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American Quarterly 52.2 (2000) 274-304

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Academic Viagra:
the Rise of American Masculinity Studies

Bryce Traister *

Some years ago, Elaine Showalter distinguished "feminist critique" from "gynocentrism," defining the former as the critical analysis by women ("woman as reader") of "male-produced" depictions of women, the ideological positionings of feminine gender and sexuality in such textual practices, and the misconceptions about women rampant in literary criticism. The latter category, derived from the French term la gynocritique, "is concerned with woman as writer--with woman as the producer of textual meaning, with the history, themes, genres, and structures of literature by women." 1 Since the appearance of Showalter's paradigm-establishing essay, a two-pronged feminist literary criticism has developed into a more generalist movement of "gender studies," which Showalter describes in a later essay as "an investigation of the ways that all reading and writing, by men as well as by women, is marked by gender." 2 With the rise of gender studies there has emerged a new focus on the construction of masculinity as a gender. In the words of historian Gail Bederman: "To study the history of manhood . . . is to study the historical ways different ideologies about manhood develop, change, are combined, amended, contested--and gain the status of truth." 3 Judging from the sheer number of titles published, papers solicited, and panels presented in the last ten years concerned with the analysis of masculine gender, it would appear that "masculinity studies" has emerged as a discipline unto itself. Masculinity, one might say without irony, is everywhere. 4 [End Page 274]

To some degree, cultural "masculinity studies" has become a code term for "heterosexual masculinity studies." This semantic codification at the very least separates what I will call heteromasculinity from gay male studies, although there is clearly overlap between the two, and there is no doubt that gay/lesbian studies has authorized some of our recent attention to the gendered construction of the straight male subject. Indeed, according to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and other theorists of gay male identities, the construction of the heterosexual male cannot proceed independently of a concomitant construction and consideration of the homosexual male; heterosexual male desire, according to Sedgwick's now well-known account, proceeds in part through a phobic prohibition against the eroticism contained within normative homosocial relations. 5 In a prescient 1979 article, Peter Schwenger began elaborating a paradigm of writing he called at the time "the masculine mode," a practice of writers "who, rather than neutralize, contradict, or simply ignore their male sexuality, take it as their explicit subject." 6 For Schwenger, this mode excludes neither women (who may of course write powerfully about male sexuality) nor gay men. He writes: "Homosexuals, of course, are by no means to be excluded from the masculine mode . . . As a male who is himself fascinated and attracted by the nature of masculinity, the homosexual is fully capable of insight into that masculine mode" (109). Although "making room" for Gide next to Hemingway, Schwenger nonetheless places gay male desire in fascinated opposition to the masculinity which attracts the gay writer or critic. It is, in other words, the homosexual's desirous distance from "the nature of masculinity" that authorizes his inclusion within Schwenger's "masculine mode."

To some degree, then, the heteromasculinist encounter with the homosexual partially replicates heterosexuality's phobic construction, which is a theoretical way of saying that the new masculinity studies acknowledge the proximity of hetero- to homo- masculinity only to insist on their ultimate difference. For example, antisexist activist Timothy Benecke explicitly positions his meditative work, Proving Manhood: Reflections on Men and Sexism, in a heteromasculine precinct: "Unless otherwise stated, when I refer to men in this book I am focusing on straight, white, American men, though it is my hope and belief that what I have to say will apply, with appropriate emendations, to other men as well." 7 In Manhood in America, which this essay discusses in more detail, Michael Kimmel makes a similar [End Page 275] declaration when he concludes a brief summary of his book's goals by...


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