconnection from life.

    In addition to being a thorough presentation of a radical theoretical perspective, Stoltenberg's book is a practical guide to living as a human raised to be a man. Even his chapter titles reveal the practical nature of his questions and discussions. In "How Can I Be Closer to People — In Friendship and In Love?" the author crystallizes his central concerns about the relationship between manhood and intimacy:

    We often experience the dichotomy between manhood and selfhood in our daily lives — but without knowing quite how or why. Lacking words to comprehend the contradiction, we suddenly stumble upon it when we feel blocked about revealing ourselves in a close relationship, for instance, or when we emotionally withdraw from intimacy without any apparent reason. (p. 12)

    Using guided fantasy, stories from his own life and knowledge, and careful theoretical attention to language and conceptual framework, the author further explores relationships that create manhood and those that create personhood. Stoltenberg walks readers through portrayals of various types of interpersonal relationship and their consequences — for example, of having one's parents' and friends' love and acceptance of you be conditional on your conformity to gender expectations. He contrasts these conditional relationships with relationships that would support the health and growth of one's selfhood:

    The ideal experience of having a father [is a close relationship with] an influential grownup who plays a significant role in the development of a child's relation to selfhood. This imagined ideal father [is] depicted as having passed on to the child not only a core of self-esteem, but also an indelible memory of how self-esteem can be bestowed: When one is the recipient of a love that is not conditional upon conformity to gender expectations, one not only learns something very important about the reality of one's own selfhood; one also learns a crucial lesson in the process by which human selfhood is passed on: One human being initiates another into selfhood by beholding them, affirming them, supporting them, and not betraying them. (p. 50)

    In discussing father-son relationships, the author highlights the ways in which traditional fathers hurt their sons, often inadvertently, in teaching them to be men. By not being critical of "manhood" themselves, especially in its emotional distancing — a major ramification of manhood right in their own relationships with their sons — fathers are abandoning their sons and teaching them the same empty, out-of-relationship, emotionally disconnected manhood they embody. This kind of father-son relationship, Stoltenberg argues, leaves the boy feeling hurt and betrayed, a critical feature of this ongoing cycle of disconnection, because it creates in the boy an ability to betray others, to violate as he has felt violated. This has enormous implications for anyone interested in violence by adolescent boys and violence prevention with younger children.

    Stoltenberg argues that it is males' insecure striving to live up to this socially imagined standard of manhood and a blind allegiance to it as their true identity and deepest self that allows — even makes inevitable — their betrayal of the women in their lives. In a chapter called "A Six-Pack of Tools for Deconstructing Dad," Stoltenberg investigates the traditional husband-wife relationship in this culture, and the typical ways in which wives were/are expected to diminish themselves in relation to their husband: to be less outspoken, less forthcoming, less present, and less real as a whole person. The author points out that if men bring this expectation to their intimate relationships with women, there is an inevitable contradiction:

    The ironic thing about being stuck inside a manhood mask — especially if you're a husband and father — is that if you make your love for someone else conditional upon whether they properly diminish themself, you inevitably end up trying to be in love with someone who keeps slipping into nonexistence right before your eyes. If they assert their whole personhood, you find ways to make clear that you might punish them with your anger and withhold your love. . . . They must get smaller, weaker, less confident, less capable, less forthright, less intelligent, less interesting, less exuberant, less robust, less initiating — less themself in many ways. (pp. 68–69)

    Stoltenberg also argues that single mothers are unjustly faulted for not providing a "father figure" or, as he puts it, "a carrier of manhood" in the home. He asserts that nothing about a child's secure sense of selfhood — nothing about one's assurance that one is loveable and knowable — depends developmentally on the child's conformity to the strictures of proper gender role:

    The love of a child's unique human self does not come from a parent's manhood, and no child becomes eligible for such a love by embodying manhood. Selfhood-affirming love is what each child deserves, and it can be amply and variously expressed to any child by any concerned and present grownup — someone born penised as well as the human who gave the child birth. (p. 81)

    The author acknowledges that while many young men experience a "longing for manhood," what they are really longing for is the fulfillment of basic human needs: to feel safe, to feel sustained, to feel seen, and within that safety and being known, to feel sexual (p. 95). He argues that we must learn to recognize our longing for manhood as an ineffective means of meeting our basic human emotional needs, and that this recognition is a crucial stage in the lifelong process of learning to love moral ways of being more than one loves the identity of "manhood" (p. 100).

    There are many themes in this book directly relevant to male violence, especially against women. The author's discussion of gender anxiety, especially as it relates to sexuality, and the overriding need to prove one's manhood speaks directly and cogently to questions of sexual objectification, date rape, sexual harassment, pornography, and homophobic violence, and the ways that these are predictable outcomes of a conscious and unconscious social process creating men out of humans.

    Stoltenberg connects his discussion of gender and being with other philosophical and spiritual traditions, such as the work of Martin Buber, acknowledging that

    very near the end of writing The End of Manhood, I realized I had unconsciously borrowed Buber's concept of "I-You." I had renamed it the two-way truth of selfhood: your sense of yourself as a real human self that can only come from recognizing and regarding someone else as a real human self also; your sense of yourself as a real human self that can only come from being recognized and regarded by someone else as a real human self also. Or, as I had inadvertently restated Buber yet again: you are never more real than when someone else is real to you. (p. 303)

    Given this understanding of being an authentic "self," the author says, for all practical purposes and in everyday, practical effect — in how one deliberates, in what one cares about, in the values one bases all one's relational choices upon — the beginning of selfhood means the end of manhood (p. 308). Moreover, Stoltenberg says, these are not simply questions of personal philosophy or spiritual integrity, they are matters of the utmost social importance:

    The manhood problem is everyone's, even if everyone doesn't have the same problem. We all must confront whatever it is that makes communication between people raised to be a man difficult, or stressful, or less than truthful, or hostile, or threatening and predicative of violence — to one another or to a third party. Whatever it is that gives rise to threats and standoffs and various temperamental outbursts between people raised to be men . . . whatever that drama is, it has consequences and implications for everybody, not just for humans raised to be a man. Everyone is affected when manhood masks clash, or trash, or collide, or collude. So, whatever can be learned from telling our truth, we must let everyone in on it. Everyone, somehow, has a stake in that knowledge. Everyone's well-being ultimately depends on it. (p. 24)

    While The End of Manhood is a genuine contribution to understanding the effects of "masculinity training" on boys' and men's relationships with others and themselves, including male violence, there is one area that I believe needs further attention. The central metaphor of males learning to identify with and adhere to a socially constructed manhood ends up carrying all the weight for men's dysfunction, insensitivity, cruelty, selfishness, and desire to control others. The ideology of manhood is only one of several ideologies that embodies and contributes to disrespect, domination, exploitation, and violence in society, or, put differently, perhaps manhood should be seen as one site among many in which a domination-oriented, violence-prone ideology is acted out. While this masculinist ideology is an important site for social change, it is perhaps a mistake to subsume all of men's hateful and hurtful behavior under the gender umbrella.

    While the author argues that other typical sites of disconnection in men's lives — for example, racism, economic exploitation, and ethnic and religious hatred — are modeled on the manhood ideology, it is easy to feel they are being given secondary status in a hierarchy of ideological oppressions. In addition, in centering one's critique of men's violence in their manhood, it becomes difficult to extend the argument to include women, many of whom support not only traditional male "gender identification," but also the values and worldviews advocated by traditional masculinity: competition, hierarchy, exclusion, exploitation, and the use of force. While women's disconnected behavior, such as voting for Ronald Reagan, Adolf Hitler, or Maggie Thatcher, their active participation in the Klan, or their abuse of children, is beyond the scope of this book, it would be helpful if this critique of men's disconnection could dovetail with similar critiques of other human disconnection.

    The author's dichotomy between "manhood" and "selfhood," while useful for illustrating his points and intriguingly provocative, loses a sense of the complexities and contradictions within individual people. It is unclear whether "personhood," which by Stoltenberg's definition embodies a way of being based on equality, concern, and connection with others, is a global disposition and way of being, or whether one can be a "person" in some relationships and at some times, and be a "man" at others.

    All things considered, Stoltenberg's arguments do challenge educators to take up this discussion and confront their own ingrained reluctance to question social relations that are as personal as gender identity. In this important and clear-sighted book, educators will find new perspectives on intimacy, identity, gender, and violence that promise to enliven and clarify discussions around violence and youth. These perspectives will also push each reader, male or female, to question their own allegiance to "manhood," and to gender identity generally. As Stoltenberg points out early in his book, and then illustrates throughout, "the very manhood act we embrace is inimical to intimacy and trust. And so long as we keep up the manhood act, we miss the point of being human" (p. 11).

    Stephen Andrew Sherblom
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    Summer 1995 Issue

    Abstracts

    Introduction
    By Stephen Andrew Sherblom, Jane Davagian Tchaicha, and Paula M. Szulc
    A Dialogue with Noam Chomsky
    Sexual Harassment in School
    The Public Performance of Gendered Violence
    Nan Stein
    Reconstructing Masculinity in the Locker Room
    The Mentors in Violence Prevention Project
    By Jackson Katz
    Cultivating a Morality of Care in African American Adolescents
    A Culture-Based Model of Violence Prevention
    By Janie V. Ward
    Preventing and Producing Violence
    A Critical Analysis of Responses to School Violence
    By Pedro A. Noguera
    Life after Death
    Critical Pedagogy in an Urban Classroom
    By J. Alleyne Johnson
    Violence, Nonviolence, and the Lessons of History
    Project HIP-HOP Journeys South
    By Nancy Uhlar Murray and Marco Garrido
    Youth Speak Out

    Book Notes

    Culture and Imperialism
    By Edward Said

    Old Nazis, the New Right, and the Republican Party
    By Russ Bellant

    Teaching Young Children in Violent Times
    By Diane Levin

    Testimony
    By Shoshana Feldman and Dori Laub.

    Dating Violence
    Edited by Barrie Levy

    Vulnerable Children, Vulnerable Families
    By Susan Janko.

    The Merry-Go-Round of Sexual Abuse
    By William E. Prendergast.

    Juvenile Delinquency
    Edited by Paul M. Sharp and Barry W. Hancock.

    Practicing Virtues
    By Kim Hays

    Wannabe
    By Daniel J. Monti.

    The Violence of Literacy
    By J. Elspeth Stuckey.

    Raising a Thinking Child
    By Myrna B. Shure, with Theresa Foy Digeronimo

    Ending the Cycle of Violence
    Edited by Einat Peled, Peter G. Jaffe, and Jeffrey L. Edleson

    Gangs
    Edited by Scott Cummings and Daniel Monti

    Anger Management for Youth
    By Leona L. Eggert.

    Assessing Dangerousness
    Edited by Jacquelyn C. Campbell.

    Changing Childhood Prejudice
    By Florence H. Davidson and Miriam M. Davidson

    Call 1-800-513-0763 to order this issue.